KAMPALA, Uganda | Fallout from an upcoming referendum on south Sudan’s independence poses risks for the political stability of the northern part of the country, the security of the southern part and the economies of the northeast African region.
Western officials have expressed concern that south Sudan’s expected secession could fuel opposition to Sudanese President Omar Bashir in the north, where political challengers have blamed him for losing the oil-rich south and called for the overthrow of his government.
What’s more, officials have labored to ensure that warfare does not resume between the mostly Arab Muslim north and the mostly Christian and animist south. More than 2 million people were killed and hundreds of thousands displaced during Sudan’s 22-year civil war, which ended in 2005.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries are watching the situation in Sudan intently, with an eye for their treasuries. A recent report by Frontier Economics, an economic consulting firm, estimated that a new civil war in Sudan could cost its neighbors 34 percent of their gross domestic product over 10 years.
Uganda, which borders Sudan to the south, is perhaps most vulnerable. During the civil war, Uganda sheltered 200,000 south Sudanese refugees, 160,000 of whom have since returned.
Western and African officials have expressed confidence that the week-long vote on the independence of south Sudan, which begins Sunday, will proceed smoothly. About 4 million Sudanese southerners, including more than 100,000 who live in the north, have registered to vote.
The vote is one of the conditions spelled out in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which rules the south in the city of Juba.
Lt. Gen. Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes for alleged atrocities in the western province of Darfur, is facing mounting opposition from northerners who blame him for the loss of the south.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity citing the sensitive nature of developments, said the Obama administration and its international partners are “absolutely seized with” ensuring the north’s stability.
Northern opposition party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi has called on Gen. Bashir’s government to write a new constitution, conduct elections and end the conflict in Darfur. His threat to overthrow the government if it fails to concede to these demands by Jan. 26 has been supported by other opposition groups in the north.
The Obama administration has expressed deep concern about the threats.
“We may find it hard to believe in the United States, but there are more extreme elements in Sudanese cultural and political landscape than Omar al-Bashir. We are fearful of that,” said the senior U.S. official.
Extremist forces are at work in Sudan, not just in the political environment but socially and culturally as well. Western officials are concerned that the loss of the south will be perceived as weakness and present a real threat to the government in Khartoum.
A violent overthrow in the north could pave the way for a successor who is more extreme than Gen. Bashir.
“We don’t have good understanding of what will come next, but we are rightfully concerned that any successor regime could be even more extreme in its views,” the U.S. official said.
In conversations with Western officials in Sudan, governors of southern provinces have expressed concern that Gen. Bashir may be toppled in the aftermath of the referendum.
“There is worry that he could be undercut by this whole process. He has a conflict simmering on one flank with Darfur, tensions in the east and will have to fend off challengers in Khartoum,” a Western official based in southern Sudan said on the condition of anonymity.
“A number of governors tell me that Bashir is a person that they can do business with,” the Western official said. “They worry about other people around him; the Islamists and others with more extremist views within [his] National Congress Party who don’t have that commitment to stability.”
The international community also is concerned that a perceived sense of weakness in Khartoum will prompt the government to crack down on the opposition.
The northeast African region where Sudan lies has seen a general trend toward stability and is home to some of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Today, south Sudan is Uganda’s largest destination of exports, commanding about 12 percent of the total, and Uganda has no interest in visiting the past, said Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s minister for disaster and refugees.
Mr. Ecweru said the government is considering certain locations for refugee camps, while the Internal Affairs Ministry reportedly has implemented 24-hour surveillance along the border, and the army has stationed troops there, too. Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye denies any troop presence, saying only that “we are closely monitoring the situation.”
Uganda’s eastern neighbor, Kenya, which also shares a border with south Sudan, has provided civil-servant training and 35,000 primary school teachers to the south, whose limited budget has been used primarily on maintaining stability.
Along with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda are nurturing ties with both Juba in the south and Khartoum in the north, the feeling being that cooperation with both governments will help minimize the impact of war on their respective countries and may offer economic incentives. Uganda, for instance, recently has discovered oil and is seeking Khartoum’s expertise.
Privately, though, all three countries are said to favor the south’s secession, with rival claims to the Nile River providing the incentive for that position.
An independent south likely would side with the common claim in eastern and central Africa that Egypt, to the north, is allotted too much of the river’s water under terms of the Nile Water Agreement.
Egypt is thirsty for yet more of the Nile’s water and, along with Libya, had grumbled for years that Khartoum was not doing enough to keep Sudan united. That position was widely dismissed as insensitive and unrealistic, being that the south had been victim to years of cultural and economic domination by the north.
Amid international pressure — including letters from President Obama — Egypt and Libya have come to accept the high probability of southern independence. Even Gen. Bashir, who had said he would accept nothing but north-south unity, has recently agreed to good terms with the south if it votes for independence.
The U.S. dangled a carrot in front of Gen. Bashir in November, offering to remove Sudan from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism as early as July if the referendum is kept on track and all the post-referendum agreements on demarcation, oil-revenue sharing, citizenship and other key areas are met. Sanctions would remain.
The United Nations has authorized a maximum of 10,000 military personnel, about 750 military observers, 715 police and “an appropriate civilian component,” with an approved budget of $938 million, according to official data.
Still, unrest remains a threat, not only between north and south — who have yet to agree on a common border — but within the south itself between the SPLM and rebels at odds with the ruling party. Conflict also could flare up among tribes: The largest ethnic group, the Dinka, are resented by some of the region’s other 40-some smaller tribes, and some of those tribes are warring among themselves.
• Ashish Kumar Sen reported from Washington.