Sudan Needs International Action

Sudan Needs International Action

 Distracted by Haiti’s humanitarian catastrophe, by the Afghan war, and by Al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Yemen, the world is doing little or nothing about Sudan. Yet, if left unattended, the looming crisis there could dwarf them all.


The Sudanese problems are simply too big to be left to the Sudanese, or indeed to the Arabs and the Africans. Although there has been talk of convening an African Summit, backed by Egypt and Libya, to discuss Sudan, little has so far come of it. Indeed, the magnitude of the task seems to have bred a feeling of hopelessness.


An international initiative — perhaps led jointly by the United States and China — is urgently required to save Africa’s largest country from renewed civil war and eventual collapse as a unitary state, with disastrous consequences for the stability of much of east and central Africa.


Some observers fear that, if Sudan were to break up, forced exchanges of population and mass killings would follow, with human misery on a vast scale similar to that which followed the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947.


The immediate objective should be an internationally-sponsored conference called to halt the drift towards disaster. This would require considerable arm-twisting by the United States and China, but also by Britain and other European Union members, to bring all the opposing parties to the table.


There is evidently little inclination, however, on the part of the outside world to get involved, even though it is widely recognised that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed between north and south Sudan on 9 January 2005 is in danger of collapse. Many problems which the CPA was meant to address remain unresolved. Meanwhile, both sides are rearming briskly, raising fears that the 22-year north-south war, which the CPA brought to an end five years ago, might now be reignited.


Earlier this month, on the CPA’s fifth anniversary, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Britain’s Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store, issued a joint statement in which they appealed to “all parties in Sudan to come together to work intensely to address the challenges facing their people.” But, in a telling phrase, they washed their hands of the problem. “Ultimately,” they declared, “issues concerning Sudan’s future must be resolved by the Sudanese themselves.”


Of these issues, two overshadow all others: the future of southern Sudan if the CPA were to collapse, and the Darfur civil war which broke out in 2004 in Sudan’s western province bordering Chad, and which continues to rumble on.


In recent years, Darfur has attracted more international attention than the southern problem because of the pitiless violence with which the Khartoum government has sought to crush the rebellion — often using proxy militias such as the janjaweed, who murdered, raped and deported the local population. Between 200,000 and 400,000 people are said to have been killed and 2.5 million displaced.


On 4 March 2009, the International Criminal Court issued an international warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for these atrocities, although the warrant has yet to be executed. The Gulf state of Qatar has led mediation efforts to convince Darfur’s rebel leaders to attend peace talks in Doha with the Sudanese government, but the ICC’s warrant for Bashir’s arrest may have complicated the search for a negotiated solution.


The stakes are far higher in the north-south struggle. President Bashir in Khartoum and President Salva Kiir Mayardit in Juba are warlords with little taste for compromise or reconciliation. They have spent much of their adult life fighting each other, and seem far from ready for peaceful coexistence.


Now aged 66, Omar al-Bashir is a professional soldier who trained in Cairo’s military academy. He fought in the Egyptian army during the 1973 war, before returning to Sudan where he conducted operations against the southern secessionists. In 1989, he seized power in a military coup, overthrowing the elected Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi. Four years later, in 1993, he became President.


Omar al-Bashir’s rule has been marked by his attempt to crush the Darfur rebellion; by a rapprochement with China, anxious to exploit Sudan’s oil resources; by an agreement to give the South autonomy for six years followed by a referendum next January on independence; and by domination of the political scene by Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) — a fiercely Islamist and nationalist body — as the only legally recognized party in the state.


The key questions are these: Will the NCP allow an honest referendum to take place? Will it accept the secession of the South if the population votes for independence? Or will it go to war to prevent it?


Salva Kiir Mayardit, 59, Bashir’s principal opponent and the president of the autonomous southern government, is one of the founders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which fought Khartoum for decades. Following the death of John Garang, the south’s charismatic leader, on 30 July 2005 — less than seven months after the conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — Salva Kiir became president. Garang seemed ready to accept autonomy within a united Sudan, but Salva Kiir is known to favour full independence.


As in Iraq — where Arabs and Kurds fight over the division of oil wealth — so in Sudan, where north and south have yet to reach final agreement on how to share the proceeds from the oil fields of Abyei — a region which lies on the north-south fault-line.


Abyei has been called “Sudan’s Kashmir.” Here the dispute is tribal, ethnic, and often violent. The Dinka Ngok, linked ethnically to the south, are in effective control of Abyei, but they are challenged by an Arab tribe, the Misseriyya, which wants freedom to migrate across the territory each year in search of water and pasture for its herds. Clashes in the last three years have left many dead and tens of thousands displaced.


The West has tended to back the southerners, while China, in its scramble for resources, has armed and backed the Khartoum government. That is why a United States-China entente — and their joint sponsorship of a new conference to resolve outstanding disputes — may be the only way to prevent Sudan collapsing once more into a war, which neither side can win.



Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.


Copyright © 2010 Patrick Seale – (Distributed by Agence Global)