By GÉRARD PRUNIER
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
LESS than a year after South Sudandeclared its independence, it appears headed for war once again with its northern neighbor, Sudan. At the same time, marginalized northerners are rebelling against the government of Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. The international community has called for a cease-fire and peace talks, but the return of violence is not necessarily a bad thing. Soldiers killing one another in war would be far less devastating than thousands of women and children starving to death while waiting for a negotiated peace that will never come.
Mr. Bashir’s government cannot be trusted. It has for years systematically betrayed its agreements — signing dozens of treaties and then violating them. Paradoxically, an all-out civil war in Sudan may be the best way to permanently oust Mr. Bashir and minimize casualties. If a low-intensity conflict rages on, it will lead to a humanitarian disaster.
South Sudan seceded from the rest of the country last year in what once seemed a radical solution. But the conflict has continued. This is because Sudan’s wars have for too long been mistakenly seen as a result of tension between a Muslim north and a Christian south. According to this logic, separating them would bring peace.
But this logic was flawed. Sudan’s recurring wars don’t stem from religious conflict but from the Arab government’s exploitation of various non-Arab groups on the country’s periphery — including the southern Christians and predominantly Muslim groups like the Darfuris in the west, the Bejas in the east, the Nubians in the north and the Nuba in Kordofan. These peripheral regions have been exploited by Khartoum since the 19th century. But until recently, the South was the only region aware of this exploitation because it was neither Arab nor Islamic.
The rest of the country lived for more than 150 years under the illusion that it shared fundamental values with the Arab center. It was only when black Muslim soldiers were sent south to kill their black Christian compatriots in the name of Islamic purity that they began to realize that Islam did not give them any advantage in terms of education, health and economic status over the “heathens” they were ordered to kill.
The American-sponsored comprehensive peace agreement of 2005 was supposed to cure Sudan’s endemic conflict, but it used the wrong medicine. The agreement was signed by only two sides: the Muslim north and the Christian south. That left fully one-third of the Sudanese people — the African Muslims — without a political leg to stand on. And it is that forgotten third that is now fighting the Sudanese government because, after years of serving as its house servants and foot soldiers, they have come to realize that they will never be anything but second-class citizens, despite their Islamic faith.
Although the Arab world has been shaken by a series of upheavals, Sudan has remained the odd man out. Islamists continue to rule Sudan after 23 years of failure. They promised to end the civil war but instead militarized the country, killed more than two million people, ruined the non-oil economy, gutted civil liberties and gagged the press and academia. After losing the war (and the north’s oil resources), they realized they had no plan B. Their only recourse was to vilify African Muslim rebels as traitors, denounce southern Christians as instigators of the Muslim revolt and promise more repression.
Whenever foreign leaders demand greater respect for human rights or peace talks, Sudan always agrees, because agreeing makes the international community happy. But we forget too quickly. A year ago northern Sudanese forces invaded the disputed town of Abyei on the eve of South Sudan’s independence; they later agreed to withdraw, but they never left.
The status quo is not working, regardless of what American and United Nations officials might believe. Mr. Bashir recently referred to the black leaders of South Sudan as “insects” and insisted that Sudan must “eliminate this insect completely.” For those who remember Rwanda and the racist insults hurled by Mr. Bashir’s janjaweed militias during their brutal attacks in Darfur, his vile words should be a wake-up call. Indeed, without some moral common ground, “negotiations” are merely a polite way of acquiescing to evil, especially when one’s interlocutors are pathologically incapable of respecting their own word. And in the case of a murderer like Mr. Bashir, there is no moral common ground.
Sudan has now reached its point of no return. Many Arabs across northern Sudan have become fed up with the jingoistic frenzy now being deployed by their exhausted tyranny and are quietly waiting for a chance to join the revolt begun by non-Arab Muslims.
The rebels battling Mr. Bashir’s government are waging a real battle for freedom, and their de facto alliance with southern Christians could finally bring Sudan’s endless conflict to a close. War is a tragic affair, but the brave Sudanese men who have chosen it as a last resort deserve to be allowed to find their own way toward a Sudanese Spring, even if it is a violent one.
