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Africa: The Right to Secede

31 January 2010

Africa: The Right to Secede

By Gwynne Dyer

Ban Ki-moon is not the best secretary-general the United Nations ever had, but he has grasped the essential nature of his job. The UN is an organisation made up of sovereign states, and their highest priority is the preservation of their own privileges. It is the trade union of the sovereign states of the world, and Ban is their shop steward. Which is why he said what he did last weekend.

Speaking just before the African Union summit opened in Addis Ababa, the UN secretary-general declared that both the UN and the AU had a big responsibility “to maintain peace in Sudan and make unity attractive.” It is not immediately obvious that “peace” and “unity” are compatible in Sudan, where civil war killed about 2 million people and created 4 million refugees between 1983 and 2005, but Ban was in no doubt about it.

The fighting in Sudan ended in 2005 when the northern-based government and the southern-based rebels signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that created a unity government in Khartoum and a separate regional government in the south – and promised the southerners a referendum on secession next year. That promise was what stopped the fighting, and despite many crises and clashes it has held for five years.

Not only that, but the dictator in Khartoum, President (and ex-general) Omar al-Bashir, recently declared yet again that he will respect a southern decision to secede. “The National Congress Party favours unity,” he said in December. “But if the result of the referendum is separation, then we in the NCP will be the first to take note of this decision and to support it.”

So here is this Korean bureaucrat, Ban Ki-moon, urging African countries to back the unity campaign of the regime in Khartoum – a regime whose leader, President Bashir, is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for the massacres carried out by government-backed militias in Darfur.

What’s more, Ban Ki-moon is ultimately in control of the United Nations troops who are stationed in Sudan to guarantee the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Yet he clearly said which side he backed in the referendum: “We’ll work hard to avoid a possible secession.” Who does this guy think he is?

He knows. He is the shop steward of the Federation of Sovereign States and Allied Trades (also known as the United Nations), and his job is to preserve the rights and privileges of its members. Their most important right, of course, is to keep control of all their territory forever, regardless of the views of the local people.

The African Union is particularly devoted to “preserving the unity” of all its members, because Africa’s borders are particularly arbitrary and irrational. If any of the disparate ethnic groups that are trapped together in country A were allowed to secede, then the demand for similar secessions in countries B to Z would become irresistible, or so the African orthodoxy has it.

“No Secessions” was the paramount rule of the old Organisation of African Unity, and it survived unbroken until Eritrea got its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. That was not an encouraging precedent, since Eritrea and Ethiopia soon ended up at war with each other, and no further secessions have been recognised since then.

But there is another way to look at this, and that is to count the cost of all the wars that have been fought in Africa to prevent secessions. From the Biafran war in Nigeria in the 1960s down through the various secessionist movements in Congo and Ethiopia and on to the breakaway movements in Sudan’s south and west (Darfur) today, at least ten million Africans have been killed. For what?

Nobody except some ruling elites would be worse off if the secessions had been allowed to succeed. The Nigerian elite would have somewhat less money to put into its overseas bank accounts, since the oil money would have stayed in the south-east (Biafra), and a new Biafran ruling elite would have bigger Swiss accounts.

Maybe what remained of Nigeria would have split into a Muslim north and a Yoruba-speaking Christian south-west, since without Biafra the country would have become a Muslim-majority state. So what? Maybe everybody would have been happier that way.

Most people will probably be happier if Sudan does split in the referendum planned for January, 2011. Those in the Muslim, Arabic-speaking north would have co-existed peacefully with the various Christian and animist ethnic groups of the south if they had been left to their own devices. However, the northern ruling elite imposed Islamic law to consolidate its power, and the southern elites responded with appeal to ethnic solidarity.

