Sudanese government cracks down on remaining southern sympathizers

Despite hopes of pluralism, Sudan's government is cracking down on Sudan People's Liberation Movement members who stayed behind when South Sudan seceded.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Internally-displaced citizens walk to their homes as armed guards pass by on a vehicle, after the army took control of the area at Al-Damazin town at Blue Nile State on Sept. 6. Fighting erupted in early September in Blue Nile state in Sudan between the Sudanese army and fighters allied to Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant force in newly independent South Sudan.

This spring, as Sudan prepared for the secession of its southern region, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) also prepared for a division. The main SPLM would continue as the ruling party in the new South Sudan, but the party’s northern supporters would also continue, as SPLM-N, to fight for their vision of a more pluralistic political climate in (North) Sudan. In March, SPLM-N leaders visiting Washington expressed their hopes and ambitions for remaking Sudan, but also warned of the possibility of conflict, especially in the states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which would lie on the new border between Sudan and South Sudan.

Conflict, rather than pluralism, has been the outcome in Sudan. In May, a gubernatorial election in South Kordofan saw the victory of Ahmed Haroun, a member of Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The SPLM-N’s rejection of this result helped spark intermittent violence in the state, including a military deployment by the regime on the eve of Southern Sudanese independence. Matters deteriorated further with the outbreak of fighting in Blue Nile State, the only Northern state with an SPLM-N governor, Malik Agar. On Sept. 2, President Omar al Bashir dismissed Agar and has since replaced him with a series of generals. On Sept. 16, the regime suspended the SPLM-N along with 16 other parties with alleged links to South Sudan. And just two days ago, three SPLM-N MPs from South Kordofan resigned. SPLM-N leaders in both South Kordofan and Blue Nile are now effectively operating as rebels, and the fighting is fierce.

The regime’s aggressive posture toward the SPLM-N suggests that leaders in Khartoum believe they must tighten their political control in order to maintain power and stop rebellions. The posture suggests fear, in other words. Suspending the SPLM-N seems like a mistake to me – the backlash could be worse for the regime than simply letting the party continue – but this move adds weight to what some analysts have been saying for a while now, namely that hardliners in Khartoum oppose giving any ground to internal political dissent in the wake of Southern independence. If that’s the case, the hardliners appear to be dictating policy in the border areas.

The extent of the backlash in the border areas bears directly on the question of the central government’s stability. It is not necessarily any single one of the problems that Khartoum faces, but rather the combination of all them, that has made analysts like Bec Hamilton up the odds of regime change in Khartoum. With violence in Darfur escalating, the economy suffering, and the border areas blowing up, Khartoum has a full plate.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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