And they all stood by

It will be very interesting to see how history looks back upon the referendum of South Sudan next January, when southerners get the chance to break away from Khartoum. Very few southerners, I daresay, will be particularly keen to cling too closely to those that they have viewed as the oppressors for so long. Here’s a recent opinion piece I wrote on the subject.

My big fear, however, is that, if the south does choose seccession (and all polls, plus my own gut instinct, seem to be suggesting this is the most likely outcome), the north will not let them go. Partly for the oil. Partly for the pride.

The one saving grace, though, may paradoxically be the very thing that has caused such suffering throughout the country: the north is not stupid. They want to hold on to power at all costs, and may very well conclude that hosting another civil war is not the best way to do this. They might fear that, this time, the international community and Sudanese diaspora will be less forgiving.

Yesterday, George Clooney, Hollywood actor, and John Prendergast, head of The Enough Project, an NGO that seeks to prevent genocide around the world, penned an article in the Washington Post about the possibility of a return to all-out war if Khartoum attempts to derail the referendum process.

I must admit to having very little time for either Sudan activist. I share fellow journalist Rob Crilly’s disdain for the way that the celebreties have hyped up the crisis, with little understanding of the root causes of the problem. And, as for The Enough Project, they are organisation of questionable integrity, and one I now try to quote as little as possible.

But, here, Clooney and Prendergast may actually be flagging up a danger that is extremely real and extremely worrying.

When I was in south Sudan, everyone I spoke to was desperate for seccession. Take that dream away from them, and things may really explode.

The one thing that could save south Sudan is Abyei. If Abyei votes to join the north – which it may yet do, since all indications are that Khartoum is playing with the nomads in the area in order to screw with the numbers – then the government may decide it is just too much hassle to hang on to the rest of the south. After all, most of the oil fields are in the north. True, the north should now have the biggest oilfields anyway (since the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling last year), but this is still very much a grey area.

And then there is the international community. When the Rwandan genocide erupted in 1994, the international community – read Britain, America and France – just looked on. This is perhaps the most hackneyed statement when writing about African wars, but, tragically, it is true.

And the countries stood by because they had messed up Somalia. America, in particular, was bleeding from the wounds of trying to save Somalia. But all countries were complicit in orchestrating the UN’s withdrawal from the region, leaving it in the appalling mess we see today.

Now, 15 years on, the very same countries – most notably America and Britain – are licking there wounds from Afghanistan and Iraq, slightly embarrassed that, with all their military might, they haven’t actually been able to win the peace.

The last thing they want is anymore international embroillment. Especially with austerity measures starting to bite (although it does look like the UK is still prepared to sacrifice education on the alter of defence).

The fact that China is such a presence in Sudan, and doesn’t seem too particular about human rights, also limits Europe and America’s clout.

So, with little appetite for too much international meddling, is there anything really that the world powers can do?

Well, a good starting point would be to take this problem seriously and understand how important seccession is to the majority of southerners.

These are a people who have been at war with the north for almost half a century. Most of the years since independence have been tarnished by bloodshed. Not all of that blood can be blamed on the north – maniacal southern leaders must take some of the responsibility, too, and many child soldiers who fought in the war did so for the southern rebels – but this isn’t how the south sees things.

They blame the north. 100%. And for anyone to suggest that they should remain locked to Khartoum is not only politically untennable. It is explosively dangerous.


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One Response to “And they all stood by”

  1. Shane Bertou Says:

    One way that you can “put pressure” on our leaders is to add your name to Sudan Action Now’s open letter to President Obama. His administration has referred to Sudan as a “ticking time bomb,” and with less than 90 days left before the referendum in Southern Sudan the time for our voices to be heard has never been a more urgent.

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