At the national African studies conference held recently in Adelaide, South Sudanese refugees expressed great hope about the future of their newly independent nation; but the success of that state in gaining internationally recognised sovereignty has helped to conceal the continuing troubles in the northern Sudanese territory controlled by Khartoum. Soldiers and militia forces loyal to Khartoum are intensifying violence that threatens hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces, amongst other areas, and Amnesty International has recently highlighted the plight of 100,000 refugees from the Abyei region and the nearby Nuba Mountains.
Control of South Kordofan is disputed by Sudan and South Sudan, with oil reserves and infrastructure being a major motivation. A referendum on self-determination for the area was blocked by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir (an internationally wanted war crimes suspect) with the demand that migratory Misseriya Arabs who are allied to the northern regime be included in the vote, as it is clear that the Nuba and Dinka Ngok people of the region would vote to join South Sudan. Subsequently, since southern independence the north has escalated to a campaign of ethnic cleansing and open warfare against these populations.
Sudan has a long and complex history, with many of its post-independence problems emerging from regions being developed to different levels under colonialism, and national political and administrative power being centralised in the Arab north. Various surges of conflict between regions fighting for independence and the authoritarian central government have cost around 3 million lives since 1956, but finally a referendum held on 9 January 2011 almost unanimously determined that the South would become independent.
However, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement which finally facilitated southern independence also included provisions for determining the future of Abyei, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile – which sit to the north along the new border and were left out of the secession. In order to short-circuit political progress in those areas, from the beginning of 2011 Khartoum's troops and allied Misseriya militia began to provoke tensions around Abyei and deployed in preparation for wider strategic action, eventually using a fire-fight between the southern Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and Khartoum's armed forces in May as the pretext for an invasion that has driven more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok into South Sudan. By June 2011 TIME magazine was amongst other organisations in reporting stories of ethnic cleansing against locals related by fleeing aid workers, along with predictions that South Kordofan would become another Darfur. Sudan-watcher Eric Reeves laments that now, "The Abyei issue has been settled; Khartoum has created, militarily, a fait accompli and the international community seems unprepared to insist on any withdrawal or surrender of de facto military control".
In the nearby Nuba Mountains a campaign of aerial bombing of civilian populations continues to force hundreds of thousands to abandon their homes in search of safety, which is additionally disrupting the harvest season and laying the groundwork for malnutrition to become famine. Government facilities in the region such as airfields are also being expanded in preparation for further military campaigns, and particularly for the use of helicopter gunships and troop-carriers that are highly effective for counter-insurgency in mountainous areas. Under this increasing repression many Nuba are looking to the possibility of taking up arms to fight back. There is little international discussion of these circumstances, and no planning to provide further humanitarian assistance to the area – but these conditions are not the work of blind nature, they are the coordinated plans of the criminal regime in Khartoum that is acting with impunity.
The failure of the international community to act also brings the north and south closer to renewed conflict, as South Sudan cannot sit idly by allowing the massacre of sympathetic populations, the result of which is also the further destabilisation of the newly independent state. Additionally, South Sudan accuses the north of supporting rebellions in a number of the South Sudanese provinces – actions aimed at disrupting the consolidation of the new national government, and maintaining its disadvantage in inter-state relations. Conflict between these forces would no longer be a civil war, but an open war between African nations, with the potential to draw in other countries across North, Central and East Africa.
Over the past two decades Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has cleverly alternated between warfare, diplomacy, and deniable support for allied militia groups in his campaigns against internal opponents and his international diplomatic manoeuvring. He has often used the conclusion of peace agreements with one group to redirect military oppression against others. In congruence with this, the desperation of the international community for diplomatic successes in Darfur and South Sudan provides the space for Khartoum to pursue genocidal policies against other opponents without objection. But the lesson to be learnt from the history of al-Bashir's government is that these diplomatic accords are only ever temporary and tactical, and that when the time is right Khartoum will revert to either overt or covert violence.
The world cannot buy peace in Sudan by sacrificing the Dinka Ngok, the Nuba, and other peoples along the border with South Sudan. Moves must be made now to stop the violence and to prevent humanitarian disaster. Failure to act reflects both on the capabilities of the Western world order and on its moral compass.
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