Between May 19 and May 21, the northern Sudanese Armed Forces annexed the southern border town of Abyei. Next in Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s violent re-mapping of Sudan’s savannah belt by the 1956 borders is the Blue Nile and South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains.
According to the boundaries drawn in 1956, shortly before Sudan gained independence from the British, these three areas “belong” to the north. However these borders have always been contested, and the most recent territorial resolution, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, states that Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan can choose via referendum or popular consultation whether they want to be part of North or South Sudan.
Effectively dishonouring the agreement, al-Bashir appears determined to repossess the unresolved territories in a bid to preserve the political power, economy and national pride of North Sudan. In resource terms the gains would mean more water, fertile land and oil. It’s been dubbed “oil-rich Abyei” despite the facts. Contrary to sloppy media claims, the town is not oil-rich, but the outlying areas and South Kordofan are.
The battle for Abyei strikes at the heart of Sudan’s contemporary conflict, as the disputed colonial borders and ethnic tension between the nomadic Misseriya and pastoralist Ngok Dinka was one of the root causes of Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. An emotional issue, Abyei, has been exploited for political gain by both north and south in the past, and al-Bashir’s latest brutal insurgency is no different.
Apart from the material gains, the north’s 1956 borders agenda is, in my view, the act of a fugitive president jockeying for his place in history before the birth of South Sudan. Should he one day go down like Ratko Mladic if the ICC successfully arrests him for war crimes committed in Darfur or killed like a dog in his lair and dumped in the Red Sea Osama bin Laden style, he could be remembered by some northerners as he who regained — albeit brutally — what might have been lost forever in the secession of Sudan.
For the south’s government of rebels-turned-soldiers-turned-politicians riddled with in-fighting, ethnic rivalries and violence, the siege of Abyei is an unneeded problem. The south is already struggling with fending off attacks from rebel groups and disciplining it’s own forces from terrorising civilians. Though much of international media has concentrated on reporting South Sudan’s preparations to become the world’s newest country on July 9, the political strategies of both north and south in asserting their nationhood is in need of intense scrutiny on both sides.
Al-Bashir’s instructions on how to do this seems clear: a schizophrenic strategy of warn, threaten, attack and reconcile. Rinse. Repeat till Sudan 1956 is redrawn, power restored and South Sudan is weakened.
Last weekend al-Bashir was on the reconcile spin cycle, talking about “brotherly ties between north and south”, saying it’s better “we sit and discuss and consult” over Abyei. But on the ground the troops increasingly appear to be enacting the attack phase in South Kordofan where the United Nations is now investigating reports of looting and burning of civilian homes and clashes between northern and southern forces.
It takes two to tango
And what does Salva Kiir Mayadrit want in his cowboy hat, flossing a chunky gold ring, looking like he just stepped off the set of Dallas to become President of South Sudan? Peace, he says. Aware of the south’s military inadequacy, Kiir has commendably refused to go to war with the North, but he’s still at war with “at least seven rebel militia”, which has had dire consequences.
It is alleged that on May 20, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) burnt over 7 000 homes in Mayom and other counties because the Nuer villagers were believed to be harbouring rival militias intent on destabilising Kiir’s government. The rebels are said to be loyal to Peter Gatdet, a former SPLA general now defected rebel leader allegedly bankrolled by the north. Whether these forces are part of al-Bashir’s proxy war against the south or rivals genuinely frustrated by the corruption, nepotism and tribalism of Kiir’s Dinka majority government, or a complex mix of both, what’s clear is that civilian homes are not military targets. A government has a duty to protect, not persecute its citizens.
Against the north, the southern government is perhaps not the innocent, waylaid feline governor of the Blue Nile Malik Agar imagines. Speaking to the New York Times, Agar described the situation as thus: “It’s like putting a cat in a corner. They will fight.” However, it is reported that Khartoum’s advance on Abyei had been in disproportionate response to an attack by SPLA forces on northern troops as they were leaving the area under UN escort. Declaring the killing of 22 soldiers by SPLA forces to be an act of provocation, al-Bashir sent in the big guns.
On June 2 a confidential UN report obtained by the Associated Press claimed that dozens of civilians belonging to a rival ethnic group had been killed by the SPLA in a village near the Nile River, though some locals say the figure could be as high as 254. If Satellite Sentinel and Enough Project’s satellite pictures were described as hard evidence of Khartoum’s “war crimes” in Abyei, doesn’t the SPLA’s firing on unarmed members of rival ethnic groups also warrant serious investigation? George Clooney’s “anti-genocide papparazi” may not have been there to take satellite snapshots of the SPLA in action, but the UN covered it, so where are the headlines?
Settling the narrative: Goodies vs Baddies
The news of “ethnic cleansing” in Abyei headlined last Sunday’s Africa section of many international news sites and yet the documented Nile River atrocities by the SPLA have only three mentions on a news web search. Why? Because audiences suffer from war attention deficit disorder — a Sudan conflict story has a life cycle of 30 seconds, before Lady Gaga or Rihanna does something to titillate the masses and provoke the moral crusaders. More specifically, conflict reportage is often constructed through the limited lens of good versus bad. For Sudan, the baddie’s role has already been taken by the “cra-zay Ay-rab Mooozlim” in the north, so it would be difficult to start framing the “Dinka Christian dude” as a baddie too.
Besides, Kiir is the one whose country’s referendum the world’s celebrities and trendy activists supported and funded. The one who made the world’s sexist man alive, George Clooney, smile. The one whose rebel troops were once kitted and trained by Israel, harboured by Uganda and aided by America. For spiritual strength, bibles and missionaries were supplied compliments of Christian evangelists of the American bible belt.
When current selective reporting due to lack of interest leads to the portrayal of the internationally-supported SPLA as perpetual victims, seldom aggressors; a straw-clutching conspiracy theorist could almost be forgiven for thinking there is something deeper at work here.
As the violence unfolds, all is quiet on the African Union frontier; there is no African solution for this African problem. The Arab League has expectedly said nothing, while the UN, over-stretched and under threat, is doing the little it can.
An African proverb says: when two elephants fight it is the grass that suffers, and in South Sudan it seems as though there are 10 elephants tussling and trampling on the population, continually dashing all hope of South Sudan’s secession ever being peaceful. Though July 9 may be marked on calendars as Independence Day, these fighting elephants shall surely live to fight another day and real peace is yet to come.
An edited version of this opinion was first published by Al Jazeera on June 7 2011.