The recent death of John Garang is a shocking setback to Sudan's peace process, but not a fatal one. The Bush administration deserves much of the credit for the peace deal signed in January, and if it keeps its nerve, can help preserve the peace with Garang's successorby Alex De Waal / August 28, 2005 / Leave a comment
For decades, “Sudan is never news” was the Africa correspondent’s rule of thumb. But Africa’s largest country has been consistently newsworthy. Sudan has been wracked by civil war since independence in 1956, as the southern third of the nation has resisted the depredations of the ruling military and commercial elite. The most intense war followed the June 1989 coup by Omer al Bashir, who overthrew an elected government and imprisoned all dissidents. His mentor and eminence grise, the Islamist theoretician Hassan al Turabi, declared his intent to create an Islamic state.
Sudan has also suffered repeated famine over the past 20 years. It needn’t. The country possesses the largest irrigated farm in the world, the Gezira scheme, initiated by Lord Kitchener at the behest of the Lancashire cotton industry 101 years ago. It is also the world’s largest producer of Gum Arabic, which we consume daily in fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Southern Sudan has substantial oil reserves, now eagerly exploited by Petrochina and others. Despite this economic potential, the great majority of Sudanese live in abject poverty, several million of them drawn to the shanty towns around the capital, Khartoum, which stands as a gleaming Arab metropolis amid an expanse of sub-Saharan wretchedness.
Sudan’s unending suffering stayed out of the news because of the interminable process of getting a visa, press accreditation and a travel permit, and then the days or weeks spent travelling in pursuit of a story that was both heart-rending and extremely complicated. Nothing in this country is ever simple. The ruling elite calls itself “Arab” but looks no less African than Ethiopians do. The southern rebels fight themselves just as much as their northern enemy. The way that Khartoum’s military intelligence runs its counter-insurgency is to quietly indicate to militia leaders and army officers that a particular area is an ethics-free zone: they have licence to pursue whatever local agenda they may have – land, loot, smuggling – as long as they damage the rebels enough to contain the threat. By these means, the war has become a string of overlapping and hideously complex local feuds and land grabs. Meanwhile, the leaders of armies that are killing each other on the battlefield greet each other in foreign hotels like long-lost cousins, enquiring after one another’s children.
Sudan rarely registered on the foreign policy radar in London or Washington, despite Khartoum becoming the…