Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Thursday, July 01, 2004

The implications of Sudan
The ethnic cleansing unfolding in Sudan is yet another tragic situation for Africa, with implications that stretch far beyond the borders of the already decrepit Sudanese nation. With the Sudanese government giving Arab militia, or Janjaweed, full reign to 'do as they like' to the African rebels who rose up against them, they are creating both a state-sponsored genocide, as well as fertile ground for Islamic extremists. There are two distinct stories here, the tragedy of the ethnic cleansing, and the consequences of the world's response.

NASA satellite photography has shown that out of 576 villages in the Darfur region, 300 have already been completely obliterated, whilst 76 more have been substantially destroyed, and the Arab militia have already been accused of driving more than a million people from their homes. Sudanese foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail has denied that there is any ethnic cleansing or mass suffering in the region, whilst the Sudanese government heavily restricts access. Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development said, "if nothing changes we will have one million casualties. If things improve we can get it down to about 300,000 deaths." To add to the problem, Chad claims that the Sudanese Arab militia are undertaking cross-border raids to kill refugees and steal their possessions and cattle, and are preparing to defend their borders.

The world was vastly chided for its lack of response to Rwanda, a point reinforced by Chadian President Idriss Deby, who was quoted yesterday as saying, "The international community has the tragedy in Rwanda on its conscience". Action must be taken this time, and it seems that this horror has not yet reached its tipping point, so time is of the essence. Bush, as leader of the world's superpower and self-proclaimed moral compass, has been slow to react, both to the humanitarian crisis and to the realisation of Sudan's importance in his 'war on terror'. Last Saturday, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times in which he applauded Kofi Annan and Colin Powell's planned trips to Sudan but accused Bush of 'dithering' for the last few months. "Mr. Bush seems proud of his 'moral clarity,' his willingness to recognize evil and bluntly describe it as such. Well, Darfur reeks of evil, and we are allowing it to continue," he said.

The other story is the position of Sudan in the war on terror. Sudan has had a long relationship with Muslim extremists. Osama bi Laden built a significant amount of his Al-Qaeda network whilst living in Sudan. Further, out of the fifteen terrorists indicted in the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, five were Sudanese, and in 1998, the U.S. bombed Khartoum in retaliation for the al-Qaeda-linked bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The US has 'claimed' Sudan as an ally in the war against terror, but this has been shown up as an intensely spurious assumption. Terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah both retain offices in Khartoum, and the leadership that made Sudan a terrorist haven throughout the 90's remains in power today. Perhaps the reason that the US has taken Sudan off its 'uncooperative' list is purely to allow entry of US intelligence officials into the country, as so much Al-Qaeda activity occurs there. The bottom line is, the situation in Sudan currently plays in concert with Bush's war on terror. Any destabilisation in Northern Africa cannot be a good thing for US security, (and any conflict with Chad could put in jeopardy the increasing oil exports that the country provides to the US.)

Action so far has been limited. The US proposed a UN security council resolution imposing an arms embargo and travel ban on the Janjaweed. The draft resolution would have the security council state "its determination to do everything possible to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, including by taking further action if required". It does not propose action against the Khartoum government, which is accused of supporting the militias, but diplomats said there was an implied threat of extended sanctions if there was no improvement.

However, Powell and Annan's trips to the Dufar region have been largely 'sanitised' according to reports. Annan and Powell's movement has been severely restricted and the one camp they were taken to in Sudan was said to be a "show camp". The Washington Post reports that the Sudanese refugees driven from their homes by the Arab rebels, have been warned by Sudanese government soldiers to "to keep quiet about their experiences when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan visit the region this week." In an extreme example, when Annan arrived in Khartoum yesterday for a meeting with the Sudanese leaders, Sudanese security forces were opening fire on university students trying to deliver a petition to him denouncing the goverment's atrocities in Darfur.

There exists in this horrible situation a distinct responsibility for the world not only to act to avoid the horrors of Rwanda, but also an opportunity to stamp out the flames of Islamic extremism. The US is notably reluctant to play any type of military role in North Africa, as the memory of Somalia still rings in American ears, but diplomatic, economic and joint UN pressure has to be brought to bear on the Sudanese government to halt these atrocities. History will judge the world in their actions in the next month. Genocide, rampant disease and starvation in Sudan could once again show the Western powers and UN's weakness in responding to humanitarian crises where little economic benefit ensues to them, and the responses, particularly by the US, could either further polarise the Islamic-Western world, or be a starting point to bring it closer together.

My last question in this post is, where is Thabo Mbeki and the African Union in all of this? The African Union has sent an observation team to Sudan, but is that really the power of the AU? Perhaps they should spend less time looking for solutions in Palestine and spend more time assisting in our own desperate continent.