Sudan – Darfur and the Failure of an African State?


By kind invitation of Tony Baldry MP, the Henry Jackson Society was pleased to be able to host a discussion with Richard Cockett, Author and Africa Editor of The Economist.  A renown authority on Sudan, Mr Cockett’s just published book on the country draws on his years of experience and wide access in Sudan. He looked in particular at the country’s complex relationship with the wider world, and the implications of its descent into a failed state accused of genocidal policies towards a section of its population. 


Let me start by saying why Sudan is important, particularly at the moment when we are in the middle of what is probably one of Sudan’s most important years since it became independent from Britain in 1956.  This is because a series of set piece events are likely to determine the future of Africa’s largest country.  On to 15th April 2010 we had voting in Sudan’s first so-called multi-party election since 1986, the first vote for a generation that was a so called democratic vote which took place across Sudan,  but it suffered one milestone.  Currently we are mid-way between that and the next milestone which is on January the 9th 2011, according to a peace agreement made between north Sudan and south Sudan  in 2005.  On January 9th there should be a referendum which should determine whether this vast country will break into two.  If the Southerners vote for independence, if there was a fair vote, which I think they are very likely to have, then by 10th July next year they should be able to declare their independence, and we will have the birth of Africa’s first new nation since Eritrea in the early 1990s, and it will in all probability be called South Sudan, and we will have a new nation in the United Nations.

This years determines the future of whether Sudan will be one or two countries and who will govern it.  So far the elections in back in April have confirmed the status quo.  So the indicted war criminal and committer of genocide,  Omar Bashir, is the president of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the old guerrilla movement in the south, were confirmed as the rulers of south Sudan.  So if, as looks likely, the country splits into two, the north of Sudan will be left with Bashir, then the SPLN will come into their own and be the leaders of this new nation in the south of Sudan, making it a momentous year for the whole Africa and the world.  The reason I wrote the book is that Sudan has a wider importance beyond not just for Africa, but for the wider world.  Its interesting because looking at Sudan in the round, it was all the major forces that shape the developing world, what used to be called the third world, who meet and often bump up against each other, usually with very tragic and bloody circumstances, for instance the conflicts in Sudan have been many.

Darfur broke into large scale conflict in 2003.  Then there was the north-south conflict which was basically a civil war, even before its independence in 1956 and was only finally concluded in 2005, by which time it was Africa’s longest running civil war, and probably cost 2.5 million lives. In the east there has also been a low intensity guerrilla warfare which lasted till 1992.  Sudan has produced a disproportionate amount of conflict, death and refugees. Just to give you  a few statistics for the North-South war, it alone cost more, generated more internally displaced peoples (IDPs) per head of the population than any conflict since the Second World War.  At the moment in Darfur, half of the population has been killed by the conflict, forced to become either internally displaced persons or to become refugees in neighbouring Chad.  So this conflict has generated an extraordinary amount of violence over the last 50 years.  Now the reasons for that are why I wanted to write the book and look at all the conflict in Sudan and look at the major issues in Sudan and see how they all fitted together.  There is the religious issue in Sudan which occurs because the Christian south felt oppressed by the Muslim north, which in the 1990s declared jihad against the South. There was the conflict over resources in the late 1990s when Sudan started producing oil, rather than solving the countries conflicts as many had hoped by making a richer country and by dispersing the wealth to appease discontented minorities throughout the country.  Apparently this only made matters worse as  wealth became ever more concentrated at the hands of fewer people in Khartoum, at the centre of Sudan.  It is also a study of course in terrorism as it has been a big feature of Sudan in the 1990s and the 2000s.  In the 1990s al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden moved there in 1991 after the beginning of the  Islamic revolution.  Osama bin Laden stayed there until 1996 and it was there that al-Qaeda began its operations and discovered its modus Vivendi before he was chased out to Afghanistan. But the consequences of that were very grave for Sudan and it was very important after 2001 because the Americans, despite the killings in Darfur, they maintained what I argue in the book is a privileged intelligence relationship, with the Sudanese intelligence services above other concerns, and that close relationship remains to that day (and also with our own intelligence services too).  So all these things, terrorism, resource conflict and poverty, concentration of  wealth and the Christian-Muslim dimension. Also resource war, war over water, land management, scarce resources which also created more friction in the country.

