Does the US Have Significant Leverage over Khartoum?

In early June, violence began in Southern Kordofan State (which lies inside North Sudan, on the border with South Sudan) when the government in Khartoum started to disarm residents who had fought on the side of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) during the 1983-2005 civil war. With peacekeepers from the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) unable to halt the violence, and with Khartoum pressing for UNMIS to end its mandate once Southern independence happens on July 9, many fear an escalation of conflict. The crisis in Southern Kordofan – which observers like UN Dispatch’s Mark Leon Golberg are calling “ethnic cleansing” – raises the issue, once again, of how much leverage the US has over the regime in Khartoum.

Chinese Engineers Join Peacekeeping Force in Darfur

Chinese Peacekeepers in Darfur, Sudan

Yesterday President Barack Obama released a statement praising a peace agreement in Abyei, another Sudanese border region, and condemning the violence in Southern Kordofan:

The situation in Southern Kordofan is dire, with deeply disturbing reports of attacks based on ethnicity.  The United States condemns all acts of violence, in particular the Sudanese Armed Forces aerial bombardment  of civilians and harassment and intimidation of UN peacekeepers.  With a ceasefire in Southern Kordofan, alongside the agreement to deploy peacekeepers to Abyei, we can get the peace process back on track.  But without these actions, the roadmap for better relations with the Government of Sudan cannot be carried forward, which will only deepen Sudan’s isolation in the international community. Without a cease-fire and political negotiations, the people of Southern Kordofan cannot enjoy the right to have their political grievances addressed. The negotiations now under way in Addis Ababa demand the urgent commitment from both sides to peace and to the agreement for immediate help to those civilians caught up in this conflict.

This statement highlights one of the biggest potential leverage points Washington has with Khartoum: the “carrot” of normalized relations. Yet as author Bec Hamilton wrote on Twitter, the perceived value of this “carrot” may be disappearing: “That’s no longer leverage since Khartoum doesn’t believe it will ever happen (and they are probably right).”

Former US Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell adds that with some of the final status issues between North and South Sudan unresolved, and with voices in Khartoum pressing Bashir to act tougher toward the South, the US has less room to influence Bashir or move forward on matters like removing Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In addition to applying pressure from afar, the US is also working on the ground to promote peace in Sudan, with Special Envoy Princeton Lyman heading to Sudan this month. Still, the limited nature of the “carrots and sticks” strategy, as the Carnegie Endowment’s Marina Ottaway told AFP, will constrain what diplomats can offer or threaten. Lyman himself portrayed US influence over Sudan as limited in this recent interview with NPR.

If the US can’t strong-arm Khartoum, can anyone? Hamilton says that multilateral institutions and China have greater leverage over Khartoum than the US. China will soon have an opportunity to exercise its influence if it wants: Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is scheduled to visit China and meet with senior officials from June 27-30. China has a stated interest in peace for Sudan. After all, with 75% of Sudan’s oil in the South, China has incentives to maintain strong relations with both North and South – and to prevent them, if possible, from engaging in conflict that would disrupt oil exports. Washington, which recognizes the possibility for Chinese influence over Khartoum, greeted news of Bashir’s trip with the hope that China would assist in peacemaking.

Stepping back and looking at what all this means for the trajectory of US influence in Africa, I have a theory that I’m not totally wedded to, but that I’d like to try out on readers. Let me know what you think:

The limits in Washington’s leverage over Khartoum throw into relief some of the ongoing changes in Africa’s political landscape. I do not believe that Washington could ever consistently dictate outcomes in Africa – certainly there were African regimes during the Cold War who stayed in power despite American opposition to them, and African rebel movements that defied America’s friends – but the end of the Cold War, and the rise of China, have altered America’s role in African politics. Rather than leaning on client states and building relationships predicated on ideological sympatico, over the last two decades Washington has pursued an ad hoc policy toward Africa, experimenting with disengagement (Somalia after Black Hawk Down), noninterference (Rwanda in 1994), militarization (such as AFRICOM and smaller military programs in Africa), pro-reform rhetoric (such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has used in her trips to the continent), and intensive diplomatic engagement (as in Sudan).

The inconsistencies in this overall strategy, combined with the rise of other actors, has given African regimes greater freedom to maneuver than they had during the Cold War. This helps explain why Khartoum, a regime that signed a US-brokered agreement partly in hopes of achieving better relations with the US, feels able to act contrary to the expressed wishes of the American president. After all, if Bashir doesn’t like what he hears from Washington he can, and will, go and see what they say in Beijing.

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North Sudan: Southern Kordofan Elections Increase NCP-SPLM Enmity

From May 2-4, residents of Southern Kordofan State in North Sudan voted in an election for governor. The outcome – a triumph for the ruling party candidate, and outrage among the defeated candidate’s supporters – threatens to further strain relations between North and South Sudan, and also to increase political tensions in North Sudan itself.

The contest primarily involved two contenders. The first was Ahmed Haroun, a member of North Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) who served as Minister of State for Humanitarian Affairs from 2006 to 2009. In 2007, the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Haroun with committing war crimes in Darfur and issued a warrant for his arrest. Despite this, in 2009 Haroun was appointed governor of Southern Kordofan. The second contestant was Abdelaziz al-Hilu, the state’s deputy governor and a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that controls the soon-to-be-independent country of South Sudan.

