Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 12 July 2010

Towards Confederation between Independent South and North Sudan


By Abdullahi Osman El-Tom

July 11, 2010 — After long and futile emotional tactics, Sudan’s major parties have finally come to explore confederation as the only viable option following the certain separation of the Sudan following Referendum. For the sake of enriching debate, we reissue this article without any changes showing that JEM has long proposed this confederation as a realistic option for future Sudan. The article was published in several major internet venues on 19-20 of December 2009:

In line with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed 2005, a referendum on self-determination will take place in the South of the Sudan at the end of the 2011. Gauging public opinions thus far, coupled by views of political analysts, the separation of South Sudan is inevitable. Surprisingly, leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the ruling party of the South of the Sudan and partners to the present Government of National Unity (GNU), have yet to come to term with this fundamental fact, the separation of the South. Let me justify myself below.

The late Dr. Garang had always called for unity under New Sudan, a nation that is inclusive, democratic and accommodating to all its citizens irrespective of religious, regional or ethnic origin. That dream is still echoed by his disciples including Salva Kiir, the current President of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS) and the First Vice President of Sudan. Kiir has been consistently asserting his allegiance to unity while blaming his northern partners for not making it attractive for the people of South. What is perplexing is that Kiir’s insistence on unity, also reiterated by all of his senior staff, does not tally with public opinion among his people. Pagan Amum, the Secretary General of the SPLM has also been among the most avid supporters of the unity project. Strangely enough, Amum himself remarked last year that “more than 90% of his southerners will vote for separation” The statement reflects a worrying trend among SPLM leaders and how they are hopelessly out of touch with their own people.

The Justice and Equality Movement of Sudan (JEM) is a pro-unity organization. On numerous occasions, JEM relayed to the SPLM its intention to work with them and increase the appeal of unity for the South. JEM wants to remove the factors that make the South separate for these are the same reasons behind raising arms in Darfur . But JEM is realistic and in full recognition of the fact that for better or for worse, separation of the South is inevitable. Pessimists push the thesis further and conclude that separation will be preceded by a bloody war following collapse of the presently shaky CPA. Either way, it is incumbent upon all of us to muster hope and work for a peaceful march towards secession. It is here that JEM proposes plan B, admittedly still under discussion within its high ranks. Confederation ensuring two independent and sovereign Sudans , North and South is the answer. It can serve mutual interests, improve development prospects, contain conflicts and preempt war between the two sovereign states. Conceding that confederation is a confusing concept, let me rush and clarify what I mean by it before I lose my readers.

Confederation is a system of administration in which two independent countries enter into while keeping their separate identities. The countries cede some of their powers to a central authority in areas where they share common economic, security, or broadly speaking, developmental concerns. The central authority in confederation is weak and subservient to the founding states. It cannot dominate and can only exercise powers that are ceded to it by the con-federal partners. While confederation is a perpetual arrangement, either of the partners can pull out of it if they so wish. Hence, confederation is like marriage; it takes two to create and maintain but only one partner to dismantle. Confederation comes in different forms depending on the contexts and interests of partners involved. The most successful model around is the EU but Sudan requires a model that suits its conditions and fulfils its purpose.

Let us make a proposition that the CPA survives and allows successful general elections (2010) and the self-determination referendum (2011). Sudan will then split into two independent states: the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of North Sudan . The two independent states will face formidable challenges that can at best be addressed through confederation. The merits of confederation are as follows:

Separation of the South is bound to be bitterly painful, emotive and resentful. Numerous issues between the two countries will not be resolved for some time after secession. A volatile atmosphere conducive to war will be created. Confederation provides supportive institutions and creates an environ that absorbs tension and contains war tendencies.

The two countries will share a border of 1500 kilometre long, a third of it with, hopefully speaking, post-war Darfur. To make matters worse for the two countries, this long border is shared by hundreds of nomadic ethic groups with their characteristic disdain for political boundaries. The dividing line between the new North Sudan and South Sudan will mimic those of other African countries where political borders come to fence out not only ethnic groups but extended families into two countries. Securing such a long border and catering for the interests of border populations require an arrangement that can be nothing short of confederation.

