Signs of hope or another false dawn?

by

After the independence of South Sudan last July thousands of people of southern origin were left living in a foreign country with their rights uncertain. When I arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, a week ago, I learned that in the previous 24hrs two framework agreements had been signed between the Governments of Sudan and South Sudan, in respect of two of the issues outstanding from the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). These relate to the demarcation of the border between the two countries and the rights granted to each state with respect to each others’ citizens residing in their states. Although these are still both frameworks, which will not become law until signed by both Heads of State, they are seen as a small step forward in repairing the poor relations that exist between the two entities formed by the division of what had been Africa’s largest country in July last year.

The new framework relating to the status of citizens allows four freedoms: freedom of residence; freedom of movement; freedom to acquire and dispose of property; and freedom to engage in economic activity. Prior to this announcement, all Southerners living in Sudan would have had to register as foreigners by April 8th and would have been treated as aliens. This framework appears to reduce the pressure on them and at least gives them more room for negotiating their status. There are reported to be around 700,000 people in Sudan whose roots lie in the south and who wish to return there, but the logistical constraints prevent all but a small proportion of this number making the journey before the April 8th deadline.  

This particular issue is of great importance to CAFOD’s partner, the Catholic Church in Sudan. The vast majority of Southern Sudanese living in Sudan are Christians and as long as their status in Sudan remains unclear, so does that of the Church.  There was a fear that without some further elaboration by the government, there would be a danger of harsh measures taken by both authorities and citizens against the newly declared foreign nationals who live in the north. Although there is no date yet specified for the signing – it will be “sometime in the very near future” – they do indicate that there is some give and take still possible. On the down side, however, it is not entirely clear if the term “economic activity” also includes the right of employment or if it only applies to self-employed business people. Nor is there any mention of the right to freedom of religion or worship, which may lead to further discrimination against non-Moslems. While the broad principles of these two treaties have to be commended, the details in the small print such may determine their success or failure.

Negotiations on these issues are being led by the Africa Union, under the Chairmanship of former South African President Thabo Mbeki. There is a myriad of other problems in the two Sudans which still need to be resolved: sharing of oil revenues, the status of the disputed region of Abyei as well as the fighting and resultant humanitarian crises in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. It is laudable that the AU has stepped up to the mark and is prepared to stick with the negotiating process, despite both of the Sudanese parties coming with entrenched and intractable positions. Perhaps the achievements of these frameworks are a sign of hope and that the governments in both Khartoum and Juba realise that, as neighbours, they need to find ways of getting along better with each other. Years of accumulated prejudice on both sides has to be overcome, but overcome it must be, if citizens of the two states are going to achieve any sense of economic or political development. Probably nowhere else does the oft-repeated African proverb “when two elephants fight, it is only the grass that suffers” apply more appropriately.

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