26 April 2012
Sudan Is Not The Norm
By Gwynne Dyer
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language recently. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan last July.
“Movement”, in Arabic, is “haraka”, but Bashir has started using the word “hashara” instead. “Hashara” means “insect”, and Sudan’s official media have obediently taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.
The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.
The war, if it comes, would be over the control of the oil reserves along the undefined border, but it would also be an ethnic conflict. The majority in Sudan thinks of itself as Arab, and looks down on the “African” ethnic groups of South Sudan. Members of the Sudanese elite, conditioned by centuries of Arab slave-trading in Africa, sometimes even use the word “abd” (slave) in private when referring to southerners.
The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that (the SPLM) has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or (they) end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
This is nonsense: neither side’s army has the logistical support to advance as far as the other side’s capital. But they could certainly kill a lot of people – about two million died in the 22-year war that ended in South Sudan’s independence – and they seem determined to do it all over again.
So what are we to make of this folly? Many people will simply say “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others, more sophisticated, will lament that mankind is still trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.
War between countries is not the norm in Africa: there are 52 African countries, and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past twenty years.
Internal wars are much more common, and some, like those in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on average more than half million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is, and it’s getting better.
There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious, or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable, either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely.
No great power has gone to war with any other great power in the past 67 years. That is a huge change for the better, for the great powers are the only countries with the resources to kill on a truly large scale: it would take a century’s worth of Africa’s wars at their worst to match the death toll in six years of the Second World War.
This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production (although it provided 98 percent of his government’s budget) because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil.
No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil (which crossed Sudan in pipelines to the sea), just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash – and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.
But at least the rest of world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig, and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and special envoy Haile Menkarios to mediate between the two sides. China, which took most of the oil exports from both countries, has sent its envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, on a similar mission.
Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“The war…southerners”; “This is…again”, and “No great…war”)
13 February 2012
The New Division of Africa
By Gwynne Dyer
Sudan was bombing South Sudan again last week, only a couple of months after the two countries split apart. Sudan is mostly Muslim, and South Sudan is predominantly Christian, but the quarrel is about oil, not religion. And yet, it is really about religion too, since the two countries would never have split apart along the current border if not for the religious divide.
Ivory Coast was split along the same Muslim-Christian lines for nine years, although the shooting ended last year and there is an attempt underway to sew the country back together under an elected government. But in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country by far, the situation is going from bad to worse, with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram murdering people all over the country in the name of imposing sharia law on the entire nation.
“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought (in 1967-70, which killed between one and three million people),” said President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s a major exaggeration – the current death toll in Nigeria from terrorist attacks and army reprisals is probably only a few hundred a month – but the potential for much greater slaughter is certainly there.
In an interview with Reuters, President Jonathan said: “If (Boko Haram) clearly identify themselves now and say…this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroyed some innocent people and their properties, why not (talk to them)?” But it’s pointless: he already knows who they are and what they want.
“Boko Haram”, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden,” and the organisation’s declared aim is to overthrow the government and impose Islamic law on all of Nigeria. In a 40-minute audio message posted on YouTube two weeks ago, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened that his next step would be to carry out a bombing campaign against Nigeria’s secondary schools and universities.
This is not only vicious; it is also completely loony. There is no way that Boko Haram could conquer the entire country. Only half of Nigerians are Muslims, and they are much poorer than the country’s 80 million Christians. The Christian south is where the oil is, and the ports, and most of the industry, so that’s where most of the money is too. The same pattern is repeated in many other African countries: poor Muslim north; prosperous Christian south.
There was no plan behind this. Islam spread slowly south from North Africa, which was conquered by Arab armies in the 7th century, while Christianity spread rapidly inland once European colonies appeared on the African coast in the last few hundred years. The line where Islam and Christianity meet runs across Africa about 1,100 km (700 mi.) north of the equator (except in Ethiopia, where the Christians have the highlands and the Muslims the lowlands).
In general, the Muslims ended up with the desert and semi-desert regions of Africa because Islam had to make it all the way across the Sahara, while the more fertile and richer regions nearer to the equator and all the way down to South Africa are mainly Christian because the Europeans arrived by sea with much greater economic and military power. But some 350 million Africans live in countries that straddle the Christian-Muslim fault line.
There probably won’t be a full-scale civil war in Nigeria this time around, but Boko Haram is targeting Christians indiscriminately. The Nigerian army, not best known for its discipline and restraint, is almost as indiscriminate in targeting devout but innocent Muslims in the northern states that are home to the terrorist organisation. Christians are already moving out of the north, and Muslims out of the south.
