The Liberal Ironist has a theory about Wikileaks–essentially, that it’s an ill-intentioned Anarchist organization deliberately disrupting largely-benevolent State Department operations. Some people might be surprised to see yet-another story about it in this space. But several recently-leaked diplomatic cables add perspective to a September blog entry–perspective which unfortunately could pose a risk to the most-encouraging political development in Sudan since its independence.
In mid-September the Liberal Ironist reported on President Obama’s planned meeting with Sudanese officials in anticipation of the South Sudan independence referendum scheduled for January 9, 2011. That entry included a brief history of post-colonial Sudan culminating in the Second Sudanese Civil War, one of the deadliest and longest-running post-colonial civil wars. The Second Sudanese Civil War was the continuation of an earlier conflict (whether a separatist or a center-periphery conflict is subjective) that actually began before Sudan gained independence; a Northern-dominated national constitution calling for a strong central government resulted in a mutiny by a contingent of primarily-Southern colonial military units in the South in 1955. The South was poorer than the North, and had a predominantly-jungle rather than a desert clime; religious confession in the South was mostly a mix of traditional forms of animism and Christianity in contrast to the austere Islam of the North, an early region to convert to Salafi Islamist fundamentalism. Southern political opinion preferred either a confederation government or continued colonial status as a means of preventing power consolidation by the North, whose society had gained a bad reputation as a result of the enslavement of Southerners.
A string of military coups in Sudan’s Northern-dominated national government led to alternating periods of autonomy offers to the rebellious South and subsequent violations of those agreements to appease Northern Islamist elites. The underdevelopment and underpopulation of Sudan–it is the largest country in Africa but only has about 42 million people–ensure that the special political status of the South is always precarious; even if Sudan’s given reigning dictator desires peace and considers Southern political autonomy a tolerable arrangement, ideological factions and material interests based in the North (the country is an Islamic Republic dominated by the military and the South is the source of much of the country’s oil, the key component in the government’s development plans) exert a constant pressure on the dictator to break the agreement; without checks and balances or rule of law in the political system, there is nothing aside from the potential military strength of Southern rebels to keep that dictator committed to the region’s home-rule. Hold that thought…
The long duration of the Second Sudanese Civil War–it began in 1983 and ended under US mediation in 2005–must have played a role in Omar Hassan al-Bashir‘s concessions in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. While other peripheral regions of the country are in varying stages of revolt–most-notoriously Darfur where the government has sponsored wholesale massacres of tribes that have been called genocide–the long, costly and violent Second Civil War has devastated Sudan, resulting in the deaths of 2 million civilians through both civil war violence and extreme destitution. An even larger number of civilians remain in the North as refugees.
This combination of conflict recidivism, conflict duration and extreme violence is why most observers expect the South to vote for separation in the independence referendum on January 9th. A series of upsets (particularly the tragic death of SPLM leader John Garang de Mabior in a helicopter crash shortly after conclusion of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement) including occasional stalling by the Sudanese government on promised political reforms have apparently neither dampened enthusiasm for the referendum in the South nor put it behind schedule. Even Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s Sudanese government, following late-September discussions with President Obama, appears to have accepted the prudence of allowing both the referendum and likely separation to proceed.
Enter Wikileaks. Several cables among the near-250,000 this organization has promised to leak–as of this writing it has apparently only leaked a little over 300 cables–run a serious risk of jeopardizing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and catalyzing a 3rd war between Sudan and the prospectively-independent South. These cables involve one of the Somali pirates’ most-famous windfalls.
In September 2008 a band of Somali pirates commandeered the Faina, a Ukrainian cargo ship with a large payload bound for Kenya. According to a New York Times report from late-September 2008, upon inspecting the ship, the pirates discovered they were now the proud owners of $30 million worth of grenade launchers, ammunition, and last but definitely not least, 32 T-72 battle tanks.
I suppose the Somali pirates concluded that they lacked the training and the fuel necessary to use these tanks to conquer Somalia, so after a $3.2 million ransom was paid, the Faina and its contents were released, and the arms shipment proceeded on to Kenya. What does this old story have to do with South Sudan? Well, that’s where the tanks were going.
The New York Times had a very good synoptic article on this revelation (and the political pressures it could exacerbate) last Thursday. The cables reveal that the shipment of 32 T-72 battle tanks captured by the pirates were the 3rd and final installment of a purchase of 100 T-72s sold by Ukraine to the interim autonomous government of South Sudan. This is quite legal; under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, even in the interim South Sudan is permitted to acquire the kind of weaponry needed to convert the SPLM rebel group from an insurgent faction into a conventional military. One of the cables from the latter Bush Administration expresses sympathy with South Sudan’s concerns about its security, adding only that all parties involved in such shipments should be careful to avoid a repeat of the embarrassing pirate attack that would draw further attention. A year later, however, President Obama’s State Department threatened both Ukraine and Kenya with sanctions–the former government if it didn’t acknowledge its sale of the T-72s to South Sudan, and the latter government if it delivered the last shipment of tanks.
The Obama Administration’s decision to stop the tank shipments endangers South Sudan; the Bashir regime has a political benefactor and economic beneficiary in China, and won’t stop arming itself now that it has a sense of the SPLM’s capabilities and wherewithal. Even worse is the apparent rationale for which the State Department shut down the shipments: Sudan is on the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism, so in principle tanks and other weaponry shouldn’t be shipped there. Considering that a longtime rebel group arming itself for probable secession was the recipient, dwelling on the fact that South Sudan is nominally Sudanese territory is an extreme case of putting the letter before the purpose of the law. When asking the Kenyan government to hold on to the tanks for now, the State Department expressed concerns that arming South Sudan further could touch off an arms race between North and South. In response, according to the Times article, the Kenyan government asked the barbed question of whether the Obama Administration was “shifting its support to Khartoum.”
Thanks to Wikileaks, the Bashir regime in Sudan–whose war crimes have claimed the lives of nearly 2 1/2 million of what are supposed to be its own people over 3 decades–has gained insight into the force strength of the SPLM going in to the referendum, and the fact that the Obama Administration has backed off somewhat from the Bush Administration’s commitment to South Sudan’s right to invest in its own defense under the Agreement. There is a further irony in this batch of diplomatic cables, in that it reveals how harmful excessive concern with legality and consistency can be to achieving the moral purposes of foreign policy: Out of blind regard for the letter of its “state sponsors of terror” list, and excessive concern for an appearance of partiality if the story about the arms shipments should break, the Obama Administration has instead left one of the most-victimized regions in Africa vulnerable a month before its historic referendum. Taking sides and secrecy often serve the cause of freedom.
This seems to have become Wikileaks’ m.o.: Stir up trouble for the US for no reason other than because it exercises influence abroad, millions of vulnerable non-Westerners be damned. Whatever the State Deparment’s intentions in stopping the tank shipments, the Liberal Ironist hopes that Wikileaks’ exposure of this sensitive story doesn’t prove as destructive as it was thoughtless.