Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

A country designed for failure

Andy Gregg looks at the genocidal war in Darfur and prospects for peace in Sudan.

Until the last few years there has been little interest in the tragedy of Sudan where decades of war are estimated to have killed up to three million people across this vast country the size of western Europe. Now there is growing international interest in the situation in Sudan following the recent peace accords covering the South of the country.

At the same time the genocide in Darfur in the west of Sudan has prodded the international community to threaten dire consequences for the Khartoum Government if they fail to restrain their army and militias from ethnic cleansing, rape and pillage on a massive scale. Needless to say the nature of this interest in the Sudan by the international community is by no means entirely altruistic. Large reserves of oil have been discovered in the disputed south of Sudan and there is an increasing realisation that Sudan occupies a strategic position close to the centre of the fractious Middle East.

For the last few years peace talks about the future status of the southern third of Sudan have been held in Kenya between the Arab-dominated northern Government and the southern SPLA (Sudanese Peoples Liberation Front). There have been many stutters and starts to these talks but recently it has become clear that the tremendous pressure on both sides from the international community (particularly the US and UK) has forced the war- weary counterparts towards an accord which is likely to be signed as early as January 2005. At first sight this is tremendous news if the recently declared ceasefire holds and the country moves towards a more stable future.

In the medium and long term however there are grave doubts about the sustainability of the agreement. Tragically it does not cover the area of Darfur. Other areas outside of the south where serious unrest is endemic including the Nuba Mountains, the Ingessina Hills and areas on the eastern border with Eritrea are also left uncertain. These local conflicts are likely to cause serious problems in the future and may destabilise the main north-south agreement in the coming months. Elements both inside and outside the Government are becoming increasingly hostile to US pressure to restrain their behaviour in Darfur and elsewhere. US involvement could prove counter-productive as it is being seen, both in northern Sudan and throughout the middle east, as further evidence of US bias against Arab or Muslim states.

In reality, instead of involving all the combatants and factions in both north and south Sudan, the accords are effectively an agreement between John Garang (the leader of the SPLA) and the Khartoum Government led by Omar Bashir. Garang’s Dinka people dominate the SPLA and other tribes (especially the Nuer) feel excluded both from the deliberations that led up to the agreement and the benefits that are expected to flow from it. The southern Sudanese liberation movement has been bedevilled with factionalism and tribal conflict and the fact that so many ethnic groups, armed militias and political organisations already feel excluded from the accords does not bode well.

Equally the northern government does not represent the many different ethnic groups and factions in the North being largely made up of an elite of urban and Riverine Arabs A number of political parties in northern Sudan and many of the fundamentalist groups feel betrayed by the agreement which will no longer presumes that Muslim law will prevail throughout Sudan. Under the accords, Garang is expecting to be Vice President of the whole of Sudan and to be based in Khartoum. It is uncertain whether he will be able to carry any legitimacy in the north against whom he has been fighting for so many years.

There have been serious concerns about his human rights record as leader of the SPLA. The government also has an appalling record in this area and continues to cast a blind eye to the annual enslavement of many thousands of southerners by northern Arab raiders.

The agreement proposes a more equal distribution of the proceeds of the oilfields in the South – but it is quite unclear as to how this is to be done and the government continues to encourage the ethnic cleansing of the Nuer and other tribes from around the main oilfields at Bentiu. The proposals also envisage a referendum in six years time which would allow the South to achieve a measure of independence. The history of other similar agreements in Africa casts doubt on whether the north would ever actually agree to secession of the southern provinces from the Sudanese state by means of a peaceful and transparent referendum.

In truth Sudan is a country that could have been designed for failure

Meanwhile Darfur continues to suffer appalling turmoil with millions of people displaced either within Sudan or over the border into Chad. The effect of the huge focus of aid and international concern away from Sudan and onto the tsunami hit areas of the Indian ocean are allowing the government to continue to create unalterable ‘facts on the ground’. Many months of ethnic cleansing and genocide of the three major non Arab tribes in Darfur have made their return to burnt out villages almost impossible. In addition the Darfur situation is exacerbated by environmental factors such as the increasing desertification of the area which has forced the semi nomadic Arabs south into the more fertile and agrarian parts of Darfur whose settled population they have now largely displaced.

There is a long history of racism and slavery that many Arab Sudanese take for granted or actively perpetuate. Southern (and largely Christian) black Africans as well as those Muslims from non-Arab tribes are commonly referred to as slaves and sometimes literally treated as such. There is almost complete denial by the Government and many northern Sudanese that there is any real problem taking place in Darfur or elsewhere in Sudan. Many are convinced that this is nothing but a conspiracy by the US to destabilise or subvert another Muslim state where oil has been discovered.

In this context, US heavy handedness and overtly Christian-related aid interventions are in danger of causing more harm then good. Although the tiny African Union monitoring force that is now in Darfur is clearly unable to impose order on an area larger than France, it is a start.

The Bush Government’s recent draconian Sudan Peace Act which calls for comprehensive sanctions on Sudan is seen as threatening and pre-emptive throughout the region. Rather than taking a unilateral and aggressive stance the US would do well to seek to strengthen emerging regional and international approaches to conflict resolution through such avenues as the UN and the AU. These are less likely to be seen to be partial and will also build the capacity of these emerging institutions to deal with other conflict areas in the region as they occur.

Under Bush there is little evidence of such subtlety and sensitivity. Of course there are serious problems facing the UN approach. Recent attempts to censure the Sudanese Government over Darfur at the Security Council have been effectively wrecked by the Chinese. It is no surprise that the Chinese have extensive trading links with Sudan and in particular have one of the largest stakes in the oilfields in the South.

Between 1991 and 1996 Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan and was running training camps for ‘jihadis’ from all over the middle east and beyond with the active connivance of the then Government under its fundamentalist leader Hassan al Turabi. Although Turabi has been removed from his position of power the Government remains largely fundamentalist under General Omar Bashir. Many of the forces that support such militant and dangerous Islamism are still close to the surface in Sudanese society and could be stoked into flames again if the US (and its UK sidekick) is seen to be too prominent in forcing a new dispensation throughout Sudan.

It is therefore imperative that attempts to broker a ceasefire and improve the situation in Darfur as well as monitor the north-south accords are seen to be led firmly by the UN and the African Union rather than the US and the UK. The next few months will see whether the many forces arraigned against it have the ability to undermine the peace agreement, further inflame the situation in Darfur and elsewhere and consign the largest country in Africa to replay its relentless history of war, famine and genocide.