If the south leaves next year, it will take most of the oil with it. That is why the northern elite fought so hard to save “national unity.”. But the oil still has to go out to the sea through northern territory, so the revenue will still be shared. After two decades of killing, Sudan is broken, and the best solution is independence for the south. Unless Ban Ki-moon and his trade union get their way, in which case the war will resume.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 11 and 12. (“No…then”; and “Nobody…way”)

Omar al-Bashir: Politics and the Law

16 July 2008

Omar al-Bashir: Politics and the Law

 By Gwynne Dyer

All the opposition groups in Darfur celebrated when the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court announced on 14 July that he was seeking the indictment of Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir on the charge of genocide, but almost everybody else had a problem with it. They don’t doubt that Bashir is a ruthless dictator who is guilty of ordering many thousands of deaths. They just think that putting him on an international “wanted” list is unwise.

Tanzanian foreign minister Bernard Membe, speaking on behalf of the African Union, said: “We are asking for the ICC to re-examine its decision….If you arrest Bashir, you will create a leadership vacuum in Sudan. The outcome could be equal to that of Iraq.” Membe and many other people fear that the indictment of Bashir, far from ending the conflict in Darfur, could reignite the much bigger civil war between northern and southern Sudan.

Andrew Natsios, the former US special envoy for Sudan, was equally worried that the ICC was playing with fire: “This indictment may well shut off the last remaining hope for a peaceful settlement (for Darfur).” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon phoned Bashir personally to assure him that the ICC is quite separate from the UN. In Khartoum there was defiance from Bashir personally, but also warnings from opposition leaders that this was not a good idea.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which led the predominantly African and Christian south of the country in the 22-year civil war, was emphatically not for rocking the boat right now. The SPLM spokesman said that “indicting (Omar al-Bashir) has created a dangerous situation in Sudan threatening peace and stability in the country.”

What is at stake, in the SPLM’s view, is the 2005 peace deal that gave the south its autonomy, and promised elections for next year in which the south could choose independence from the mainly Muslim and Arabic-speaking north if it wants. The election might also bring democracy to Sudan (or to the two halves, if they separate), after nineteen years of Bashir’s dictatorship.

An estimated two million people died in the north-south civil war, compared to perhaps 200,000 in the past five years in Darfur. Nobody wants to go back to that, and with oil revenues starting to build up, both the northern and the southern political elites have every incentive to make the deal work.

Sudan is in the midst of a difficult but still promising transition, but it may not succeed if Bashir’s only choices are to live as a hunted criminal facing arrest and trial on genocide charges, or to cling to power forever. More immediately, his indictment could wreck the possibility of a peace deal to end the war in Darfur. So most of the northern opposition parties opposed the ICC’s action, too.

But that is irrelevant to the International Criminal Court, because it is not a political organisation. It is a COURT, and courts operate by different rules. It may be politically inconvenient to indict Bashir right now, but as the prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina, said last week, “I don’t have the luxury to look away. I have the evidence.”

Moreno-Ocampo, and the three judges (Ghanaian, Lithuanian and Brazilian) who must now decide whether or not to indict Bashir, and the whole ICC, are quite rightly barred from taking political considerations into account. They are there to administer the laws.

The law in question is the new international law that seeks to make even senior military and political leaders legally responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Since such people are unlikely to face legal action in their own countries, which are generally tyrannies of one sort or another, it must be done at the international level. Hence the creation of the ICC in 2002.

The ICC is a fragile new growth that challenges the old de facto rule that sovereign states can forgive themselves and their servants for any abuse or atrocity, however wicked. 147 countries have signed the treaty that created it, although neither China nor India accepts the ICC’s jurisdiction, and the United States and Israel have both “unsigned” the treaty.

The most powerful states are always the most reluctant to give up their sovereign powers in the interests of international law, so the rest of the world tends to go ahead without them, on the assumption that they will catch up later. In the meantime, the main problem for those who do support the ICC is to remember that they are trying to build the rule of law in the world, not to solve some local problem.

It is important that Sudan finally gets peace and prosperity, after endless years of war, tyranny and poverty. It is even more important that leaders who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes know that they will have to answer to an international court.

In the end, these two goals are probably not irreconcilable. Or do you really think that Sudan’s political elites are so stupid and supine that they will let their whole future be wrecked in order to protect one brutal, blood-soaked general who has long outlived his usefulness?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The ICC…problem”)

No Genocide in Darfur

2 October 2006

No Genocide in Darfur

By Gwynne Dyer

On one issue, at least, George Bush and George Clooney are in perfect accord: what is happening in Darfur is a genocide, and Something Must Be Done. But it isn’t a genocide, and Nothing Will Be Done.

