That Other CPA Exercise: Popular Consultations

As South Sudan’s referendum kicks into gear and Abyei’s does not, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states’ popular consultations – another important component of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement – are slowly moving forward. Unlike the referenda, popular consultations have largely remained out of the international and media spotlight despite the significance the exercise holds for not only the two states and their residents, but for what will likely be a new northern state overall.

In addition to the more widely discussed issues between the North, South, and Abyei, the 2005 CPA established a settlement specifically between the Sudanese government and Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, states whose populations were heavily involved in the North-South civil war. The settlement, in brief, devolved a degree of political power and wealth to the two states, including calling for elections and promising funding from the central government for development. Popular consultations would allow populations of the two states to decide whether that agreement is sufficiently addressing their grievances. If given the people’s stamp of approval, the agreement in the CPA is final; if not, state authorities and the central government have to negotiate a new agreement. To add to the complexity of this process, these consultations are indirect—the state assemblies are the ones who ultimately deliver judgment on whether the agreement is sufficient, after consulting with the population via popular consultation commissions.

Considerable civic education has taken place in both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile to inform the populations of what exactly these consultations are and to temper expectations of what the consultations can accomplish—focus groups conducted by NDI in 2008 indicated that some residents believed the exercise offers a path to self-determination. In Blue Nile, the consultation process began on September 18 with the appointment of the popular consultation commission—but there have been hiccups since then. A major issue appeared to be the impracticality of the budget that was proposed by the commission. A revised budget has since been forwarded and should facilitate progress, but experts say it appears unlikely the consultation process will be completed before the end of the year.

In Southern Kordofan, consultations will likely not take place until after the CPA interim period. State-level elections did not occur alongside nationwide elections in April because the state opted to redo its census, which was implemented this past June. The results of the census were released last month, but the National Election Commission’s tentative date for the election is set for early next April. Whether this lengthy timeline was determined by electoral logistics, or the fact that significant attention and resources will be focused on the southern referendum, or a lack of political will—or a combination of these factors—is unclear.

What is clear is the important precedent that successful consultations could establish for improved center-periphery relations in the North, which would contribute to stability not only for the two border states but for Sudan as a whole. In a report on why popular consultations matter, USIP’s Jason Gluck argues that the exercise is not only a step away from the bipolar, NCP versus SPLM, system that has largely excluded voices in between or outside the two parties in Sudan, but is a litmus test for the degree of power and wealth-sharing that the NCP may be able to stomach with discontented constituencies in the future. He says of the consultations:

"It is the first opportunity to identify, examine, and negotiate post 2011 governance structures for Sudan, which, in the event of southern secession, might then be expanded to apply to the entire north through a constitutional review—or, if the south chooses unity, to all Sudan. (…) GoS willingness to discuss these issues and entertain genuine devolution might indicate the government’s likely response to similar demands from other conflict areas in Sudan; most notably in Darfur where the ongoing turmoil and violence has already led to calls for greater self-rule."

Though consumed with the many things to do before January 9, international actors with an eye to the long-term stability of Sudan would do well to recognize the opportunity that successful and inclusive popular consultations presents, as well as the consequences and likely instability that a failed process may bring.

Photo: Governor of Southern Kordofan, Ahmed Harun (AP)