Sudan: It’ll do what it can get away with

The Economist

Outside powers all seem to want a piece of Sudan. But none of them has been able to stop the government in Khartoum from continuing to mistreat its people
INSIDE the parliament building in Juba, a bare main hall laid out like a university lecture theatre, the world’s latest stab at nation-building is in progress. The legislators of what might one day be the new state of South Sudan have been working since October on an interim constitution, which they have now completed. The mood, as might be expected, is excited and optimistic. But the slow and elaborate formalities of the proceedings betray the immense difficulties of this brave attempt to surmount the divisions and hatreds that have for so long overwhelmed the peoples of Sudan.
The members of parliament refer to each other as ìthe honourableî and there are endless ìpoints of orderî, some serious, some frivolous, a nod to Sudan’s British colonial heritage. The first language used by the legislators is English, but everything is translated into Arabic, an acknowledgement of the cleavage in Sudanese society between black Africans and Arabs. And the slow pace of affairs is compounded by the availability of just one hand-held microphone that is slowly passed from member to member to allow themselves to be heard. The deputy speaker concedes that this is less than ideal. But the reason, as he cheerfully puts it, is because ìwe are starting from zero.î
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It is less than a year since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed between Sudan’s Islamist government in Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main rebel movement representing the largely Christian and animist south. Until the signing of this pact, the SPLM, which contributes the bulk of the legislators to the new parliament, had been waging a guerrilla war against the government. It was a war that began back in 1958 (with an uneasy break from 1972 to 1983) and which has devastated the whole of the southern region, killing some 2m people.
The peace agreement, which devolved almost all power on domestic issues to a new southern government, was designed to encourage the south to become a decentralised part of Sudan. But in six years’ time, if the agreement is honoured, the region’s long-term destiny will be decided by the southerners, voting in a referendum on full independence. They may decide to go their own way. Judging by current feelings, they will do soóif they are allowed to.
Juba, always the south’s main town, was further chosen as the future capital because it is the only town that retains a passable paved roadóand even then, only just. With so little left standing (and there wasn’t much there to begin with), the southerners who are trying to rebuild this vast area are indeed starting from zero.
But they are not alone in their work. What was left of Juba’s infrastructure is now sagging under the weight of a new sort of colonial army, this time from the United Nations. The first few hundreds of UN staff have already arrived, the advance guard of a civilian and military deployment in the south that may reach 10,000, all there to make sure that the CPA works. The UN’s ubiquitous white land-cruisers rule Juba’s streets, and accommodation in the town is no longer to be had. The best option now is a tented camp on the edge of town on the banks of the Nile, a largely white-faced, blue-helmet enclave.
Another geopolitical scramble
So why has Juba become a city of such international concern while other African towns emerging from civil wars remain rotting? A measure of this is the fact that, in April, an international donor conference to support the CPA got promises of $4.5 billion. Again, why should America’s deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, have visited Sudan four times this year, more times, as he quipped recently, than he has visited New York? The answer lies in the huge geopolitical interests at stake in Sudan, Africa’s biggest country, where every problem of the contemporary world seems to meet, from terrorism and oil through ìfailed statesî and genocide. The canvas of issues, and opportunities, is so broad that it draws in the great, the powerful and the not-so-good.
The new powers of Asia, China and India, are in Sudan for the oil. China, with a 40% stake, is the biggest single shareholder in the consortium developing the industry, but the Malaysians with 30% and the Indians with 25% are not far behind. Almost all the oil produced goes to thirsty China: it is estimated that 4.5% of China’s oil needs are now being met by Sudan. On top of this, Khartoum is more or less being rebuilt by the Chinese, who bring all their own labour with them.
The Russians, who also have oil interests, probably have military deals with the Sudanese government as well. In its new spirit of ìowningî more of Africa’s problems, the African Union (AU) is desperately trying to keep the peace in the war-ravaged western region of Darfur. NATO helps by providing logistics. The UN and the EU (particularly Britain) are committed both to preserving the peace in the south and to feeding the 2m refugees in the west. Hundreds of international NGOs help with feeding and protecting the refugees.
None of it makes the government nicer
The United States has so many different agencies and branches of government involved in Sudan, sometimes in apparent contradiction of each other, that it is often hard to follow who is doing what. The CIA is co-operating with the Sudanese government on anti-terrorism, though it is still on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. And while USAID spends billions of dollars developing the south, Congress has maintained trade sanctions against Sudan for years and, indeed, has just renewed them.
The trouble is that for all the money being poured into Sudan, and for all the new engagement with its once despised Islamist government, nothing much seems to be shifting the behaviour of the government towards its own people. This, after all, is the same government that, in 2004, Colin Powell, then America’s secretary of state, accused of genocide in Darfur. Although the situation there improved after that, there has been plenty of evidence in the past few months that it is slipping back into horror. So much so, indeed, that last week the UN’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan, declared it to be in a state of anarchy.
The Sudanese government was, in effect, let off the hook by the peace agreement in the south. The agreement is what everyone hopes will hold Sudan’s self-destructive forces in check. But the fear is that while the southern peace may have legitimised the Khartoum government in the world’s chancelleries, making it a negotiating partner, even an ally, of the West, it has also given it licence to carry on killing its own people in western Sudanóand now in the east as well, where a rebel group recently opened up a new front.
Outside involvement in Sudan is complex and contradictory. The regime in Khartoum has become expert at playing on those divisionsóa trend that holds little promise of relief for the millions of refugees in Darfur who still live in daily fear of the government and its surrogate killers. Yet relations between the West and Sudan have travelled a long way over the past two decades. One way to reflect on the changes is to take a drive up the main highway out of the capital heading north, leading eventually to the Red Sea city of Port Sudan. This is the road that was built in the early 1990s by Osama bin Laden and his construction company, at that time honoured guests of the government.
Mr bin Laden was welcomed in by Omar al-Bashir, who had seized power in a coup in 1989, with the support of the National Islamic Front, led by Hassan al-Turabi. With its support for Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf war and its willingness to play host not only to Mr bin Laden but also to Carlos the Jackal, another sort of international terrorist, Sudan quickly became a pariah state.
President Bashir’s government ramped up the southern war that it had inherited from its predecessors. The black African south of Sudan has always been a distinct region from the Arab north; the British had ruled it as such before leaving in 1956. As independence loomed, Britain even considered detaching it from the north, to fit into a new East African federation. But in the end, the new nation of Sudan was born as a unitary state, and almost immediately the southerners began their guerrilla war against what they saw as a remote, racist and oppressive government.
Under pressure from foreign governments, Mr bin Laden was expelled from the country in 1996, but most Sudan-watchers agree that the real turning point in the West’s relations with Sudan came in August 1998 when the United States fired cruise missiles into a pharmaceutical plant that it claimed, wrongly, was producing chemical weapons for al-Qaeda. Fearing more of the same, or even an attempt at ìregime changeî, the government began to back-track, seeking re-engagement with the West. Mr Turabi, viewed by many as the evil genius of the regime, was placed under house arrest.
Green light for the religious right
But then George Bush became America’s president and sections of the religious right, a vital constituency in his Republican base, got fresh impetus for their battle on behalf of the SPLM in the south. They mostly saw it as a straight war of Christian emancipation against a dictatorial Islamist government. But anger was intensified, and money was raised, because of the revulsion against the north for taking slaves as part of its counter-insurgency operations. These seizures were carried out by Arab militias, who also razed rural southern villages and abducted children.
On September 6th 2001, Mr Bush formally launched his initiative to push the government to come to terms with the SPLM, a step that was largely taken, argues John Eibner, a member of Christian Solidarity International who has long campaigned against slavery, ìas a result of domestic pressures that had built up in Americaî. With the backing of the unusual political coalition of America’s white evangelical churches and its black civil-rights movement, Mr Bush’s initiative was mainly responsible for producing the CPA, which was signed on January 9th 2004.
The Bush administration is now the CPA’s most important financial and political backer. It is also deeply engaged with Sudan at other levels. Even before the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11th 2001, Sudan had begun to spill its very useful beans on al-Qaeda. This intelligence rapprochement reached its climax this spring when the head of Sudan’s intelligence service, Salah Abdullah Gosh, was feted in Washington, DC, for a ten-day debriefing by the CIA. The agency is said to have marked out a piece of land in the outskirts of Khartoum, on which it will build a big listening-post to monitor events in the Horn of Africa.

