Opinion: Why George Clooney is in South Sudan

JUBA, South Sudan and NAIROBI, Kenya — Just under 100 days remain until South Sudan votes on whether to stay united with the North or become an independent country.

South Sudan is on the brink and George Clooney went there to witness this strategic area at this critical moment. Clooney will publicize what needs to be done to keep the Sudan referendum on track and to warn of the dangers of a return to civil war.

The people of South Sudan are well aware of how momentous the upcoming vote is.

“Southerners, when the time comes to vote at the referendum, it is your gold choice to determine your fate, would you like to vote to be second class citizens in your own country? It is absolutely your choice,” reads a poster hanging in the government of Southern Sudan Mission in Nairobi, Kenya, laying bare the sentiment that southerners overwhelmingly feel towards the North. These are long burning resentments; the South was locked in two brutal civil wars spanning nearly 40 years in total.

The independence of South Sudan is “inevitable,” according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made that statement recently with less-than-diplomatic candor.

Much has been made of the impending emergence of Africa’s newest state — South Sudan, or “New Sudan” — but if all goes smoothly the January referendum will lead to the creation of two new states in a volatile corner of Africa. The breakaway of the South will have a profound impact on the North — on its political and economic landscape, the outlook for marginalized groups, including those in Darfur, and its relations in the region.

With surprisingly little international condemnation, the April elections in Sudan saw a crackdown against opposition groups in northern Sudan, particularly in the weeks following the vote. Numerous instances of arbitrary arrests, intimidation and physical violence were committed against opposition leaders, journalists and activists by the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services throughout the election season and after, according to Human Rights Watch.

Operating in such a hostile environment, opposition groups in the North have often aligned themselves with the most powerful opposition group countrywide, the South's ruling party, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM). Combined, northern opposition groups and the SPLM are a better match to the Khartoum cabal that has ruled Sudan since 1989.

Days before the April polls, the SPLM withdrew its presidential candidate — likely as an olive branch to encourage Khartoum to implement the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — leaving President Omar al-Bashir and his ruling party, the National Congress Party (NCP), virtually unopposed in the presidential race. None of the other opposition candidates for president had close to the level of support that SPLM candidate Yasir Arman inherently enjoyed.

A day after Arman’s withdrawal, a group of Sudan’s largest opposition groups announced a boycott, demanding an investigation into the Sudanese government’s handling of election preparations. The investigation never occurred, and the election proceeded with Bashir as a shoo-in — even apart from the intimidation of voters and alleged ballot box stuffing. It was a glimpse of what electoral politics in the North would become without the SPLM wielding its modicum of influence alongside northern opposition groups.

The North stands to take a significant hit economically if the South secedes and takes with it the oil-rich region of Abyei. Oil currently accounts for 50 percent of domestic revenue in the North and 93 percent of its exports. With most oilfields situated in the South, and the pipeline running through the North, the two sides will need to strike a deal. One thing is for sure: An independent South will insist on much tighter control over its resources, and the North is bound to lose out.

Over the past 21 years, the NCP has shown itself to be shrewdly focused on self-preservation. The international community should anticipate that the northern government will likely try to consolidate its power in the face of political and economic blows.

A chief concern is the status of marginalized groups in the North. From Darfur, to the eastern region, to the Nuba Mountains, there are many communities with long-standing grievances against the ruling Bashir regime. They were meant to have the opportunity to air them during the era of democratization heralded by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005.

A couple of areas in particular were given a formal path — vaguely called “popular consultations” — to address their grievances. But in the five-and-a-half years since northern and southern leaders signed the peace deal, few of the provisions intended to reform the political process and address marginalization of minority groups have been implemented.

With the southern referendum — clearly the most potentially explosive provision of the CPA — just months away, officials and mediators are focused on ensuring that at least the minimum preparations are in place to enable the vote to occur in a credible way.

The larger reform agenda now looks like a pipedream; when international attention inevitably shifts away from Sudan after the referendum, what incentive will Khartoum have to address the grievances of communities who have long lived under the thumb of the central government? If anything, it’s within the interest of the northern ruling party to clamp down on regions on the periphery that might have been inspired by the South’s march to secession.

"The CPA was supposed to bring a new era of democracy and inclusivity to Sudan, in order to make unity attractive, but it also offered an opt-out clause for the southerners to vote for independence if this didn't happen,” said a civil society leader in the Nuba Mountains, a region in the North that fought on behalf of the southern rebels during the second civil war. “If the southerners choose to secede, it will demonstrate that the peace process has failed, and where does that leave us?"

Belatedly, governments and the international media are recognizing the monumental nature of South Sudan’s referendum. But the challenges will not stop at the South’s borders. Diplomats and mediators must begin dealing now with what will likely be a highly repressive, Islamist country sharing a volatile border with the new South and nestled in the neighborhood with Eritrea and Somalia.

These are the complex, pressing issues that George Clooney has witnessed firsthand and that he will tell the world about.

Omer Ismail, originally from Darfur, is a policy advisor to the Enough Project. Laura Heaton is a Nairobi-based writer and edits Enough’s blog, Enough Said.