There is a great difference between the unprecedented American interest in the Sudanese train accelerating towards secession and partition, and the almost complete Arab absence from a crisis that will have major repercussions not only in this Arab-African country, but in the region in general. Recently, hardly a day goes by without a U.S. official visiting Khartoum and Juba, or a statement being issued from Washington on the developments in the Sudanese crisis. On the other hand, we see that Arab action is limited, and later [than the Americans] of course, represented in sporadic statements, infrequent visits, or meaningless rhetoric such as the statements from the recent Arab summit. Even Egypt, a country that should be more concerned than any other with the issue of unity or secession in southern Sudan, not least because the Nile water issue could pose many complications, has not been active enough until too late. It has also failed to capitalize on the fact that it has hosted large numbers of refugees from southern Sudan.
It is true that the Arab League has sought to organize meetings, and undertake action, but it has been inefficient because the League lacks power, which is a reflection of the status of our Arab world. The crisis in Sudan is one of several pending crises, lamenting the absence of an effective and decisive Arab role. It is enough to highlight the African Union, for example, which has troops in Sudan and Somalia, whilst the Arab League has no mechanism whatsoever except for meetings, paralyzed by differences, and rhetoric, in order to confront the crises that currently ravage the Arab body.
In order to prevent confusion, I must stress here that I am talking about the issue of southern Sudan, because there has been more pronounced Arab activity in relation to the Darfur crisis. One hopes this action will gain greater importance in the coming period, ensuring that Darfur does not go down the same path as the south. Otherwise, a ‘torn’ Sudan would be another testament to Arab weakness, and a factor to encourage further division in the region. It would appear that any member of the Arab community can crumble or erode, without rallying the rest of the members into a vigilant fever.
Returning to the subject of intense U.S. activity regarding Sudan, it must be pointed out that Washington was not always inclined to support the secession of the south. Rather, at one time, it held the view that the south was serving to prevent the emergence of a radical ‘Islamic Republic’ in Sudan. In the 1990s, the Khartoum regime showed a tendency to open its doors to Osama Bin Laden, Carlos [the Jackal], and elements of Egyptian Islamic groups, which attempted to carry out the assassination of Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Another factor encouraging America to advocate the unity of Sudan was that John Garang, the late leader of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) in southern Sudan, was himself pro-unity.
It was not until the Sudanese themselves made headway towards secession, that Washington began to endorse the idea. In the 1990s, al-Bashir’s government signed an agreement with southern leaders to encourage them to dissent from Garang, in return for the first official recognition of the south’s right to self-determination. After that, opposition parties followed one another in signing agreements with the SPLM, also agreeing upon the right to self-determination. This recognition of the south’s right later became the focal point for advocates of separation. These advocates also believed that the government had raised the slogan of ‘jihad’ in its war with the south, which further encouraged them to distance themselves from the north. Thus we must accept the southern inclination to secede in the referendum next January. However; the situation accurately highlights the inability of the Sudanese political elite to achieve the concept of citizenship, build the identity of a modern state, and resolve the crisis that has plagued the country since its independence. Most southerners still feel as if they lived as second-class citizens, and that the north has always dealt with them at least with a sense of superiority, if not in a racist manner. This is an issue which must be confronted and held to account from within, instead of escaping from reality in search of an American or British excuse.
The current Sudanese government has missed its last chance to save unity, because in the past five years, since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, it has not sought to make unity an attractive option. Rather, through constant disputes, matters have deteriorated to the extent that secession will most likely be the outcome of the forthcoming referendum. It is true that there is external pressure on the government to hold the self-determination referendum as scheduled on the 9th of January, but these pressures are aimed at preventing matters from descending into war. The southerners are threatening such an event if they are denied a referendum, or if the government does not resolve the contentious issues, particularly with respect to the Abyei region, the demarcation of borders, oil and water. The problem is that holding the referendum, without first resolving the contentious issues, would be a worst-case scenario, because it would result in a highly volatile situation, involving two well armed sides, which could ignite a new war between them and other regional parties. Perhaps this explains the words of U.S. officials, stating that Obama is now receiving daily reports on developments in the Sudanese situation.
The only chance to keep the ominous shadow of war at bay is to concentrate internal and external efforts on finding solutions to the outstanding issues, rather than holding the referendum whilst these problems remain. Will we see Arab action, or will we leave the whole issue to Western initiatives and African mediation?
The Arabs are always complaining of the absence of their role in sensitive regional issues, which threaten Arab security, from Iraq to Somalia and many more. Will they act in earnest in Sudan; before it is too late, on the basis that they have a strategic interest in preventing a new civil war between north and south, or will they remain spectators, waiting for the fire to spread to other areas?