Human Rights Watch, an international monitor, has protested against plans to hold an AU meeting in Khartoum next January, while Sudan’s government continues to ravage Darfur. At the latest meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, Sudan succeeded in keeping the issue of Darfur off the agenda, despite the rising violence. Hardly surprising, since Sudan chaired the meeting. To critics of the regime, such as Gill Lusk, who writes for Africa Confidential, a newsletter, all that has happened since the regime re-engaged with the West is that it has learnt to ìcalibrate finely what it can get away withî.
Getting away with murder
The Sudanese government can do this with all the more confidence knowing that it has the backing of China and Russia. Through their positions on the UN Security Council, the two powers have been successful in watering down western attempts to impose limited UN sanctions on Sudan because of its behaviour in Darfur.
Sudan’s regime uses periods when the world’s attention is focused on one problem to get away with murder elsewhere. Now, with attention still on peace in the south, it is not only resuming its repression in Darfur but is shifting forces to the east to suppress a rebellion in an area where the same history of frustration at bad rule from Khartoum has periodically welled up into armed revolt.
In truth, all of Sudan’s regional problems are interconnected. Until a government emerges in Khartoum that is prepared to concede a share of power and wealth to the impoverished peripheries of the country, a peaceful and prosperous new Sudan is unlikely to take shape.
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