Other countries in Africa, and indeed other countries in the developing world, have maybe one or two or three of these concerns.  In Sudan, I would argue that almost uniquely, they all came together and that of course was for foreign involvement, the over seas involvement in Sudan which has been enormous, over the past twenty to thirty years.  Of course, it was first a British colony and then the Americans became heavily involved in the mid 1980s and remains very involved to this day.  Then of course, again in the late 1990s it was the Chinese although their independence stepped up their involvement hugely and they became mainly responsible for producing much of Sudan’s oil, most of which is now sold to China.  But as well as the Chinese the soviets, the Malayans and Indians have shares in the main oil consortium producing Sudan’s oil. Sudan not only has all of those Western and Islamic connections, but it is also a template for the development of Africa and the developing world by the rising powers of the east for better or for worse.

This is why Sudan is worth studying. Because all of these forces are involved in one country, its like a sort of awful laboratory of the 21st centaury, that all these forces that you can find around the world and unfortunately I would argue that we haven’t really been able to fix them . We have thrown an inordinate amount of money, man hours, UN man hours and UN resources at the country but yet there are still mass killings going on in Darfur.  The south, as I will tell you, is in an awful mess and there is still widespread poverty and we could still yet return to war. So the argument is that if we don’t understand what these forces are and how to resolve them, in places like Sudan, then we are not going to make any head way in the rest of the developing world. Just to give you one idea of the measure of the resources that have gone into Sudan to try to resolve situation, in Darfur, the most famous conflict in Sudan, the World Food Program (WFP) has been running the largest worlds largest emergency feeding operation since 2003, and in the whole of Sudan the UN is running the biggest peace keeping operation in the world and the UNs  history in Darfur. Separately it is running the third largest peace keeping operation in the world entirely in the south of Sudan. There are 27,000 UN soldiers and police that are trying to keep the peace in Sudan.  On top of that there are thousands of aid workers, NGO workers and administrators – so the scale of the international operations is massive.

Why did Sudan fail and what can we learn from it? There are a couple of things that struck me in this catalogue of violence, misery and conflict.  Firstly it is that Sudan never worked as a unitary state, and there was never any attempt to make it into a federal state which is probably partly a colonial legacy.  The split line that we will probably see next year are basically along the same lines as when the British took it over in the late 19th century, so in some ways this is an old fault line in a country that many would argue is an entirely artificial creation in the first place, but having said that, many Sudanese politicians, including the ruling party would admit that having inherited this fault line from the British and they failed to do anything to overcome that.

That brings us to the major problem of failure governance in Sudan and with it the failure of trying to revolve a federal system, in which  a very large and diverse country could live with itself and its people could live with each other.  To take governance first, I trace the politics in the book, the sorry story of the politics of 1956 to the present day, and certainly looking at the Khartoum’s politicians, it struck me that at almost every turn they sharpened the differences between the various warring peoples of Sudan for their own political gain.  They are so invested in their own power that they have used any means to increase their own power and basically the modus Vivendi that they used was ‘divide and rule’. So in Darfur for instance,  the idea was to divide the African tribes up against each together and to divide Darfur from being a unitary state into three provinces, which it now is, so as to lessen opposition to central rule from Khartoum.  I asked a politician once how the Sudanese politicians operated, how the over all forces in Sudan controlled the country and he said ‘our motto is to divide and rule’ and then he looked at me and I said ‘ ah, that’s interesting, I’ve heard that before’ and he looked at me carefully and he said ‘ah yes, its what we learn from you British, divide and rule’.  And that’s what they have practised.


