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Sudan: Grandi Manovre – Great Manoeuvres

For years it was the “forgotten war” by definition. Every time a journalist “discovered” that in a corner of Africa called Sudan – a corner so to speak, as only Southern Sudan is vast as Central Europe – there was still an ongoing guerrilla war that had began in 1982 , the inevitable cliché became part of the title. Later, since 9 January 2005, when after two years of negotiations a complicated peace treaty – that the experts called Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – was signed in Nairobi, it has become the “forgotten peace”. Waiting for a rekindling of the war?

Skepticism aside, it is true that there have been many efforts to end the long civil war but very little has been done to consolidate peace. The U.S. and its European allies during negotiations have not hesitated to evoke, both to the North and the South, alternatively the stick of international sanctions, cuts in cooperation programmes and political isolation, and the juicy carrot of economic development, limitless oil exports and abundant humanitarian aid. But today all seem uninterested in what is happening in Sudan.

I visited Southern Sudan recently. Expectations and emotions in preparation for the referendum scheduled according to the CPA in January 2011 have created an atmosphere of euphoria that obscures the real dangers. People will have to choose if staying united with the North or go for complete independence. I have never known a South Sudanese who did not want full independence from the North, even John Garang, who was affirming his belief in a united secular Sudan only for international political reasons.

So, that next January, the South Sudan people will vote almost unanimously for independence must be taken for granted. The historical divisions, cultural, social and religious differences between North and South are too deep to be healed in five years. And this was easy to predict. But the international community should have predicted and prevented also the conditions that could lead to the return of war, or to the fragmentation of South Sudan as a non-state, with the risk of creating another Somalia.

It is clear that the North has no intention of letting the South go – taking with it all the oil it contains – and will do everything to divide and weaken it.

In September, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in a speech to a committee of the American Congress, alluded to Sudan only briefly. Then, answering a specific question, she added that relations between North and South Sudan, in the context of the referendum that is being prepared, are “a time bomb ready to explode.” Discovery!

The list of delays and failures of the CPA is long. Not only little has been done to make the country’s unity attractive to Southerners, as required under the CPA, but the international community has pretended not to see that the two sides were rearming. It has allowed the proliferation of human rights abuses and corruption. It has accepted without flinching elections like those of last April, that were far from being free and fair. It has allowed the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the South to consolidate centralist and dictatorial tendencies. Southern Sudan – or whatever the new state that will be born by the inevitable division will be called – is repeating all the worst mistakes of the failed independences. Like Congo, Nigeria, Central African Republic, to name a few: Countries that after years of formal independence are still to be built up as dignified independent States.

The most serious failure, and the one that might have the most tragic consequences – is related to the claims on the huge oil fields that lie on the border between North and South, a boundary that was supposed to be demarcated within six months of signing the CPA. Up to now some long stretches have not yet been demarcated because of ethnic tension, with others stretches being questioned. Now the clock is ticking. To overcome the impasse is not just a job for technocrats, political good will is important.

The tension mounts every day. To the bellicose as well as inappropriate statements made by representatives of the South, the North reacts with methodical obstruction of the dialogue and of the preparatory work of the referendum. The closer we get to the referendum deadline in January, the greater the chance of a return to armed conflict.

The minority of hardline Islamists and fanatics who control the North seem to rely on its ability to let the storms pass, to absorb dissent, to foster divisions in the opposing camp. See the media silence that they have managed to bring down on Darfur and the ineffectiveness of the arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court against President Omar Al-Bashir.

Perhaps the South believes that, at worst, it can win a quick war of secession, imagining it to be supported by the international community. Southern leaders, in fact, are no longer ‘rebels’, but the democratically elected representatives of the South Sudan people, in spite of the doubts on last April elections.

The struggle for control of oil reserves, by all possible means, seems inevitable, unless there is some agreement or some plan known only in the corridors of international diplomacy, and in the offices of the arms merchants. One cannot, in fact, believe that Hillary Clinton and the “international community” have not noticed what’s happening, have not foreseen all possible scenarios and have no plans to intervene. Are Obama and Clinton really just waiting for the bomb to explode before intervening? The Sudan is not only an economic battleground. It is an important testing ground for relations between the U.S. and the Arab world. In the early nineties, Khartoum was the operational base for Osama bin Laden and many Northerners would certainly be ready to give hospitality to al-Qaeda. In this scenario, a new armed conflict in Sudan would be a serious destabilizing factor in the Horn of Africa, that is already a powder keg.

The independence of Sudan, both North and South, is still a long and difficult process, with a high risk of becoming bloody. It ‘s a fast moving train, and if some shunters seem distracted, no doubt at the appropriate time they will be ready to intervene and determine the direction.

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