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New African nation fights an old war

Many years ago I worked with the brilliant Sudanese diplomat and scholar Francis Deng at the Brookings Institution. The crux of much of his research on that troubled nation was that Sudan embodies many problems facing the whole continent: Arab versus African, Islam versus Christianity, rich versus poor, ethnic group versus ethnic group. Sudan, he noted, splits the divide between the black Africa of sub-Saharan Africa and the Arabian Africa of the north, leading into the Middle East.

That makes the current violence between Sudan (population 34 million) and the newly independent South Sudan (8 million) a vitally important case for Africa and for the United States. When Sudan and South Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in July 2011 that made the latter the world's newest country, we hoped we were seeing the end of a conflict that dates to 1955. Unfortunately, the creation of a new nation has only turned a desperate internal struggle into a war between two sovereign states.

The people of United States and the West may be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless stories of woe coming from the continent, but Sudan cannot be ignored. We should not wait for a repeat of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict, where Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year struggle, only for the two countries to go to war seven years later — killing tens of thousands of people and costing hundreds of millions of dollars. (And don't forget that Sudan has an uncomfortable history of harboring, if not supporting, terrorists from al-Qaida, Al-Shabaab, Hamas and Hezbollah.)

So what can be done to avoid this sadly predictable humanitarian disaster? In the past, the solution has been for the United Nations to issue resolutions that draw from the same playbook — economic sanctions, arms embargoes, peacekeeping missions.

I have witnessed first-hand such interventions in Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Rwanda, and those experiences do not engender hope. In a perfect world there would be African solutions to African problems, but no resolution will occur in a geo-political vacuum when oil is involved.

South Sudan is rich in oil reserves. Sudan in the north is rich in oil refineries and maintains the transportation routes for its landlocked southern neighbor. Neither side is blameless in the recent crisis. President Omar al-Bashir's government in Khartoum has bombarded civilians along the border while South Sudan President Salva Kiir led an attack on Heglig, a large oil field on the border of the two countries.

The current problems are not simple. The CPA left the status of key oil-producing southern provinces (South Kordofan and Blue Nile) subject to referenda, but those votes have yet to be held. Further, Khartoum has neglected Kordofan for years, mainly because a substantial proportion of its population are Christians or practice their own strand of Islam; the province has received no benefits from its oil fields. A rigged 2011 election there led to an uprising, followed by Sudanese reprisals, which were also inflicted on Blue Nile. Worse still, Southern militias are operating in Sudan, and vice versa.

Once again, the United Nations Security Council, and the African Union, its counterpart on the continent, have issued familiar calls from the same tired old playbook. These calls are a just waste of time. Sudan cares little about threats of sanctions, and the abilities of the African Union must be called into question.

The African Union provided a half-hearted response to the Darfur conflict and even refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and its arrest warrant when it indicted Omar al-Bashir on war crimes. In fact, the African Union has never successfully resolved a single conflict on the continent. In my 15 years working with the U.S. government I have unfortunately seen the toothless nature of the organization and its lack of true commitment to conflict resolution. That being said, China apparently has faith in the organization. The new $200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa was funded entirely by China as a gift to the continent.

China's close relations with Sudan opens the door for the United States to play a key role in resolving this conflict.

During her recent trip to China, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed China to help calm the violence along the Sudanese border. China, which buys oil from both sides (40 percent of Sudan's oil is bought by China), has long refrained from interference in the internal affairs of its African trading partners. But China's long-standing non-interference policy is no longer relevant in a fight between sovereign nations and Beijing can act as an honest broker in getting the two sides to negotiate.

Secretary Clinton should not stop there, though.

Saudi Arabia could have a strong voice here, as it helped end the Sudan-Chad conflict in 2007 and it continues to build strong economic ties to Sudan. In fact, the Saudis have taken prominent agricultural stakes in Sudan; most recently a Saudi businessman struck a tax-free deal for 2 million acres of farmland. Further, while Sudan may not be a member of OPEC it is a major oil producer, the third largest in Africa, and maintains close relations with the Saudi royal family.

Secretary Clinton's next call should be to Egypt. Egypt and Sudan have a long history of close relations and President al-Bashir even served in the Egyptian army during the 1970s. Even with its current political uncertainty, Egypt could play a pivotal role in getting Khartoum to cease its violent attacks on South Sudan. Just recently, Egypt had a hand in the South's withdrawal from Heglig.

The last call, I'd expect Clinton to make would be to Ethiopia, Sudan's eastern neighbor. I have spent many years working along the Ethiopian border and the Blue Nile region and have seen the porous nature of not just the formal border but the peoples as well. While Ethio-Sudanese relations have a rocky history at best, the people in this area share great bonds. They speak more than eight common languages and religiously mixed communities along the border have found ways to avoid internal conflict. Further, Addis Ababa has shown its openness to its newest neighbor as it recently entered a three-country oil pipeline deal with South Sudan and Kenya.

So let's accept that the United Nations won't solve this and neither will the African Union. The solution to this mounting crisis is bi-lateral interventions. But they won't happen on their own. To bring the necessary pressure to bear requires the diplomatic weight of the United States. A few well-placed phone calls might just save a few thousand lives.

Michael Matthews has worked for the U.S. government and private sector on economic and political development in 42 African countries. He lives in Tampa.

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New African nation fights an old war 05/12/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 9:58am]
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