The Uncertain Future of an Uncertain Nation, Telescope, October 2014

NatsiosAfter a half century of civil war, lawlessness, and mass death in Sudan, a political peace agreement that separated South Sudan from Sudan looked to resolve the conflict. Now warring factions in the world’s newest nation have reignited a ruthless war for political power.

About the size of the eastern United States and located south of Egypt, Sudan is among the poorest nations with limited resources, water perhaps the most precious.

Mr. Andrew Natsios, a leading authority on Sudan and a former special envoy to the region, draws an effective analogy in his book Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Should Know. He likens Sudan’s volatile political strife with the haboobs, the deadly sandstorms with drastic temperature swings much like the “sporadic and unexpected upheaval sweep violently across its vast human landscape.”

Three major civil wars since 1955 have pitted the Sudan government in Khartoum against rebel factions in the South, complicated by religion, tribal identity, and oil. Arabs populate northern Sudan and run an Islamic state, Christians are more common in the South. Tribal rivalries have caused rebel groups to battle despite their common enemy. Large oil deposits discovered in the South in the late 1990s intensified the fight and only invited more corruption.

Also, the western Darfur region has revolted and suffered retaliation. Sudan employed a marauding militia with a dubious reputation, the Janjawiid, literally “devil on horseback.” The Darfur rebellion that began in 2003 resulted in 300,000 deaths and 2,800 villages destroyed.

Since a 1989 coup, President Omar al-Bashir has ruled over Sudan. Once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, he immediately set up an Islamic dictatorship with a penchant for human rights violations and attacks on southern Christians. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes in 2009.

“Bashir finally let the South go,” says Andrew Natsios more recently, “because he knew he’d never have solid control of the southern region.” The war costs ate up his government revenues. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army and Khartoum signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, essentially a political and oil-sharing plan, in 2005. Six years later, southern citizens voted by 98.6 percent to become the independent Republic of South Sudan, roughly the size of Texas with the capital in Juba.

A recent conflict between President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riak Machar in South Sudan has reignited deadly fighting. Kiir, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, is a member of the Dinka tribe, the country’s largest, and Machar, who led the South Sudan Independence Movement, is a member of the Nuer tribe. Machar had signaled he might challenge Kiir for the leadership of their party. This, and public frustration from both a delayed peace process and a slow-moving modernization, convinced Kiir to fire Machar and to relieve most of his cabinet.

The political tensions became deadly military attacks in mid-December 2013. Forces loyal to Machar attacked Juba. The organization Human Rights Watch documented a massacre of 200 to 300 men in one Juba neighborhood, all taken to a police station and shot. Humanitarian and peacekeeping groups have been menaced and forced out of these areas.

Much of the carnage results from attacks on churches, mosques, and hospitals. At one attack in Bentiu more than 200 innocent civilians were killed, and over 400 were wounded. Surviving boys were pressed into service, and young girls were forced into the slave trade. A Christian Science Monitor report claims the 30,000-person town, is now “a shattered zone of twisted metal and blackened and bombed-out structures.” The conflict has displaced one million people from their homes, and killed over 10,000.

Among those asking for restraint are the Daughters of South Sudan and the Sisterhood for Peace Network stated in a joint letter to Kiir and Machar, “We are equally hurt to see our own brothers pointing lethal weapons against one another.”

The violence goes both ways and it’s intensified by the diversity of unaccountable militia. “There’s no good guy in this,” says Natsios. “The Government organizes them, pays them, directs them, but claims no affiliation so they can wash their hands of the bloodshed,” declares Natsios. “They allow the militias to do their dirty work.”

If the pattern continues, Sudan will be ground for nefarious trades of sex, arms, and professional terror. “The real irony here,” says Natsios or the role reversal, “Is the government in Juba is beginning to act like the government in Khartoum.”

The above article appeared in the October 2014 Telescope magazine.

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