As Sudan prepares to divide into two nations on Saturday, Obama administration officials and Africa watchers on Capitol Hill are warning that the situation on the ground remains fragile and fears remain that the region could slip into another round of bloodletting.
There are many reasons for concern—chief among them is that President Omar al-Bashir’s regime in northern Sudan is spoiling to crush the seeds of rebellion in disputed areas that he hopes to keep aligned with the northern capital of Khartoum.
In the January referendum, 98 percent of the south voted for secession and to create a new nation that will be known as South Sudan. At the time, Obama administration officials worried whether the north and south governments could make substantial progress in resolving key disputes over borders, citizenship, and the sharing of oil revenue ahead of the secession.
Those issues remain unresolved, and in recent weeks, have been further complicated as Bashir dispatched about 1,000 troops to the restive South Kordofan state, and ordered United Nations peacekeepers to leave the north ahead of Saturday’s secession.
“Al-Bashir has been uncooperative,” Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., told National Journal just before he departed for Juba—the new capital of South Sudan—on Thursday as part of President Obama’s delegation attending the independence ceremony. “He’s continued to attack innocent women and children, and he has no regard for human rights. I think we have a lot to be concerned about.”
Administration officials were similarly dour. Before departing for Juba, Susan Rice, the U.S ambassador to the U.N., told reporters there was "grave concern" about the situation following Bashir’s decision to order the peacekeepers out of the north.
“It's vital that the United Nations be allowed to maintain a full peacekeeping presence in these areas for an additional period of time in order to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, support the implementation of any cessation of hostilities agreement, and vitally to protect civilians," Rice said.
In the lead up to January’s referendum, the White House was fully engaged in the region, making certain that the vote was seen as credible and free of violence. Obama dispatched Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to Juba to monitor the voting. The president also appointed a full-time special envoy to Sudan, Amb. Princeton Lyman.
But perhaps most importantly, Obama offered various incentives to Khartoum—including a path to get off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and promises to ease sanctions—as an attempt to entice Bashir to cooperate and end hostilities.
Those promises, however, seem to have made little impact on an emboldened Bashir.
Clashes in the border region have escalated in recent weeks, pushing tens of thousands of civilians out of their homes in the South Kordofan state. Earlier this week Harvard’s Sentinel Satellite Project captured images of a convoy of about 1,000 Sudanese troops in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, creating new unease that could mount into a larger war. On Friday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a new peacekeeping force for South Sudan. The council authorized the deployment of up to 7,000 military personnel and 900 international police, and other civilian staff.
Andrew Natsios, a former special envoy to war-torn Darfur during President George W. Bush's administration, said Bashir's recent action reflects that the dictator feels cornered.
"I think [Bashir] sees the Sudanese state reach and influence steadily shrinking, and he is desperately trying to reverse this before it is too late," Natsios said. "He will only kill a lot of civilians and ultimately will lose control in what could be a failed state, which might look like Somalia."
The latest fighting is essentially another installment in the long running north-south civil war, which claimed some 2 million lives, before officially ending in 2005 with the signing of a peace agreement.
That pact, which the Bush administration helped orchestrate, set a path to independence for the south, an impoverished region the size of Texas. Feeling squeezed, Bashir promised to prevent southern independence even after agreeing to the referendum, and he began raids in the Darfur region in the west as war wound down in the south.
Bashir's brutality there and elsewhere was so storied that, partly in response to a backlash among the American human-rights community, Obama said he would make Sudan a foreign policy priority.
But after winning the White House, Obama became more of a realist on Sudan and Bashir. Some in the administration believed Sudan could help the United States track down jihadists in the Horn of Africa, and that it was better to keep Khartoum and its oil-wealth oriented toward the West rather than letting it turn to China. And while Bashir is widely seen as an unsavory character—someone who faces war crime charges in the International Criminal Court—some in the administration fear that any successor of his might be worse.
The administration has calculated that the leverage they have on Bashir is his understanding that he needs to get Sudan, a dismally poor nation, out of its long-standing isolation on the world stage if he wants to survive politically. With carrots such as debt relief, access to aid from the World Bank, and removal from the terror list, the administration had bet they could move Bashir toward cooperation.
But Payne, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Africa Subcommittee, said it might be time to rethink the approach on the Sudanese dictator.
“In dealing with this monster, his defense has been there is a worse one coming if he falls,” said Payne, who suggested new sanctions may be needed to be imposed on the Bashir regime. “Let’s go ahead and try to deal with the worse one.”