Sudan is about to face a dangerous political storm that may tear asunder that vast nation and send tremors across Africa.
A referendum is scheduled on 9 January in which southern Sudan’s eight million inhabitants may vote to separate from the 34 million citizens of northern Sudan and create their own new nation – South Sudan. The United States has been quietly playing the key role in engineering the breakup of Sudan.
Many of modern Africa’s borders are artificial: they were drawn by European colonial powers heedless of the continent’s tribal, linguistic or economic geography.
Any changes in these borders are likely to unleash dangerous tensions, even demands for secession across the continent.
One of Africa’s strongest taboos has been that borders inherited from the colonial era are immutable. A break-up of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, will bring into question the continent’s entire geopolitical architecture.
Sudan extends from the Arab world and the sub-Saharan Sahel into the heart of black Africa; it was cobbled together by the British Empire to safeguard the Nile, Egypt’s sole source of water, and to provide agricultural lands.
Anyone who thinks Sudan’s problems are something new would do well to go back and study Britain’s epic 19th-century wars to conquer Sudan, and the historic uprising and resistance of its Islamic leader, the Mahdi. One cannot understand modern Darfur without referring to its tribal conflicts of the 1880’s.* Within Sudan is a dizzying collection of almost 600 often feuding tribes speaking 400 different languages spread over a vast area: northern, Arabic-speaking Muslims and Nubians; ferocious Beja from the Red Sea Coast (“Fuzzy-Wuzzies” to the British); wild Bagarra nomads from Darfur; and Stone Age tribes from the upper Nile.
It is remarkable that Sudan has held together for so long. A low-intensity civil war has raged for 60 years between Muslim northerners and non-Muslim southerners in which two million are said to have perished. Muslims make up 75% of Sudanese; animists (traditional African faiths) account for about 20%, and southern Christians some 5%. Islamic law has been applied in the north, but rejected by most non-Muslim southerners.
American Evangelical groups, including so-called “Christian Zionists,” who are fiercely anti-Islamic, have been playing an important role in promoting southern Sudan’s secessionist movement. Since evangelicals now constitute a key Republican constituency, the party has been quick to adopt the cause of south Sudanese secession.Southern Sudan’s Christian secessionist movement has long been advised and financed by British and US Christian missionaries who saw the region’s tribes as fertile ground for conversion. Western “humanitarian” aid groups have played a key role in fostering the south Sudan independence movement.
South Sudan has been rent for decades by local conflicts between its three main pastoral Nilotic tribes, the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer, who routinely launch raids on one another for cattle and women. Their feuds are likely to carry over into a new south Sudanese state.
Sudan has also suffered another confusing conflict in the remote western regions of Darfur and Kordofan between nomadic and farming peoples. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has indicted Sudan’s strongman, Gen. Omar el-Bashir, for war crimes in Darfur’s murky tribal war that has become a cause célèbre in the West.
Just how much Gen. Bashir’s regime is responsible for alleged mass killings in Darfur’s tribal mêlée remain uncertain. But Sudan is on the US black list as a terrorist supporter and under US sanctions. Independent-minded Sudan, branded a “rogue state” by Washington, has long been targeted for “regime change.” The US media and evangelical Christian groups have demonized Sudan and Gen. Bashir, and branded him a dangerous Islamist.
Hysteria in North America over Darfur is exceeded only by the public’s total lack of knowledge about this remote, complex region that is deceptively – and quite wrongly – portrayed by media as a simplistic morality struggle between wicked Muslims and helpless black farmers.
Israel has been very active in arming and supporting the South Sudan SPLA guerilla movement, and will assume an even more influential role if southern Sudan goes independent.
Sizeable deposits of oil were discovered in Sudan over the past decade. They are mostly located in south Sudan but the Khartoum government controls the export pipeline which runs north to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. China has become a major customer of Sudanese oil. Washington intends to elbow the Chinese out of Sudan if the south breaks away.Israel has been involved in Sudan since the 1950’s. Israel successfully bribed the late Sudanese dictator, Jaffar al-Numiery, to allow Ethiopian Falasha Jews to fly to Israel from Sudan.
Control of global oil plays a primary role on US foreign and military policy. As a result, the US has become ever more deeply involved in Sudan’s affairs. Washington has been discreetly working with southern Sudan to create a government, financial system, police, and army. South Sudanese officials are being trained in the US. The number of US diplomats and intelligence officers in Sudan has tripled.
A break-up of Sudan may have an immediate effect on other unstable neighbors, like Somalia, Chad, and the Republic of Congo. Ethiopia, itself an unstable amalgam, may get more deeply involved in the region.
Egypt, eternally sensitive about who controls the Nile’s life-giving waters, is deeply worried about Sudan’s future and fears a new regime in the south may begin diverting the river’s waters.
Just at a time when the US is increasingly active in Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, it finds itself deeply involved in engineering the break-up of Sudan.
All this may be a bridge too far for the already over-stretched US military, intelligence services, and State Department, not to mention the empty US Treasury that now runs on borrowed money.
*Anyone interested in 19th-Century Sudan should read Khartoum by Michael Asher, an ex-SAS officer and old Sudan hand. A brilliant, stirring recounting of the Dervish uprising, “Chinese” Gordon, and Imperial Britain’s river wars up the Nile to Khartoum.January 4, 2011
Eric Margolis [send him mail] is the author of War at the Top of the World and the new book, American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World. See his website.