From African Studies Review, Volume 42, Number 2 (September 1999)
Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063
Response to “Sudan’s Prolonged Civil War and The Militarization of Nuer and Dinka Ethnic Identities” by Jok Madut Jok and Sharon Hutchinson and “Africans, Arabs, and Islamists: From the Conference Tables to the Battlefields in the Sudan” for African Studies Review.
The Jok and Hutchinson essay is an extremely lucid and well-researched account of the polarization of Nuer and Dinka populations in the south of Sudan following the leadership split within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in 1991. Few features of the ongoing catastrophe that is “civil war” in Sudan are more complex than Dinka/Nuer rivalries and animosities of this period; and yet nothing is as important in understanding why this civil war, which has ground to a military stalemate, continues to be so enormously destructive of human life in southern Sudan.
Even informed observers of Sudan have frequently been unable to make sense of why Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS)–a ten-year-old UN-sponsored consortium of relief and humanitarian organizations–has not been more successful in averting famine and disease, especially given the $1 million dollars a day that is being expended through OLS. The authors manage in their scope to present a compelling case for their view that the root of the problem is the willingness of military leaders Riek Machar (Nuer) and John Garang (Dinka) to “convert conflicts over economic resources into political ones.” This in turn, along with the stubbornly authoritarian manners of Garang and Machar (especially the former), has led to fiercely intensified militarization of traditional ethnic rivalries.
This is all the more disturbing given the remarkable human portrait of the people of the south that emerges in this essay, one marked repeatedly by reasonableness and moderation on the part of the majority of the civilian populations. Again and again, the “educated elite” who dominate Nuer and Dinka policies—both political and military—emerge as the figures of intransigence. What is also revealed clearly is how far from the traditional norm these tribal and ethnic rivalries have moved. The authors present a persuasive account of just why (in the words of one Dinka community leader) “this war between us and the Nuer was no longer our usual war.” This, in turn, suggests the extraordinary importance of the Nuer/Dinka reconciliation that was achieved at the Wunlit (Bahr al-Ghazal) this year, and how consequential will be any extension of this process of reconciliation to other parts of the war-ravaged south. News reports in November of 1999 have provided additional encouragement on this score.
Even so, the authors are all too compelling in pointing to the ways in which the Khartoum regime has for years exploited these rivalries to their own devastating military and political advantage. For this reason as well the authors might have stressed more the details and larger implications of the Wunlit reconciliation. For despite the intransigence of Garang, and his often brutal refusal to surrender any of his authority for the larger good of the cause of southern Sudan, this reconciliation is still something that Khartoum knows very well bodes ill for its efforts to exploit the oil wealth, which has become tangible with the first shipment of crude from Port Sudan late this August. For a true reconciliation of Nuers and Dinkas would allow their combined military attention to be turned against the forces of the north—and potentially against the oil project infrastructure.
The extraordinary length of this pipeline, which stretches from the Muglad basin in southwest Sudan to the Red Sea outlet of Port Sudan in the northeast, makes it extremely vulnerable. Presently, security is guaranteed in part by Khartoum’s strategy of using competing Nuer factions as an inner line of security against Dinka (SPLA) attacks. But if there is a Dinka/Nuer reconciliation, it is not at all clear that the GOS has the forces or logistical ability to protect southern reaches of the oil project infrastructure (which includes complex and critical pumping stations for the paraffin-rich Sudanese crude). The northern section of the pipeline is also subject to SPLA attack from Eritrea.
In other words, Nuer/Dinka reconciliation may mark a key moment in breaking the military stalemate; if so, this may paradoxically work for peace, as the Khartoum regime comes to understand that it will realize oil wealth only by negotiating in good faith with the military threat that would be embodied in a re-unified SPLA.
This excellent analysis, richly informed and well-organized, is essential in comprehending a central paradox of Sudan’s civil war; and it adds significantly to an understanding of the complex difficulties that lie in the way of peace, even for a unified southern opposition.
Robert O. Collins’s “African, Arabs, and Islamists: From the Conference Tables to the Battlefields in the Sudan,” gives an excellent, richly textured account of the maddeningly complex cycles of diplomacy, intrigue, and military events that have defined Sudan in the 1990’s. He also offers a fine overview of what is represented by the coup of June 1989 that brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power in Khartoum, and what has allowed the NIF regime to survive, despite its exceedingly small degree of popular support. Unfortunately, Collins’s fine account is sometimes obscured by excessively sprawling paragraphs, and a somewhat overwrought prose that leads him to problematic comparisons (“[The southern Sudanese] who have accepted the conformity of Christianity have become medieval crusaders against the jihad rather than Victorian evangelists” ). But there can be no doubting the authority of his history of the key moments in the torturous negotiations, and his rendering of the complex backdrop to the alliances, ruptures, and re-alignments that define the relations within the National Democratic Alliance—including the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M).