Lessons Learnt In Sudan

So for me one of the lessons is you can throw many billions of dollars and thousand of aid workers and peace keepers at a problem as big as Sudan, but unless you have a governing class and a governing party that is interested in curing the countries problems, rather than feathering their own nest, or keeping their small clique of rulers in power, then basically you are not going to get anywhere.  And I think Sudan is a very good operating example of that principle, let me just give you one or two examples. The Khartoum government when confronted with the prospect of having UN troops in Darfur for years argued against this, but they finally relented when the Chinese, their traditional backers, put pressure on them to take troops. However, they made sure that they had an African presence and that it was going to be African controlled, what’s called UNAMID, which continues to this day.  So it has greatly reduced its effectiveness, they appear to be cooperating with the international community and the UN troops in Darfur.  Yet, because of the way in which they argued for it in the UN, and how they got the Chinese and the Russians to argue for it in the UN, in fact it operates with limited efficiency and within clear bounds set by the government in Khartoum i.e. its  UN international presence but very much on their own terms.  And of course UN, and NGO workers cant complain about this very much, or indeed go public, because they know that otherwise they would be thrown out of the country.  So it is a Faustian pact and in my view a terrible one. Here is another example of development in the east. The Khartoum government, because it spends currently 74% of its considerable oil revenue solely on weapons, the Sudanese armed forces, the vast amount of poverty and aid is being worked upon by outside agencies (UN, WFP etc) who spend a lot of money and with great integrity work on this, and again entirely on the terms of the UN government in Khartoum. It is the government in Khartoum that sets the boundaries of where they can work, who can come, the projects they can work on, where they can visit, what the money can be spent on, when they can come and go.  If anyone complains then they have a very simple weapon called the visa and they will revoke this with extreme effectiveness and any agency that complains cannot stay in the country any longer than the current year.  Occasionally agencies do speak out, often in unison, when they want to have something to say, but usually they cant because they will privilege the preservation of human life and helping poor and miserable Sudanese over the adverse terms that the Khartoum government sets.  However, for me it perpetuates the existing system of poverty and oppression that exists in Sudan.  What it requires is a government that is devoted to helping its people unlike the government in Khartoum that is dedicated mainly staying in power.

The other lesson that I draw from all of this is that of the muddle of outside intervention there has never been a single operating concept of Sudan.  Instead if we go through the list of countries that have  intervened there are countries like Libya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, there has never been a unified idea of Sudan or indeed a unified idea of how to cure it problems.  This has resulted in Sudan being able to, again, divide and rule at most international forums, particularly the UN.  This has vastly altered the effectiveness of any outside intervention and the Sudanese government have become past-masters at this.  An example of this dividing of foreign countries can be seen in Sudanese-American relations.  America has had a lot to do with Sudan and could have been highly effectual, but individual agencies, individual (what we would call) government ministries,  would each have an entirely different policy than the next, even agencies in Washington that are just down the road from each other.  Again, there were instances in Darfur where the state department was coming down hard on human rights issues and down the road the CIA and the Pentagon were trying to keep a very close relationship with the Sudanese security services.  This is because the Sudanese intelligence services will give them a drip, drip, drip of information on al-Qaeda and bin Laden due to their experience of having him there in the 1990s.  This reached absurdity in 2005 when the head of the Sudanese intelligence services, a very sinister General called Salah Gosh who partly orchestrated the massacres in Darfur, who flown over for a week to be feted by the CIA for handing over intelligence on al-Qaeda to the CIA.  He was given the five star treatment by the CIA and some CIA officers told me that they were disgusted and refused to show up, but this was the pay off for him helping them out over 9/11.  So this again opened up American agencies to weakness as they were being pulled in two very different directions.

Another thing in this is the UN didn’t talk to the diplomats and the diplomats didn’t talk to the intelligence, who didn’t talk to the politicians, the film stars running around, like George Clooney,  didn’t talk to any of the aid workers etc who were not keen on them being there.  This is because of the expense and the time that it takes to lay on the photo opportunities and the exposure that these individuals require, which they felt didn’t benefit the people of Darfur at all. So again because of a lack of communication and a lack of forums for communications, a lot of the leverage that these foreign countries and their diplomats could have had was lost.  When we come to dealing with another Darfur or South Sudan again there will be lessons to be learnt.