The release of results of Sudan’s Fifth Census (May 2009) has unleashed a fierce and acrimonious debate about exact number of southerners in Khartoum. Disputants put their number at anything between 350,000 and 2,000,000. To that, one may add many more in all other regions of the Sudan and particularly in border territories. South of Sudan also hosts a substantial number of people whose origin lies further north. Many of these people will remain where they are, irrespective of the outcome of the referendum. A well-designed and managed confederation is the best hope for these populations.

When it comes to the economic development of both sides of the Sudan, the case for confederation cannot be overstated. History has destined the two sides to be intertwined with the South emerging utterly dependent on the North. Dependency of the South on the North spans almost every field of its economy: food and agriculture, oil pipelines, light industrial productions, access to a port and so forth. Shortage of human capital also presupposes reliance of the South on the North for traders, teachers, doctors, civil servants, etc. While confederation does not preclude the South reaching out to other African countries, workers from North Sudan have an undeniable advantage. They so far share the same history, administrative and civil service structure, educational system and above all a common language as Arabic still dominates as a lingua franca in the South.

The North too needs the South for better economic dividends. The South provides a familiar market for northern transport network, telecommunications, oil pipelines, industrial products but above an avenue for surplus labour. The vast forest and animal resources of the South are also highly needed in the North. In short, confederation is a win-win endeavour for both sides and certainly comprises the most efficient management of resources available.
The countries created by secession will be multi religious. North Sudan will have substantial Christian population of Southern origin. In addition, there will also be other Christian minorities in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile whose status, together with many others northern regions is not yet certain. Equally, the South will also host a sizable Muslim population. As a relatively rich minority, the northern Muslim population remaining in the south will be subject for resentment and a possible target of violence. Confederation creates a context where the new countries can lobby effectively to safeguard interest of these minorities. It may also act as an agent of religious moderation at both ends. It is perhaps not far fetched to expect the confederation to act as a powerful drive against possible Talibanization tendencies in North Sudan.

Given the above reasons, the logic of confederation between the would-be Republics of South and North Sudan is quite compelling. Nonetheless, this project requires statesmanship that can allay fears, contain contrived post-secession paranoia and harness grass root good will and support for the project. Confederation can only succeed if it represents a genuine union between two peoples and not an agreement between ruling parties, particularly when democratic credentials of these parties are uncertain or lacking altogether. Popular support for the project must, therefore, be a pre-condition validated through a referendum or a similar undertaking.

Proposals for confederation between north and south Sudan are not new. It was proposed by John Garang during the Naivasha negotiations (2005). Although negotiators of northern Sudan accepted the principle, the project had no support among other SPLM leaders. It was feared that such a project would compromise their call for self determination.

Much more recently, Malik Agar, Deputy Chairman of the SPLM, proposed confederation for the whole of Sudan (January, 17th 2008). Although Agar’s proposal was impeccable, its timing was not, leading to its outright dismissal by the Parliamentary Block of the SPLM, January 22nd 2008 . The timing of the proposal was problematic as it coincided with a period of intense paranoia about collapse of the CPA coupled by the fact that Agar comes from the Blue Nile and not the South per se.

The current proposal is however different as it neither threatens the CPA nor intends to derail self determination for the South. Much more, this confederation is contingent on successful passage of the CPA and amicable separation of Sudan into two independent countries. It is a project whereby both countries choose to enter and exit out of their own accord (for an excellent reading of extreme relevance see: Tesfatsion Medhanie, Towards Confederation in the Horn of Africa. Cuvillier Verlang, 2009).

Author is Head of the Bureau for Training and Strategic Planning of JEM. He can be reached at Abdullahi.etlom@nuim.ie .

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  • 12 July 2010 14:18, by Paul Ongee

    Abdullahi Osman El-Tom,

    Thank you for your in-depth analysis on "confederation." Note that nobody trusts Khartoum any more which is preoccupied with the old mentality of Arabization, Islamization and elimination of Sudanese masses of African origin. The Northern elite in Khartoum doesn’t look Middle Eastern but kept aligning itself with Middle East more than African continent that they live in.

