A gleam among the ruins
Nov 20th 2008 | ABYEI, JUBA AND KHARTOUM
From The Economist print edition
After years of civil war, three new factors may bring hope to Africa’s biggest country
WITH his outstretched arms shaking in gestures of anger and bewilderment, John stands in the charred remains of his little family compound in the central Sudanese town of Abyei. The four tukuls, or traditional huts, that used to house his wife and nine children have been incinerated. His pickup truck, too, has been overturned and burned. The attack happened only five months ago, but already the weeds and brush of the surrounding swampland are covering the last traces of a happy family life.
Abyei was once a thriving market town. But it is also the capital of a region that straddles the bloody fault-line in Sudan between the Muslim Arab tribes of the north of the country and the African, mainly Christian and animist, tribes of the south. In May heavy fighting broke out in Abyei between the northern government’s army and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which are supposed to have stopped fighting each other since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, ostensibly ended more than 40 years of north-south war.
The firefight that destroyed John’s compound was bad enough. But the whole town was looted, and then burned to the ground, in the days that followed the fighting. The culprits were the traditional enemies of the Dinka people, the armed militias of the Arab Misseriya tribe. All John’s most valuable possessions were taken: his generator, the two small television sets that it powered and the family’s cooking utensils. By all accounts, much of this has been put up for sale in the Misseriya town of el-Muglad, about 150km (93 miles) to the north. The market there has been nicknamed “Abyei” after the plentiful supply of goods on sale from the looted town.
At least John has a good job, as a driver for the United Nations. He may be able to rebuild his life. Thousands of his fellow Dinka in this impoverished region are not so lucky. Forced to flee Abyei, they now live in a sprawl of hastily erected huts about 40km south, at Agok, where they survive largely on help from foreign aid-workers. In the jargon of international relief agencies, they have become “Internally Displaced Persons”. And like many other millions of Sudanese who are refugees in their own country, these Dinka have no plans to return to the little that is left of their old way of life until security improves-which may take a long time. The charred remains of John’s former home are virtually opposite the front entrance to the UN military base in Abyei. Those soldiers could do nothing to help him.
The story of Abyei is stark proof that the underlying causes of north-south conflict in Sudan have not changed. Much of it is sparked by feelings of marginalisation. Just to the east of the town, for example, are the Chinese-run oilfields around the town of Heglig. These supply the northern government in Khartoum with most of its substantial revenues and help to fund a building and consumer boom in the capital. But the local Dinka derive no benefit from this money. They are not even allowed into the area around Heglig, though it is part of their old homeland.
Mistrust also continues between the largely nomadic Arab tribes of the north, like the Misseriya, supported and armed by the northern Islamist government for its own political purposes, and the settled African farmers of the south, both Christian and Muslim. Migrations of heavily armed Arab cattle-herders into the lusher wetlands of the Dinka at the beginning of each dry season have caused violence for decades. This year’s migrations south have already started, and, especially after the torching of Abyei, everyone is preparing for more trouble.
Yet the fighting between northern and southern Sudan is only one part of it. The western province of Darfur is also riven by a war between the government and rebel forces that erupted in 2003. At first this was a straightforward battle pitting the Sudanese army, together with the Arab militias, the infamous janjaweed, against two main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army. Now, however, the nature of the conflict in Darfur has mutated, making the violence more unpredictable and widespread and the task of getting a lasting peace deal that much harder. The janjaweed militias have fragmented, fighting among themselves and occasionally against the Sudanese army, especially when they have not been paid. The rebels, too, have fractured into about 30 groups of varying size and seriousness. These roam around the province, and several are kidnapping and killing the very aid-workers who help their own people.
The continuing violence has produced, according to the UN, 300,000 internal refugees in Darfur since January alone, the highest rate of displacement for several years. About 2.7m people are now crowding into overflowing makeshift camps in Darfur itself, and about another 300,000 are in camps over the border in Chad. In all about 5m Darfuris, out of a population of 6m at the last official count in 2002, are either in camps or are relying on aid to survive. And as many as 300,000 have probably died as a result of the conflict.
With 17,000 or so local and foreign aid-workers in Darfur trying to help the victims, the relief operation is still the largest of its kind in the world. But the work is more and more hazardous, and access to the refugees has become increasingly restricted. Eleven humanitarian workers have been killed this year and 179 kidnapped. Some 237 aid vehicles have also been hijacked this year, already double the number for 2007. The UN in Darfur has moved to its highest level of alert before full evacuation. All non-essential staff have left.