Haroun won. Many news outlets are concentrating on his ICC indictment, but in my view the more relevant story for Sudan itself is how the outcome of the election will affect relations between the NCP and the SPLM. These two parties are not only set to govern neighboring countries, they are also competitors for the future of North Sudan. The bulk of the SPLM’s strength is found in South Sudan, but a significant component of the SPLM will remain in the North, where it hopes, as the “SPLM-N,” to speak for North Sudan’s marginalized groups. The SPLM-N saw the gubernatorial elections in Southern Kordofan as a major step toward reinforcing its strength in the North, and also toward establishing political pluralism there.

This helps explain why the SPLM-N has reacted with such anger to the National Electoral Commission’s announcement of Haroun’s victory:

“We will not accept these results because the vote was rigged,” said Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM in the north.

(Arman, it should be noted, was the SPLM’s presidential candidate in the elections of April 2010, prior to the referendum that gave South Sudan its independence. Arman is a Northerner.)

From the same article, we hear further analysis of the SPLM’s feelings:

The SPLM fought the north for two decades before a 2005 peace deal, which paved the way for independence for the largely Christian and animist South Sudan from the mainly Muslim, Arabic-speaking north.

But many residents of the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan also fought for the SPLM and it is feared they could take up arms once more.

“These people were fighting for 20 years and their aspirations are not fulfilled,” Hafiz Mohamed of the Justice Africa think-tank told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

“The way things are going, it’s leading to a deadlock, which will end up with people carrying arms to release their frustration,” he said.

“If it starts, no-one can stop it – it will affect the south, it will affect the north. With the war in Darfur, we are heading for dangerous times.”

The BBC has more analysis of how the Southern Kordofan elections will feed North-South tensions here.

These tensions are already partly confirming fears expressed by the international community before, during, and after the elections. The Carter Center, the UN, and US Special Envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman all urged the different factions in Southern Kordofan to refrain from violence, though some violence did occur. On May 10, the Sudan Troika (United States, United Kingdom, and Norway) issued a statement on Sudan’s crises that included remarks on Southern Kordofan:

We welcome the peaceful completion of polling for Southern Kordofan’s elections, but are concerned about rising tensions in the state due to a delay in the announcement of preliminary results. We call on local and national leaders to take immediate steps to improve the security situation and exercise control over all armed security elements. We also call on the parties to work together to maintain calm as the preliminary results are announced and to refrain from prematurely declaring electoral victories. The parties should work together to resolve any election disputes peacefully through the courts. In order to maintain stability and promote long-term cooperation, they should build an inclusive government no matter the outcome. It is critical that the elections pave the way for the start of Southern Kordofan’s popular consultations, which remain an important outstanding element of the CPA.

Journalist Alan Boswell, writing before the elections, noted both international concern and the simultaneous presence of international “fatigue” after “intervening in Sudan’s myriad crises.” This fatigue has meant that Southern Kordofan’s problems have largely been overshadowed by other concerns relating to Sudan, such as Washington’s focus “on normalizing battered relations with Sudan’s northern regime and bolstering the nascent government in the south.” If matters heat up in Southern Kordofan, and if NCP-SPLM relations deteriorate more broadly, we will see how the international community reacts, both to events in Sudan and to its own fatigue.

Sudanese Elections: Trouble Spots Re-emerge

For a moment, it seemed, there was potential for calm in Sudanese politics. By nominating a Northerner for their presidential candidate, the SPLM appeared to say that they wanted to concentrate on the South’s internal affairs. By saying that Southern secession was acceptable, President Omar al-Bashir seemed to be saying he was okay with that arrangement as well. But trouble has quickly resurfaced.

Port Sudan

  • In Southern Kordofan, “the site of oilfields and important civil war battlegrounds on the undefined north-south border,” an SPLM gubernatorial candidate plans to boycott “all elections.” Sudan’s central oil regions, because of their uncertain status and the memories of civil war violence still alive there today, could be a starting point for renewed national conflict. An SPLM boycott in Southern Kordofan therefore augurs poorly for the prospects of peaceful electoral competition between them and the ruling National Congress Party.
  • In Port Sudan, another opposition protest has resulted in mass arrests and injuries. Such protests – and the repression they provoke – also raise fears about how the regime in Khartoum will react when the political temperature heats up even more.
  • Human Rights Watch puts these protests in a broader context, saying that both the NCP and the SPLM are targeting opposition figures, contributing to political tensions, increasing the likelihood of boycotts, and curtailing human rights and political freedom. In an atmosphere like that, I wonder how ordinary Sudanese citizens are reacting – undoubtedly in a variety of ways, ranging from fear to passion to apathy – but increasing tension at the street level could act as a prelude to large-scale violence.

In political terms, the elections, scheduled for April, are just around the corner. No one wants to sound like Chicken Little, and I’d be happy to find out in two months that I overstated these problems. But the situation keeps weaving between (somewhat) hopeful and dismaying. Let’s hope it ends up more on the side of the former.