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2011 Place of the Year

Why should anyone care about Sudan?

2011 Place of the Year

Each November, we announce a Place of the Year, somewhere that our experts deem will be important to keep an eye on in the coming months. The 2011 Place of the Year is South Sudan. Why, you ask? Read on.

By Andrew S. Natsios


For more than two centuries, Sudan has attracted an unusual level of attention beyond its own borders. This international interest converged in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century as four independent forces met.

First, there is the rebellion in Darfur, which has generated greater international concern than any other recent humanitarian crisis. This long-neglected western region has been intermittently at war since the 1980s and claimed the lives of 300,000 Darfuris in its most recent phase. The rebellion beginning in 2002 led to an ongoing humanitarian emergency, costing Western governments about one billion dollars annually at the peak of the crisis to sustain the 1.8 million people driven into sixty-five IDP (internally displaced person) camps scattered across Darfur. The Sudanese government committed widespread atrocities in Darfur as part of its counter-insurgency strategy, which involved a massive ethnic cleansing campaign to displace the tribes that started the rebellion and has motivated an international advocacy campaign to compel Western governments and international organizations to address the violence. The crisis has led to the deployment of 26,000 United Nations/African Union (UN/AU) peacekeeping troops and police—the largest in UN history to a single conflict—to Darfur, which cost $2 billion to maintain in 2007 alone. (The African Union is a successor to the Organization for African Unity, and seeks to create a more integrated Africa on the model of the European Union, though they were a very long way from achieving that.)

The Darfur rebellion has recently obscured the far more lethal war between northern and southern Sudan, spanning twenty-two years in its most recent phase and which has cost the lives of more than two and a half million Southerners—eight times the number who died in Darfur. The war was brought to a tenuous end in 2005 by the North-South peace agreement—called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) —which the Bush administration played a central role in fashioning, along with Great Britain, Norway, and neighboring African states.  In January 2011, Southern Sudan voted in a historic referendum—required by the CPA—to become an independent country and the Sudanese government led by Omar al-Bashir agreed to recognize their secession which formerly took place July 9, 2011.

9 Oct. 2010 - Juba, Sudan - On the 9th of each month rallies are held throughout Sudan to push for the referendum slated for January to be held on time at that date. Here soldiers patrol the streets during the rally. (Source: Lucian Perkins for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Secondly, there is oil and mineral wealth. Emerging Asian economic powers in particular have been drawn to Sudan by its vast natural resources. Over 75 percent of Sudan’s oil production (43 percent of which was, until Southern independence, jointly controlled by the Sudanese government and the Chinese; 39 percent by Malaysian; and 8 percent by Indian government-owned oil and gas companies) is located in the South and its reserves are believed by some oil experts to hold two to three billion barrels. Mining companies have been rushing to explore reportedly large deposits of gold, diamond, uranium, copper, and coltan (a mineral used in electronic products), also located in the South.

Sudan’s natural resources are not limited to oil and mineral wealth. Some argue that all of Africa and even the Arab world could be fed by farming from southern Sudan’s luxuriant soils, plentiful rain fall, and seemingly limitless river system with its great irrigation potential.

A comprehensive USAID wildlife study of the Sudd—the largest wetland in Africa and located in the southeast corner of the country—was conducted with National Geographic support by naturalist J. Michael Fay and Southern Sudan scholar Dr. Malik Marjan. Their study discovered a teeming population of between one and two million animals, including white-eared kob antelope (800,000), elephants (8,000), giraffes, hippopotamus, water buffalo (8,900), ostriches (2,800), reedbucks (13,000), tiang (160,000), Mongalla gazelles (250,000), Nile lechwe antelope (4,000), Beisa oryx, and lions—animal herds rivaled in size in Africa only by those of the Serengeti and Kalahari. These herds are matched by those of the South’s domesticated cattle, which are estimated at eight to ten million animals, the highest people-to-cattle ratio in Africa.

For Egypt, Sudan’s immediate northern neighbor, the country’s most precious resource may not be its oil, mineral wealth, or farm land, but its water; the head waters of the Nile River are located there. Egypt has traditionally sent some of its most seasoned and able diplomats to Sudan and Ethiopia because the Nile River waters (from the White Nile, which begins in Uganda, and the Blue Nile, which begins in Ethiopia; they merge in front of the Presidential Palace in Khartoum) profoundly affect the country. Without the Nile, Egypt would be unable to sustain its eighty million people. Egyptian government agencies predict Nile River water flows will be insufficient to meet the country’s agricultural, industrial, and human needs by 2017. Egyptian focus on events in Sudan grows more intense and more concerned every year.  Egypt’s economic and strategic interests are inextricably linked to Sudan, and thus, it has often played over two centuries an active and even aggressive role in Sudan’s internal affairs.

Thirdly, Sudan has been a religious battleground for generations, and any attempt to ignore or deny this yields an incomplete and distorted picture. In historic Sudan before Southern secession, approximately 70% of the people confessed Sunni Islam, 20% Christianity, and 10% traditional tribal religions. Since 1956, four governments whose ideology is based on various schools of Islamic teaching have taken power, two democratically — in 1964 and 1986; one through the gradual conversion of General Jaafar al-Numayri from Arab socialism to an Islamist political agenda in 1976; and one with the 1989 coup d’état that has brought the longest sitting Islamist government in Sudanese history, under the leadership of Omar al-Bashir.  All four governments undertook violent military campaigns against the southern Sudanese people, persecuting local Christian populations and expelling of missionaries. This persecution has had profound consequences for Southern Sudan because it has accelerated the growth of the indigenous Churches and led to one of the largest and fastest conversion of indigenous people to Christianity in modern history, a fact noted by Western church groups and NGOs which lobby on their behalf.

25 Sept. 2010 - Rumbek, Southern Sudan - A religious procession winds down the main road in Rumbek on Sunday. (Source: Lucian Perkins for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The coup that brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989 was orchestrated by Islamist prophet Hassan al-Turabi, who used it to attempt to reshape Sudanese society and government. In 1964 Turabi became the Secretary General of the Islamic Charter Front, an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, was later renamed the National Islamic Front (NIF). Al-Turabi guided its ideology, and acted as its grand strategist for nearly a decade after the NIF seized power. His sermons, calling for a world Islamic uprising, were recorded and distributed by his acolytes and broadcast in mosques across North Africa. Turabi’s intention was to use Sudan as a base for the radical Islamization of Africa, alarming neighboring African states, such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, all of which saw Turabi’s regime as a threat to their internal stability, since they all have considerable Muslim (who are Sufists) minority populations that  have generally lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors.

Thus, within only a few years, Sudan had attracted the attention of the outside world because of repeated humanitarian catastrophes and massive loss of human life; the discovery of vast economic riches—oil and minerals; Sudan invited a man to live in the country who was later to become the most wanted war criminal in the world, Osama bin Laden (his former home in Khartoum is a tourist site even today); and the fear by its neighbors of the plans of its leaders to mobilize a religious jihad to project the Sudanese Islamist revolution into the heart of Africa and overthrow moderate Arab governments in the region.  So the next time you are sitting at home, half-heartedly watching the evening news, be sure to perk up and pay attention if you hear the country Sudan mentioned.  It will be worth your time.

Andrew S. Natsios served as Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2001 to 2005, where he was appointed as Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan. He also served as Special Envoy to Sudan from October 2006 to December 2007. He is author of the forthcoming volume Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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