Mentioning Salah Gosh takes me on to my final subject, which is the update on Sudan. Because Salah Gosh has recently been appointed to be the political head of north Sudan’s negotiating team with the South regarding the referendum that takes place on 9th January.  The appointment of Salah Gosh to such an important post (which would be like posting the head of MI6 to the referendum on the future of Britain in the European Union) tells me something about the way that they want to run this referendum – an exercise in security not an exercise in popular democracy.


The Future of Sudan

Now there are three thinks that I think are important here.  Firstly, I think that it is now time to panic at the future of Sudan in the next six months because we are all sleep walking towards an utter disaster which is just around the corner in January or February. This is because it was obvious from my journey around the south that Southerners believe that they are going to get a referendum on the 9th, and further more they believe that the majority of southerners are going to vote for independence.  Everyone says that 70% or 80% of people are going to vote for independence which is probably true.  However when you fly to north Sudan to Khartoum nobody there is aware that a referendum is taking place, certainly nobody seemed to be aware that there was going to be an independent country.  When referendums are mentioned they talk about unity, as in ‘we are having a referendum to unite Sudan’.  So there is a complete lack of acknowledgement that there is going to be a referendum or that the country will be cut in two.  This tells me a third thing, that the north Sudanese political class are completely underprepared for their country to be broken into two and further more that they are unwilling to accept it.

This also leads to the conclusion that the north is trying to undermine the referendum and destabilise the south by arming break-away southern militias and they are dragging out the referendum by arguing how and when it will take place in such a way that the referendum will almost certainly not take place on 9th January.  Indeed it will probably not  happen for weeks or possibly months after that.  That is an extremely dangerous game because that may provoke the south, in which case, the south will declare a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) which is what many southern politicians talk about. This is like hitting the nuclear button in that it only has to be passed by the southern parliament as they see it and the south will become independent.  However the north will not recognise the south because there has been no referendum.  Neither will any of the neighbouring countries recognise this independence and that will probably lead to a return to war between the north and the south, and the north will probably just invade the south long the border to seize what it regards as its assets i.e. the oil fields in the northern region.  I just hadn’t realised, until I went there, that there are two completely distinct visions of what is going on.

The third problem in all of this is that the south is in an appalling humanitarian state.  The heads of the UN mission there described it to me as somewhere between Haiti and Bangladesh, its is as bad as bad can be in terms of humanitarian indicators.  A UN official handed me a one page document entitled scary statistics about Sudan.  What they are trying to do is alarm the international community into waking up as to how it really is.  I was walking around in the villages and it is very bad, and what is disappointing is the deep lack of progress in reconstruction since peace was found in 2005, the lack of road building and infrastructure was evident.  A lot of statistics on that sheet show the same – that severe malnourishment has been rising and that earlier this year there was almost a famine in South Sudan.  At the moment, half the population is on emergency feeding, more than any other putative country in the world (meaning that at some point throughout the year they will all be on funding from the WFP).

So at the moment Sudan is surviving on American money through the WFP.  That is a scary thought for a country that in four months time could become operationally independent and has almost no capacity outside Juba, is filled with poverty, has porous borders and has no ability to protect law and order outside the main towns.  Even if it becomes a separate state it is still an exceptionally weak state so all the international organisations are going to have to stay there.  Effectively you are creating a weak state in what is already called an ‘arch of instability’ from East Africa, through the Horn out of the Great Lakes and into the Congo – you are just about to give birth to South Sudan, which in most concerns is probably weaker than Somalia. The north will encourage it to remain weak.  The north can just about live with the concept of a South Sudan, but it would much rather live with a weak South Sudan, i.e. one that cannot challenge them and does not present a military threat.  And that is the end of a gloomy prognosis that will hopefully encourage people to wake up to what is around the corner.


International Responses

This brings me to discuss how the international community can impact upon Sudan.  The rest of the world has opportunities to provide assistance during the process.  It could state quiet clearly that they support the south’s right to succeed and its right to independence, if that is what they vote for.  There has been too much ambiguity and equivocation from the surrounding countries which has let the north think that it can get away with sabotaging the whole thing.  Kenya, Ethiopia all signed up to this in 2005 and when it comes to it they are all bottling out, even the head of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, has been making ambiguous statements about it.  The EU is privately horrified even though publicly they have to make statements saying ‘hum well yes, its got to be within the charter, so maybe or perhaps’.  I think that what would vastly help the south and tell the North would be absolute clarity, that we support independence if that is what they want. To the north we must say we recognise your pain, you have just lost half your territory and your oil, lets see if we can help you in some way – but invite their criminal president to Nairobi.


