Trouble in Khartoum

Everyone’s rightly worried about the future of Southern Sudan. But what if it’s the north that’s actually in the most danger?

The news coming out of Sudan grows bleaker by the hour. Prospects for peace look less likely now than at any point since the north-south civil war, Africa's longest-running conflict, ended in 2005.

The Sudanese government is presently bombing the northern border state of Southern Kordofan, and the United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 people have been displaced as a consequence of Khartoum's seizure of the contested Abyei region last month. The emerging picture stands in stark contrast to what appeared to be President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's surprising commitment to the peaceful separation of northern and southern Sudan just a few months ago.

Since then, much analysis and media commentary has focused on whether the soon-to-be country of Southern Sudan, which attains formal nationhood on July 9, will be viable. Observers have raised valid concerns about the south's myriad inter-ethnic tensions, internal insurgents, fledgling governance structure, and poor set of development indicators.

But what about the north? In the focus on all the coming problems of Southern Sudan, the full implications of partition creating not one new nation, but two, have gone largely unexamined --with potential repercussions that could derail peace for north and south alike.

Northern Sudan will be a different country in geographic, ethnic, religious, political, cultural, and economic terms once the south separates. And the viability of the new northern nation is also in question, as is the survival of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party.

"The NCP are being weakened day by day. They know they don't have acceptance in the north," says International Crisis Group analyst Fouad Hikmat.

Northern opposition parties blame NCP policies for the loss of the south, which is where most of Sudan's oil lies. Moreover, well-connected Sudanese say there is dissatisfaction within the army, in addition to the armed insurgencies and political discontent in peripheral areas across northern Sudan.

Much of the current fighting may be strategic posturing as final deals are being hashed out over the division of wealth and territory between north and south in advance of July 9. But the ominous developments over the past three weeks are perhaps best understood as being driven by the NCP playing to its fiercely nationalistic domestic audience inside northern Sudan.

The most obvious danger to the NCP is economic. On Tuesday, Sudanese Finance Minister Ali Mahmoud told reporters in Khartoum that as a result of the secession of the south "the national budget will lose 36.5 percent of its revenues." Sudan's external debt already stands at $38 billion. It has been barred from further World Bank loans because of a failure to pay its arrears, and the United States has fiercely opposed Sudan receiving support from any international banking institution because of its listing as a state sponsor of terrorism.

Of course, Khartoum has weathered exclusion from the international financial system for years thanks to its economic allies in the Gulf and Asia, as well as a booming oil industry. But the latter piece of that equation is about to change.

Roughly three-quarters of Sudan's oil wealth lies in the south of the country. Since the 2005 peace agreement was signed, the Sudanese government and the semi-autonomous government of Southern Sudan have been splitting revenues from the southern oil fields roughly 50-50; these revenues have accounted for more than half of the Sudanese government's budget.

Khartoum stands to lose this oil revenue once Southern Sudan secedes. This is a problem for the NCP, whose petro-funded patronage network has long been responsible for keeping a segment of northerners comfortable enough to ensure that fledging civil society efforts against the ruling party have not gained traction.

The economic bad tidings spurred a deeply unpopular decision by Khartoum earlier this year to remove government subsidies on fuel, wheat flour, and sugar. "The sharp increase of prices might trigger pockets of civil unrest in the main urban areas," cautioned USAID's Famine Early Warning Systems Network at the time. Since then, sporadic protests have arisen in different parts of the north, though nothing so far that the Sudanese state has not been able to quash.

The current U.S. administration's strategy on Sudan has been underpinned by an appreciation for these economic realities. The United States designated Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 and imposed comprehensive economic sanctions in 1997. President Barack Obama has dangled the carrot of normalizing relations and supporting Khartoum in obtaining debt relief. But as the State Department warned this week, Khartoum's recent military activities now diminish the likelihood that Washington will follow through with normalization.

If dissent stemming from the economic downturn was the only threat to the NCP's rule, the U.S. administration's approach may have had better success, despite Khartoum's skepticism of U.S. promises. But the long-term marginalization, often coupled with religious and/or ethnic persecution of people in peripheral areas across northern Sudan, has spurred armed insurgencies that money alone cannot defuse.

Darfur, Sudan's vast western region, hosts the best-known of these conflicts. The Sudanese government has progressively squeezed international actors out of the area, and no foreign journalists have been granted permission to enter it for many months. As a result, information on what is happening there is scarce. But according to Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese government has increased aerial bombardments in the region since December last year, leading to the displacement of a further 70,000 people.