    If Khartoum refused to accept confederation during peace talks in Kenya how do you expect the same Khartoum would accept such demand from JEM? We cannot accept it now because we are not on equal footing. JEM needs to do the same thing because accepting it now will pave the way for abrogation of any previously signed agreements. Khartoum is only looking for a way out to professionally dishonor political accords in the face of AU, International community and Sudanese masses. Khartoum still continues believing that it has brain to steer the vehicle to direction of its choice. The tabled options of confederation do not work at all.

    These are bogus options put forward by the former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Whether they (options) are his own thinking or Khartoum’s trickery style they will never work in any situation. Khartoum cannot and will never be able to define confederation because it failed to define unity and its applications. It has only been able to define its own freedom that was granted by the colonial administration. Thabo Mbeki is an individual who forgets the definition of the word "freedom" and doesn’t have fresh memory of Apartheid on his mind.

    Khartoum is essentially worried because the clock of referendum is ticking. All other attempts to bypass the reality have failed. Both AU and Arab League have poor record of resolving political conflicts happening in the continent of Africa. Without the efforts of international community, they are both doomed. However, Sudan is currently at a crossroad and Khartoum must accept the reality not to zig-zag. The only option left to Khartoum is to act in good faith so that the two potential independent Sudans move forward and enjoy individual freedom and economic development.

    I don’t buy the argument that South Sudan will rely more on North Sudan for expertise. Do you think Khartoum will offer its expertise in good faith when South separates? No. People should study the mentality and the wishes of Khartoum when it comes to the issue of South Sudan, Southern Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains and Darfur. Since 1956, Khartoum has been adamantly planting bad political seeds across the country that it refuses to harvest today. Why? The current ongoing negotiation on post-referendum arrangements is mainly about learning to trust each other after referendum because Khartoum as usual is addicted to dishonoring agreements, union or whatever might be called.

    Paul Ongee
    Khartoum, Sudan

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    • 13 July 2010 03:09, by jur_likang_a_ likan’g

      The people of South Sudan has made their choice clear to the entire world that they are for sucession. Nothing else will work to them. Like they chose to stand all the odds to fight both racial and religious apartheid from Khartoum, they will do likewise to stand for what are ready to lay their lives for. The people have spoken by war, demonstration in all the capital cities of all the states of South Sudan and beyond its borders. This must have been heard by those racists in Khartoum. Anything less than that is trouble in the making. The people of South Sudan are mature enough to choose what they want and that must be respected. Any one is entitled to his opinion on this issue but when more than a million South Sudanese people decide what they want I think the world have a reason to listen to their call because somewher there isbound to be something amiss in the region especially after the loss of over two million lives of their loved ones.

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      • 13 July 2010 04:48, by David Glenn

        Dear Abdallah Osman El-Tom
        AT times we tend to forget ourselves,this is no more true than about your article.You are telling us that the JEM has for long being calling for Confedration.
        Dear Brother
        Please remember that the Leader of JEM was one of those who plotted against the Government of Sadiq Almahdi,and overthrew it in the June 1989 Coup D’Etat that brought the NIF to power,because he was against the Sudanese Peace Initiative signed by Mohamed Osman Almirghani and the late Dr,John Garang,in Addis Ababa,and which could have solved the problem of the Sudan and saved the country the pains of secession.
        I am astonished at your audacity,to say heremthat your JEM,lead by Emir Almujahideen,Khalil Ibrahim,was calling for a confedration>
        You know the saying,if you dont feel shame do what you want,so write what you want,but know some us still remember history.

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        • 13 July 2010 08:09, by Lokorai


          Please stop writing nonesense like that again; who says confederation is the best solutions to Sudanese problems and that the two parties have come to term with iit?

          Be real, there is no go between independence of the South from you the North. Sabotage at the zero hour will not work.

          Is this not Al Tom who suggested similar thing two years ago? You play with fire dirt


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  • 17 July 2010 05:03, by murlescrewed

    El-Tom’s article offers insights and wisdom that ought to be explored in a rigorous way before our leaders let our country become permanently divided. There is no doubt that Southerners...including myself would easily vote for outright independence if the referendum choice revolved around the two choice of Unity and Separation. We in the South don’t want to be locked into permanent marriage when the abuse is still fresh in our minds. We need some time where we enjoy greater autonomy before returning to country to full union. Confederation will be the best choice at this time in Sudan’s history.

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