Dealey: What has been the reaction in the North to the Southern referendum?
Atabani: Ten years ago secession was taboo. Nobody in the North wanted to hear the word "secession" at all. But interestingly, the sense I can get from many is one of relief. They feel relief that they have got rid of this problem forever, hopefully. And if the price of peace is to have separation with the South, OK, they can have it.
Q: So there's been no political fallout in Khartoum?
A: No, there is no political fallout. Separation took place in January 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. We were virtually separated. And I've always been a unionist. I pride myself on being a unionist and I never believed in separation. But the CPA laid the foundation for separation. It was inevitable, and I could read it even then, as early as Jan 2005.
Q: Looking ahead three to six months, what happens between the North and South?
A: Well, the immediate challenge will be for the two parties to try to resolve the outstanding post-referendum issues. Because these issues can be a source of tension.
There are 12 issues but the most important ones are citizenship, borders and oil revenue sharing. You have other things like the Nile waters agreement, national debts, etc. But the most critical ones are the three I just laid out because these can lead to confrontation.
If we are lucky enough to resolve those issues, in addition to Abyei, I think attention should be directed to defining the relationship between the two countries because we have a legacy there. We had a long, protracted war; there's a perception of tension between the two parties and we need to redefine our relationship.
Everyone knows that there is not going to be a cultural or economic or social separation. The separation is going to be political and administrative. So we need to invest in strengthening social and cultural relations and economic relations. Actually, I think the two countries will be perfect candidates for a kind of economic integration to be emulated by other African countries.
Q: For example do you envision a joint currency?
A: Well, if they accept, the North has no objection to that but it doesn't seem that is on the table for them. They won't see themselves a fully redeemed unless they have their own currency -- you know, all the symbols of an independent country. So that kind of thinking is going o stand in the way. National sentiment is going to be very high in the South after the referendum.
Q: Could local, tribal conflicts explode into government conflicts between the North and South?
A: Well, that's why the border issue is an important one and we have to resolve it because this is the one single issue that can lead to a military confrontation between the two parties and it can be triggered by tensions between local populations. So a formula has to be worked out in order to regulate the relationship, especially the cattle herders, etc., in order not to repeat what happened in Abyei or in Darfur many times.
Q: What is the fate of Abyei?
A: I think after separation, the Southern leadership will be in a better disposition to look into the matter and find a solution. As you know, (South Africa) President (Thabo) Mbeki has submitted six options. And some of these options are fairly viable if they are treated as starting material.
The problem is, the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement), they are in a "winning mood," as it were. They don't feel the pressure from Western countries. No pressure is being exerted on them to make concessions.
You have to remember that Abyei in the first place became a problem because of a concession that was made by the North. Because when the Naivasha accord was signed, Abyei was in the North. And the negotiators on the government side accepted to reopen the issue, at the suggestion of (U.S.) Senator (John) Danforth. That's how it has become an issue, because it was reopened for negotiations. And that has to be taken into consideration – that it was a concession given by the government delegation in order to get a final settlement on the CPA. I think if we work on one or two issues submitted by President Mbeki we can get there.
Q: Will the referendum process be replicated in Darfur?
A: I don't expect Darfur to go in the same direction because it is a completely different problem. You don't have the cultural element; you don't have the religious element; you don't have the history; you don't have the same tribes.
Actually, if anything, Darfur has become a problem because of divisions within Darfur itself. People sometimes wrongly characterize it as Arab versus African, which is not true. But it did start as an internal conflict in Darfur between different tribes and different sections of the population. They have never seen the rest of the North as the enemy, as is the case in the South.
The South only became united when it started to see the North as a joint, common enemy. That is the thing that cemented the Southerners together. And they saw the North as an aggressive culture, denying them their identity and their uniqueness.
This is not the case in Darfur. There is no language problem, there is no religious problem, there is no cultural problem, etc., etc. And again, generally Darfur does not perceive itself as an antipolar region to the rest of the North. So that's why I don't' see it.
I mean, you do see it with the elites, those who always try to complicate these matters. In order to raise the ante they come up with all sorts of outrageous demands like separation. But if you try to gauge how popular such a call is in Darfur, you realize that it is almost nonexistent. It's made by someone who wishes to raise the ceiling of his demands rather than as a true call that is likely to be heeded and followed by the people of Darfur.
Q: How will separation affect the North's finances? Will it need to retool its approach to economy?