Southern Kordofan, just to the east of Darfur and home to more than 30,000 northern fighters who sided with the south in the north-south civil war, is less well-known. The region is currently northern Sudan's only oil-producing state and is indisputably northern territory. But it is also a stronghold of resistance against the northern government by many of the Nuba people.

The Nuba are religiously diverse, non-Arab, and culturally distinct. Faced with what many have termed genocide against them in the 1990s, they fought with the southern rebels in the north-south civil war. But they are not simply southern proxies. As veteran Sudan researcher Julie Flint notes, Nuba resistance has strong local roots "motivated in large part by the suppression of indigenous cultures, languages and religious observances." The north-south peace agreement was not implemented in a way that addressed their concerns, or those of the nomadic Arabs who co-habit the area, and the imminent secession of Southern Sudan is only increasing the anxiety of all concerned.

In late May, the Sudanese Army demanded the disarmament of all the historically pro-southern forces in Southern Kordofan and neighboring Blue Nile state. Darfuri rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement have also been reportedly recruiting in Southern Kordofan, and experts say Khartoum's greatest fear is the unification of these disaffected groups against them. On June 5, Bashir launched a military campaign in the area aimed, he said, at "clearing the state of the remaining rebels." But as in Darfur, civilians seem to be bearing the brunt of the government operation.

Sudan Democracy First Group, a Sudanese civil society organization, has released the names of 21 civilians killed so far in the bombing campaign that Khartoum is conducting in Southern Kordofan, and reported a further 72 unidentified corpses. The U.N. says the Sudanese government is obstructing humanitarian access and estimates that 60,000 people have so far been displaced. A witness I spoke to by phone in the Nuba Mountains on Wednesday, who cannot be named for his safety, says the Nuba are being "targeted by government forces on the basis of their ethnicity because Khartoum assumes that all Nuba people are in political opposition to them."

Invoking parallels to Darfur, the Archbishop of Sudan, Rev. Dr. Daniel Deng Bul Yak, has accused the Sudanese government of implementing "a policy of ethnic cleansing" in the region.

The Sudanese Army's move into Southern Kordofan comes just weeks after it seized control of Abyei, a border region that, unlike Southern Kordofan, is disputed territory between north and south. Khartoum says its actions were provoked by an ambush on its forces by the south, a claim southern officials deny. Southern Sudan's Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. James Hoth Moi, told me he sees the seizure of Abyei as an effort by Bashir to boost the morale of the northern army. "What better way to distract the army from the complaints they have against you than by engaging them?" asks Moi.

According to analyst Fouad Hikmat, the Sudanese government's increasingly belligerent actions are best understood as an effort by Bashir to create a threat that northerners can be convinced to unify against -- thereby detracting from the economic and political grievances that might otherwise be voiced against the NCP. The rhetoric put out on Sudan's state-controlled media seems to support this. Earlier this week, NCP Secretary of Political Mobilization Haj Majid Swar said Khartoum had uncovered a plot by a Nuba-backed politician in Southern Kordofan, Abdulaziz al-Hilu, to overthrow the government.

In his bid to shore up his domestic legitimacy through warfare in Abyei and Southern Kordofan, Bashir is playing with fire. Insecurity in the border areas and along the pipeline route that runs from South Sudan up to the Red Sea risks disrupting the flow of oil from fields in the south to refineries in the north and onto the export market. Already, cross-border trade has been shut down, harming northern traders and creating a food and fuel crisis in the south and border regions.

"It is in our interest to see that the North remains a viable state," Southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit told me when I interviewed him in Juba late last year. He was right. Whether such viability can come through the NCP, however, is something that only those in the new northern state can decide.




The campaign to allow Saudi women behind the wheel has been a generation in the making.

On May 22, Manal al-Sharif, a 32-year-old single mother in Saudi Arabia, was imprisoned for nine days for the crime of driving a car in the city of Khobar. Sharif, a women's rights activist whose arrest was filmed and posted to YouTube, has helped ignite a worldwide media storm over the Saudi government's treatment of women. Most recently, Sharif helped create a popular Facebook page calling on Saudi women to publicly drive on June 17.

Sharif is just one in a long line of Saudi women to be arrested for driving a car. Late in the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1990, 47 Riyadh women first decided to take matters, and the steering wheel, into their own hands. Carefully wrapped in their abayas -- the black full-body robe forced on Saudi women -- they drove their cars in a convoy around the capital for half an hour. The veiled drivers, who divided themselves into 14 cars, included academics, doctors, teachers, housewives, and students from upper-middle-class Riyadh families. They made sure that the woman driver in each car had obtained a driver's license from abroad. But it didn't take long for both the traffic and the religious police forces to halt their ambitious drive. 

