A Short History of Sudan’s Second Civil War and a Call for the US to Stay Engaged

The foreign policy acheivement George W. Bush should be proudest about is something most Americans have probably never heard of but which will have sweeping consequences, somehow or other, for east African politics: The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.  The Liberal Ironist maintains this in full acknowledgement of the fact that the Agreement may unravel violently–if we do not stay engaged and commit to enforce the outcome of the January 2011 referendum on independence.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, but it has just a little over 42 million people.  The best available (but still spotty) demographic information suggests that 70% of the Sudanese are Sunni Muslim, 25% Animist and 5% Christian.  The Animists and Christians are concentrated in the South–aside from about 2 million Southerners who fled to the capital Khartoum in the context of the 2 civil wars that consumed their homeland for the better part of 50 years.  Most of the country is a vast desert with population densely-clustered around the Nile River and its tributaries; the south of the country, however, is jungle.  This difficult jungle terrain probably partly explains the inability of the central government in Sudan to bring the Southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to heel–in spite of decades of mass murder committed by successive Sudanese governments for this purpose.

Sudan was a joint colony (called a “condominium”) administered by the British Empire and Egypt in partnership.  The impoverished and isolated South was more-receptive to British administration than the restive and more-organized northern bulk of Sudan.  The First Sudanese Civil War began in 1955–at which point Sudan was still a colony–as a military mutiny by Southern troops against the proposed constitution which would standardize the Arabic culture of the north and break up Southern military units currently deployed in the South, in contravention of British practice.  This civil war continued until 1972, when Jaafar Nimeiri, one of Sudan’s longer-reigning military dictators, signed a peace treaty granting the South autonomy.

The Second Sudanese Civil War began for the same reason as the first: Southern Sudanese political elites realized that the central government intended to divide the Southern government, centralize power, and Arabize and Islamize the entire country.  Nimeiri abandoned his pledge to respect Southern autonomy and difference as he cultivated Islamist support, among other interests, in part by scrapping the agreement.  In 1989, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a brigadier in the Sudanese Army, succeeded in a bloodless military coup against Nimeiri.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who has the rare distinction of having presided over mass killings in 2 separate civil wars in the same country. Civilian victims of violence in civil wars he has waged since the 1980s number over 2 million.

Little has been bloodless about al-Bashir’s government of Sudan since.  2 million civilians in South Sudan died during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted from 1983-2005.  Of all wars since World War II, this is the 4th most-murderous of civilians.  (The genocide charges issued against al-Bashir on July 12th of this year were for the 300,000 or so civilians killed in Darfur, a much smaller toll but in a situation where much of the killing occurred more-quickly and systematically.)

The intransigence of this civil war and the narrow margin for agreement between the combatants is what makes the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement so extraordinary.  President Bush deployed Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was a key positive influence in inducing al-Bashir to accede to the Southern rebels’ basic interests: There would be an autonomous government in the South including a separate legal system from the Sharia law of the central government, power-sharing of SPLM rebel leaders with the central governement, local control of oil wealth, withdrawal of the Sudanese Armed Forces from the South, elections, and an independence referendum for the South, which is scheduled for January of next year.

Joseph Garang de Mabior, educated in the United States before leading the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement to a favorable, US-brokered peace agreement in 2005. Soon after assuming the Vice President's role in the new Sudanese government, Garang was killed in a helicopter crash. While there is no evidence of foul play in the crash, Bashir's government has stalled on political forms essential to the agreement, earning skepticism about his government's commitment from the SPLM and foreign observers alike..

Problems have cropped up at virtually every stage since.  Rebel commander John Garang de Mabior, who had become President of the South and Vice President of the National Unity Government, was killed in a plane crash 7 months after the Agreement was signed.  The SPLM boycotted Sudan’s national elections in April to protest al-Bashir’s violations of the Agreement–among them failure to withdraw troops from the South.  Opposition leaders and foreign observers both alleged fraud in the election in which al-Bashir claimed 68% of the vote.  (Realistically, he probably won the election even without the apparent vote-rigging.)

Yesterday the Washington Post reported on President Obama’s scheduled September 24th meeting with high-ranking Sudanese officials.  This could be the US’s last chance to highlight incentives for al-Bashir to let the referendum go to a vote without a hitch.  Tampering with a vote that only applies to the South would be much harder for the Sudanese government than rigging the April national elections; this is precisely why early indications that the government is simply dragging its feet on organizing the election is a clear bad sign.  For Southern Sudan to return to a state of civil war after just 6 years of peace would be a tragedy.  For al-Bashir to refuse to ratify a pro-independence vote now (let-alone to stall out the referendum deadline) would likely lead to international recognition of South Sudan anyway.  For the people of the South, such a betrayal would simply mean a return to their modal condition of life, one which governments should be instituted to protect their people from.

Map of secessionist regions in Sudan. Southern Sudan is colored light blue; Darfur in the west is colored green. The red and pink regions along the margins of Southern Sudan are Abiyei and the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions, scheduled to hold plebiscites on whether to join Southern Sudan. The Southern referendum on permanent autonomy or independence is scheduled for early 2011.

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2 thoughts on “A Short History of Sudan’s Second Civil War and a Call for the US to Stay Engaged

  1. Pingback: Wikileaks Wagers Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement to Leak a Few More Cables | The Liberal Ironist

  2. Pingback: South Sudan’s Difficult Transition | The Liberal Ironist

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