Several senior Northern Sudanese leaders I interviewed a few years ago told me that in 2002 President Omar Bashir privately decided to negotiate a peace settlement with South rebel leaders to end the civil war that had killed 2.5 million people because it was draining Khartoum's treasury and destabilizing the North. But Bashir believed that even if the South achieved independence it would eventually break apart because of the inability of the Southern tribes to manage their relationships with each other peacefully. Should the South break apart, it would provide a pretext for the North to intervene to restore order.
While Bashir's cynical calculation may have seemed an exaggerated Northern pipe dream four years ago, it may now be coming true given rising tribal tensions and violence in the South. Up to this point the Southern leaders had wisely used persuasion and negotiation, instead of political intrigue or repression, to address the grievances of regions and tribes in the South dissatisfied with the status quo. That is now changing. The tribal intrigue around the selection of the new ruling party chairman in South Sudan and Juba's military campaign against the Murle tribe is evidence of the unraveling of the balance of power among ethnic groups in the south.
Over the past year the stability of the two Sudanese states, North and South, has steadily deteriorated, with the risk of political and economic collapse. The Sudanese and South Sudanese governments reached a mutual agreement two months ago which allowed more than 700 South Sudanese oil wells to begin pumping again more than a year after they were shut down over an oil revenue sharing dispute between the two governments. The agreement had the potential of saving both the Northern and Southern economies from imminent collapse, but Bashir is now threatening to end the agreement and once again shut down the oil pipeline.
Bashir's threat is evidence of a new stage in North-South tensions; he has accused the South of resuming arms shipments to the rebel forces in the North, which the South had earlier agreed would end. If Bashir shuts down the oil pipeline, it will have severe repercussions to the already sclerotic Northern economy, which has been suffering for two years now from rapidly rising inflation and unemployment, negative economic growth, a weakening Northern currency and large budget deficits caused by the shutdown of oil revenues.
If Bashir actually follows through on his threat, it means his government and the Northern military are desperate. He has announced he is not running for reelection in 2015, reportedly has throat cancer and an acrimonious power struggle has broken out within the ruling party over his successor. Bashir's party is under severe pressure in the North to draw traditional opposition groups and civil society into its government, which they know they must do to survive, but they fear they will lose control of the government if they do. So they avoid that risk and put themselves and the North at greater risk of collapse.
Both of the governments are what political scientists call clientelist or patrimonial states, which means social and economic order is maintained by a network of alliances between tribal or clan leaders whose loyalty to the central government is guaranteed through patronage arrangements – passing out government contracts and public sector jobs to loyalists. When oil stopped flowing, the revenues needed to maintain this system of social and economic order began to destabilize.
Several major figures in the Southern ruling party have announced their intention to challenge South Sudanese President Salva Kiir when the chairmanship of the party is voted on at a convention later in 2013. Kiir will be up for re-election as president in 2015 if he is re-elected chairman. While competition is generally regarded as a good thing in a democracy, in this case the four candidates come from the four largest and most influential tribes in the South. If a fight for leadership in the ruling party mutates into tribal conflict, it could destabilize the equilibrium of power in South Sudan.
Political parties and political candidacies based on tribe or ethnicity in a country with a history of ethnic conflict have been the curse of many new democracies, particularly in Africa and Central Asia. Many of the deaths in the first and second Sudanese civil wars – four million people died in the two wars – were by one Southern tribe killing each other with weapons and equipment supplied by successive Khartoum governments to turn the Southerners against themselves. The second Sudanese civil war ended in a peace agreement when all of the major Southern tribes united to form a unified front against the North – both politically and militarily. That Southern coalition could unravel if the South's leadership is not careful and put the hard won Southern independence at risk.
Even more lethal evidence of the shift is the manner in which the Southerner leadership recently began to handle tribal conflicts. Conflict between the Murle and Luo Nuer, two of the dominant tribes in the Jonglei state, has widened. The Murle are among the most isolated, underdeveloped and powerless tribes in the South and have been fighting with other tribes in the area, particularly the Luo Nuer. The Southern leadership has thrown up its hands in trying to deal with the Murle, and is now using military force and repression to disarm them, instead of trying to integrate the Murle into the Southern power structure.
The North, seeing an opening, has been sending weapons secretly to David Yau Yau, a Murle rebel leader with a small force attacking Southern troops, to fuel more conflict, hoping the South will react with military repression, instead of persuasion and negotiation. And it has. The South appears to be blaming the entire Murle tribe for David Yau Yau's treason. The northern strategy of fomenting tribal unrest in the South appears to be working. South Sudan's western allies, human rights organizations and Church groups are increasing alarmed by the Southern military response to the Murle challenge. But it is not only in the South that internal tensions are destabilizing the ruling coalition; the North faces even more severe challenges.
The central weakness of the Bashir government in Khartoum has long been its inability or refusal to address the legitimate grievances of people in Darfur, Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and the Abyei areas through peaceful negotiation instead of military force. When Khartoum's bombing campaign against the civilian population in these areas failed to dislodge the rebel forces, it targeted the civilian population and attempted to cut off their food supply to try to starve them into surrender. Not only have their slash and burn tactics failed, it appears that the rebel groups in the North are gaining ground militarily and the Northern military is increasingly demoralized by rebel military successes. Today, nearly one million people are being denied urgently needed humanitarian assistance in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, and the numbers of displaced and conflict-affected are again on the rise in Darfur.
If the Southern leadership can restore the unity of its ruling coalition, it can take advantage of the Northern weakness. The Southern leadership still has time to put this together and draw the Murle into negotiations over their legitimate grievances and end the military campaign against the entire tribe and focus it on David Yau Yau alone. After all, a more stable South poses the greatest threat to Bashir and his party in Khartoum.