The United Nations African Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the peacekeepers who have been mandated by the Security Council and the African Union to prevent the violence, remain based at el-Fasher, the capital of Darfur. But with only about 10,000 often ineffectual troops and police, well short of the 26,000 that were promised by the end of this year, UNAMID remains pretty impotent. As a result, it is already losing the respect of Darfuris. They had hoped that this force, unlike the previous pathetic outfit provided by the African Union, would finally give them protection from the marauding janjaweed and bandits who kill and rape them. They were wrong.
Breaking the stalemate
These trend-lines in Darfur have become depressingly familiar over the past few years. The various “peace processes” to try to resolve the conflict have repeatedly foundered on a mixture of government intransigence and intrigue, rebel divisions and foreign meddling, notably by Chad. For all the vast international effort put into improving the situation in Darfur, the thousands of UN and diplomatic man-hours and the hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, little has changed.
The same stagnation and sense of helplessness is evident elsewhere in Sudan. The peace agreement of 2005 between north and south agreed, for example, to share the wealth, integrate the two sides’ armies and settle the boundary between them. All these proposals were designed to create the New Sudan that southerners dream of: an integrated, federal and multiethnic nation that, for the first time in decades, could live at peace with itself. In fact, progress in all these areas has been slow or almost non-existent. Neither the northern government nor the Government of South Sudan, which now runs the semi-autonomous south, has invested much in making unity “attractive”, as the CPA demands. The peace agreement gives southerners the right to hold a referendum to secede from Sudan in 2011. At the moment, this is what many southerners are really preparing for.
But in the past few weeks three newish factors have coalesced to create a set of circumstances that could shake the country up: for better, if matters are handled carefully, or for much worse. The first is the prospect of national elections next year; the second is the beginning of proceedings against President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide over Darfur; and the third is the election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States. Each of these factors, on its own, would not bother Mr Bashir much. But the three together are now putting considerable pressure on him to change course in Darfur and get serious about peace with the south.
Elections were forced on the northern government and the SPLM, the political wing of the SPLA, by foreign donor governments as their price for giving billions of dollars-worth of money to rebuild Sudan after the 2005 peace deal. These elections have always offered the best chance of ending Mr Bashir’s repressive government, which came to power by overthrowing Sudan’s last democratic government in a coup in 1989.
Mr Bashir and his henchmen in the National Congress Party (NCP) are genuinely fearful of elections. They know that if even vaguely free and fair ballots were to take place throughout Sudan, they would lose heavily. Salva Kiir, the leader of the SPLM, might well win instead if he ran as the candidate promising to stand up for the marginalised people of all Sudan, in the south, the east and Darfur; there are plenty of them. Such an alliance might at last create the New Sudan, the vision of John Garang, the first leader of the SPLM, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005. A census, albeit an imperfect one, has already taken place to form the basis of voter registration, and under the terms of the CPA an election should take place by next summer.
巴希尔先生和他全民大会党（NCP）中的追随者是真的害怕选举。他们知道，只要整个苏丹的投票稍微自由和公平一点，他们将损失惨重。Salva Kiir，苏丹人民解放运动的领导人，如果他作为候选人，承诺为南方、东方和达尔富尔的所有被边缘化的苏丹人民（他们数量很多）说话，他可能将赢得选举。这种联盟可能最终会建立一个新苏丹，就像John Garang所预见的那样，他是苏丹人民解放运动的第一任领导人，2005年死于一次直升机坠机事故。一次人口普查，尽管不完善，已经开始为选民注册打基础，而且按照全面和平协议的规定一场选举将于明年夏天举行。
The Obama factor
If Mr Bashir loses, it may also be easier for the ICC to haul him off to The Hague. Again, despite what they say in public, not only Mr Bashir but the entire government is anxious about the ICC. The regime’s hardliners-the heads of the army, the intelligence and the internal security services, all directly responsible for much of the mayhem in Darfur-know that they could be next on the indictment list. Many people in Sudan, and almost everyone in Darfur, would be delighted if they were. The whole country is waiting to see whether the ICC judges act on the chief prosecutor’s recommendation, made in July, to issue a warrant for Mr Bashir’s arrest. A decision is expected towards the end of December.
And now there is President-elect Obama to contend with. Sudan may be the only country in the world where President George Bush is popular and the Democrats loathed and feared, at least by the regime. Mr Bush gave huge political backing to the peace between the north and south, but the Sudanese also remember that it was President Bill Clinton who launched an attack on Sudan in 1998. He fired cruise missiles into a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum North (mistaking it for a bomb-making factory) in retaliation for al-Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The present regime was the incubator for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the mid-1990s.
