Sudan: Peace or Partition?

26 October 2003


Sudan: Peace or Partition?


By Gwynne Dyer


At first glance, Sudan is just one more proof that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live peacefully together; that ‘Islam has bloody borders’, as rent-a-sage Samuel Huntington put it in his mid-90s book ‘The Coming Clash of Civilisations’. After all, Sudan’s north is Muslim, the south is mostly Christian, and the country has been ravaged by north-south civil war for all but eleven years since independence in 1956. But things really aren’t that simple.


“There is no reason why Garang cannot play a role both on the national and regional level,” said Sudan’s Vice-President Ali Osman Taha last year, as peace talks between the central government and John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) were getting underway. And that really is the key to a lasting peace in Sudan: the peace talks at Lake Naivasha in Kenya are now on their final lap, and if Garang and thousands of other rebels from the south do get important, well-paid roles afterwards, then all may yet be well.


The northern two-thirds of Sudan’s 38 million people are Muslim and Arabic-speaking, and they are the people who have traditionally run the country. The latest round of fighting between them and the Nilotic peoples of the south, who speak African languages and have Christian or animist beliefs, started twenty years ago in 1983, and there would be no prospect of peace even now if not for two new factors: oil, and strong pressure from the United States.


Sudan’s oil production has soared from almost nothing to a quarter-million barrels a day in only a decade, but the oil-fields are mostly in the south, which means that well-heads, pipe-lines and ports are all SPLA targets in the ongoing civil war. That’s one reason that the US wants an end to the fighting; the other is that the Christian right in America has taken up the cause of the Sudanese Christians. Nevertheless, US mediation in Sudan has been both even-handed and effective.


The deal could be done by the end of the year, and this time it actually recognises that the long southern rebellion has been fuelled more by the resentment of southern elites at being excluded from power and perks in Khartoum than by religious differences. In twenty years as leader of the southern rebellion John Garang has never once said flatly that he seeks independence for the southern provinces of Sudan — and there is a reason for his reticence.


The idea that independence would solve all the south’s problems is juvenile romanticism, and there are not many romantics left twenty years into a civil war. In fact, Garang has been signalling all these years that he and his colleagues can be bought, though the price would be high. Nor is there anything wrong with being bought, if what that means in practice is good jobs for southerners, influence at the centre for southerners, and a fair share of oil revenues for southerners.


That would certainly be a better outcome for the rest of Africa than partition, because there are a dozen other countries in the continent with a similar Muslim-Christian split. Dividing Sudan on religious lines would be a disastrous precedent for all of them.


In most other cases where countries have split up on religious lines, from British India in 1947 to former Yugoslavia in the 90s, the process has involved hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and lasting bitterness afterwards. Islam was generally one of the religions involved, but Muslims were more often the victims than the victors in these events: it was Slobodan Milosevic’s brutal project for a Greater Serbia, not Muslim separatism, that destroyed the tolerant old Bosnia where people of all religions and none lived peacefully together.


Sudan is different, for Muslims are the majority there and they have abused their power. In 1983 they embarked on a disastrous attempt to impose sharia (Islamic) law on the whole country, including the nearly 40 percent of their fellow-citizens who are not Muslim. The current regime has now ditched its fundamentalist allies and accepted in principle that sharia law must be restricted to Muslim-majority areas, recognising that the only long-term alternative is partition..


In Sudan partition might be a solution of sorts to a war that has already consumed almost two million lives, but apply that precedent elsewhere in Africa and you unleash decades of bloody chaos where there is now peace. For almost half a century the continent has abided by the rule that the Organisation of African Unity adopted at the beginning of the independence era that the colonial borders, however irrational, must not be tampered with. No region may secede, no border may be changed by force. It is very important that this rule not be broken by Sudan.


Six years after the peace deal goes into effect, southerners will have the right to vote on secession — and in the meantime, Garang will be allowed to maintain his own army in the south. If the deal goes sour, Sudan breaks up.


Fortunately, enough new money is flowing into Sudan because of oil that there can actually be good jobs for everyone who counts and a fair share of the national income for the south without alienating the key northern groups that currently monopolise power in Khartoum. “I can see the end is in sight,” said US Secretary of State Colin Powell on his visit to the talks last week. “This is a moment of opportunity that must not be lost.” And for once the platitudes were true.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“In most…partition”)