KHARTOUM, Sudan — Where the Blue and White Nile collide, Sudan's capital city juts into the open horizon, its modern high-rise buildings concealing a bustling six-lane highway below.
It's a downtown built on the fumes of an oil boom, but the skyline quickly fades into the city's wide sprawl, where most of the more than 5 million residents live. Office compounds fall into run-down residential neighborhoods, which then slump into African slums.
In some ways, Khartoum is a shrunken version of the country itself. The center of Sudan's economic and political power, the capital region is surrounded by the vast and diverse hinterlands of Africa's largest nation, poor and undeveloped.
The result often has been bloody, a formula which seems to have finally pushed the country to its demise: Sunday, southern Sudanese head to the polls in a long-awaited referendum expected to result in the south's separation from the rest of Sudan to form a new country.
Deep grievances are visible. More than 700 miles away in the southern capital city, Juba, there are no skyscrapers, or even a distinguishable downtown, a product of years of war with Sudan's far-away rulers. Rain plunges the city into mud and fetid muck, and most residents still rely on private generators for electricity.
The international community has focused heavily on aid to southern Sudan, and many wonder if a region so far behind the rest of the world and with its legacy of monumental violence can survive as a modern state.
Yet southern Sudan will not be the only new state formed by its secession. The north too, will have drastically new geographical and political boundaries. And these battered remains of Sudan's north will continue to be led by a government responsible for some of the worst humanitarian abuses of the past few decades.
It is an unsettling thought for many northern Sudanese and others concerned by the fate of those in Darfur and worried that the north's murderous history might reignite.
"The problem of Sudan will not be solved by southern secession," says Hafiz Mohammed, the director of human rights group Justice Africa-Sudan. "Other problem areas remain, and nothing in the center has changed."
"There will be no freedoms in the north because things will be like the old times," predicted Mohammed Musa Ali, a 23-year old student in Khartoum.
Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al Bashir, won popular presidential elections in April, but the polls are widely thought to have been heavily rigged in his party's favor. He does have large segments of tacit support, a concession to years of an oil boom, which now accounts for roughly 60 percent of Sudan's total income.
But most of that oil was found in the south, leaving northern Sudan's future looking bleak as southern secession looms. A recession caused in part by the global economic crisis is already felt on the streets, and could only worsen.
"We are suffering every day, and things will get worse by the time the south goes," said Yagub Younis, a 50-year-old businessman who once had dreams of expanding his operations in the south.
Already, the full weight of the economic crisis is dawning. This past week, the Sudanese parliament passed a series of austerity measures, including a 25 percent pay cut for those in senior government positions and broad cutbacks in state subsidies.
If the economy stumbles, Bashir's grip might become more tenuous, lacking the funds to both maintain his massive state security apparatus and keep a puttering economy moving.
"Secession will certainly shock Sudan's political arena, particularly in Khartoum," said Zach Vertin, a Sudan analyst for the conflict-monitoring International Crisis Group. "While it seems unlikely the NCP (National Congress Party) would be dislodged in the near-term, the party does feel threatened, its political and economic future uncertain."
Opposition parties are circling overhead, smelling blood. They have called for an interim national government in case of southern secession to forge a new constitution, tackle the economic and political crises, and solve Darfur.
"If they don't do that, we will work to remove them," said Farouq Abu Eissa, a spokesman for the National Consensus Alliance, the coalition of Sudan's political opposition parties. "We are mobilizing our forces."
If the opposition parties have the muscle they boast, they're not flexing it. They loudly boycotted the April elections, but the mass street protests they promised never materialized.
Most of the opposition also quickly dismiss one of Sudan's most powerful political tools, armed uprising — but not all. When the north-south civil war ended, some of the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement got stuck on the northern side, now a strong opposition base.
In the Blue Nile and southern Kordofan states along the southern border, SPLM's grip is especially strong.
"If the NCP denies democratic space, then they will force others to consider other options. And then it will be their problem to deal with," said Yasir Arman, the head of SPLM in the north, and Bashir's main challenger in last year's presidential polls.
"SPLM forces in the north are more than all those of Darfur put together," he warned.
Yet it's unclear how the NCP will react to the new political dynamic of a north-only state. By letting the south go, Bashir is proving a political survivor and a pragmatist. But his authoritarian rule isn't likely to subside any time soon.
Vertin, of the International Crisis Group, said that while it's possible the NCP may move to ease tensions through political accommodation, "as we've seen in the past, the NCP tends to respond in times of threat by closing political space, clamping down on opposition, and tightening its grip on security."
Bashir's messages have been mixed. In a speech last month, he declared that northern Sudan would move to a fully Islamic state under Sharia law. He then rejected the opposition call for an interim government, only to make an appeal for a "broad-based" government just a few days later.
The opposition groups denounced his Islamic comments as a foreshadowing of an undemocratic and dictatorial future, a claim his party denies.
"Islam is different than the concept that Americans and Europeans have. It is not about punishments. We believe that Islam is a code of life," said Rabi Abdel-Atti, a senior NCP communications official.
One key test of Sudan's future: April elections in Southern Kordofan, postponed from last year in a region where SPLM is running strongly for governor.
Another is Darfur, where a simmering low-level conflict has escalated in recent months due to a government military campaign to try to weaken the rebel groups on the ground.
Not all are convinced Sudan's problems will necessarily lead to more violence.
"There is a dynamic of change, but it is evolutional, not revolutionary," said Hassan Maki, the vice chancellor of African International University in Khartoum. "Change will be gradual."
"If the people want changes, that is possible. But it needs too much work and courage, and I don't think that is going happen soon in the north," said Musa, the student.
In the dusty air of Khartoum streets, where men in white robes sit quietly selling dates and nuts, the city seems doused more than anything in a silent resignation, rooted in an uncertain future.
Yagub Younis, the businessman, fears for his children. "Most countries go forward. But here in Sudan, we are going backwards."
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is supported in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based human rights foundation.)
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