On Sunday, the southern Sudanese began voting on a referendum to secede from the
Republic of Sudan and establish their own sovereign nation. By all accounts,
they will soon secede from the Arab, Islamic country and form an independent
African, Christian and animist state.
The consequences of their actions
will reverberate around the world.
This week’s referendum takes place in
accordance with the US-brokered Comprehensive Peace Treaty between the Khartoum
government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed on January 9,
The CPT officially ended the second Sudanese Civil War that began
The South Sudanese referendum will not settle the issue of
control over all of southern Sudan. Numerous flashpoints remain. Most
importantly, the disposition of the town of Abyei remains undetermined. Abyei is
where most of Sudan’s oil deposits are located.
Unlike the rest of the
south, its population is a mix of Arabs and Africans and its residents are split
over the issue of separation from Khartoum. If there is war after independence,
Abyei will likely be its cause.
Abyei’s residents were supposed to vote
on a referendum to determine the disposition of their town at the same time as
the rest of the south. But fuelled by their conflicting interests, they could
not agree on how to run the poll, and so it did not take place.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is playing a contradictory role in the South
Sudanese referendum. Al-Bashir has been indicted on charges of genocide and
crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
Last week he visited
South Sudan’s capital city Juba and pledged to support the referendum’s results.
As he put it, “I am going to celebrate your decision, even if your decision is
secession. Even after the southern state is born, we are ready in the Khartoum
government to offer any technical or logistical support and training or advice –
we are ready to help.”
But then, last Friday, pro-Khartoum militias
attacked anti-Khartoum targets in Abyei. By Monday, 23 people had been killed.
According to South Sudanese military spokesmen, militiamen captured in Abyei
said they were ordered to attack by Khartoum.
MUCH OF the international
discourse on southern Sudan has centered on what South Sudan’s independence
means for its citizens and for Africa as a whole. And this is
In its 54-year history, Sudan has suffered from civil war
between the north and south for 39 years. Some 200,000 south Sudanese were
kidnapped into slavery. Two million Sudanese have died in the wars. Four million
have become refugees.
But the fact is that with the West openly
supporting southern Sudanese independence, a new war’s consequences will not be
limited to Sudan itself. Therefore it is worth considering why such a war is all
but certain and what southern Sudanese independence means for the region and the
There were two main reasons that Bashir agreed to sign the peace
treaty with the south Sudanese in 2005. First, his forces had lost the civil
war. The south was already effectively independent.
The second reason
Bashir agreed to a deal that would give eventual independence to the oil-rich
south is because he feared the US.
In 2004, led by then president George
W. Bush, the US cast a giant shadow throughout the world. The US
military’s lightning overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime frightened US foes and
encouraged US allies. The democratic wave revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia,
Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon were all fuelled by the world’s belief in US’s
willingness to use its power to defeat its foes.
Bashir’s regime is
closely linked to al-Qaida, which he hosted from 1989 until 1995.
the US demanded that he accept the south’s victory, he probably didn’t believe
he could refuse.
Today, the US is not feared or respected as it was six
years ago. And according to a recent article in the online Small Wars Journal by
US Army Lt. Col. Thomas Talley, Bashir’s current dim perception of the US makes
Talley argues that without Abyei, South Sudan will be
rendered an economically nonviable failed state. South Sudan, he claims is too
weak to secure Abyei from Khartoum without outside assistance.
to Talley, the deterioration of the global perception of US power has convinced
Bashir that the US will not protect Abyei for the south and so his best bet is
to invade the town or at a minimum prevent the south from securing it.
Talley notes, for Bashir, far more than oil is at stake. If Bashir agrees to
cede southern Sudan without a fight, he will be discredited both by his fellow
Arab leaders and by his fellow Islamic leaders.
Arab leaders as diverse
as Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud
al-Faisal have decried South Sudan’s independence. Gaddafi warned that southern
secession would be the beginning of a “contagious disease.”
it a “dangerous move” that no member of the Arab League should
THE FACT of the matter is that the Arabs have reason to be
concerned about what is happening in Sudan. If South Sudan becomes an
independent nation, it will be the first case of rollback of Arab imperialism
since World War I.
One of the central aspects of Middle Eastern politics
that is overwhelmingly ignored by scholars is Arab imperialism and the role it
has played in shaping the region’s politics.
