Sudan faces destabilization despite recent improvement in its image

Under the terms of a peace agreement signed in 2005 between Northern and Southern Sudan, the latter is expected to vote for secession in a referendum in 2011. But the traditional competition between nomadic groups in the South for the best cattle and grazing land has developed into a serious ethnic conflict in recent months, so the region could be too unstable to hold either the elections due next year or the referendum. Moreover, the tendency of the warring tribes’ leaders to blame the northern government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for providing the arms they use against each other might lead to the resumption of the civil war that ended in 2005 with the peace accord. Northern Sudan itself is being disrupted by the war in the Western region of Darfur, which is being exploited by the country’s enemies –” including the West and the UN –” to secure total independence for the Christian and animist southern region, and to weaken the predominantly Muslim north.

That Africa’s largest country, which is the home of various religious and ethnic groups, is the scene of unrest and violence because of those divisions is not surprising, though their intensity and longevity is attributable to external intervention. Nearly three quarters of Sudan’s people are Muslims. Most live in Northern and Central Sudan, while most people in the South of Sudan practise traditional African religions. Only about 5 percent of all Sudanese, almost all of them southerners, are Christians. By contrast, the vast majority in the North regard themselves as Sunni Muslims and Arabs, which explains why there is no serious ethnic or religious conflict in the North.

In the South, which constitutes a third of the country by area, the people belong to several ethnic groups, speak a number of distinct languages, and mostly follow traditional African religions, with only a small minority classified as Christians. Culturally, most Sudanese also maintain close ties to their family and ethnic groups. All this explains why ethnic and religious conflict has prevailed in the South over the years, and why in recent months clashes between the various groups have been increasing. It also makes nonsense of the claim by those responsible for the external intervention in Sudan’s affairs that the south is Christian and united, and therefore is entitled to secure its independence from the Muslim North on that basis.

A recent example of the surging attacks –” even between subdivisions of the same ethnic group –” occurred in April, when one group of Nuer attacked another, slaughtering 71 people in the village of Torjek. The Nuer targeted a cattle-camp occupied by women and children from the Jikany group, killing and injuring many and driving the rest out. The attackers drove the older children into the river, where they drowned, and then confiscated the cattle and other goods in the town.

In another attack on April 14, which endangers the South’s fragile peace deal, Jikany Nuer tribesmen ambushed boats carrying UN food aid to the town of Akoboin in southeast Sudan. The food was being shipped to another starving Nuer tribe, and strategically the attack made little sense. At least 40 guardsmen belonging to the former rebel-group of the south –” the Southern Sudan Liberation Army, now employed as the military force protecting the government of the south, were killed or wounded. Civilians also died in the attack, and hundreds fled the region.

In the past, the conflict between the Southern ethnic groups was persistent but mainly directed at stealing cattle, and the resulting killings were not as bloody or misdirected as the current ones. Now, the violence is widespread, and mainly affects southern tribes and city-dwellers, to the extent that even the UN admits that more people are being killed in the south than in Darfur, Sudan’s troubled western region. It is interesting that the UN is using the war in Darfur to provoke the “black Africans” there to rise against the “Arab rulers” and demand “independence”, as the Southerners have done. But both the West and the UN know that the Western region of Darfur, which accepts being ruled by the North, is far from being as divided as Southern Sudan on tribal or religious lines, and that the predominantly Muslim Africans there do not see themselves as different from the “Arab majority” of the North, as some Southerners do.

There is little doubt that the interventionists in Darfur want to put pressure on the Sudanese government in Khartoum to abide by the peace accord of 2005, which they helped to engineer. The West wants to prevent a huge Muslim-dominated country like Sudan from becoming strong and stable. Such a country would provide serious competition to Ethiopia, which is ruled by a Christian minority and has consistently served Western interests in the region. Religion is one of the reasons for the conflicts, which explains why the West, backed by the UN, is also openly opposed to the surging Islamic groups in Somalia. Any country in the region, such as Eritrea, opposed to Ethiopia and friendly to Sudan, is also a target of the West’s animosity, while those opposed to Sudan, such as Chad, are given diplomatic, economic and even military support.

Chad and Sudan have been at war recently, and accuse each other of supporting the rebel groups active in their territories. Chad in particular is active in backing rebel groups such as the Justice and Equality Movement in neighbouring Darfur. Since Chad is in the grip of internal conflict, the forces opposed to the regime naturally spill into the territories of neighbouring countries such as Sudan, which has no effective control over its borders.

One of the methods used to blackmail Khartoum to submit to Western –” particularly US –” demands is clear from the indictment of President Bashir in March for war crimes in Darfur. Bashir was indicted on five counts of “crimes against humanity”, including rape and killings, and on two counts of “war crimes” relating to events in Darfur since 2003.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), which made the indictments, called for Bashir’s arrest, issuing a warrant for the purpose. But he has not been intimidated, and continues to move freely at home and abroad; he has already visited Eritrea, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Libya and Zimbabwe. Bashir explained why he is ignoring the ICC’s warrant for his arrest during his visit to Zimbabwe in early June, “It [the warrant] is an action aimed at isolating Sudan and eventually fragmenting and dividing our country,” he said. “But through our own efforts and resources we are going to overcome such designs.”

It is true that the UN Security Council continues to resist Sudanese and African Union calls for the ICC to suspend or drop the indictment of Bashir, but it also shows no sign of taking any measures to secure his arrest. In fact, since Barack Obama succeeded George Bush as US president, relations between the UN and Washington on the one hand and Khartoum on the other have improved somewhat. When, for example, John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, visited Khartoum in April, he spoke positively of lifting US sanctions. Even more positively, Scott Gration, Obama’s new envoy to Sudan, described the country as a friend on recent visits to Khartoum. However, it must be borne in mind that he made these remarks in contradiction to previous presidential-campaign pledges by Obama to take tough action on Darfur. Which statements are proven to be more truthful, accurate and sincere by the test of the actions that accompany and follow them remains to be seen.

Not surprisingly, Sudanese officials were delighted by Gration’s remarks, regarding them as signs of a “new beginning” in bilateral relations. For example, one diplomat said, “We can feel the winds of change blowing from the Obama administration. Gration is putting his full weight behind the Doha peace talks [between the government in Khartoum and the rebel groups in Darfur]. There is a more positive attitude from the US.” One must wonder when people will learn the lessons of experience and begin to disregard the utterances of Westerners completely, judging them only and wholly on what they actually do instead.

But since Obama is himself from a Muslim background, many pro-Christian and anti-Muslim Americans will be watching closely to see what he will do for a predominantly Muslim country against a small Christian minority seeking secession from a Muslim majority. Kenya, which like Ethiopia is ruled by a Christian minority and is a neighbour of Sudan’s, will no doubt put pressure on Obama, whose father was a Kenyan, to keep his assistance (if indeed he really intends any) to Khartoum within strict and narrow limits.