x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Will a war criminal govern new Sudan's key border state?

The Sudanese border town of Southern Kordofan will play a key part in the political stability of the newly-divided country.

In the key border state of Southern Kordofan, voters tomorrow are expected to elect a man who is charged with crimes against humanity. In a state that will be crucial to relations between Sudan and the soon-to-be independent South Sudan, Ahmad Muhammed Harun has a record that hardly inspires.

Charged with 51 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his actions in Darfur, Mr Harun might seem an odd choice for a political leader. But another of Sudan's leaders has gloried in the charges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) - that man is no less than the country's president, Omar al Bashir.

Also wanted by the Hague for his role in Darfur, Mr al Bashir was elected with 68 per cent of the vote in April 2010, although at the time some observers criticised the process for intimidation and gerrymandering. Mr Harun, as a front-runner in Southern Kordofan's race, now has the chance to join his president and political ally in a very small but growing club of democratically elected leaders who are also alleged international war criminals.

Southern Kordofan is one of the most important places for those concerned with what will be the world's newest international boundary. It is northern Sudan's last frontier bordering South Sudan, which is scheduled to realise its independence on July 9.

With a population of 2.5 million, Southern Kordofan is a microcosm of Sudan's many problems. During the north-south civil war, the state became one of the principal battle fronts, creating a legacy that continues to scar the region.

The state borders Darfur and periodically suffers from conflict spilling over. It is central to the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Sudan's pastoralists who migrate across the region seasonally seeking grazing land. It is also home to an identity crisis, split between the Arabised Misseriya and Hawazma tribes and the Nuba peoples, who identify as ethnically African. It neighbours three of the south's most volatile states - Unity, Upper Nile and northern Bahr el Ghazal, as well as the flashpoint Abyei region. While most of Sudan's oil is in the south, a large portion of the oil infrastructure and the north's reserves sit in Southern Kordofan.

Over continuing disputes, the Kordofan elections had been delayed for more than a year after the rest of Sudan's state and national elections.

Some of these fears are par for the course. There are concerns that Mr Harun's ruling National Congress Party will stop at nothing to ensure control of the governorship and legislature in Southern Kordofan. Other political parties, including the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), have protested against what they allege is the manipulation of the electoral process and gerrymandering. The SPLM is both a junior partner in the Khartoum government and the dominant party in the south. Many are also worried about how voter registration was conducted.

There may be some merit to their claims, but little evidence has so far emerged to support the accusations. What is certain, however, is that serious mistrust exists on all sides, and that popular confidence in the process is low.

Of course, Southern Kordofanis could vote for any of the candidates in the race. Candidates include the state's deputy governor, Abdulaziz Adam al Hilu of the SPLM, and an independent, Telefon Kuku Abu Jalha. Mr al Hilu seems to have some support of other parties that have withdrawn their own competitors. But Mr Harun is the definite front-runner.

A lawyer, Mr Harun was formerly a minister of state in the much-feared Sudanese ministry of humanitarian affairs. From 2003 until 2005, he led the Darfur security desk, allegedly directing counterinsurgency operations against suspected rebel sympathisers. As a result of his involvement in Darfur, the ICC issued an arrest warrant in April 2007. Despite this, he retains his popularity as a governor. In cooperation with Mr al Hilu, he has established a degree of stability by resolving some of the state's security crises.

Rumours persist that no matter what the outcome of the vote is, the key rivals, Mr Harun and Mr al Hilu, will continue with their collaboration. Whoever emerges victorious will guide Southern Kordofan through Sudan's break-up, the first migration season after the south's independence and continuing divisions in the Abyei region.

On top of this, in recognition of its special status within the north's sphere of control, Southern Kordofan is obliged to conduct a popular consultation of its citizens to determine whether the north-south peace agreement has met the aspirations of the people. The state is also required to resolve outstanding concerns related to the agreement's implementation.

The timetable to resolve these issues is urgent. But what gives more cause for concern is that there is little desire in Khartoum to grant significant concessions after the vote. As with Abyei and Darfur, Southern Kordofan is an area that will not just go away.

As with Abyei and Darfur, Southern Kordofan is an area that will not just go away, even as the focus on South Sudan's internal security problems mounts.

The south's departure highlights the importance of a secure and free Southern Kordofan, if this state is not to destabilise both sides of what will soon be Africa's longest border.


Aly Verjee is senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute, specialising in the politics of eastern Africa