“What you’ll hear is, well, the government of Sudan must invite the United Nations in for us to act,” said President George W. Bush in mid-September. “Well, there are other alternatives, like passing a UN resolution saying we’re coming in with a UN force in order to save lives.” But for all Bush’s tough talk, he wasn’t really ready to fight his way into Darfur, so the actual UN resolution says that Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir must approve the force. “Philanthropic imperialism” has a dwindling constituency in Washington.

Actor George Clooney is still up for it, though. If the proposed force of 20,000 UN troops was not in Darfur by the end of September, he told the United Nations Security Council three weeks ago, the scene will be set for “the first genocide of the 21st century.” There would be no point in sending UN troops later: “You will simply need men with shovels and bleached linen and headstones.” As if the UN could actually come up with 20,000 troops to send, and would authorise them to fight their way into Sudan against Bashir’s will.

The end-of-September deadline for putting a 20,000-strong force of United Nations troops into Darfur, including large numbers of soldiers drawn from NATO countries, was always a fantasy. The deadline has passed without any softening of the Sudanese government’s total rejection of the plan, and no Western troops are heading for Sudan any time soon. Instead, the existing force of 7,000 troops from African Union countries that tries to protect the refugee camps, under-equipped and poorly supplied though it is, will stay at least until the end of the year.

This is the best available outcome, and may even save some tens of thousands of lives — especially if the Western countries now give that African Union force the money, fuel, night-flying helicopters and other resources it needs to do the job. It will continue to be grim in Darfur, but at least the West has avoided a military intervention in Africa that would have made the Somalia debacle in 1992-93 look like a success story.

Darfur, the western region of Sudan, is as big as France, but it has only six million people. They are all black Africans and all Muslims, but some were Arabised long ago, while other groups, notably the Zaghawa and the Fur, have retained their original African languages and ethnic identities. (Darfur means “home of the Fur”.) Resources are scarce, and the various groups are often in conflict over them.

Nevertheless, Darfur remained relatively quiet during the dreadful war (two million dead in the past twenty years) between the African ethnic groups of southern Sudan, where most people are Christians or animists, and the Muslims of the Arabised north who dominated Sudan’s government, army and economy. It was the peace settlement between north and south in 2003 that triggered the revolt in Darfur.

That peace deal gave the southern rebels a share in the central government, a half-share of the oil revenues now pouring in from wells that are mostly located in “southern” territory, and the right to a referendum on independence from Sudan in six years’ time. So some leaders of the Zaghawa and the Fur decided to emulate the southerners: launch a revolt in Darfur, and try to cut a similar deal with Khartoum in return for ending it.

The regime in Khartoum used the same tactic that it had employed extensively in the war in the south: it armed and paid Arabised groups (the Janjaweed militia) to fight the rebels. And just as in the south, the bulk of the victims were innocent civilians. A great many people died, and almost half the population fled to refugee camps that sprang up inside Darfur and across the frontier in Chad.

International aid agencies try to care for the refugees and the African Union sent a 7,000-strong force to protect them, but none of the foreigners took sides in the fighting. At peace talks in Abuja last May Khartoum offered the rebels posts in the provincial government and a share of oil revenues, and one rebel group, Minni Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Army, accepted the deal. However, two rival groups didn’t — and even the SLA split, with breakaway factions joining the rejectionists to form the National Redemption Front.

In July fighting resumed, with Minnawi’s SLA now cooperating with government troops and the Janjaweed against the remaining rebels. What is needed is not outside military intervention against either side, but a return to the peace table. Alex de Waal, an advisor to the African Union mediation team at the talks, reckons that another $100 million on the table would probably have persuaded most of the rebel hold-outs to accept the deal.

