Why noise over Bashir’s Indictment Ignores the Real Mess in Sudan

Monday, March 23, 2009

By Bright B. Simons

Omar BashirOne wonders why President Omar Bashir’s indictment has come at this particular time, a question made more poignant by the recent television antics of former Liberian President Charles Taylor’s lawyer on a Ghanaian late night television programme.

Where has the “international community” been all this while?

For close to 40 years the south of Sudan was plagued by a harrowing admixture of war-induced famine, the weaponization of rape, and massive human displacements that directly led to the deaths of two million Black Africans and the forced homelessness of another four million — an "interesting" statistic considering that this part of Sudan has a current population estimated at some six million.

It is from this foul socio-political concoction that the ingredients that have combined to create the current Darfur crisis were derived.

For even a cursory overview of the crisis we will have to go as far back as 1820, when the Egyptian province of the Muslim Ottoman Empire militarily annexed Eastern Sudan. The wealthy Arab merchant class that had arrived in the region as traders, but stayed on as feudal overlords, united behind a self-proclaimed Messiah — or Mahdi in the Islamic tradition. They wanted to reassert local control and unify the various parts of the country, but this collided with British interests, increasingly geared towards a colonial project in the Nile basin, which led to the latter, under Lord Kitchener, subjugating the country. Keenly aware of the racially tinged regional animosity, the British ruled the south and north as separate colonies until independence. As if on cue, civil war broke out even before the transition could be completed, with the antagonists arrayed behind old ethno-regional lines.

The war raged on for years to the seeming obliviousness of the outside world until 1972 when, as a result of negotiations in Addis Ababa, some limited self-determination was granted by the Arab ruling classes to the mostly black-African South.

The lull in fighting achieved by that compromise ended in 1983 when the then President of Sudan, Gaafar Nimieri, trying to shore up support and boost his standing amongst increasingly radicalized sections of the country’s northern Muslim majority, introduced Sharia law across the country and suspended the autonomy of the three federal states that encompassed the ethnic south.

In resistance, the American-educated John Garang, a colonel-ranked deserter from the national army, formed the SPLA. The first combatants of this military-political movement were co-mutineers who, along with Garang, had refused to obey orders to suppress popular uprisings in their native south. Except in the United States, where "evangelical" Christians continued to keep apace with developments, the conflict was chronically under-reported, much less debated, and seldom featured on the priority lists of transnational organizations — even though, until the grim distinction passed to the Congo (another under-reported disaster), the situation was the most horrific humanitarian catastrophe since the second world war.

These odds notwithstanding, Garang and his rebel troops withstood the devastating onslaughts of the north Sudanese regime for over twenty years. During this period another factor was introduced into the already murky situation: Sudan struck oil. Initially, that upped the ante, as the issue of control of prospective resources suddenly became one of access to immediate riches. The government of Sudan adopted a Vietnam-style "scorched earth" strategy to force the rebels and their fellow tribesmen into submission. It failed. Finally, fatigued from dropping so many heavy bombs, and increasingly worried that all this quarrelling may be endangering the future commercial exploitation of the oil deposits, the government capitulated to common sense and agreed to the Naivasha Peace Treaty in January 2005. This promised the black-African Southerners six years of autonomy and a referendum on the possibility of full independence at the end of this period. Not surprisingly, detailed attention was paid to arrangements for sharing all those appetizing oil resources by means of negotiated settlements.

It is important to note that no real transformation of attitudes buttressed this convenient setup. There was little talk of efforts to re-establish mutual respect for the divergent religious, ethnic, and cultural realities of the North and South of the Horn of Africa country, as will be vital for good neighborliness even in the context of two sovereign states sharing borders. Nor was there much in the way of thinking about how best to compensate the families of the multitudes slain and abused and raped. It was pretty much a pragmatic, utilitarian affair that threw a blanket over a gaping hole rather than painstakingly filling it up with hard, but necessary, questions.

Thus ended a conflict that had taken 2 million lives. It probably never topped the headlines of any news bulletin outside Africa.

So the Bashir-led Sudanese government being its same old self, neither contrite nor redeemed, expected simply to be left in peace to continue working out the best means to scoop as much of the black stuff out of the ground as possible and sell it for the highest possible profit so it can continue to entrench itself in power, like every self-respecting government.

What else could it have done, then, when those irksome black-African Darfuris, whose territory also happened to crisscross all-important oil installations, began to start yelling that they too were being discriminated against by the Khartoum regime at the behest and in the favor of their Arab co-citizens? Except sigh and reluctantly re-saddle its rested war machine to begin another bombing campaign?

Why is it not obvious that an unrehabilitated regime that has just got away with genocide will once again resort to same if vexed?