The Sudanese government knows that a new Obama administration will probably be full of former Clintonites who have spent the past eight years furiously organising campaigns against Sudan over what they call the “genocide” in Darfur. These people, like Gayle Smith, tipped to be Obama’s senior diplomat in charge of African affairs, all have long experience of Sudan and are fierce critics of the Sudanese government. They are less likely than their Republican predecessors to go softly on Mr Bashir’s government for the sake of the titbits of intelligence on al-Qaeda that the Sudanese intelligence services like giving to the Americans.
This matters tremendously to the Sudanese. The government’s priority has always been to come off the American list of state sponsors of terror, to repair its severed relations with the West in general and to see the end of the economic sanctions against it. America can deliver all this in return for improvements in Darfur, elections and much else. The Obama factor is already at work here. The argument to the Sudanese is: “Cut a deal now-or expect much worse come January.” The result is, as one Western diplomat puts it, “a government in full conciliation mode”, firmly on the back foot.
Appeasement and threats
So Mr Bashir has been striking all the right notes recently. The government has been slightly less obstructive to UNAMID, for example. And last week, at a posh forum on Darfur in Khartoum, with foreign diplomats, ministers and even the odd head of state present, Mr Bashir endorsed, in a general way, a document that could give the Darfur rebels most of what they want. Compensation, the return of refugees to their homes and the appointment of a new vice-president for Darfur are all, apparently, on the table. The Qataris, fresh from success in Lebanon, have volunteered to mediate with the rebels and to host a peace conference. There is a vague hope that Qatar will fork out the hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation that may be needed to win the rebels over.
The president even announced, dramatically, a ceasefire by government forces in Darfur. This grabbed the headlines, but he has announced a ceasefire several times before and nothing has ever happened. This makes many people sceptical of his real intentions. The rebels, who were unrepresented at Mr Bashir’s forum, immediately rejected his ceasefire call.
Indeed, as the same Western diplomat points out, all Mr Bashir’s recent promises to reform his ways are, as usual, “easily reversible”. He is trying to do just enough to persuade countries at the UN to vote for a deferral of the ICC case against him, as they have the power to do. Most African and Arab countries support him on this. But he needs to convince some Western countries, and preferably America as well, while the going is relatively good.
And if no one is persuaded by Mr Bashir’s promises of future good behaviour, foreign countries certainly have to think hard about the Sudanese government’s likely response if the ICC does issue its arrest warrant. Most opposition politicians presume that, at the very least, full elections will never happen. A lot of semi-plausible excuses will be trotted out: an incomplete census, a long rainy season, the lack of voter education. But ultimately, as Adam Madibu, the deputy chairman of the opposition Umma party, says: “The election is the best way to get the transformation of Sudan, and we will have lost it.” And the SPLM leadership, unfortunately, may well collude in that. They fear the schisms and divisions that elections could open up in their own ranks. An unaccountable SPLM would be perfectly happy to get through to its own referendum in 2011 without elections.
Losing the opportunity to vote Mr Bashir out of power would drive many Sudanese to despair. There are dark mutterings of a coup against him by moderates in his own party. They could at least get a new, more palatable figurehead for international consumption and then shield Mr Bashir from the ICC. But this would hardly “transform” Sudan. Another, more remote, possibility is a popular uprising. There have been two against unpopular military rulers in the years since Sudan’s independence in 1956. But the security apparatus is more pervasive and onerous now than it has ever been, especially in Khartoum.
Bashir at bay
Already, NGOs on the ground in Darfur are suffering from a government backlash prompted by the ICC charges against Mr Bashir. Harassment by security officials has got much worse. The goons have spent days in NGO offices haranguing staff to hand over sensitive documents and computer files which, they suspect, could have been used as evidence against Mr Bashir. In particular, officials have been targeting projects that help women recover from sexual violence. The massive use of rape as a weapon in the army’s counter-insurgency war is a critical part of the ICC case. If a warrant is issued, the harassment will surely worsen to the point where many counselling projects will be shut down, as at least one has been already.
Mr Bashir could also turn on his former enemies in the south by simply reducing the share of oil money they get. Already, there is concern about the incompetence of the government there and the lack of economic and social development. A large proportion of the SPLM’s small revenue goes on new weapons, such as, it is widely assumed, the T-72 tanks now stuck off the Somali coast. If a weak south does move towards secession against a surly, hostile north, diplomats fear that the resulting conflict would create a whole swathe of instability in Africa, from Somalia across south Sudan to eastern Congo-another place where a peace agreement has unravelled with awful consequences.
Among Mr Bush’s first orders to his National Security Council in January 2001 was the drawing up of a new policy on Sudan. Mr Obama, who will be taking office more or less at the moment when the ICC is expected to issue its warrant, needs a new policy even more badly. But at least he will not be short of advice.