The women were ordered to relinquish their driving seats to police officers, who promptly motored them to al-Olaya police station. In prison, the women were interrogated and detained briefly before being released after signing an official document pledging never to drive a car again or be in the company of a female driver. 

Although the women didn't stay long in prison, they suffered the consequences of their actions for the next three years. Shortly after the incident, they were suspended from their government jobs for two years and eight months.

The kingdom tried to quash any mention of the incident in the Saudi press. "It's like they never existed. But still everyone in the country knew about them," a Saudi journalist, who requested anonymity, told me. The only official public reaction was an Interior Ministry statement that didn't mention the Riyadh drivers directly but reiterated that women were "absolutely prohibited" from driving and promised punishment for women violating that edict. The statement was broadcast on TV and radio and published in all newspapers.

Saudi Arabia's ultra-orthodox religious establishment had no hesitations about spreading the story, with the purpose of turning the women into social pariahs. Sheikhs and imams at mosques all over Riyadh attacked them in their Friday sermons; mosque circle gatherings and lectures in public and private meetings called them "prostitutes," "American secularists," "communists," and worse.  Pamphlets that included the full names of the women, as well as recorded cassettes of famous sheikhs' attacks on them, were distributed all over Riyadh for the next two years. 

It took Saudi Arabia more than a decade to learn the exact details of the Riyadh women drivers' story. In 2004, one of the women, Aziza al-Manea, a professor in the women's section of King Saud University, shared her account of the highly controversial story in an interview in the al-Madina daily.

In the early 2000s, women's rights, particularly the right to drive, began to be cautiously discussed in Saudi media. Some newspapers published stories about the daily struggles women faced with foreign drivers and featured Islamic scholars who declared that no religious rule prohibited women from driving. Liberal columnists encouraged the government to lift the ban. This unprecedented freedom in the Saudi press was in part due to the pressure that the United States put on the Saudi government to reform following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. 

In 2005, Shura Council member Mohammad al-Zulfa brought up the topic of lifting the ban of women drivers during a meeting of the consultative body. He argued that doing so would save the kingdom funds that it spends on foreign drivers, which he estimated at over $3 billion a year.

Zulfa's proposal started a heated discussion among Saudis, and encouraged two young Saudi women journalists, Eman al-Qahtani and Asmaa al-Mohammed, to send a letter to the newly formed National Society for Human Rights (NSHR), a human rights organization that now serves as a government watchdog, requesting its help in lifting the ban on women driving. One hundred and two Saudis, a majority of whom were women, signed the letter, which stated that if authorities refused to lift the ban on women who suffer the risks and high salaries of foreign drivers, the women should be compensated.

Saudi hardliners, however, were not prepared to give in so easily. In June 2005, Interior Minister Prince Naif described the lively discussion of the topic as "a controversy which has no meaning.... It looks like some people want to make it an issue but it's not."

However, cracks within the official wall also began to appear. Later that same year, King Abdullah contradicted his half brother in an interview with Barbara Walters. "The day will come when women drive," the king said. "The issue will require patience ... and I believe patience is a virtue."

The Saudi government's focus on the need to gain society's acceptance of women driving has prompted activists to gather petitions showing popular support. On Sept. 23, 2007, the Saudi national day, Saudi women's rights activists Fawzia al-Oyouni and Wajeeha al-Howaider asked Saudis to join them in petitioning King Abdullah to grant them the right to drive. Their petition, which was circulated widely on the Internet, represented the first time that the driving campaign was opened for all citizens to participate, and not constrained to an elite circle of writers and activists.

The petition was signed by 1,100 Saudis, and remains to this day the highest number of citizens ever to petition King Abdullah. It was delivered to the Saudi royal court and, according to the founders of the petition, was welcomed by some Saudi officials. The petition gained unprecedented nation and international media coverage, and its creators were interviewed on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel. 

Women activists have kept up the pressure on the Saudi government in recent years. In March 2008, on International Women's Day, al-Howaider filmed herself driving and called on Prince Naif to lift the ban. She uploaded the video to YouTube, where it now has over 200,000 views.

Rumors have continued to fly that the ban will be lifted soon, but nothing has yet changed on the ground. During Sharif's imprisonment, Deputy Interior Minister Prince Ahmad said that women's driving remains illegal. "A statement was issued in 1990 prohibiting women from driving cars in the Kingdom. The Interior Ministry's task is to implement an order. It is not our job to say something is right or wrong," he told journalists at a press conference in the city of Medina. After two decades of activism, Sharif won't be the last Saudi woman to be arrested for driving -- but she may be one of the last.