Sliding Toward Destruction

A boy plays on a tank, a remnant of recent war in Yei, a town in Central Equatoria State in Southern Sudan. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

After years at the center of international attention, the 3 million displaced people trapped in sweltering camps in the Darfur region of Sudan are today living in limbo. It’s neither war nor peace. They are frozen in time, stuck in the camps, unable to return home, dependent on international assistance for survival. Yet the world has moved on. Darfur has become just another African war, seen from afar as complicated and intractable.

Trouble is, from up close the situation in Darfur is even more complicated and intractable. In the years since the region’s violence made world headlines in 2003, the ethnic and military dividing lines have become more blurry than ever. Organized political violence has all but ended, leaving banditry in its wake. Although less at risk of dying in an armed attack, civilians have no stability, security or peace.

A January study of mortality rates by the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels concluded that 300,000 people have died in the Darfur conflict since 2003; yet in recent years 80 percent of the deaths have come from disease, not from armed attacks. Today suffering’s culprit is more likely to be diarrhea caused by dirty water, pneumonia provoked by blowing desert sand mingled with the smoke of countless cooking fires, or malaria carried into tents by mosquitoes.

The government’s feared Antonov bombers are parked quietly beside airfields these days; they don’t have to fly for the people of Darfur to die. Occasional clashes between Darfur rebels and government troops have continued in some areas, but the overall military situation is far different from the days of scorched earth attacks on African villages by conjoined government forces and Arab militias. Today there’s even talk of an end to the conflict.

Cease-fire talk

In February the government signed a cease-fire with one of the region’s main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a major step toward peace. Talks were scheduled for March to hammer out a lasting peace deal. Yet cease-fires have been signed before and come to naught.

The international community pushed heavily for a heralded 2006 cease-fire. However it was signed by only one rebel leader, which was precisely its undoing. Other factions felt marginalized, and many in Darfur felt their long-standing grievances against Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, were inadequately addressed.

More pragmatic motivations than achieving lasting peace might be behind this year’s cease-fire. By agreeing to the cease-fire, which was brokered by Qatar and Chad, the JEM won the liberation of several dozen fighters. The fighters were imprisoned and had been condemned to execution after a failed 2008 attack on Khartoum.

The largest rebel grouping to emerge from years of splintering among rebel armies, the JEM also gets in on the ground floor of any eventual peace deal that will yield wealth sharing, compensation and political representation.

In addition, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Haguebased ICC issued a warrant for Mr. al-Bashir’s arrest in 2009 on seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Darfur.

In February, the judges opened the door to additional charges of genocide. Mr. al-Bashir’s so-called international image problem would improve dramatically with the perception of a resolution to the Darfur conflict; as would his position as a candidate in national elections scheduled for April 11-18.

The elections are part of a calendar of events established by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which brought an end to decades of bloody war between North and South Sudan. Successful implementation of the CPA is widely seen as the only way to end bloodshed in Sudan. Delays and reluctant implementation created an environment in which at least 2,500 people were killed and 350,000 were forced to flee their homes in Southern Sudan last year.

If not ignored outright, many of the attacks were labeled in media reports as ethnic clashes or resulting from tribal rivalries. However, such levels of violence — and the deliberate targeting of women, children and other noncombatants — suggest the emergence of a new strategy. Many, who remember the North’s tactics during the long civil wars, suggest this strategy has its origins in Khartoum.

The deteriorating situation provoked 10 international aid groups to release a joint warning in January that “a lethal cocktail of rising violence, chronic poverty and political tensions has left the peace deal on the brink of collapse” (“Rescuing the Peace in Sudan”).

The agencies noted that less than half the population of Southern Sudan had access to clean water and maternal mortality rates were among the worst in the world. “There are fewer than 50 kilometers of [paved] road in the entire region, an area the size of France, and during heavy rains many areas are cut off for months at a time, making the delivery of humanitarian aid almost impossible,” their report stated. “Some 80 percent of adults cannot read or write and one in seven children dies before their fifth birthday.”

Maya Mailer, a policy adviser for Oxfam, who co-authored the report, said, “It is not yet too late to avert disaster, but the next 12 months are a crossroads for Africa’s largest country. Last year saw a surge in violence in Southern Sudan. This could escalate even further and become one of the biggest emergencies in Africa in 2010.”

