Pandora’s Box in Sudan

13 January 2005

Pandora’s Box in Sudan

By Gwynne Dyer

If the peace agreement signed in Kenya on 10 January really ends the 21-year-old Sudanese civil war, the killing will stop and millions of refugees will be able to go home — but the deal carries a big risk for Africa. As “The Nation” put it in Nairobi: “One of the elements of the settlement is that the south has the right to secede after six years. This is the first time in Africa that a peace settlement has recognised the right to secession.”

That’s not strictly true, since the almost equally long war in Ethiopia ended in the early 90s with independence for Eritrea. But Eritrea could be treated as an exception because it had already been a separate entity in colonial times; the Sudan deal is different. The basic rule that Africa’s old colonial borders must never be changed, adopted by the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) at the dawn of independent Africa, is starting to break down.

The OAU declared Africa’s borders sacrosanct not because they made good sense, but precisely because they didn’t. They were arbitrary lines on maps that bundled peoples of different languages, cultures and religions within the borders of a single state, and divided others between several states. If you let anybody get away with changing just one of those borders, you would be opening Pandora’s Box — because there’s hardly a border anywhere in Africa that somebody couldn’t make a good argument for changing.

Fifty-one African countries (or fifty-two, or fifty-three — it depends how you feel about Somaliland and Western Sahara); around two hundred separate ethno-linguistic groups of more than half a million people each; no more than five or six groups south of the Sahara that number over ten million: Africa is the last place in the world to start trying to draw rational borders. Leave them alone!

That was the rule from the start, and it probably saved millions of African lives over the decades, in wars that were not fought because even if you won them you couldn’t change the borders. Yet the wiser men among the OAU’s founders probably secretly knew that the rule couldn’t last forever. Never mind. It would keep big inter-African wars at bay for at least a generation, and by that time surely economic growth and education would have eroded the old ethnic divisions. With luck, African borders would matter no more than Scandinavian borders by then.

It seemed a plausible hope at the time. Africa’s living standards and education levels were much higher than Asia’s in the 60s, and most people expected the kind of rapid development in Africa that subsequently did happen in Asia. If that had actually come to pass, African borders really wouldn’t matter much by now. But it didn’t happen, so they matter a lot.

The Sudanese peace deal makes good sense from the point of view of the Sudanese. Neither side can win the war, which has killed two million people and displaced another four million in the past two decades, and the country’s oil reserves can only be developed if the two sides stop shooting and share the profits. So President Omar al-Bashir’s regime, which controls the Arabic-speaking, mostly Muslim north of the country, has agreed to share power with the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which runs much of the black African, mostly Christian and animist south.

SPLA leader John Garang will become First Vice-President to President Bashir, the two armies will be integrated (in theory, though probably not in practice), and oil revenues, mostly generated in the south, will be evenly shared between north and south. There is even hope that the new, integrated government in Khartoum will take a saner approach to the rebellion in the western region of Darfur.

Khartoum’s current approach, which has been to unleash a brutal militia called the Janjaweed, recruited from Arabic-speaking pastoral tribes in the north of Darfur, to terrorise the more “African” farming communities of southern Darfur from whom the rebels are drawn, has been as vicious as it was ineffective. It has cost 70,000 lives in the past year and made almost 2 million people refugees, and still the rebels have not been defeated.

The rebels in Darfur are trying to emulate the success of the SPLA, but without either oil or religion to strengthen their hand — everybody on both sides in Darfur is Muslim — they stand little chance of success. A less violent approach from Khartoum and some oil money to lubricate a peace deal there could cut the ground right out from under them.

But the price of all this has been that the non-Muslim southerners (around a third of Sudan’s thirty million people) will be able to secede legally in six years’ time if they still want out. The hope is that a share of the oil money will reconcile everybody to a more or less united Sudan, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough money, fairly enough distributed, to transform opinion in the south (which has been separatist since before independence) in only six years.

If the south chooses to become a separate country in 2010, under an agreement and procedures that have the official approval of the African Union, then the rules in Africa would well and truly have changed, and Pandora’s Box would be open at last. This is a very big gamble.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Khartoum’s…them”)