Is Southern Sudan's Secession a Solution?

Interview With Denis Hurley Peace Institute Director

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By Mariaelena Finessi

PRETORIA, South Africa, JULY 28, 2010 ( The upcoming Jan. 9 referendum will decide whether southern Sudan will separate from the north and form its own country. But this won’t necessarily solve Sudan’s problems, says John Ashworth.

John Ashworth is the acting director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, which is associated with the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (the director, Father Sean O’Leary, is currently on sabbatical).

The institute was involved in helping the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference prepare a statement regarding the upcoming referendum. The statement, which was released last week at the conclusion of the conference’s extraordinary plenary session, presented what it called a «message of hope and call to action.»

In the statement, the prelates reflect on what both potential outcomes of the referendum could or should mean, and above all, they underline the importance of a nation that respects life and human rights.

Church leaders are also actively conducting seminars to ensure that the people of southern Sudan are informed about the upcoming decision. This referendum was stipulated in a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and government officials, with the aim of ending years of conflict.

In this interview with ZENIT, Ashworth explains more about this agreement, the possible outcomes of the referendum, and the deeper issues at stake.

ZENIT: Could you comment on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement?

Ashworth: It is not comprehensive, as it only deals with one of the conflicts in Sudan — it doesn’t touch Darfur — and it is only between two warring parties, excluding all other political parties and military factions, north and south, as well as civil society.

It is not peace — it is actually a ceasefire with a roadmap towards peace. Of course moving the conflict from the military to the political arena was a great step forward, but the conflict continues.

It is not an agreement — it was signed in 2005 by Khartoum under intense diplomatic pressure.

Southerners view the Comprehensive Peace Agreement almost solely in terms of preparation for the referendum in 2011.

ZENIT: What is the situation for religion in Sudan?*

Ashworth: On a day-to-day level many Christians, Muslims and followers of African traditional religions live side by side without problems.

However, the government of Sudan is an Islamist regime (actually a military dictatorship recently «legitimized» by elections which most people believe to have been less than free and fair) and successive northern governments have had a policy of «Islamization» that has adversely affected non-Muslims.

All statistics in Sudan are suspect, but the religious split is probably around 60% Muslim, 40% non-Muslim. Followers of African traditional religions are still a sizeable minority amongst the non-Muslims.

Of the Christians, the Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopal Church) and Presbyterians are the three largest denominations, with a number of small independent evangelical churches, as well as a few eastern churches.

All of these churches have always worked well together, and the Catholic Church was one of the founding members of the Sudan Council of Churches.

ZENIT: Unity or secession, what do they mean for the people and for politicians? Could a referendum change the humanitarian and economic problems of the country?

Ashworth: The root causes of the conflicts in Sudan are generally agreed to be identity and the center-periphery dynamic.

Sudan is a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual and multi-religious society.

But in practice, one cultural and religious identity, Arab-Islam, has been imposed on everyone, attempting both to assimilate the rest and make them second class citizens.

This has been done by all northern governments, not only the current Islamist regime.

Governance in Sudan, including access to power and resources, is highly centralized at the center, with all peripheral areas being marginalized.

In addition, oil has become a major factor in the conflicts, although it was not one of the original root causes. These problems have never been solved in a united Sudan, so southerners believe that the only solution is secession.

In their own independent state they will not face «Islamization and Arabization,» nor marginalization from the center of power, and they have most of the oil in their territory.

Southern Sudan is already functioning as a state, so for them secession will not be a major change on the ground. It is hoped that the progress will continue and that some of the weaknesses in the government will be challenged.

The churches are rolling out a program of dialogue to assist with this.

The North depends on oil from the South, but it is likely that an amicable solution will be negotiated to allow them to continue to receive oil revenue — the South needs the pipeline in the North to export its oil, and doesn’t want a bankrupt and unstable neighbor.

The war in Darfur is likely to continue — it is not ripe for a solution yet.

Life will probably become more difficult for the Church in the North after secession of the South, as it will continue to live under an oppressive Islamist regime, but it has experienced this often before and no doubt it will survive.

ZENIT: Churches from the rest of Africa have declared their intention to actively participate in mobilizing the people of southern Sudan for the referendum. Is the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference neutral with regard to the result?

Ashworth: As a Church the bishops stand by their latest statement. They analyze the situation in the country, demonstrating some of the pros and cons, and questioning what unity and secession mean, and what are the implications.

Then they urge their people to «choose life.» As individual citizens, of course, each bishop has his own view and knows how he will vote on the day.

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Full text of bishops’ conference statement:

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