China has a unique relationship with Sudan and it has impacted upon it in a variety of ways.  China as usual, has in its own mind been entirely a-political, and has cleverly set itself up in south Sudan, and if you go to the capital Juba you stay at the Beijing hotel, you can eat Chinese food you can meet Chinese engineers, Chinese diplomats etc.  They have basically been in Sudan because of the oil and the oil is in the south, so they will work with the south, as well as the north.  For countries like China, but also Russia, who both sell arms to Sudan, and they may well be onside with this because what they want is peace so that the oil continues to flow, not for any altruistic motives, but because they know that if there is any destabilisation in this region then the oil will cease to flow.  It would be very easy for this to occur, as all it would take is a situation like when Sudan returned to civil war in 1993, and a few militias can blow up the oil pipelines and the economy can largely be brought to a halt.   So China, has to a degree been a constructive player on this matter. We will be putting great pressure on both sides to come to sense over this, so that the north doesn’t antagonise the south into doing something that it might regret.  China’s experience over Darfur has at times been severe embarrassment, such as the genocide Olympics at Beijing in 1998 and it did to a degree change its policy and persuade Sudan to accept UN Peace Keepers, although under a limited mandate.  So it can be worked on, it is malleable but it can be persuaded to work for peace between north and south.

The governments have confronted the government a lot in their own way.  I’m pretty certain, I can’t be certain, but take Darfur which in late 2003 to April 2004 were largely allowed to get away with what they wanted to do, that was when most of the killing took place.  Once it was exposed in those last two months up until April, the mass killings stopped and they were basically shamed through political pressure into reducing the all-out assault in the Darfur region at that time.  Of course, we cannot be categorical about the link but it seems fairly clear to me.  You can out the breaks on them and make the see when they have gone too far.  Another example is when the President Bashir was indicted by the ICC the first time and they kicked out 13 foreign NGOs in Darfur, and it was instantly condemned by al Western governments and China too.  In the months following that they sort of half went back on this policy and gradually let them back in, to show that they appreciated that they had overreacted on this and we keep our point that these people were trying to help the ICC.  The argument is always that you ca work with them to a certain extent which is why countries have stayed in dialogue with them and we have had success at certain times.

Should the worst happen then the British government has a vital role to play.  My advice would be, and it is what the British government is doing at the moment, is saying to the south that under no circumstances should they announce an UDI, as you will have the worst of all possible outcomes.  It will not be able to receive aid or have any support from its neighbours as it will not be recognised as a state by the World Bank IMF and other multi-lateral lenders.  The moment that it becomes an independent new country it will have access to all the reconstruction funds from the World Bank etc. Indeed the world bank is trying to fast-track south Sudan into the World Bank arena so that it can draw down funds its needs. So you jeopardise all of this coupled with the North coming down and trying to invade because they will say it is a large armed rebellion which essentially is would be.  The British government needs to say that if you vote, freely and fairly to separate, and not as an UDI, then Southern Sudan has its full support, and that it will carry and nurse it towards separation.

Locally, across African nations, there are also ramifications for the potential splitting of Sudan. African countries have a huge problem with the creation of south Sudan because it sets an unwelcome precedent for their own countries to.  Many leaders of the African Union are sitting equally fragile states, with equally restive countries and cessationist regions – Ethiopia with the Ogaden for instance, Somalia has a perfectly functioning northern area called Somaliland which has been saying why cant we be independent for years.  Once Southern Sudan has been created the calls for an independent Somaliland will become frankly irresistible.  I think that there is then Zanzibar, West Zahara and Morocco to that have areas that crave independence.  So, there are a the AU is supportive of the referendum in 2003 but in their mind it was framed so that both sides between 2005 to 2011, the two sides were supposed to work ‘to make unity more attractive’.  AU leaders half-hoped, half assumed that that is what would happen, and the referendum would become a sort of superfluous academic exercise. That hasn’t happened, hence the Aus anxiety.  This has led to the movement of diplomats scurrying around trying to create a soft landing, to vote technically for a split and hopefully they will realise the enormity of what faces them in the south, allowing the AU to guide the two back together, to reaffirm the united Sudan and everyone will be happy.  The AU appears to think that this is a real possibility and it is being discussed at the moment, in their minds there is still a lot of politicking and negotiations to go. I think that that’s just plain wrong, but that what’s happening.

