President Obama’s recent trip to China presented a golden opportunity to address a crisis that has long confounded the international community: the ongoing conflict in Sudan. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an opportunity missed.
The largest country in Africa, Sudan’s central government has been involved until recently in devastating civil wars in its western and southern regions. However, the Sudanese leadership has constantly shrugged off international attempts to solve these simmering conflicts, relying on its strong relationship with China to counter any foreign peace-making efforts, which it terms “western imperialism.”
Recognizing the importance of Obama’s China trip for Sudan’s future, 44 members of Congress sent a letter to the president last Friday before his departure, asking him “to make Sudan a priority” in his discussions with the Chinese.
“Failure to exert sufficient public pressure on China regarding its relationship with Khartoum will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States places other interests ahead of achieving peace in Sudan,” the letter states.
Initially, Obama’s Sudan policy appeared promising. During the election campaign last year, he had made Sudan a priority in his foreign policy platform. And he had good reason for doing so.
Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese civilians have been killed and several million displaced in fighting in western and southern Sudan. Human rights groups and the United Nations have condemned Sudan’s Arab government for committing crimes against humanity in both regions, especially in Darfur in western Sudan. There, a campaign of ethnic cleansing against black African Muslim tribes, begun in 2003, has resulted in an estimated 300,000 dead and earned Sudanese president, Omar Bashir, an indictment from the International Criminal Court last March.
The suffering and deplorable human rights situation of Sudan’s southern and western civilian African populations caused Obama to call for tough measures when on the 2008 campaign trail. Criticising then-President George Bush for being too soft on Khartoum, the Democratic candidate called for stricter international sanctions, especially against Sudan’s oil industry, the government’s major foreign currency earner. A no-fly zone for government warplanes over Darfur was also advocated and, according to the New York Times, Obama’s then chief advisor on Sudan, Susan Rice, even “hinted at US military action.”
“We know from past experience that it will take a great deal to get them to do the right thing,” Obama said when electioneering.
But when the president’s Sudan policy came out last month after a lengthy review, it looked similar to the Bush administration approach he had been faulting. Instead of isolating Khartoum with tougher sanctions, he will offer incentives and the chance to normalize relations with the American government if Bashir ends the conflicts.
The architect of this shift to a soft approach is retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, Obama’s special envoy to the Sudan. Gration described the new policy as awarding “cookies” and “gold stars” to Khartoum’s government, which must sound comical to a regime that is responsible for several million of its own citizens’ deaths.
Unlike Gration, the southern Sudanese are fully aware of the murderous threat from Khartoum. Southern Sudan, whose black African population is mostly Christian and animist, has already fought two brutal civil wars against the Arab and Muslim North.
The first one, begun soon after independence from Great Britain in 1956, ended in 1972 after an estimated 500,000 deaths and the odious practice of slavery had been revived, supported by the Arab world’s new oil wealth. In 1962, a Swiss journalist wrote that hundreds of black African Sudanese were enslaved and sent to northern Sudan and some even further to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other oil sheikdoms.
The second conflict began in 1983 when the Khartoum government threw out the 1972 peace accord. Arabic was then declared the country’s only official language and sharia was made the law of the land.
In this terrible struggle, the Arab North’s religious and racial hatred for the South was fully in evidence. This was strengthened by the Khartoum government declaring jihad against its own southern citizens, of whom two million were to perish and another two million were displaced. Thousands were also enslaved. The war ended in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), under which the south became an autonomous region and will vote for independence in a referendum in 2011.
Even then, it took another war, in Darfur, to get the Sudanese government to agree to the CPA. Becoming tied down in a war of horrifying proportions in Darfur, the Khartoum government used the CPA to shift its resources from the southern Sudan to the West. A peace agreement to end the Darfurian conflict was signed in 2006.
Both agreements, however, are largely shams. After 2005, the Khartoum government continued the war against southern Sudan only by different means. The Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), the political entity that came into being under the CPA, and the Anglican Church’s archbishop for Sudan have both accused Khartoum of fomenting tribal violence in the South by arming tribal militias to attack and loot their neighbors.
In a further destabilizing effort, GOSS says the North is also responsible for attacks by the Congo-based Lord’s Resistance Army that have displaced more than 100,000 southern Sudanese. Darfur is also not at peace, as clashes are continuing between government forces and rebels.
When campaigning, Obama appeared to correctly recognize the problem with Sudan was the Khartoum regime. Composed of Islamic hardliners, they are adamantly opposed to independence for the South and to concessions in Darfur. It is doing all it can to sabotage the CPA and is arming itself with modern Chinese weapons for the next round of war with GOSS or in Darfur.
The Chinese would most likely have rebuffed any attempt by Obama, if any was made, to impose heavy sanctions on the Sudanese government if it continued its civil wars. Economic considerations would prevent such a move. China buys two thirds of Sudan’s oil production and has invested heavily in the country. Besides, Beijing has never been overly bothered by human rights violations.
Obama has done little to change China’s thinking. So, left with only Obama’s strategy of “cookies” and “stars” rather than one of hard substance, the tragedy in Sudan is set to repeat itself.