Now, the body count has begun; already some 350,000 Darfuris are dead in five years, up from 200,000 just 2 years ago. At this rate the Bashir Regime should beat its own record by a few hundreds of thousands in 2023, conservatively assuming that this "new" conflict will only last as long as the last.

And yet, so called “observers” within and outside Africa continue to parrot the old “it’s complex” line in order to escape their responsibility to face up to the murderous, racist, Bashir regime.

We are being told that the North isn’t really populated by Arabs at all, for marital intermingling has blurred the racial lines in the Sudan to the vanishing point. The refusal of some Arab leaders to turn up for a few of the Arab League Summits called to reaffirm that hypocritical organisation’s longstanding support for the genocidal policy of the Bashir regime, choosing to send delegates instead, is usually also cited as a slow effort to put some distance between the Arab world and the country.

Some of these suggestions are beginning to sound eerily similar to trite, anti-Semitic, arguments about Jewish bloodlines having been lost during the long years of the dispersion and the non-existence therefore of modern day Jews. Race is a political construct, granted, but for most purposes of analysis it is a useful and very durable concept for approaching deeper divisions and the logic underlying systems of prejudice. And if the north Sudanese rulers aren’t Arabs, what has the country been doing in the Arab League these last fifty years?

Why did the Arab League work so hard and so long to thwart international calls for a multinational peacekeeping force with a much wider remit than the current African Union one? Why did the so-called fact-finding mission the League sent to the country in 2004 work so assiduously not to see anything in the least incriminating about the Sudanese Government’s conduct in Darfur? Is it because the black Africans in Sudan aren’t Palestinian Arabs?

It may well serve the Arab World at this stage when events are threatening to spill over to try, as it were, to wash its hands of the matter, but for most Sudanese that simply won’t wash.

The Janjaweed, responsible for the bulk of the atrocities in Darfur, are indeed remnants of Gaddafi’s imperialist forces who were thrown out of Chad after a botched invasion attempt during the Colonel’s heady days as a Pan-Arabist expansionist. And today Gaddafi is Chairman of the AU!

Even now, intermittent conflict on the Chad-Sudan border throws up into perspective the role of Pan-Arabist politics in the continued unrest in Darfur and elsewhere in the region — especially when draped over the background of wider inter-ethnic relations across Africa. The racial apartheid in Mauritania, where blacks are held in the utmost contempt by official policy set by the dominant Arab ruling class, and the suppression of the Amazigh tongue of the native Berbers of North Africa as part of a continuing effort to "arabize" them, makes it clear that the notion of Arab-African solidarity is really an object of fancy of well-fed politicians on either side. It rarely reflects the situation on the ground in several parts of Africa where the two peoples interact.

There are also arguments that the religious difference is overstated, because much of what is putatively referred to as "Christianity" and "Islam" in the Sudanese context has been so diluted by superstition and animism. This argument is also abject casuistry. This is hardly an affliction that uniquely affects Sudan. Indeed, I will venture that: the very fact that the Darfuris are also Muslim accounts for the reason why so much more attention has been focused on that conflict in comparison to the neglect that was shown over the southern issue. It is much more difficult when you are busily engaged killing fellow Muslims to portray every hint of Western pressure as owing to crusader fervor.

The situation in Sudan, whether in Darfur or the ostensibly Christian South, is a very straightforward one: it owes to the challenge of constructing a plural society in an environment of economic and political inequity. We have seen it thrust into our faces with inter-communal conflagration in Europe, unrest in Kurdish Turkey, and more prominently in Palestine.

The Darfur crisis only differs insofar as it is an African problem afflicting predominantly black Africans, and therefore, has been deemed as unworthy of sophisticated 24/7 analysis.

The internationalization of the conflict is, however, unlikely to go unscrutinized.

Among the most vocal critics of American-driven efforts to ostracize the Sudanese regime are China, Russia, and — wait for it — Osama Bin Laden. What factors — geopolitical, geoeconomic, or otherwise — conjoins these three forces?

The Sudanese economy has been hovering close to 9 percent over the course of the last few years. Sudan has for a while now been one of Africa’s fastest growing economies (outpaced only by Equatorial Guinea, the world’s fastest growing economy), having eclipsed Mozambique and Tunisia, and is on course to receive in excess of a billion dollars from oil this year.

Sudan, Africa’s third largest producer, supplies Beijing one in every 10 barrels of petroleum the economic giant sends up the pipes of its industrial chimneys. When some Chinese strategists cast a look at Africa through Beijing’s narrow set of apertures, the first thing they notice is oil all ready for the taking. But China prefers to go where she calculates that Western influence is likely to diminish in the long run: Nigeria, Angola (because suspicion of the West simmers beneath the country’s reformist surface owing to its Marxist past and the shenanigans of the cold war), and of course, Sudan.