A: It has to, because it is going to suffer from the separation, at least initially.
Q: Can you quantify the damage?
A: Not less than 30 percent; one-third. But the potential in the North is huge. Now there are new discoveries of oil, gold, other minerals, cement, phosphates, etc. And I think the North can make good on the losses it sustains from separation in two or three years. Maybe it will be stronger and richer, because hopefully without any expenditure on war and military activities the economy won't be bled.
So initially I think you have to be realistic. We have to apply some stringent issues. And unfortunately this coincides with an international economic crisis and a rise in the prices generally. So it has this added heft. But I think it is possible for the North to survive, barring the eruption of a new civil war or a war between the North and the South.
Q: Did the United State provide a timeline for fulfilling its promises -- to remove Sudan from its Terror List, restore diplomatic relations, end economic sanctions -- if the referendum proceeds?
A: Well, all they promised was to look into all these issues.
Q: So they said nothing?
A: Nothing. Actually, it comes to naught.
Well, there was a timeline -- you know, immediately after independence is declared, then the government would be invited to Washington later this year, in July, and some process would kick off in order to remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terror, etc, etc.
It is all promises. We have heard the same promises time an again over the last 10 years or so.
Q: That message was delivered by Special Envoy Gen. Scott Gration or Sen. John Kerry?
A: Senator Kerry relayed the message to us that was relayed to him from President (Barack) Obama outlining the few steps I just explained to you.
Q: Can the South develop the infrastructure – its oil pipelines to Mombasa, for example -- to adequately exploit its oil without the North?
A: Well, it will depend on their performance as a competent and responsible government. They can do it, of course, but technically they will have to wait for another three or five years.
So the question is what do they do from here until that project is completed? There are people who doubt they have the capacity, because of corruption, because of the possibility of political turmoil, and, you know, the risk factors for companies that would erect such a pipeline. But assuming all goes well, it would take them three to five years. And in the meantime, they will have to rely on a very close working relationship with the North. And we will have to work on a formula for the sharing of resources.
In the meantime, of course, the North, as I said, in two to three years would have become completely rid of any dependence on the oil revenue from the South.
Q: How will the North-South oil relationship work?
A: Well, the first choice is to treat the whole complex – production, services, transport -- as a unit, even though part of it lies in the North and part of lies in the South. It is one thing actually. So this is our strategy in the discussions.
Q: Would revenues be split 50-50?
A: No, we have to be reasonable. Right now it is 50-50 but maybe it goes to 70-30, then 80-20 in favor of the South because it is their oil.
Another option is to agree on the fees. And we realize we have to be reasonable. Of course we would not put up the fees to make it impossible for them to export oil or make it profitable. So this is an issue that is being debated. I think the Norwegians have come up with a formula, a model, which will work out.
Q: The South's ruling Sudanese People's Liberation Movement often accuses the North of being a one-party state. But is the SPLM capable of adapting to a pluralistic society or government?
A: Absolutely, their characterization of the North is definitely enormously erroneous. Because politics in the North is much more nuanced than it is in the South.
The one single issue in the South is separation. They don't debate economic issues; they don't debate foreign relations; they don't debate internal structures. All these are issues in the North.
They enjoy this at the time because they can rally the whole of the South behind this cause of separation but they have to wake up to the reality the next morning. They have to realize that for the past five years, six years, they have been capable of reducing the worst kind of corruption anyone can ever think of. And they have done nothing for the people.
Of course there was a lot of rhetoric about how the North humiliated us and subjugated us and all this nonsense but they have to face up to the realities and I think it's going to be very difficult.
Because in the South, politics equates with tribalism and tribalism is going to be the most important factor in defining the South. And they don't seem to have a remedy for that; they don't seem to have a formula to address this question. They all seem, even the most educated, to have accepted to become victims of this ailment. And that's going to continue and even become worse, especially when the North disappears as a common enemy from the radar screen. Then they will have to sort out their own differences.
Q: But will the North always be the bogey man to the Southern politician?
A: Yeah, I expect that will continue for some time because they enjoy what I call "victim status" because it is very profitable to play that game. And with some naïve people in the West believing what they say, especially the activist groups in the U.S. and Europe, they will continue bailing them out. But at one point, they have to pause and reflect. That's not going to continue forever. They have become an independent country. But I expect them to maintain that attitude for a while because it pays well.
(Sam Dealey is former editor of The Washington Times and previously worked as a foreign correspondent for several publications.)
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