It will get worse in Nigeria, and it is getting bad again in what used to be Sudan, and Ethiopia is an accident just waiting to happen. Even Ivory Coast may not really be out of the woods yet. There is a small but real risk that these conflicts could some day coalesce into a general Muslim-Christian confrontation that would kill millions and convulse all of Africa.
Christianity and Islam have been at war most of the time since Muslim armies conquered half of the then-Christian world, from Syria to Spain, in the 7th and 8th centuries. There was the great Christian counter-attack of the Crusades in the 12th century, the Muslim conquest of Turkey and the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the European conquest of almost the entire Muslim world in the 18th-20th centuries.
It is a miserable history, and in some places it is likely to continue for some time to come. But nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa does the frontier between Muslim-majority and Christian-majority areas derive from conquest: these populations are not looking for revenge.
Boko Haram’s style of radical Islamism is an import from somewhere else entirely, and it would be a terrible mistake for large numbers of Muslim Nigerians to embrace it. On the other hand, it will be a terrible mistake if Nigeria doesn’t get a choke chain on its army, whose brutal actions are all too likely to drive Nigerian Muslims in exactly that direction.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Christianity…revenge”)
12 July 2011
Sudan: The Left-Over Country
by Gwynne Dyer
The flags have been waved, the anthem has been sung, and the new currency will be in circulation next week: the Republic of South Sudan has been launched, and is off to who knows where? Perdition, probably, for it is a “pre-failed state”, condemned by its extreme poverty, 15 percent literacy and bitter ethnic rivalries to more decades of violence and misery. But what about the country it leaves behind?
It’s telling that there is a South Sudan, but no North Sudan. What’s left is still just Sudan. It’s still the second-biggest country in Africa, and it still has four-fifths of the people it had before the south broke away. But it has lost a big chunk of its income: almost three-quarters of the old united country’s oil was in the south. It’s also an Arab country run by a dictator who has been in power for 22 years. So we know what comes next, don’t we?
The dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, is unquestionably a Bad Man. He seized power in a military coup in 1989, and he is the first serving head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in his conduct of the war in the rebellious province of Darfur. It added three counts of genocide last year. But he’s not all bad.
He inherited a much bigger war, between the predominantly Muslim north of the country and what is now South Sudan. It was a squalid, dreadful affair that killed about two million southerners and drove another four million – about half the southern population – from their homes. Bashir has a lot of blood on his hands. But he eventually realised that the south could not be held by force, and he had the wisdom and courage to act on his insight.
In 2005 he ended the fighting by agreeing that the two parts of the country would be run by separate governments for six years, after which the south would hold a referendum on independence. He knew that the south would say “yes” overwhelmingly – in the end, 98.83 percent of southern Sudanese voted to have their own country – yet he never reneged on the deal.
“President Bashir and (his) National Congress Party deserve a reward,” said Salva Kiir, now the president of South Sudan, after the votes were counted in February. And Bashir said: “We will come and congratulate and celebrate with you…We will not hold a mourning tent.” His decision made him very vulnerable politically in the north, but he stuck to it for all these years, and as a result many tens of thousands of people who would have died are still alive.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that north-south relations will be smooth after the South’s independence. Most of the oil is in South Sudan, but the new country is landlocked: the oil can only be exported through pipelines that cross Sudan proper to reach the Red Sea. Yet there is not a deal on revenue-sharing yet, nor even on the border between the two countries.
The dispute over the province of Abyei flared into open fighting between northern and southern forces last week, although there is now agreement to bring in an Ethiopian peacekeeping force. There is no agreement, however, on the referendum that was promised for the province but never held.
Abyei’s permanent population is mostly Dinka Ngok, who are Christian or animist by religion and “southern” in their loyalty. The north, however, insists that the Misseriya, Arabic-speaking Muslim nomads who bring their herds of cattle into Abyei to graze during the dry season, also have the right to vote in the referendum. Deadlock.
Such ethnic quarrels will persist and proliferate: at least five rebel groups are fighting the new southern government, and Bashir’s regime faces big rebellions in Darfur, South Kordofan and Nile Province. South Sudan will almost certainly end up as a one-party state that spends most of its revenue on the army – “the next Eritrea,” as one diplomat put it – but the future of Sudan itself is harder to foretell.
Bashir’s immediate problem is economic. The deal to split the oil revenue equally between north and south lapsed with South Sudan’s independence, and he is bringing in harsh austerity measures and a new currency as part of a three-year “emergency programme” to stabilise the economy. But the price of food is already soaring in Khartoum as confidence in the Sudanese pound collapses.