Gérard Prunier, the former director of the French Center for Ethiopian Studies, in Addis Ababa, is the author of “Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide.”
Prunier’s war appetite
By Magdi El Gizouli
May 7, 2012 — Gérard Prunier, the prominent French historian of East Africa, published a piece in the New York Times on 5 May under the title ‘In Sudan: Give War a Chance’ reposted on Sudan Tribune. Prunier presented his readers with a Rwandan history of Sudan as it were. In his mind the ills of Sudan stem from an essential racial conflict between Arabs and Africans, one that that the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) could not resolve since only religion was considered in its fashioning. The CPA, wrote Prunier, “was signed by only two sides: the Muslim north and the Christian south. That left fully one-third of the Sudanese people – the African Muslims – without a political leg to stand on”.
From this premise Prunier arrived at the conclusion that the way ahead is to support the African Muslim rebels fighting the government in alliance with the southern Christians. “War is a tragic affair, but the brave Sudanese men who have chosen it as a last resort deserve to be allowed to find their own way toward a Sudanese Spring, even if it is a violent one”, he opined. What Prunier is advocating for, without reservations, is a race war where the Sudanese fight it out to redemption as Africans and Arabs. He, I suppose, would have the privilege to observe, count the dead, and eventually publish a bestseller.
Race has been and continues to be invoked by Khartoum’s rulers and their rebel contenders in the Sudanese peripheries. It was exactly in the terms that Prunier now advocates that the Khartoum regime portrayed the confrontation with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in the 1983-2005 round of the Sudanese civil war fought predominantly in southern Sudan but with lasting extensions in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile of northern Sudan, areas where the SPLA/M found similarly aggrieved allies among the Nuba and the Ingessena. The SPLA/M’s attempt to open a front in Darfur among the Fur and the Masalit was not as successful. An invading SPLA force of Dinka under the joint command of Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu, an ethnic Maslati and the man who now leads the northern faction of the SPLA/M in South Kordofan, and Dawoud Yahia Bolad, an ethnic Fur and disaffected Islamist, was rapidly crushed by a force of locally recruited Bani Halba in 1991. The invocation of race in Darfur demonstrated its full wrath in the war that began in 2003.
What deserves investigation is not only the resort to race by rebel groups seeking to solidify and extend their constituencies or by a government threatened by an arc of rebellions but the brave resistance of a critical mass of the Sudanese to the lure of racist mobilisation. In Darfur, where racial polarization in northern Sudan proved most devastating, the Rizeigat of South Darfur preferred to preserve the peace with their Fur neighbours over Khartoum’s war commission, even after rebel fighters of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) raided Dar Rizeigat in 2004. Angered by the brazen defiance of the Rizeigat nazir, Said Madibbu, Khartoum upgraded the sheikh of the neighbouring Maaliya, traditionally a client of the Rizeigat chieftaincy, to the rank of nazir in 2005. The government intervention empowered the Maaliya to claim land ownership rights in areas that the Rizeigat consider to be under lease to the Maaliya but ultimately their own. What followed was a neglected chapter of Darfur’s ‘other war’ to use Julie Flint’s depiction. The Rizeigat and the Maaliya, two peoples that classify under Prunier’s Muslim Arabs, engaged in episodic deadly raids until a settlement was reached between the two sides with cynical government mediation in 2009.
The distinction between the readiness of the northern Rizeigat, the landless camel nomads of northern Darfur, to serve Khartoum’s purposes and the unwillingness of their kin, the southern Rizeigat, the land-endowed cattle nomads of southern Darfur, to do the same might appear to Prunier and those who share his views an insignificant detail that does not disturb the race blueprint. To the Sudanese who are ready to imagine a future beyond the determinacy of war it bespeaks of the harsh political economy that underlies the country’s incessant conflicts.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at email@example.com