Developments in Sudan are reaching a turning point and will soon lead either to the birth of the UN’s 193rd member state or the resumption of a civil war that killed millions.
As events continue in a holding pattern in Syria (bloody crackdown), Yemen (talks in the capital, fighting with Islamists in the south), and Libya (closing in on Gaddafi), let’s consider the importance of Sudan. It has oil, but not so much as to make it strategically important. It was the scene of the world’s most recent genocide, in Darfur around 2004, so it’s on the map for human rights concerns. But the current crisis derives from Sudan’s location straddling the divide between the mostly Arab and Muslim north of Africa (above the Sahara desert) and the mostly Black and Christian or animist sub-Saharan Africa. That divide also runs through Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and the Somalia-Ethiopia conflict, among others.
In Sudan, this conflict underlay a decades-long civil war that killed tens of thousands directly and reportedly led to as many as two million deaths indirectly through displacement, disease, and famine.
Finally in 2005, with a diplomatic push from the United States and others, the north and south reached a cease-fire agreement. Southern rebels were given positions in Sudan’s government, though sadly their leader died in a helicopter crash as the process was just getting under way. The two armies began exercising together, and the two political leaderships began hashing out details of a transition that was to lead to a referendum in the south five years later. The United Nations put in a peacekeeping force of 10,000 troops, supplemented by European peacekeepers, and the fighting died down, notwithstanding periodic flare-ups of fighting between armed local groups, as when recurring thefts of cattle led to clashes and even massacres.
Borders were poorly defined in the peace agreement, and fighting occurred around the disputed border town of Abyei in particular. The two sides sent the border issues to an international court in the Hague, Netherlands, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and both agreed to abide by the court’s decision which gave the best oil fields in the area to the north but other desirable territory to the south.
In January 2011 the referendum finally arrived, as planned five years earlier. Against the predictions of many observers, it came off successfully and peacefully. Southerners voted overwhelmingly, by almost 99 percent, to secede and form a new country, South Sudan. The central government in the north, under international pressure and wishing to improve its standing, indicated it would accept this result. A separate referendum was to have been held in the border town of Abyei, where the situation was complicated by a seasonal influx of herders allied to the north while the permanent residents favored the south. That referendum has not happened.
In recent weeks, the government of Sudan has sent military forces to mass near the border, and has attacked and seized Abyei. Two other provinces that belong to the north but whose population fought on the side of the south during the civil war — South Kordofan and Blue Nile — have also been swept up in new fighting. South Sudan alleges, credibly, that the north has twice used air strikes on the southern side of the border as well.
The northern and southern leaders are meeting in Ethiopia yesterday and today, with Hillary Clinton arriving today to give things a push. The hope is to have the north agree to withdraw from the town and bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers there.
Conventional wisdom holds that the north and south depend on each other. First, most of the oil is in the south, but the pipelines run through the north, so neither side can profit from it without cooperation (nor can the Chinese and Sudan’s other oil customers). Second, the civil war was devastating and neither side can benefit from its resumption. In this case, the conventional wisdom is probably right.
So the recent fighting can be seen as essentially a Chicken game, a really nasty and violent one but nonetheless a case of brinksmanship. The north is trying to push the situation to its advantage, without actually provoking a war. The south is yelling about it but basically suffering some losses in service of the larger goal, a successful independence day, which will come on July 9 — God willing.
Update — later in the day the two sides agreed to withdraw Sudanese troops from Abyei and to bring in Ethiopian peacekeepers under the UN flag. Talks continue on the difficult substantive issues of how to administer the town after South Sudan’s independence.