From The Sunday Independent (South Africa), July 29, 2001
[“The Foreign Minister of Sudan: Envoy of Hatred”]
by Eric Reeves
The current visit by Mustapha Ismail, Foreign Minister of Sudan, should occasion serious and perhaps painful reflection for South Africans. For Mr. Ismail represents not just another African regime, but arguably the most repressive government on the continent. Moreover, Mr. Ismail’s National Islamic Front, which rules from Khartoum, is a deeply racist regime, bent on permanently marginalizing or destroying the African peoples of southern Sudan—primarily the Dinkas and Nuers—as well as the African populations in other regions of the country.
Such strong words may startle many, but the savage conduct by Khartoum in Sudan’s civil war fully justifies them. This war is the longest and most destructive in Africa. Over the last 18 years, more than 2 million human beings (overwhelming civilians from the south) have perished, and as many as 5 million have been uprooted. The UN’s World Food Program has recently estimated that 3 million Sudanese are at risk of famine and drought exacerbated by war.
Sudan’s war has many causes, and is not simply a conflict between north and south. Nor is the north homogeneous, politically or ethnically. But the geographical division is still critical in understanding other factors that sustain this terrible episode of human destruction. The Khartoum regime in the north looks to the Arab world for cultural, religious, and racial identity; the south looks to indigenous African cultural traditions, especially in religion, and is defined by the racial features of the Nilotic and Equatorian tribal groups (they are more “African,” and much darker-skinned than the Arabized population of the north).
That the war has a significant racial animus is evident in many ways. Khartoum has for years abetted a terrible trade in human slavery, using as its primary surrogate the “murahileen”—armed militia of the Arabized Baggara tribes near the north/south border. Tens of thousands of human beings have been taken as chattel slaves. We know this from the authoritative reports by the UN Special Rapporteurs for Sudan, from the research of Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations, and from the countless testimonials of those who have escaped enslavement. Tellingly, there is a common Arabic word in the north for the African people of the south: “abid.” It translates literally as “slave,” but has the hateful connotations of the word “kaffir.”
There are other measures of the contempt with which Khartoum regards southern, African lives. The regime has consistently used the denial of emergency food aid to starving populations as a weapon of war. It is doing so now in various parts of southern provinces, as well as in the Nuba Mountains. Outrageously, the regime also deliberately attacks relief organizations that make up Operation Lifeline Sudan, a UN-sponsored consortium of humanitarian efforts that have helped to avert complete catastrophe in southern Sudan. Last July and August attacks on this humanitarian relief became so intense that all aid missions had to be suspended.
Khartoum has also long engaged in the deliberate aerial bombardment of clearly civilian targets in the south: schools, hospitals, churches, emergency feeding stations, herds of cattle. These bombing attacks are carried out by Russian Antonov “bombers,” actually retrofitted cargo planes from which crude but deadly barrel bombs are rolled out the back cargo doors. They fly at very high altitudes and are notoriously inaccurate, insuring that they can serve no real military purpose. Their task—and for this they are supremely effective—is to create civilian terror and to destroy the fabric of southern civil society.
More recently, Khartoum has extended its brutal assault on African civilians to provide “security” for international oil companies working in southern concession areas. An authoritatively documented campaign of scorched-earth warfare against indigenous southern populations serves to create a cordon sanitaire for present and future oil development. And though the oil is extracted from the south, all Sudanese revenues accrue to Khartoum, which has boasted publicly of its military ambitions for these revenues.
Now that Soekor is actively planning an entrance into Sudan’s oil development projects, these morally vicious realities force upon South Africa the same question that has confronted other nations with the opportunity to invest in Sudan’s oil projects: will apparent economic benefit receive greater consideration than inevitable complicity in massive human destruction marked by an unmistakable racial animus? Dismayingly, Talisman Energy (Canada), Lundin Oil (Sweden), and China National Petroleum Corp. have chosen to partner with the Khartoum regime. So, too, has Malaysia’s state-owned Petronas, which in turn owns the 1700 Engen petrol stations throughout southern Africa.
Foreign Minister Ismail has come to South Africa in large part to tout the benefits of investing in oil development, and to offer a callously selective account of Sudan’s civil war. He is unlikely to dwell on the brutal realities of this war, or the fact that Khartoum’s recalcitrance is the major obstacle to a just peace for Sudan. For its part, South Africa should consider very carefully the consequences of a parastatal oil company investing in racial tyranny and a brutally destructive civil war.
[Eric Reeves is an international expert on Sudan and a professor of
English at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He is currently on leave to write a book about the country]