STRASBOURG – In the 1990’s, the world averted its eyes to genocide in Rwanda, and to the “Great Lakes War” in eastern Congo, which claimed upward of five million lives – the most in any war since World War II. Will such silence and neglect prevail again if civil war is renewed in Sudan?
The peace deal struck in Naivasha, Kenya in 2005 between Sudan’s government and rebels from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) committed both sides, at war for most of the previous 50 years, to work for unity. But, as the so-called Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) reaches its climax, the SPLM, based in the autonomous region of South Sudan, has abandoned all pretense that unity with the North and the government in Khartoum is either possible or desirable.
A referendum scheduled for January 9 will give voters in the South the opportunity to create their own sovereign state. A separate but simultaneous vote in the oil-rich province of Abyei will allow voters to choose if they want to join the North or South.
The artificial fusion of the mainly Arab, Muslim north of Sudan and the African south, where Christianity and traditional animist beliefs are predominant, has been an abject failure. Since Sudan won independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, the country has been convulsed by almost constant civil war based on the north-south cultural and religious divide. Matters were subsequently complicated by a separate conflict – this time between Muslims – over resources in the western Darfur region.
If the non-Muslim South had gained at independence a large degree of religious, cultural, and administrative autonomy within a devolved federal structure, it is conceivable that the country could have remained at peace. But the South gained these freedoms only in 2005, with the CPA, and only after a huge and bloody conflict.
For most of the previous half-century, the North sought relentlessly to impose its will on the South. Southerners were subject to systematic and institutionalized marginalization. Islamization was the main tool of repression, in particular the imposition of Sharia law. More than two million people were killed in the second Sudanese civil war alone, which broke out in 1983 (essentially continuing the first war, which ended in 1972). Millions more became refugees.
Few places on earth are poorer and more destitute than southern Sudan. In most places, infrastructure is non-existent and millions of unexploded landmines litter the soil. But the South was never conquered, and its army, the SPLA, twice fought the North to a standstill.
The case for South Sudan’s independence is bolstered by the fact that it would be economically sustainable. Some 80% of Sudan’s oil is in the South, and the country’s vast swaths of fertile, naturally irrigated land hold much promise for commercial agriculture. South Sudan’s mineral wealth could also be substantial, though no one knows because exploration has been impossible for so long.
All polls suggest that, given the choice in a free, fair, and well-organized referendum, southerners will vote overwhelmingly for independence. But the run-up to the plebiscite has been fraught, with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in Darfur, seeking to delay, disrupt, and overshadow it.
The North has been orchestrating a series of small-scale military strikes on South Sudanese territory in the past few months. It is also suspected of drilling horizontally into the South’s oil fields, in defiance of the CPA. And the SPLM fears that Bashir would use a vote in favor of independence in the south as justification to resume all-out war.
War, however, is in no one’s interests, not even Bashir’s. After all, he relies on oil for government revenue, and, according to recent leaks, is allegedly accumulating a massive personal fortune overseas. Bashir knows the tenacity and persistence of the SPLA. But if the SPLA ends up controlling or shutting down most of Sudan’s oil resources, the North could end up with nothing.
Renewed conflict could also drag in the United States (supporting the South) and China (Bashir’s key international backer) into a dangerous and potentially escalating proxy conflict of the kind that was common in Africa throughout the Cold War. China has been investing heavily recently in neighboring Ethiopia in the hope of buying neutrality from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in the event of war, though the government in Addis Ababa is more likely to side with its Christian co-religionists in the South.
It is the prospect of a proxy war that makes all the unsettled issues – the division of oil revenue, the demarcation of the border, and the fate of the adjoining Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region – so potentially explosive. But, proxy war or not, this almost unprecedented redrawing of Africa’s colonial borders (Eritrea two decades ago was the last example) could have profound consequences for the continent’s future.
An independent South Sudan would force the West to confront established orthodoxies about Africa, in particular the belief that countries like Somalia and Nigeria are more stable whole than they would be in two or more constituent parts. Indeed, an independent South Sudan is expected to grant diplomatic recognition to Somaliland, the successful and stable former British protectorate that has had de facto independence from the rest of Somalia since 1991.
As Sudan’s referendum approaches, the world holds its breath. Undoubtedly, South Sudan would face colossal challenges as a sovereign state, but the alternative – an inevitable return to war – would be incalculably worse, both for Sudan and for Africa. The people of South Sudan now have a chance finally to decide their own destiny. For them, and for the cause of lasting peace in the region, that could be an immensely valuable start to the new year.