Unified Sudan

As originally envisioned by John Garang, the charismatic leader of the independence struggle in Southern Sudan who was killed just as the CPA took effect, the national elections were to be a mechanism to forge a truly unified Sudan. The elections were hoped to become a means toward overcoming decades of hostility and mistrust between the political and economic elite along the Nile, and the poor and marginalized communities along the periphery of the country.

To ensure that Khartoum would cooperate in carrying out fair and free elections, the South held the trump card of later elections on secession. That referendum is now scheduled for January 2011, and everyone expects the South to vote overwhelmingly to cut its ties to the North.

Public commitments to the contrary, Khartoum is unlikely to gracefully accept the loss of such a huge resource base. So both sides have continued to arm themselves in preparation for what many fear will be a resumption of the North-South fighting, which between 1983 and 2005 killed 2 million people and drove 4 million from their homes.

Repeatedly delayed from the original CPA schedule, April’s vote will mark Sudan’s first national election in more than two decades. Voters will choose a national president as well as governors for 25 states, 450 national assembly members, plus a president and 170 parliamentarians for Southern Sudan. Twenty-five percent of both assemblies must be women, to be chosen in separate ballots.

Each voter in the North will mark eight ballots and those in the South 12 ballots.
According to the National Elections Commission, 15.7 million people registered to vote by the December deadline, roughly three-quarters of the 20.7 million it said were eligible.

Yet registration was a contentious process. Particularly in Darfur, many displaced people refused to register. They either did not trust the process or believed that registering in a displaced persons’ camp would lead to losing their land rights in their villages of origin.

The political environment has also been troubled by heavy-handed behavior by the ruling National Congress Party. A December report by the nonpartisan Carter Center in Atlanta, Ga., “expressed serious concerns about incidents that undermine political rights and fundamental freedoms in Sudan, including: arrests, detention and harassment of civil society and political party members for constitutional and peaceful activity. ... The center is gravely concerned by the recent action of the security forces in Khartoum to restrict legitimate activity related to the exercise of freedom of assembly, association and speech.”

The Carter Center report also criticized Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which controls the government of Southern Sudan. Among Southerners discontent has grown over their own semi-autonomous government, which by all accounts has done a poor job of providing services and has been plagued by corruption and an ill-behaved military.

The massive Southern army, whose salaries the government in Juba has struggled to pay, has been accused of human rights abuses. “In general it is not a united army, but rather a collection of former militias and ethnic groups, and a constant balancing act is needed to keep them together,” said a report by IKV Pax Christi, a Dutch peace group.

Another element of the CPA that has lagged is a final determination of the political fate of the so-called “Three Areas” — Abyei, Blue Nile State, and Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains — which lie between South and North. They’ll have their own referendum in 2011 to decide whether they want to join the South.

Regardless of the vote, it’s unlikely that the North will let the oil-rich region go easily, because that would be ruinous to the North’s economy. That means the South will have to agree to share some of its oil wealth with Khartoum. Or else they’ll fight it out.

Seeking peace and security

Admiral Dennis Blair, President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, warned the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February that the situation was worsening. “A number of countries in Africa and Asia are at significant risk for a new outbreak of mass killing,” he said. “Among these countries, a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.”

Activists around the world who have worked for years to end violence in Sudan are frustrated by the deterioration in the country’s security situation, as well as by the failure of international diplomacy to find solutions. As a result, many have turned their attention to pushing divestment from petroleum companies from China and other countries that operate in the Sudan.

Investors Against Genocide, a Boston-based group that’s pushing “genocide-free investing,” has convinced a growing list of mutual funds and investment firms to stop supporting companies that they blame for financing state-sponsored violence in Sudan. In February, American Funds, the largest manager of stock mutual funds in the United States, announced it was pulling $189 million from PetroChina. The month before, TIAACREF announced it would sell its shares in four oil companies tied to the Sudanese regime, and late last year iShares announced it was starting a Genocide-Free Exchange Traded Fund.

The Rev. Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and response senior correspondent.

Posted or updated: 4/30/2010 11:00:00 PM
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This woman lives in the Hassa Hissa Camp for internally displaced persons, outside Zalingei in Sudan’s violence-torn Darfur region. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.