Darfur is not another Rwanda, another Cambodia, another Holocaust in the making, as the “Never Again” slogans of protesters in the West suggest. It is a cruel war of a kind lamentably common in Africa, and the most useful thing non-Africans can do is to support the African Union’s mediators and its troops on the ground.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“What…will”)

Some Good News

22 August 2005

Some Good News

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes, just forcing yourself to say the right words can save thousands of lives. “The Kurdish problem is everybody’s problem, but above all mine,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbekir last week. “We will solve all problems through democracy,” he added — and went on to admit that the national government, dominated by the Turkish-speaking majority, had long mistreated the Kurds who make up a fifth of the country’s people.

The rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resumed its separatist war in south-eastern Turkey last year after a five-year ceasefire, responded immediately by suspending all attacks for a month because Erdogan’s remarks had “created a positive atmosphere for a resolution.”

Can it be as simple as that? Well, no, but the words have to be said. Kurds suffered more than anybody else in the PKK’s 15-year separatist revolt in 1984-99, which killed 37,000 people. Most of them don’t insist on a separate state; they just want respect for their language and culture in a country that used to deny their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks”. But Erdogan had to convince them that he was truly committed to righting those past injustices, so they needed a public apology.

The trick now will be to turn the PKK’s one-month unilateral ceasefire into a permanent peace. That mainly depends on Erdogan persuading Turkish public opinion and his own armed forces not only to accept an amnesty for the estimated 3,000 PKK fighters who are still in the mountains, but also to let the PKK participate peacefully in legal, democratic politics.

The situation is remarkably similar in Indonesia, where the separatist rebels in Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra signed a peace deal with the government on 15 August after a 29-year war that killed at least 15,000 people. What opened the door to peace was the tsunami last December that killed over 200,000 of the 4 million Acehnese and gave both sides a new perspective on their long quarrel, but the words still had to be said there, too.

They were spoken first by the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who announced last February that they would finally drop their demand for independence if only the Indonesian state would live up to its long-neglected promises of local autonomy for Aceh. The newly elected Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had already been making conciliatory noises, so Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative offered its mediation services, and after five rounds of negotiations in Helsinki they came up with a peace deal that may actually work.

GAM’s 3,000 fighters will amnestied and disarmed, while its leaders will re-emerge as a legitimate political party. The local government will get a high degree of autonomy, including 70 percent of the income generated by the province’s rich oil and gas resources, and Jakata will withdraw more than half of its 53,000 troops and police from Aceh. The European Union and ASEAN will send monitors to settle disputes and oversee the process. And everyone will live grumpily ever after.

Even the deepest and most embittered conflicts over language, religion and ethnicity are soluble if there is enough patience and good will. In fact, the past month has seen another case where a peace settlement that almost fell apart was saved, at least for the moment, by people who simply refused to lose their heads or to jostle for political position. The Sudan peace deal is still holding, too, despite the unexpected death of its main architect, John Garang.

The 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan has cost about two million lives, and the power-sharing deal to end it was very much the personal accomplishment of John Garang, the southern leader who became Sudan’s first vice-president in a north-south power-sharing government only last month. His sudden death in a helicopter crash early this month led to days of rioting by southerners who suspected foul play (though it was almost a certainly an accident), and hundreds of people were killed.

Garang had systematically crushed potential rivals for control of his organisation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, but the southerners have managed to install his successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, without falling into another internecine struggle. Moreover, the northern leadership has so far resisted the temptation to exploit the factionalism that has always been the curse of the southerners, who are deeply divided on tribal and religious lines. It’s enough to restore your faith in the concept of enlightened self-interest.

Once conflicts topple into organised violence, the rules of war generally force people to behave like intransigent fools. That doesn’t mean they really are, and given half a chance they will often behave much better and more sensibly. Democracy often gives them that chance.

Look around: rational behaviour abounds. Not just Turkey and Indonesia and Sudan. Sub-Comandante Marcos has just led his Zapatista rebels out of the Chiapas jungle with a view to influencing Mexico’s next election. The Irish Republican Army’s spokesman, “P. O’Neill”, declared late last month that the IRA “has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms.” And the incentive, every time, is the prospect that the rebels can achieve at least the more important of their goals through democratic political action.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The 22-year…self-interest”)