This make it all the odder that Collins leaves unaddressed two key features of the present negotiating effort to end Sudan’s civil war. The first is the fact that in 1997 the Government of Sudan (i.e., the NIF) did accept the “Declaration of Principles,” (DOP) produced by the Standing Committee of IGAD on May 22, 1994, as the basis for the IGAD negotiations. This is critical, and its importance cannot be overstated. The SPLM of course accepted the DOP quickly and enthusiastically. And if Collins is no doubt right that at the time the GOS was startled and deeply dismayed by this document, they have nonetheless accepted it as the basis for negotiations. His failure to note this is a fundamental failing, because it is to this Declaration of Principles that all presently working under IGAD auspices continually turn, even as there are constant reminders directed to the GOS that it has accepted the DOP as the basis for negotiations.
After so many years of fruitless negotiations, no one is excessively optimistic about the present round of IGAD talks, even supplemented as they are by IGAD Partners Forum, a group of Western nations giving diplomatic and economic musculature to the rickety organization that Collins rightly points out was originally the IGADD (Inter-Governmental Authority of Drought and Desertification). But whatever its origins, IGAD (now the acronym for Inter-governmental Authority for Development) is the only game in town, and those who understand the dynamics of the peace process realize that it if it collapses, new efforts will have to begin from the ground up—and no doubt tens of thousands of lost Sudanese lives later.
Like the authors of the essay on the militarization of Nuer and Dinka ethnic identities, Collins highlights the authoritarian qualities of John Garang, leader of the SPLA. It remains an open question (though Collins is not so harshly pessimistic) as to whether or not Garang will do the right and courageous thing at what may be the singular moment of opportunity in the peace process. His behavior seems guided by many motives—not always admirable—even as his situation is made almost hopelessly complex by the competing ambitions of the northern and southern factions of the NDA.
But for Garang to have a chance to make the right decision, Khartoum must offer it to him and the NDA. The NIF must negotiate in good faith in the IGAD process, and there is only one reason to think, given their past ambitions and intransigence, that they will: oil revenues. This is a key part of Sudan’s history in the 1990’s, though one that receives only peripheral attention in the essays under review. But the first shipment of Sudanese crude from the Greater Nile Oil Project (GNOP) left Port Sudan on August 31st of this year, and this is a date of historic significance–and points up the second shortcoming in Collins’s account.
For August 31, 1999 is also the date, all to revealingly, on which 20 Russian T-55 tanks—supposedly bound from Poland to Yemen—entered Port Sudan. Their purchase, whatever the paperwork might say, was made possible by the oil revenues represented by the departing shipment of crude oil. For the GNOP sends all Sudan’s portion of oil revenues directly to the Government of Sudan, with no mechanism in place that governs in any way the use or dispersal of these revenues. Indeed, it has long been clear that the Khartoum regime has been able to borrow against anticipated oil revenues in purchasing armaments for its $1 million-a-day war effort. China in particular (a 40% partner in GNOP and, significantly, now a net importer of oil) has been more than willing to trade armaments for oil.
In other words, Collins has not taken note of the key role of economic pressure on the NIF in furthering the peace process. Unless the Khartoum regime is confronted with economic pressures which make clear that oil revenues will not continue to flow without good faith peace negotiations under IGAD auspices, the whole peace process is an exercise in futility. Hence the energetic campaign for divestment currently ramping up quickly in the US and Canada, with the Canadian corporate presence in GNOP (Talisman Energy, Inc. of Calgary) as its singular target. Talisman has already experienced a steep drop in share price, and faces the prospect of an accelerating divestment campaign, possible sanctions by the Canadian government, and an effort in Washington to de-list Talisman from the New York Stock Exchange–a crippling financial blow. American and Canadian news coverage of Sudan, and oil development, grew startlingly in October and November of 1999, and this bodes well for the success of the divestment campaign, especially as a means of serving warning to the European oil companies quietly waiting in the wings to participate in Sudan’s oil development.
If Talisman is forced from Sudan, the Khartoum regime will have a much clearer sense of the price that oil development under present circumstances will exact. Short of an unlikely coup in the near term (Collins gives an extremely good account of how thoroughly the NIF has entrenched itself and learned key lessons from previous coups), negotiations under IGAD auspices are Sudan’s only hope. One could wish much more for this brutally torn land. But these two essays make all too clear the reasons why both the situation on the ground in the south, and fractious nature of the opposition to the government, augur poorly for more auspicious negotiating conditions.