Unaffordable food was a major factor in the popular revolts against oppressive Arab regimes in recent months, and Bashir is trying to insulate himself against that by promising stricter enforcement of Islamic law in Sudan. That may win him some support among the Muslim, Arabic-speaking majority, but by the same token it will further alienate the north’s remaining religious and ethnic minorities. So more rebellions in the outlying regions.
On top of all that, Bashir will forever be seen, however unfairly, as the man who “lost” the south. His status as an indicted war criminal does him no harm with the majority population at home; his failure to crush the southerners by force is what really undermines him. So he may soon have to go abroad and live with his money.
He did one good thing in his life, and no good deed goes unpunished.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The dispute…foretell”)
11 February 2011
Sudan: Peace Through Changing Borders
by Gwynne Dyer
“The people of South Sudan, for the first time since 1898, are going to determine their own future,” declared Dr Barnaba Marial Benjamin, southern Sudan’s information minister, before last month’s referendum on the region’s independence. “In fact, it will be the last-born state on this continent of Africa.” If he meant that no more African countries will split up, however, he was probably wrong.
The referendum was a resounding success from the southern point of view. It’s natural to be suspicious of referendums that produce “yes” votes of almost 99 percent, but in this case it was a genuine expression of southern opinion. The new state will become independent on 9 July, and so far it looks like the erstwhile government of undivided Sudan, based in Khartoum, will accept the outcome peacefully.
Early last month, speaking in the southern capital Juba, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir said: “I personally will be sad if Sudan splits. But at the same time I will be happy if we have peace in Sudan between the two sides.” After decades of war between the Muslim, Arabic-speaking north and the very different south, where most people speak local languages and are Christian, division makes sense. But it also creates a precedent.
That font of wisdom on geopolitical affairs, Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafy, warned a meeting of African and Arab leaders last October that southern Sudan’s independence would spread like a “disease…to all of Africa…With this precedent, investors will be frightened to invest in Africa.” But the African Union has blessed the split, while emphasising that this is a special situation and very much an exception.
It is a very special situation. About two million people have been killed in Sudan’s 43 years of civil war, the great majority of them southerners. As a result of the endless fighting, southern Sudan is one of the least developed regions in the world: the same size as France, it only has 60 km. (40 miles) of paved road. The southerners deserve their independence – but the implications are vast.
The old Organisation of African Unity, the African Union’s predecessor, had a rule that no border inherited from the colonial era could be changed. To allow frontiers to change in order to regroup people according to their ethnic, linguistic or religious identities would just open the door to endless war. For a long time, it didn’t happen.
The first partial break from the policy was the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia in 1993, after many years of civil war, but that exception was explained on the grounds that Eritrea had been ruled as a separate country by the Italians. This time, however, is different.
The African Union cannot justify the division of Sudan on the grounds that the south was separate under British colonial rule; it wasn’t. This is just a pragmatic decision to divide a country because the cost in blood and treasure of keeping it united has grown too high.
If it’s okay to split up Sudan, what’s to stop other secessionist groups from launching wars of independence, knowing that if enough people are killed they will probably get their way in the end? How about Nigeria? The oil-rich southeastern region (Biafra) has tried that once already. The Congo? There was once a vicious war, backed by Western mining interests, for the independence of the province of Katanga.
The rot has already spread beyond Africa. The decision in 2008 by the NATO countries and some others to recognise the independence of Kosovo, which was still legally a province of Serbia, created a similar precedent in Europe. In fact, it is an even more sweeping precedent, because the Serbian government, unlike the Sudanese, did not assent to the separation.
If Kosovo’s independence can be recognised without Serbia’s agreement, why can’t Turkish-majority northern Cyprus become legally independent without the permission of the Greek Cypriot-dominated government in Nicosia? Why can’t the breakaway bits of Georgia be recognised as independent states? Why can’t there be an independent Kurdish state?
Why not hold the long-promised, long-denied plebiscite in divided Kashmir, and let the local people decide, district by district, whether they want to be part of Pakistan, or part of India, or independent? Why can’t the western half of New Guinea separate peacefully from Indonesia? For that matter, why can’t Tibet and Xinjiang (Sinkiang) hold referendums on independence from China?
Good questions. Most of these situations have involved bloodshed in the past, and much of it continues in the present. The sum of human happiness would probably be increased if these ethnically distinct areas got to choose their own futures, and it is not necessarily true that changing the borders would be a bloodier business than keeping them frozen in place.
Conflict is still possible between Sudan and South Sudan, especially over the sharing of the oil revenue. Most of the oil is in the south, but the pipelines take it out through the north. So far, however, both sides are behaving in a very grown-up way, and together they are an advertisement for the virtues of letting borders change.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The old…high”)
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.