The potential balkanisation of Sudan and the role of meddlers

Published on Pambazuka News, by Yohannes Woldemariam, June 30, 2011.

There’s clear consensus that defining and demarcating the border between North and South Sudan is a necessary precondition for peace. But deploying Ethiopian peace-keepers to Abyei is simply a ‘band-aid’ that ‘would not help peace and may even make things worse by intensifying regional rivalry,’ writes Yohannes Woldemariam, given the Ethiopian government’s lack of neutrality in Sudan.

In this article, I want to address two issues: The potential balkanisation of the Sudan and the proposed Ethiopian Peacekeeping role in Abyei.  

I think there is a clear consensus that defining and demarcating the border between North and South Sudan is one of the necessary preconditions for peace. However, Sudan’s troubles are numerous and peace remains elusive. The proposal of an Ethiopian peacekeeping role in Abyei is a band-aid that would not help peace and may even make things worse by intensifying regional rivalry. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), as the government is known in Ethiopia, is not impartial and can never be a neutral arbiter in Sudan. So how did Sudan reach the predicament it is in?



Regional organisations and alliances in Africa do not have the practical means to bring security to the continent. How can regional peacekeeping forces coming from pseudo-democratic, dictatorial states bring the values of respect for human rights and governance through the rule of law? Ideally, outside powers without their own agenda must provide short-term stability through infusions of security forces, training police, humanitarian relief, and technical assistance to restore electricity, water, banking and payment systems, etc. South Sudan lacks meaningful infrastructure and paved roads are almost nonexistent. South Sudan is in dire need of controlling its own territory and gaining oversight of its natural resources. Effective collection of revenue, adequate national infrastructure, and a capacity to govern and maintain law and order, including respect for basic human rights, is essential for the new South Sudan. Rival armed militias must come under a centralised national command in order to nurture a sense of national commonalities and establish peace.

Southern Sudan must also be spared from being a pawn of regional rivalries by unscrupulous neighbors and non-neighbors such as Egypt, Ethiopia, China, Malaysia, Japan, India and the United States, etc., who are primarily self-interested. Egypt and Ethiopia are clearly selfishly competing for influence and leverage in South Sudan. This dangerous dance can potentially further destabilise South Sudan and North Sudan.

The future of North Sudan after partition could be potentially catastrophic. Omar Al Bashir’s position is already dangerously precarious after presiding over the division of Sudan and losing billions of dollars in oil revenue. Ethnic cleavages in Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile state, Kassala as well as sharply contrasting attitudes toward Islamism are all minefields in northern Sudanese politics. The North fears a domino effect in South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains where government troops are unleashing terror, killing civilians and creating displacement to discourage a growing quest for autonomy and self determination.[17]

The notion of ‘African solutions to African problems’ sounds appealing. But the failure of the UN/AU peacekeeping force, backed by the UN, to provide security in Darfur is a reason enough to pause and ask questions. One can only conclude that the West is dealing with the problem superficially by rendering marginal the status that sub-Saharan Africa occupies in world politics. This myopic view underlies the logic behind the limited logistical and financial support for Uganda and Ethiopia, to enforce this ineffectual version of ‘peacekeeping.’ The African peacekeepers were presented as a panacea in Darfur and Somalia, and it appears a similar unworkable pattern may be replicated in North and South Sudan.

Given the weakness of many state structures across Africa, the pervasive religious and civil violence, and the predatory nature of most African governments, little faith can be placed in such ‘peacekeeping’ overtures. Within the prevailing realities in Africa, the beautiful sounding shibboleth of ‘African Solutions to African Problems’ is a convenient excuse for the big powers to do little in solving African problems. ‘Peacekeepers’ are casually introduced into situations, which require more than a token presence of an outside force to achieve a meaningful resolution of conflict.

Christopher Clapham sums up the problem of peacekeeping in Africa as follows:

‘Peacekeepers in Africa have been plunged into the most intractable problems in attempting to maintain some kind of order.…For them the relatively straightforward tasks of merely policing agreements between states are not an option. They have been called on…to intervene in vicious civil wars and to negotiate and, if need be, to enforce peace settlements among conflicting parties whose commitment to any peaceful resolution of conflicts was often at best extremely uncertain, and at worst no more than a façade behind which to prepare a resumption of hostilities.’[18]

These types of peacekeeping fiascoes were predictable. Where there is no peace to keep, UN peacekeepers are seen as an occupying or hostile force, as in Somalia. The so-called peacekeepers had themselves become players in the conflict. The troops themselves were often confused about their missions. In the aftermath of the Second World War, traditional peacekeeping was designed to keep separate warring states after a cease fire. This was the model applied in the Sinai after the 1956 Suez Crisis. In the post-Cold War era, peacekeeping has come to be used as an ideological tool to build nation states in the image of the West, according to liberal internationalist values. This is ‘a one size shoe fits all’ approach which does not take into consideration the uniquely complex challenges of South Sudan.

Africa and South Sudan need to chart their own future by drawing from their diverse patterns of conflict resolution and restoring the centrality of respect for tradition and for the wisdom of elders. Africa needs to respect the elders whose voices have been drowned out by other imposed cultural patterns and ethnic entrepreneurs. Perhaps an Elders’ Council modelled on the Indigenous Peoples Council and composed of diverse ethnicities, representing all those who have a stake in peace, needs to be created to conduct dialogue. The UN at its best has nobly cultivated such models of sovereignty and autonomy and has empowered indigenous communities, and it can now continue to do so in Africa. A centralised unitary governing system is by itself largely unworkable for multiethnic societies like Southern Sudan; instead, creative application of some form of federalism mixed with some form of centralism maybe the way forward. The current arrangement may breed what Alexis Tocqueville called the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which might apply (within the context of the issues I have addressed here) to the Dinka. Tocqueville’s argument was a brilliant warning, for it opened the way for a new understanding of the potential for harm latent in an unqualified commitment to majority rule and democracy. The Southern Sudanese must try to work out their problems with the North, and they must work to find some internal cohesion while allowing space for a degree of autonomy among the Dinka, the Nuer and the Shilluk. It is a matter of the survival of all; hence, northern stability is also in the interest of South Sudan and vice-versa.

If peacekeepers are truly needed in Abyei as a stopgap measure, they should then be sent from anywhere but the neighbouring countries. Perhaps South Africa or Nigeria can lead the way as they are geographically more removed and less likely to harbour ulterior agendas or to use South Sudan as a proxy for self-serving dictators to expand their influence and divert attention from their own domestic entanglements. (full long text).

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