Resumption of fighting in Sudan renews fears for the country’s future

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

M.A. Shaikh

Jumada' al-Ula' 27, 1429 2008-06-01


by M.A. Shaikh (World, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 4, Jumada' al-Ula', 1429)

The 2008 Global Peace Index (GPI), an annual study that ranks countries in terms of how "peaceful" they are, puts Sudan near the bottom of the world list, with only Somalia and Iraqbelow it. The main cause of the disruption in Africa’s largest country has been the civil war between the north and the south of the country, which began on the eve of independence in 1956 and persisted until a peace deal was signed in 2004. Under the peace agreement – translated into a constitution the following year – the south gained autonomy, while the main rebel group, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (later renamed the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement) was brought into a power-sharing government in Khartoum. Under the constitution, the president of the autonomous south is automatically the vice-president of the federal government in Khartoum.

It may seem remarkable that the leaders of the two sides that have been fighting a long civil war have been brought together in a single federal government, and that this achievement will cement peace in the country and preserve its unity, and indeed the facts point in the opposite direction. In the first place, the constitution gives southerners the right to secede, and a referendum (to be held in three years’ time) will give them the opportunity to decide which way they will go.

Already the lull in the armed conflict brought about by the constitutional arrangement has come to an end: fighting has broken out between the two sides over the border town of Abyeiand the surrounding area, which are at the heart of the country’s oil region and claimed by both. Unless this fighting is quickly and effectively ended, it will lead to secession not only by southern Sudan but also by western Sudan, where the rebel groups in Darfur are now fighting to achieve a similar objective. The damage from disruption on such a scale will not be confined to Sudan but will also extend to other countries in the region.

Chad and Kenya – to take only two examples – will be seriously disrupted, as they are already unstable. In Kenya there was serious internal violence after the presidential elections last December. Both Ethiopia and Eritrea are in the grip of internal unrest, have been at war with each other until recently, and are still at loggerheads. Egypt, which depends totally on the River Nile for its water, will also be seriously affected if Sudan disintegrates and a hostile regime takes over in southern Sudan, where both the White Nile and the Blue Nile originate. World powers, such as the US and its allies, including Israel, can exert pressure on Egypt by helping the government of an independent southern Sudan to divert the Nile’s waters for local energy and agricultural development.

The US has already been active in bringing about the break-up of Sudan by backing the independence programme for southern Sudan. The US government, which claims that the south is predominantly Christian and should have its independence, exerted strong pressure in Khartoum to agree to the 2005 constitution, which gives the south the right to secede from the rest of the country. The government succeeded in enlisting the support of the UN to compel president Hassan al-Bashir to agree to the independence clause, and this explains why both the UN and the US condemned the fighting over Abyei, apparently fearing that Khartoum might reverse its agreement to independence for the south.

The confrontation in Abyei, which began in mid-May, resulted in the deaths of at least 22 government soldiers on May 21. The soldiers were killed when the SPLA, which had been involved in skirmishes with the federal government forces for at least a week, attacked to capture Abyei. The fighting between the two sides involved the use of heavy artillery, mortar- and tank-fire, and was not, therefore, a small, unplanned confrontation that can be ignored. That it was seen as meaning a return to civil war was indicated by the flight of at least 50,000 inhabitants of Abyei and surrounding areas in one week, and by the great alarm expressed by Amr Mousa, Egypt’s foreign minister. He said on May 20 that unless the situation was brought under control immediately, Sudan would lapse back into civil war and be disrupted.

However, like the US and the UN, which also expressed anger at the fighting, Egypt did not single out, the SPLA for provoking the skirmishes in the first place; instead it appeared to hold all sides to the conflict – including the federal government in Khartoum – accountable. But, in any case, why the SPLA should try to destroy a peace treaty and constitutional arrangement that grant the south the right to independence in three years’ time is not immediately clear.

There is no agreement among analysts about why the SPLA is behaving in this manner. But one possible reason is that it is not confident that enough southerners will vote for independence, and that the best way to secure support for secession is to draw the north back into civil conflict that will inflict on southerners such suffering that they will agree to pull out of the union. The explanation is not so unreasonable as it might sound: southern Sudan has never been as united as the secessionists claim.

In fact, even the leaders of the rebel group are divided when it comes to the issue of independence, with some passionate for secession and others for autonomy within a united Sudan. Their differences are intensified by the bitter historical rivalries between the Dinka and Nuer tribes. Salva Kiir, the current SPLA leader, like John Garang, his predecessor, belongs to the Dinka, while Rick Machar, the south’s present vice-president, belongs to the Nuer. In 1994, for instance, the SPLA was forced to call a general meeting to end the bitter quarrel between Garang and Machar. The southerners are also divided on religious lines. While most are animists, there are Christian and Muslim minorities.

Because of these sharp tribal and religious differences, the south is bitterly divided and the fact that some of the tribes there are divided into "Arab" (northern) and "African", as the Western media continue to insist, sharpens these divisions. Consequently, granting the south independence will engulf its people in bloody confrontations and will not bring peace, as claimed by those who want Sudan to be broken up.

Similarly, granting independence to Darfur will bring it civil conflict, not peace. It is true that, unlike the southerners, the people of Darfur are not divided on religious lines, as they are all Muslims. But there are sharp ethnic divisions – ‘Arab’ and ‘African’ – which lie behind the current civil unrest there, and it is therefore highly irresponsible to claim that giving Sudan’s western region independence will bring peace to it. With Chad already involved in the region’s tensions, Libya will also be drawn into any conflict in an independent western Sudan.

There is also little doubt that independent western Sudan and southern Sudan would ally themselves against north Sudan. The already independent countries in the region will also be drawn into the conflict, and there will be bloodshed and chaos. To avoid that, the region’s people must preserve Sudan’s integrity and help it to resolve its problems.

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