In little more than a hundred days President Barack Obama will face possibly the greatest foreign policy challenge of his presidency when southern Sudan votes January 9 on whether to establish an independent country. If the black African, predominantly Christian and animist South decides in the upcoming referendum to separate from the Arab and Muslim North, as is expected, it will become the world’s newest state.
Many people, especially southern Sudanese and also some Obama administration officials, are pessimistic that the referendum and its aftermath will unfold peacefully. A vote to separate, they believe, will simply see the Arab North resume the war with the South that ended in 2005 with the George Bush-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which called for the referendum. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton alluded to this when she told the Council of Foreign Relations recently the North-South situation was “a ticking time-bomb of enormous consequence.
“But the real problem,” Clinton said, “is what happens when the inevitable happens and the referendum is passed and the South declares independence?”
War is the answer, if the Khartoum government’s past, and present, actions are anything to go by. Since independence from Great Britain in 1956, the South has already fought two wars against the North to protect its people from Arab oppression and atrocities.
Southern Sudan, an area of 227,000 square miles and about 11 million people, was once one of the main sources of slaves for the Islamic world. When the first civil war broke out shortly after independence from Great Britain in 1956, this barbaric practice, fuelled by the Arab world’s new oil wealth, soon reappeared. This first North-South conflict ended with a peace treaty in 1972, but not until 500,000 people, mostly southern Sudanese, had died.
The second Sudanese civil war, which ended with the 2005 CPA, began in 1983 when the Khartoum government discarded the 1972 peace accord and made Sharia the law of the land and Arabic the country’s only official language. The southern Sudanese heroically fought this attempt to force them to become Arab and Muslim, leading the North to declare jihad against its southern citizens in 1989.
In this second round of civil strife, the Sudanese Arab gave full vent to his hatred for the Sudanese black African, embarking on a policy of genocide that presaged Darfur. Two million people died in the renewed conflict –again, mostly southern Sudanese — and another four million were displaced while large parts of southern Sudan were devastated.
Under the CPA, 200,000 black southern Sudanese, captured during slave raids, were allowed to return home. One of them, Francis Bok, now an American citizen, told his story in Front Page Magazine of working ten years from age seven as a child slave for a cruel master.
The Government of South Sudan (GOSS) under Salva Kiir, a Catholic, is already preparing for “when the inevitable happens” by having a new national anthem composed and, more importantly, forging closer links with neighboring black African states, Uganda and Kenya. The latter has allowed weapons destined for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (GOSS’s military force) to cross its territory and has sent officials to Juba, southern Sudan’s capital, to help with the transition. It is also building a new seaport to accommodate the expected increase in commercial activity from the new state.