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[Published: Monday November 01 2010]

 Sudan: Defining the North-South border

The January 2011 referendum on self-determination could result in Sudan’s partition, and the country’s North-South border may ultimately become the world’s newest international boundary. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended two decades of civil war called for the border between the North and the semi-autonomous South to be demarcated within six months. Five years later, the task remains incomplete. The sooner the parties break the border deadlock the better, though the process need not necessarily be completed prior to the referendum as Khartoum has argued previously. Furthermore, a solution to the border is about not only drawing a line, but also defining the nature and management of that border and the future relations of communities on both sides. A “soft” boundary is ideal, one backed by a framework for cross-border arrangements and, if necessary, safeguarded by a joint monitoring mechanism. Progress toward both demarcating and defining the border will prevent it from becoming a source of renewed conflict in the post-CPA era.

The undefined boundary has hindered CPA implementation, fuelled mistrust between its signatories and, most recently, contributed to heightened anxiety and insecurity along the border. The governments in Khartoum and Juba alike rely heavily on oil revenues that derive primarily from the borderlands. The concentration of resources there has amplified the political and economic dimensions of an already contentious task. Both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) have exhibited an aggressive military posture in some border areas. And many of the country’s trans-boundary populations – some of whom represent significant political constituencies – fear possible secession of the South could result in a hardening of the boundary and a threat to their livelihood.

This important issue has for far too long been tied up in the Technical Border Committee (TBC), the body mandated to demarcate the border as it stood at Independence Day in 1956. The committee’s extensive deliberations – as well as a poisoned atmosphere – have led to an impasse. Solid information regarding the process, the work of those tasked to undertake it and the disputed areas has been scarce, leading to considerable confusion and speculation among political elites, border communities and international partners. While the committee has agreed on most of the border, five specific areas are disputed on technical grounds; and others remain contested in the public arena. Any prolonged review of maps and records is unlikely to yield agreement on the disputed areas, underscoring that this is no longer a technical issue, but a political one, and should be treated as such.

The two parties that signed the CPA – the long ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – began critical negotiations on post-referendum arrangements in July 2010. Border demarcation is not an agenda item, but the issues of border management and cross-border relations will undoubtedly arise and be affected by several others that are, including citizenship, national resources, economic cooperation, grazing rights and security. Progress on these fronts may lessen the potential impact of where exactly the boundary is drawn in the end.

The type of border and its exact location could well become bargaining chips in a grander set of trade-offs that will define the negotiations on post-referendum arrangements. And, while not everyone will be satisfied in the end, stability along the border will depend in part on the extent to which local actors feel they have had some role in defining border management and trans-border relations. Border communities are among those most directly affected by the current atmosphere of post-referendum uncertainty; examination of the disputed areas illustrates that the border can mean very different things to political elites than it does to the communities who live on it. Therefore, it is essential to recognise that resolution of the outstanding border disputes is no longer a technical issue, but a political one and needs to be addressed urgently.

International Crisis Group

North South News website

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