Sudan’s genocidal Darfur war still attracts international attention, and though large battles pitting national government troops against Darfur rebels are less frequent there, violent anarchy still afflicts that sad region.
A much larger and more dangerous war haunts Sudan, however: a re-ignition of the “North versus South” civil war. This reviving horror has ominous implications not only for East Africa but for all nations straddling sub-Saharan Africa’s “Arab-Black” ethnic and “Muslim-Christian” divides.
The last North-South war (the Second Sudan Civil War) lasted for two decades, left approximately 2 million dead, created millions of refugees and - despite ritual denials by the northern, Islamist, “national government” in Khartoum - involved slaving operations by northern-backed “Arab” militias. The evidence for this evil was damnably clear. South Sudanese black tribesmen would be kidnapped and then sold as laborers in the north.
The “third civil war” would be as vicious as the last, but given current political conditions, it could rapidly expand beyond Sudan and become a regional war involving several other impoverished, fragile states in East Africa - a war of the poor creating greater poverty and anarchy.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in January 2005, created a map with interim milestones for resolving the civil war. Today, the peace map is tattered. Interim successes have been undermined by cynical manipulation, corruption, chaotic bloodshed and - here’s the deep worry - the likelihood of calculated “proxy war” instigated by the north and thinly masked as tribal disputes.
The situation has deteriorated despite U.N. peacekeepers deployed in the south. UNMIS (U.N. Mission in Sudan) was initially regarded as a success. China contributes troop contingents.
China’s role as peacekeeper, however, is overshadowed by its role as oil field developer and oil customer. Sudan’s oil fields inconveniently stretch across the North-South boundary, but to classify the conflict as another oil war vastly oversimplifies the complex problems.
In fact, China may have played a passive role in exposing what many southerners believe is revenue-cheating by the national government. The CPA guaranteed a fair split of oil income between the national government and the semi-autonomous Government of South Sudan (GOSS). Recently, a human rights group sympathetic to GOSS said it had evidence that Khartoum reported less production from the oilfields than the Chinese oil company operating the fields reported. Khartoum denies the accusation.
Oil revenue-sharing is but one trouble. The CPA called for a fair border-demarcation process that would take into account “verbal information” from tribal leaders as well as “physical features of the landscape.” A demarcation decision issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July was regarded as a major accomplishment - until affected tribesmen spurned it, with good reason.
The civil war destroyed traditional settlement patterns, as people fled the violence. Now, returning refugees clash with new settlers. This happened in the oil-rich Abyei area, when Ngok Dinka returnees (southerners) clashed with the “Arabized” Misseriya tribe. (Abyei was the scene of an outright battle between northern and southern security forces in 2008.)
Khartoum and the GOSS have yet to agree on census figures, which are required for conducting honest national elections - which leads to what Khartoum really fears: a vote by southerners favoring the formation of a completely separate state.
Suspicion abounds. Southerners suspect this year’s spate of inter-tribal violence in South Sudan is being stoked by the north. At least 1,200 people have died in these ugly battles. The southerners believe Khartoum’s goal is to undermine the independence referendum by destabilizing the south.
Other wars intertwine. Uganda always insisted that the Ugandan rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA) was a tool of Khartoum. Now a revived LRA is appearing in South Sudan, and more than a few Ugandans suspect that “Arab” Khartoum has assisted the LRA.
GOSS says it will fight to protect its people. Kenya and Uganda (both predominantly Christian nations with a substantial number of Muslim citizens) are lined up behind GOSS.
The stage is set for an East African conflagration.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.