U.S. Walks Tightrope in Sudan and Uganda

On October 19 the Obama administration announced its new Sudan policy.  From October 16 to 25 the U.S. Army conducted exercises in the Kitgum region of northern Uganda with forces from Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi to develop joint responses to humanitarian emergencies. These two developments are surely related. What happens in Sudan will have important effects on its neighboring countries, all of whom have experienced grave humanitarian crises in recent years.

In northern Uganda over the past 20 years, for example, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) led by Charles Kony drove 1.8 million people from their homes by abducting youth as child soldiers and sex slaves and by grotesque forms of murder. Since 2006 a tense peace process has been underway. The peace is fragile, but for now the LRA has ceased terrorizing people in northern Uganda. Many of the displaced are returning home. When I asked “why military exercises in Kitgum?” during a recent visit there, many replied “southern Sudan.”


The southern Sudan conflict has long been intertwined with the crisis in northern Uganda. The south Sudan crisis is distinct from but related to the grave challenge raised by genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, though it has been even more destructive.  The 20-plus year conflict in south Sudan killed two million and displaced over four million more. It was driven by multiple causes: religious (the northern Muslims vs. southern Christians and traditional African religionists); racial (northern Arabic speakers vs. southern Africans); economic (two-thirds of Sudan’s large oil reserves are in the south). It was halted by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005.

A key provision in the CPA is a referendum scheduled for 2011 in which the south will decide whether to remain part of Sudan or opt for independence. Those in the south have long been treated as second class Sudanese by the north. Northern Arabic speakers refer to southerners as “African, “black” or even “abd” (Arabic for “slave”). It is highly likely that the south will opt for separation from Khartoum in 2011.

The referendum could very well bring war back to south Sudan, making resolution of the crisis in Darfur even more difficult and threatening the fragile peace in northern Uganda. When I asked people in the Lobone district of south Sudan and Ugandans in Kitgum what will happen after the referendum, most voiced deep fears of a return to war. Few believe Khartoum will permit the south to move to independence, carrying away most Sudanese oil reserves along with the north’s self-image as ruler.

If war does return, humanitarian crisis could be too mild a term to describe the consequences. The Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) that governs southern Sudan today is no longer a rebel movement operating from the bush. It is much better armed than in the war halted in 2005. Renewed conflict could do even more harm than the massively destructive previous war. The people of Lobone and Kitgum have good reason to be apprehensive.

American and regional African military forces also have cause to be on alert. Military preparedness for response to humanitarian crisis, however, is not the most important contribution presently needed. The new U.S. Sudan policy recognizes this.  In 2005, African nations in the region, led by Kenya (with the assistance of U.S., Norway and the U.K.) played significant roles in pressing Khartoum and the SPLM to reach the CPA. Notably, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was personally involved in the negotiations. Powell signed the CPA as a guarantor, as did several African presidents and representatives of the AU and EU.  The new U.S. policy promises to play a similarly vigorous role in pressing Khartoum and the south to move peacefully to the 2011 referendum, abide by its outcome and peacefully conduct the elections scheduled for April 2010. It also seeks to reengage the European and African nations involved in the CPA back into the peace process, and to press China to use its oil links with Khartoum in a more constructive way. Preventing new war in the south is rightly a very high priority and also a condition for the resolution of the Darfur crisis.

To be sure, diplomacy alone will not bring long-term peace in Sudan, Uganda and the region. Durable peace calls for reconciliation at the grass roots on issues such as disputes over land, tensions between returning refugees and those who remained, and ethnic conflicts. Long-term peace especially requires restoring hope to the victims of violence and displacement. The regional director of the Jesuit Refugee Service told me that JRS work in Sudan and Uganda is heavily focused on education because it gives hope for the future to both youth and their parents. Such hope energizes their work for peace. If war returns between north and south Sudan, however, these grassroots efforts will be undermined. Initiatives at higher governmental levels are urgently needed.

The new U.S. policy recognizes this. The policy threatens serious consequences if Sudanese officials impede implementation of the CPA in the south and the ending of the conflict, human rights violations, and genocide in Darfur.  It also holds out the promise of positive benefits to Sudan if real progress toward these goals is achieved. Omar al-Bashir, however, is both a shrewd politician and a ruthless killer. He has manipulated the international community to his own ends in the past and is quite capable of doing so again. The real test of the new U.S. policy will be whether it will pursue its goals with the creativity and commitment needed to make them really effective. President Obama must personally rise to the challenge of working to make this happen. The well-being of the Sudanese people, along with that of many Ugandans and others in the region, hangs in the balance.

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