Africa has a history of irrational borders

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s December 30, 2013 blog post.

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In Sudan little thought was given to the vast tribal, ethnic and religious factions when historical boundaries were geographically redefined by the colonial powers. Muslims and Arabs lived in the north, and Christians and animist tribes occupied the south. In the west Darfur region more than eighty tribes of black African farmers with Muslim beliefs coexisted tenuously with nomads who were of Arabic descent. Since independence in 1956 Sudan’s deep-rooted societal differences have brought about strife and civil war.

Sudan’s contentious boundaries have scarred the country, and people were left with a legacy of tribal and ethnic fighting. Civil war and military uprisings have destabilized the country, raging on for nearly twenty years, in which more than two million people have been killed. In the 1970’s an agreement was reached offering compromises and self-rule to the south, leading to a status-quo for the next ten years.

Sudan’s civil war has caused a debilitating agricultural and economic catastrophe, resulting in food shortages. In addition a lack of education, healthcare, and employment have further affected the north and south. In 1982 the Sudanese government attempted to institute Islamic policies toward the south, causing almost four million people to flee the country. In 1989 the National Islamic Front took control of the Khartoum government intending to build an Islamic state.

To add to Sudan’s chaotic situation Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants were given a safe haven in Khartoum in 1991. Many terrorist attacks were planned during their stay in the country. Osama bin Laden could have easily been captured, but the U.S. refused to do so, instead pressing only for his return to Afghanistan in 1996. Sudan has continued to provide a safe haven for radical Islamist groups.

The U.S. embassy in Khartoum was closed in 1996 due to security concerns, which limited our on-going diplomatic relations with the government. The embassy reopened in 2003 without an accredited ambassador, due to our policy of not dealing with governments that support terrorism; economic sanctions had also been instituted. Numerous Special Envoys have been appointed for interim periods, making our presence only nominally effective. It was “erratic diplomacy” at best.

Peace negotiations between the north and south finally led to the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which was heralded as a historic event. CNN noted “after nearly three years of negotiations, Sudan’s government and main rebel group have signed [a] comprehensive peace accord to end more than 21 years of civil war”.

A self-determination referendum  took place in January 2011 which led to the birth of the Republic of South Sudan the following July. Since then there has been only a fragile peace between the Khartoum government and Juba’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. An important element was left unsettled–a defined border between both countries. The ownership of the oil-rich Abyei region that separates both countries was also not addressed. In addition there was a lack of consideration given to the differing ethnic and tribal factions, an issue that has continued to fester.

The oil producing region is an economic obstacle that should have been decided at the time of the signing of the peace accord. The U.S. as a key broker allowed an undefined border to be the outcome that separates the two countries–a solution no better than the colonialist legacy of the 1950′s. The U.S. apparently was willing to accept an accord without a fixed border, just to get a deal done.

To further complicate matters the U.S. wanted to arrest Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir and send him to the International Criminal Court to face charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. This has affected the U.S. role as a peace negotiator between the two countries.

President Obama has noted that “Sudan and South Sudan have been drawing closer to a full scale war…over the unresolved issues of sharing oil revenues and a disputed border”. Fighting and chaos continues between both countries armies, and rebel militia forces. Tribal fighting has also increased in several border states, between the dominant Dinka and smaller Nuer tribes. Last week several hundred Dinka and Nuer were killed fighting in the Jonglei state, while thousands have fled to UN bases for safety. This recent outbreak was brought about by South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir a Dinka, dismissing his vice president Riek Machar a Nuer, accusing him of an attempted coup.

Since South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the economy has notably suffered from periods of dispute with Sudan which control’s the oil pipelines from the land-locked country. The political tension has become more pronounced, with Mr. Kiir losing public support for lack of jobs and promises of economic development in the country.

Due to the escalating ethnic clashes President Obama authorized military personnel to be sent to protect the U.S. embassy in Juba. It was a year earlier in neighboring Libya, that the lack of security allowed the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi to be overrun by militants, who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. This time the U.S. wanted to be better prepared.

Peace and security between Sudan and South Sudan cannot be achieved without defined borders, and a sharing agreement for the oil resources. In addition any resolution will need to include the differing ethnic factions in the governing process. U.S. Special Envoys have not been able to bring about a peaceful solution. To gain traction the U.S. needs to engage both countries more actively. Full time accredited U.S. ambassadors in both countries, over time, may be able to help facilitate a diplomatic outcome–which must include the west Darfur region–if there is to be any chance for peace.

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