The one bright spot in the region is that Bashir and Deby [President of Chad] it seems have decided to kiss and make up, there was a sort of ceasefire and then a treaty, but they have a habit of breaking them.  I think that the last one was broken in the first three hours of signing it, and then there were Sudanese bombers blowing up Chadian armed forces on the border.  This time unusually, it seems to have stuck, which has bottled up the Darfur rebels as well and made the Sudanese government think that they can win this war militarily because one of the main rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) supported by the Chadian government.  So by cutting off the border and making peace with Deby, they have got a lot further to being able to suppress the rebels militarily, cutting the supply of arms from Chad. So that has made the threat from Chad much less, in their mind.   That peace is very unstable, I would argue, and indeed we see that JEM has gone back to large scale fighting but on the eastern side of the border in Darfur itself.  I don’t know how much the refuges in the camps have been militarised, that will depend very much on the nature of the relationship between Sudan and Chad.

As well as being a conflict over land there is also the religious element to the conflict in Sudan, there are religious tensions too and this will have ramifications across the Muslim countries of Africa and beyond.  They don’t want the break up of Sudan and cant see any reason for it.  Hanging over all of this is the indictment of Bashir by the ICC and recently the charge of genocide were added to the list of crimes against humanity and war crimes.  On the whole the Islamic countries have been strong backers of Bashir over this issue, and Bashir courted them, went to their countries to try and rally their support for him and against the ICC.  So Arab countries have in the past year invested heavily, and by Arab countries I mean in the Gulf, Middle East, North Africa too, and by and large they have enthusiastically approved of what I thought was a flagrantly rigged election. So they have now invested heavily in Bashir and the unity of Sudan.  The fear that I heard of, talking in Islamic countries in Africa, because we are coming up to the referendum and the possible independence of Southern Sudan, in effect if we do that, we are giving birth to two new countries and Sudan, the north, will be an entirely new country.  The danger of the north is that the whole comprehensive peace agreement, the ostensible government of unity which was set up in 2005 as part of the CPA, has placed counter-veiling pressure on the Islamist agenda and the oppression of Bashir’s National Congress Party.  The problem is that with independence is that it will be removed and the institutional foreign involvement in Sudan will be removed because a lot of the commissions and the oversight committees including Britain’s will be removed with the end of the CPA.  What northerners oppose, both moderate NCP supporters and northerners oppose, to Bashir’s regime which I imagine would be a majority of about three quarters, Mr Bashir and the NCP will have virtually a free hand in the North.  So unfortunately the north could regress and all the gains of the last ten years could be wiped out and it could regress to a state similar to that of the late 1980s.  A shunned, hyper Islamic state with very little space for public opposition supported, but it new friends China and Iran, would make it much harder to deal with.  Iran now gives a lot of money to the Bashir government and is probably its main arms supplier, as well as a lot of political and diplomatic support for Bashir as well.  So the thought is that Sudan could drift off into becoming the Iran of Africa and that fate for the north would be almost as bad the fate of the south, if it should collapse after independence.  Ultimately, it is better that these two countries find a way to work together and the North recognises that it needs southern oil, and the south recognises that the it has all the oil but not the infrastructure as the all the oil is refined in the North and transported out of Port Sudan, and so needs this connection to earn money.  So logically, the two need each other to survive.  The government in south Sudan makes 98% of its wealth through, about 75% of the north’s revenue is from oil.  The best outcome for both sides is that they both recognise this and they work together.



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