Background Briefing

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Southern Sudan is an area comprised of the country’s ten southernmost states, a region bordering Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. Southern Sudan’s population is almost all African and non-Muslim. The south fought for independence from the northern-dominated central government from the time that Sudan gained independence in 1956, until it was granted regional autonomy in 1972. When that autonomy was revoked in 1983, war was re-ignited in the south.

The twenty-one-year war waged by the SPLM/A against the Sudanese government from 1983 was settled, after almost three years of peace negotiations, by the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement on January 9, 2005.

For the past sixteen years Sudan has been ruled as a one-party state by the National Congress Party, the party of the military-Islamist junta that seized power from an elected government in a 1989 coup.1 It banned all political parties, trade unions, independent press and other democratic institutions immediately, and in the early 1990s it steadily purged the bureaucracies and the judiciary of “secularists” and people loyal to other political parties.

Sudan also struggles with a legacy of slavery and related racism. Although the majority of the ethnically diverse country is African, and only 40 percent of the total population of Sudan identifies itself as Arab, the dominant culture of Sudan has traditionally been Arab, its official language Arabic, and Arabs have had political control. Islam has spread slowly among Africans in Sudan, and its adherents are 70 percent of Sudan’s total population.2 The fabled Sudanese tolerance of other religions—perhaps 5 to 10 percent of Sudanese are Christian and the remaining 20 to 25 percent follow traditional African religions—was replaced by a proselytizing form of Islamism at the political level when Islamists captured the government in 1989. 3

The CPA aims to make citizenship, not religion or ethnic origin, the basis for rights in Sudan, responding in part to SPLM demands for an end to marginalization and discrimination. Nevertheless, the CPA’s exclusion of other parties, most prominently the southern-based political parties and southern ethnic militias backed by Khartoum, the Darfur rebels, the eastern Beja Congress and Rashaida dissidents, as well as the multiplicity of other political parties at home and in exile, made it much less than its “comprehensive” title promised.

The CPA introduced a six-year interim constitution for Sudan, which was prepared and ratified by the national legislature and entered into force in mid-2005. Power sharing between the NCP and the SPLM was elaborately negotiated. The NCP kept the presidency, pending elections to national, regional, state, and local bodies which were initially set by the CPA for three years hence (incumbent President Omar El Bashir consequently remained in office). The NCP was assigned majority representation—52 percent—in the legislative and executive branches at the national level, and 90 percent representation in those branches at the level of the sixteen non-southern states. The CPA gave the SPLM 28 percent representation in the national assembly and southerners 20 percent representation in the executive branch, including the office of the First Vice President and several positions of ministers and state ministers. It confers substantial powers on the First Vice President to veto or be consulted on an array of issues.

The initial power sharing between the NCP and SPLM is tempered by a minority role for other political parties, but representatives of other parties in the National Assembly noted immediately the implications of the NCP-SPLM “super majority,” particularly in any parliamentary vote requiring two-thirds support: the minor parties would never be able to overcome a solid block vote by the NCP and SPLM, who together control 80 percent of the assembly. Furthermore, the NCP and SPLM have already agreed that the nationwide elections at all levels will take place in four rather than three years from signing of the CPA, in 2009.

In July 2005 Dr. John Garang, the leader of the SPLM/A since 1983, became the first person to hold the office of First Vice President in the National Unity government, and was seen by many as a likely candidate for president of Sudan in the elections of 2009. However, Garang died in a helicopter crash on July 30, 2005, and was succeeded by his number two in the SPLM/A, Salva Kiir Mayardiit, on August 7.

The CPA gave autonomy to Southern Sudan, under its own six-year interim constitution prepared and ratified by a new regional assembly. The power-sharing arrangement established an autonomous southern regional government in which the SPLM would have 70 percent representation in the regional assembly (and therefore control) and in executive offices; the NCP would have 10 percent. Other southern political forces occupy the balance of seats in the regional assembly.

There is to be a referendum for southern self-determination six-and-a-half years from the signing of the CPA, in July 2011, at which time southerners may elect to become an independent state or remain united with Sudan (although the date for southern legislative and executive elections was changed by the parties from three years to four years after the CPA signing, the date for the southern self-determination referendum remains 2011). The trade-off in the negotiations for the right to southern self-determination was the retention of shari’a (Islamic law) as the law of the land outside Southern Sudan. Many in the NCP remain unhappy with that compromise, however, as do some other northern political parties.

The purpose of a six-and-a-half year waiting period between the CPA and the self-determination referendum is to allow time for the central government to “make unity attractive” to southern voters through power-sharing, wealth-sharing and other measures. The southern grievance that it has been economically marginalized was addressed in the CPA by wealth sharing, whereby half of the oil revenue produced from southern oilfields is to go to the regional autonomous Southern Sudanese government, among other initiatives. That sharing of billions of dollars in oil revenue, plus an increase in development aid to Southern Sudan, was intended to illustrate the benefits of remaining one nation.

[1] What is now known as the National Congress Party was introduced to Sudan from Egypt after World War II, when it was known as the Muslim Brothers. In successive name changes it was known as the Islamic Charter Front and the National Islamist Front before adopting the present name.

[2] The last census containing this information was in 1983; a new census is now underway, pursuant to the CPA. Under the 1983 census, half the Africans in Sudan are Muslims. The Sudanese Muslim population is 57 percent Arab and 43 percent African. In Darfur, Africans as well as Arabs are Muslims. It is in the south where the largest non-Muslim population resides, where perhaps only 5 percent of the population is Muslim.

[3] One of the issues in Darfur is Arabism, because the conflict there has been fomented in part by a desire of some “Arab” landless nomads to capture land from the settled non-Arab (African) population, though both are Muslims.

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