South Sudan will want to strengthen ties with sub-Saharan Africa, the West and beyond after its expected secession, but will have to tread carefully if it wants to avoid antagonising its old rulers in Khartoum.
People from the oil-producing south on Tuesday started their third day of voting in a referendum on whether they should declare independence. Even hard-line unionists in the north now accept they will choose to split Sudan in two.
Once that happens, the most important economic and diplomatic relationship for an independent south Sudan will remain with Khartoum — the south’s economy is almost entirely dependent on oil and its only pipelines snake across the north, Reuters reports.
But the south’s more natural allies, with shared cultural and religious links, will lie in non-Arab Africa, most obviously its neighbours to the south Kenya and Uganda.
Sudan’s first challenge will be to find ways of building on those relationships — and stepping up trade and aid from the West and other international allies — without jeopardising its pipeline link to the Red Sea.
That may not be easy. Khartoum is already rumbling.
“Our main fear is that they (south Sudan) may host some enemies of Sudan,” Ibrahim Ghandour, a senior member of the north’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) told Reuters.
“We already know about Israel which sees Sudan as one of its enemies. We know of its role in the south. We can also see the agenda of (President Yoweri) Museveni of Uganda. Museveni himself worked in a very clear and structured way to separate the south … so that he can take its natural resources.”
Khartoum’s distrust has its roots in cultural divisions the north-south civil war that ended in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that set up the referendum.
Historians say Israel supported southern rebels from as far back as the late 1960s, when the north stepped up support of Arab causes in the wake of the Arab-Israeli war.
Southern Sudanese politicians have been coy about Israeli plans. Khartoum’s paranoia will be fed by commentary on Sudan’s referendum that has begun to appear in Israeli newspapers.
“Israel … is likely to set up formal diplomatic relations with the South, no small matter (senior figures in the Juba government have voiced desire for this over the past year),” wrote Yoel Guzansky, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv University, in the Hayom daily on Monday.
There are more concrete plans with Uganda which has long been a southern ally and a base for its rebels and refugees.
Last month Museveni met south Sudan’s president Salva Kiir and discussed the possibility of building hydro-electric power stations on the southern stretch of the White Nile.
Details were vague but the possibility of conflict was clear. Sudan and northern neighbour Egypt are locked in a dispute with other Nile-side nations about how to share out the river’s resources. Analysts say Cairo and Khartoum worry that the south might choose to support the upstream countries.
“The issue of the Nile Basin is going to be critical for us. Forty-five percent of the Nile basin is in South Sudan,” said Luka Biong, a senior official in the south’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
“Whether the south can have a strategic position in building a new consensus between the northern and southern countries of the basin is going to be very important.”
Other links could spark tensions. Kenya is seeking investors to fund its $22 billion share of a planned transport corridor connecting Ethiopia and Sudan to the Kenyan coast including a 1,400 km pipeline.
Such a pipeline would take years to construct but, once built, would redirect the south’s lucrative crude away from the north’s infrastructure, depriving Khartoum of fees and any chance of revenue sharing.
From Khartoum’s perspective, an even worse threat than Israel and East Africa’s pipeline plans is The International Criminal Court, which has issued arrest warrants for Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir accusing him of orchestrating genocide during the country’s Darfur conflict.
The south might be tempted to earn points from the West by joining 31 other African countries as a court member. But that act — which would commit it to arresting Bashir on its territory — would probably be a step too far, say analysts.
“South Sudan might take the view that signing up to the Rome Statute might invite more trouble at the time being –in relations with the North,” said London School of Economics fellow Mareike Schomerus.
Those relations with the north remain central. In a doomsday scenario, the north, if crossed, could simply turn off the south’s oil flow. The south already accused Khartoum of sending proxy militias into its territory.
Not that it has to get to that stage. “The south’s most important relationship will be with the north,” said Yasir Arman, a northern member of the south’s dominant SPLM.
“The north and south will share a border of more than 2,000 km with 9 million nomads regularly crossing it from the north and 4 million nomads crossing from the south. It will be a people’s border, a border of interaction.”