So entangled has Chinese foreign policy become with Sudan’s internal aggression that in 1999 when the country’s first state company — Petroleum Giant CNPC — issued its initial public offering (IPO) in New York in an attempt to transition to private control, anti-genocide activists successfully convinced the financial authorities that the company’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange may have implications for the sanctions then in place against Sudan. Rumors continued to circulate that the CNPC may have fronted for the Sudanese Government in the acquisition of some sophisticated war gadgetry such as powerful radar system (China is Sudan’s largest arms supplier). In the end, the company could only satisfy the authorities by incorporating a solely foreign-based subsidiary, PetroChina, for listing on the NYSE.

These minor irritations are of course incapable of making a dent in China’s enthusiasm for safeguarding its future commercial interests in Sudan. Chinese investments continue to flood into the country, emboldening the regime to shrug off international ostracism over its genocidal policies.

In keeping with the reversal of roles and positions in the post cold war world, wherever China goes, Russia follows. Since 2002, Russia’s Slavneft — a giant conglomerate — has been raking millions from dealings with the Khartoum regime. In that particular year, arms deals between Russia and Sudan totaled over US $200 million (bear in mind Sudan’s per capita income is barely more than $400; thus, it will have taken the sweat of 500,000 of its citizens to pay for this extravagant splash).

Not content with this level of commercial exchange, Russia has even moved further. Its military-industry complex has been moving forward with furnishing the Sudanese with proprietary licenses to enable them make their own guns and tanks. What better way to ensure that the tyrannical regime maintain the upper hand in its bid to clear the oil fields — which coincidentally, are most widespread where the current conflicts are raging, the West and South — of the irksome human masses so the rigs and pulleys can move in to draw the precious fluid.

Surely western business interests too have been involved in this messy situation in Sudan. Talisman of Canada readily comes to mind.
But the constant conjunction of "Western" with "capitalist exploitation" has so strongly synonymized Europe and America with international injustice that it is becoming almost cliched, creating in the process a notion invested with much intellectual effort. Many academic careers depend on this notion’s continued perpetuation, but in an increasingly complex world it is not only erroneous, but actually dangerous.

International exploitation has simply moved along while the experts dozed. It has become a global phenomenon of “dog eat dog”, with the  Thai pummeling Burmese, and Jordanian bashing Palestinian, and Armenian thrashing Azerbaijani. For those people in those areas of the world most touched by exploitation, of which Africa is a prime exemplar, much disservice is present in any attempt to ignore serious pressures on their lives and livelihoods because it does not fit into some ready-made paradigm of Western guilt.

The world stands at a disadvantage too when it fails to sufficiently appreciate the reality of a fast globalizing world. In such a world it pays to know the background behind the headline to be able to circumvent the propaganda and get to the bare, unadorned facts. For when revealed for what they are, they often mock the obscurantist cant of the experts. Nor are the Experts usually blessed with the foresight to see how matters of merely local or immediate significance can weave into strategic eruptions.

In 1991, Osama Bin Laden, rendered a revolutionary nomad by the tension between his privileged upbringing as a scion of one of the wealthiest houses in Saudi Arabia and his inclinations towards violent social transformation, arrived in Sudan with buckets of money to spend. Eventually he would lose about $100 million of this in harebrained commercial speculations and be thrown out by the ungrateful Sudanese, but not before he had perfected the strategy of building quasi-states within the borders of states perched in the blind spots of the world’s eye, and the art of exploiting the knowledge of one superpower’s proclivities to beguile the next. The road to 9/11 had begun. Nearly no one saw it coming.
So now that it appears Darfur may be receiving the much needed attention denied the South of Sudan, the hope is that the prejudice-driven and greed-motivated Sudanese mess in its totality will be viewed by the AU as a challenge, for the first time ever, to define an African strategic project. That is the way of the world: every region, race, or geographical unit, takes care of its own, and weighs its interests first. And it does this bearing in mind that there are only permanent interests, no permanent friends or eternal allies or inevitable reciprocity of courtesies. And just as importantly with due appreciation of the fact that small confusions can blow up into giant cataclysms. We can call it “African Realism” until we find a nice Swahili word for it.

Tucked in some obscure message board somewhere on the net is a report that another forgotten mess is deteriorating, this time in Beja to the East of Sudan, where herdsmen are up in arms against the Bashir junta.

The AU would do better to avert a disaster in the making, instead of wait till it has thoroughly degenerated and only then mobilize its paper pushers and sleepy figureheads to issue frivolous guidelines about when or where or whether crony Heads of State should be tried or not.

The Author is affiliated with IMANI: The Center for Policy & Education