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2011 Place of the Year

Sudan: A personal note

2011 Place of the Year

By Andrew S. Natsios


My first meeting with a Sudanese national was with Dr. John Garang, then commander of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), founded to fight against the Sudanese state—located in the country’s north, with its capital in Khartoum—and to advance the rights of the southern part of the country.  It was June 1989. By this point, Garang and the SPLA had been in open war against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, then led by Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, for six years. This was during the second of two major North-South conflicts, the first of which occurred from 1955 to 1972, and the second of which started in 1983 and lasted for twenty-two years—until the South achieved its independence from the North in a referendum in January 2011.  Demographers estimate that during the first and second civil wars combined four million southerners died.   Sadek Sadiq al-Mahdi, or Sadek, as he is known in Sudan, is the great-grandson of the Mahdi, or “Chosen One,” an Islamic mystic and political leader whose troops overcame the Egyptian forces under the command of British general Charles Gordon during the siege of Khartoum in 1873, when the Mahdi drove the Egyptian and British colonizers out of Sudan. Gordon was beheaded.

Garang, an African and a Christian, asked to meet with me in Washington, D.C.  I had just joined the administration of President George H.W. Bush as director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), part of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which leads U.S. government humanitarian relief efforts in crises around the world. And southern Sudan was in crisis: a famine had already killed 250,000 people. My predecessor as director of OFDA, Julia Taft, had mobilized a massive humanitarian aid effort, working with international and private aid agencies. “Dr. John”—as Garang was known—wanted to explain the South’s perspective and to remind me how crucial humanitarian assistance was to his people, who for many years had been victims of starvation, atrocities, mass population displacement, and epidemics caused by Northern tactics during the war.  I learned a great deal that day. Garang was a very gifted and dedicated teacher, and I will always be indebted to him.

Garang negotiated a peace agreement with the government in Khartoum of Omar al-Bashir, President of Sudan, which led to Sudan’s division into two separate sovereign states, which officially took effect on of July 9, 2011.  But he died in a helicopter crash six months after he signed the peace agreement in Jaunary 2005.  I had the sad duty to lead the U.S. government delegation to his funeral in the Southern capital of Juba.

Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know is a history of the country with particular emphasis on the last 30 years.  The book describes the two Civil Wars between the North and the South, the three rebellions over the past twenty five years in Darfur, including the most recent one which has attracted extraordinary international concern because of the terrible atrocities which were committed by the Sudanese government and its allies in Darfur.  This third rebellion is ongoing and President Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur during this third rebellion.

Malakal, Sudan - Slogans and posters line the streets of cities throughout Southern Sudan. Here is a poster of the Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. (Source: Lucian Perkins/United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Three months after my meeting with Garang, I took the first of dozens of trips to Sudan and began a long engagement with the country and its people. For five years in the mid-1990’s I was vice president of World Vision, a faith-based international non-governmental organization which had large programs in South Sudan, and visited the country many times and had long conversations with Garang about his views, his strategy in the war, and his vision for the country.  From 2001 to 2006 I served as administrator of USAID and oversaw the U.S. government’s reconstruction efforts in southern Sudan and the American government’s humanitarian aid efforts during the rebellion in Darfur, a region in western Sudan, and consisting of three states—West Darfur, North Darfur, and South Darfur—in which nearly 300,000 people lost their lives. In October 2006, President George W. Bush appointed me as his special envoy to Sudan to lead diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed in Darfur and to support the implementation of a North-South peace agreement.

I made several other Sudanese friends in my early years of involvement with the country, but they will remain anonymous because they are Northern Arabs and devout Muslims who would be at risk of reprisals from the Bashir government if I mentioned their names. They are well-educated, sophisticated members of the Khartoum elite who believe in democracy and human rights and oppose much of what the Bashir government is doing, and have educated me over the years on the dynamics of Northern Sudanese society and politics. I am indebted to them as well.

Sudan is situated in eastern Africa, nestled in a vast and intricate network of rivers—including the White and Blue Nile—and their tributaries, as well as along the fault line between Black Africa and Arab North Africa. Indeed, the greatest unresolved issue in the region’s politics has involved Islam. With the exception of the Communist Party and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM; the political arm of Garang’s army), most major Northern Sudanese political parties claim their roots in and legitimacy from the Quran and Islamic teaching. They cover a broad range of opinion on public policy issues, from the more moderate Republican Brothers to the Umma Party, led by Sadiq al-Mahdi, who is at heart a modernist, and who during the Cold War was pro-Western and anti-Communist.  He remains very much in the Islamic democratic tradition (though his government—he has twice served as prime minister—committed atrocities against the southern people on a scale comparable to what happened in the 1990s under the Bashir government).

On the other extreme was the National Islamic Front, an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood, lead by Hassan al Turabi, the greatest of the Islamist figures in Sudanese politics since independence from Britain in 1956.  It was Turabi who invited his friend and ally Osama bin Laden to Sudan live and work in Sudan after Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup which unseated the Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, a coup that Turabi was the mastermind of.  It was Turabi who negotiated a military, intelligence, and strategic alliance with the Iranian government, Sudan’s closest ally.

A second unresolved issue has been the relationship of the periphery of Sudan to the Arab Triangle, which is located at the center of the country, demarcated by Port Sudan on the Red Sea, Dongala on the Nile River to the north, and Sennar to the south. Khartoum, North Khartoum, and Omdurman lie at the center of the Arab Triangle; known as the three cities, they form one large metropolis. Three tribes of the Northern Nile River Valley in the Arab Triangle—the Ja’aliyiin, the Shaiqiyya, and the Danagla—have dominated Sudan since colonization by Egypt in 1821. Their dominance has led to the virtual exclusion of other tribes and regions from political, economic, and military power. This does not mean that all of the members of the three tribes are oppressors, or that they all agree with one other on all issues. Many from the Sudanese Nile River elite have devoted their lives to human rights and good governance, and risked their lives fighting the abuses of power by successive Sudanese governments. But the concentration of power in these three tribes and their sometimes ruthless efforts to keep that power has nonetheless led to constant strife and human rights abuses on a grand scale.

This is all coming to a climax as I write this article as a new civil war has started in Northern Sudan between Bashir’s government in Khartoum and Blue Nile, South Kordofan, and the Darfur regions.  These three regions—which are on the periphery of the country—have formed an alliance with the publically stated purpose of deposing Omar al-Bashir and his government.  The Sudanese air force is now conducting massive bombing raids on civilian targets in these areas in an attempt to destroy the base of operations of this alliance before their forces can surround Khartoum and remove Bashir and his party from power.

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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