The expected breakup of Sudan after two regional referenda on Jan. 9 brought its two neighboring rulers, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, to Khartoum Tuesday, December 21. They came together to hold talks with Sudanese President Omar Bashir and President Silva Kiir Myardit of the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan – but their agendas could not have been more different.
Egyptian officials said the two rulers both offered their support to Bashir and Kiir whatever the outcome of the referenda. Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit reported later that both Mubarak and Qaddafi emphasized the importance of the North and South cooperating for the sake of their common interests – even if the latter voted for independence.
But, behind the closed doors, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources disclose, Mubarak and Qaddafi tried unsuccessfully to persuade the two Sudanese leaders to reschedule the referenda in the interests of the Sudanese nation and Arab unity.
The referenda were mandated by the 2005 peace accord which ended two decades of civil war between Northern Sudan and the South, the second drawn-out conflict bedeviling the two segments of Sudan since it attained independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956. But Bashir and Kiier, though divergent on most other things, stood fast on this one point: The Egyptian and Libyan rulers were too late. The referendum could not be postponed without setting off riots in both the North and South and reigniting armed confrontation between the two parts of Sudan much sooner than even the pessimists were forecasting.
Mubarak cares about water; Qaddafi, oil
The two Sudanese leaders were able to present their visitors with a united front because of an advance tip-off about the deep differences dividing Mubarak and Qaddafi on why they wanted the referenda postponed: Cairo is anxious for a deal to come first on the future political format of fragmented Sudan and how it would affect the distribution of Nile waters; Tripoli, for its part, objects to the rise of another African oil power in the South, which would, moreover, be Christian not Muslim.
Mubarak tried to find out in Khartoum about whether the post-referendum Sudanese state was to be a federation of two or three states or some other form of association. The answer is buried in a host of uncertainties.
The vote in the South is set to approve this oil-rich region's secession from the North. A separate vote in the Abyei region on the same day will decide whether its inhabitants stay with the North with special administrative status, opt for self-determination or become part of Southern Sudan – irrespective of the results of the South's own referendum. A negotiated settlement might split Abyei between North and South opening up a whole new hornets' nest on the new borderline.
Concern about Abyei generated a UN Security Council statement on Dec. 16, approved by all its 15 members, warning of the danger of turmoil in the absence of an agreement on its future.
However the referenda turn out, Egypt cannot conceive of any digression from its quota of 86 percent of Nile waters. For Cairo, this has never been open to question since 1929, when Great Britain signed an agreement on behalf of its colonies of Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania giving Egypt “full utilization" of the waters of the world's second longest river (6,695 kilometers long from Burundi to the Egyptian Mediterranean).
From the days of the Pharaohs, Egypt has claimed the Nile as the source of its life and civilization. The rich black sediment it throws up provides its population (of 80 million) with food in the desert.
The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement signed by Sudan and Egypt, confirming this accord, denied the river's seven upstream African countries the right to use Nile waters without the agreement of the river's two major powers.
The two tributaries of the Nile merge near Khartoum as the great river runs north into Egypt. But further south, the White Nile flows out of Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, draining an area of 1,293,000 square kilometers. Seven governments of the poorest countries in the world, led by Ethiopia, are questioning the legality of the two historical accords.
Secession would leave the oil in Christian hands
Qaddafi is less interested in the disposition of Egypt's River of Life than he is on the impact of Sudan's breakup on its fuel resources and the status of the Muslim North. The predominantly Christian and pagan South Sudan and Abyei combined would become Africa's third oil power and a challenge to Libya after Nigeria.
The South has its hand on 85 percent of the country's oil reserves and produces more than 85 percent of its energy output.
Abyei's oil resources are dwindling but the Greater Nile Oil Pipeline passes through its territory from Heglig oil field bordering on the oil fields of the South and Unity, to Port Sudan on the Red Sea via Khartoum. It carries most of Sudan's oil exports to market.
The two provinces' secession and union would undercut the importance of the Muslim North and its radical Islamic regime. Qaddafi has therefore sent secret agents into Abyei in the last few months to incite the Muslim population against Silva Kiir, president of South Sudan. They found it hard to promote their mission because most of the Muslim tribes are nomadic and move constantly between Abyei and the south.
Furthermore, Bashir has been accused of trying to counter the pro-secessionist vote by pumping Arab Misseriya groups into the area to outweigh the native Ngok Dinka tribes.
Bashir threatens to impose Sharia law
These complexities are further compounded by additional complications:
1. The radical President Bashar, who has formed an alliance with Iran – just as he harbored Osama bin Laden and his forces in the mid-1990s – informed Mubarak and Qaddafi that if the South votes for separation from Khartoum, he will respond with an immediate exercise of Sharia law in the North.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that the three million southern Christians living in the North would automatically become undesirable infidels sentenced to expulsion from Muslim soil. Bashir is therefore brandishing the threat to inundate the nascent Southern state with a flood of refugees, which Silva Kiir would treat as a hostile step. The Darfur crisis would pale in comparison with the brutalities of a revived North-South conflict.
2. The Nile dispute extends far beyond Sudan and is heating up. A more equitable redistribution of its waters is demanded by Uganda, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi with Ethiopia's leader Meles Zenawi in the forefront of the movement. He has got them to sign a Cooperative Framework Agreement for the redistribution of Nile waters amongst themselves – without including Egypt. While this effort has not produced practical steps, Cairo regards the very existence of such a document as a threat to its survival perilous enough to warrant going to war.
The Nile dispute could bring eight African nations to blows
When the Ethiopian ruler heard a hint of this possibility, he remarked at the end of November, "I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don't think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that."
Zenawi substantiates his claim on the following grounds:
One: The largest Nile tributary, the Blue Nile, runs through Ethiopia, which feeds the River Nile with more than two-thirds of its running water and fertile soil.
Two: Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, expanding from 66 million in 2002 to an estimated 113 million by 2025.
Three: To offset extreme conditions of famine and drought, Ethiopia has already been forced to build five giant dams on the Nile in the last decade.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reports that the arguments coming from Addis Ababa in support of the demand for a larger portion of Nile waters were at first received in Cairo with cautious dismay.
When Zenawi stuck to his guns and continued to pursue the case with fellow African leaders, Egypt issued a statement earlier this month stressing that in the absence of a solution of the dispute, Cairo would exercise its right to resort to international law to protect its "historical rights as defined by international agreements."
This statement was taken to mean that Egypt felt entitled by international law to defend its right to Nile waters – even by force, if necessary.