Both during the post-World
War I breakup of the Ottoman Empire and with the breakup of the British and
French empires after World War II, British and French imperial authorities
colluded with Arab imperialists to guarantee the latter’s nearly uninhibited
control over the Middle East.
For the Kurds, Shi’ites, Druse, Alawites,
Copts, and other non-Sunni, non-Arab, or non-Muslim populations in the region,
the end of Western rule meant the end of their relative freedom.
case of southern Sudan, during the half century of British rule, the south was
administered separately from the Arab north.
But when the British
withdrew in 1956, in their haste to leave, they placed the south under Arab
rule. Fearing disenfranchisement and oppression, the south began the first
Sudanese civil war in 1955 – the year before independence.
only two exceptions to Europe’s collusion with Arab imperialists – Christian-
majority Lebanon and the Palestine Mandate. In both these areas, Western powers
allowed non-Muslims to take charge of territory claimed by Arab
As the post-independence history of both Lebanon and Israel
shows, the Europeans eventually attenuated their support for non-Arab
governments. The French have pressured Lebanon’s Christians fairly consistently
to appease the Arabs. This pressure has caused continuous Christian emigration
from Lebanon which has rendered the Christians a minority in Lebanon today. And
the Lebanese Christians attempts to appease the Arabs, opened the door for
Hizbullah to take over the country for Iran.
As for Israel, in light of
its failure to convince the Arabs to be appeased by its concessions and the
Arabs’ failure to overrun the Jewish state, since 1973 Europe has collaborated
with the Arabs in recasting reality to suit the aims of Arab
Whereas Israel was established and repeatedly defended by
the Jewish national liberation movement against the wishes of Arab imperialists,
with European assistance, the Arabs have inverted history. The current
Arab-European claim is that the Arab imperialist war against Israel is a Jewish
imperialist war against Arabs.
AGAINST THIS backdrop of Western perfidy
towards the Middle East’s non-Arab minorities, the West’s support for South
Sudanese independence is nothing short of miraculous.
West’s support for South Sudan probably owes to Western ignorance rather than a
newfound Western will to defy Arab imperialists. That is, it is likely that West
is doing the right thing today in Sudan because it doesn’t understand the
ramifications of its own policy.
If the West doesn’t understand its
policy, then it is unlikely to understand the significance of a challenge to
that policy by Khartoum and its allies. And if it fails to understand the
significance of a challenge to its policy by Khartoum, then it is unlikely to
defend its policy when it is challenged.
Against the backdrop, it is
important to recall Lt. Col. Talley’s claim that Bashir will attack Abyei
because he does not believe that the US will defend South Sudanese control of
the border town. The shallowness of Western support for South Sudan will lead to
But again, it isn’t just the Arabs that will force Bashir to go to
war. He also has the pan-Islamic jihadists to consider. His erstwhile friends in
al-Qaida have made clear that they will not take the surrender of southern Sudan
to non-Muslims lying down.
Osama bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al Zawahiri has
denounced Bashir for signing the peace agreement with the south. In an article
Friday in The Daily Beast, former US National Security Council official Bruce
Riedel wrote that in 2009 Zawahiri called on Sudan’s Muslims to fight “a long
guerilla war,” because “the contemporary Crusade has bared its fangs at
Zawahiri told Bashir, “to repent and return to the straight path of
Islam and jihad.”
And it is not only al-Qaida that will feel disconcerted
by the south’s secession. At a time when jihadist regimes and forces throughout
the Arab and Islamic world are using violence to repress Christians and other
non-Muslims and force the full implementation of Sharia law, the notion that the
Dar el-Islam or Muslim world is shrinking in Sudan is widely perceived as
unacceptable. Islamic attacks against the West for its support for southern
Sudanese independence are highly likely.
None of this means that the West
should end its support for South Sudan. The South Sudanese have earned their
independence in a way that most nations never have.
They deserve the
support of all nations that value freedom and decency.
But what it does
mean is that as they move forward, South Sudan’s leaders must recognize that the
West is likely to abandon them at the first sign of trouble. They must weigh
their options accordingly.
More importantly, the all but certain results
of South Sudan’s independence serve as yet another reminder to the West about
the nature of power, war and friendship.
Power is inextricably linked to
the perception of power. You are perceived as powerful when you show you can tell friend from foe, and stand with the former against the latter.