When history repeats itself for a third time, it is beyond tragedy. Since its independence fifty-one years ago, Sudan has suffered two civil wars between North and South, each of them as bloody as–and much longer than–today’s crisis in the western region of Darfur. Quietly, Sudanese military planners are preparing for a third round of that war. Just two weeks before violent clashes erupted in the Southern city of Malakal at the end of November, Salva Kiir, the president of Southern Sudan–who is also first vice president in Sudan’s Government of National Unity–issued a stark warning: “The war will return to the South if peace is not achieved in Darfur, and that is really our fear.” He repeated the warnings in a speech January 9, the second anniversary of the agreement that brought peace to Southern Sudan. Kiir’s alarm is good reason to intensify international efforts over Darfur–but he is also putting us on notice to pay attention to a looming nationwide crisis.
There’s no doubt that President Omar al-Bashir and his cabal of security chiefs bear the major responsibility for bringing Sudan to its current state of despair. Certainly urgent action is needed to stop the killing in Darfur, which first aroused the conscience of the Western world in 2003, spurring a well-organized mass movement and student campaign to “save” the region. The impulse among Western activists and policymakers to entertain regime change, and to pressure and punish those whose misdeeds have inflicted so much death and destruction, is understandable. But punitive and interventionist measures carry a high risk of sparking intensified conflict or bringing about government collapse–either of which would have calamitous humanitarian consequences. American leadership to avert such disasters is needed now.
While the crisis in Darfur has captured the attention of Western activists, that conflict developed partly because of the incomplete resolution of the North-South war. And both conflicts arose from the same general phenomenon: regional discontent with exploitation, of both people and resources, by the central government in Khartoum. The Darfur crisis can neither be understood nor resolved apart from the more deep-rooted North-South confrontation.
When Sudan won its independence in 1956, a rebellion was already under way in the South. Southern Sudanese, black and overwhelmingly non-Muslim, feared that national independence simply meant a replacement of British imperial rule by Northern Sudanese Arab colonialism. Their fears were well founded, as Southerners suffered discrimination and abuse from Northern governments seeking to create a Muslim and Arabized country. This war lasted seventeen years, until a peace accord was signed in 1972. A decade’s interlude of peace followed, but the political travails that marked those years–including half a dozen attempted military coups–cemented Sudan’s reputation as Africa’s most dysfunctional country.
A second war broke out in 1983. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), headed by John Garang, fought four successive governments in Khartoum until, with major effort from Kenya, the United States and Europe, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005. Commonly known as the Naivasha Agreement, after the Kenyan resort where negotiations were conducted, the CPA promised the democratization of Sudan and an equitable distribution of oil revenues between North and South. Its greatest weakness is that despite the word “comprehensive,” the accord didn’t deal with the war in Darfur. That conflict had erupted just as the North-South war was finally coming close to settlement.
The Darfur rebellion arose out of a sorry history of misgovernment and the region’s unfortunate location next door to Chad’s civil war, which has alternately smoldered and blazed since the 1960s. Twenty years ago Khartoum turned a blind eye to Libya’s use of Darfur as a rear base to attack Chad, and the depredations of the Chadian Arab militia it had armed–the original Janjaweed. As law and order collapsed and Darfurian tribesmen acquired weapons to defend their farms and herds, Khartoum failed to act as an honest broker in the numerous local conflicts. On the contrary, it policed Darfur by promoting loyal chiefs and arming their militias. Most of these loyalists were Arabs who fueled Arab supremacist ideology and underwrote an escalating land grab. By 2003 a coalition of village self-defense groups trying to hold on to their land and educated Darfurians incensed at the region’s marginalization in national politics came together as the Sudan Liberation Army and mounted a guerrilla war. Garang encouraged the SLA, hoping that a new insurgency in the west would press Khartoum to make bigger concessions on his agenda of a radical “New Sudan.”