Sudan: A Microcosm of Africa's Ills

Hostile neighbors and militant rebels imperil Khartoum's new regime
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LATE LAST SUMMER the heaviest rains in more than a decade transformed the desert of western Sudan into a vast arterial watershed, as wadis brimmed over and water ran into every trough. The drought had broken, and for the first time in several years a sorghum crop was assured. But during the weeks prior to harvest time, floods prevented emergency food supplies from reaching tens of thousands of starving peasant farmers trapped in inaccessible areas. Only costly helicopter drops could get through. The antiquated rail system had failed. Airstrips were functioning sporadically, though one-hour downpours made them unusable for twenty-four hours afterward. Trucks and camel trains were stuck for days in the mud and threatened by Bedouin bandits.

In the midst of this humbling chaos a Libyan relief convoy of forty-three trucks and trailers, escorted by Libyan soldiers, rolled into the western Sudanese town of El Fasher on the Sabbath Friday of August 23, delivering an undisclosed number of weapons as well as grain and dried-milk powder. Whereas trucks hired by the United States Agency for International Development were taking two weeks to bring food from Khartoum, the capital city, to El Fasher, 600 miles away, the Libyans had accomplished the 1,400-mile trek from the Mediterranean port of Benghazi in twelve days. The Libyans had the advantage of driving through areas untouched by rain. However, no roads are available for much of the journey from Benghazi.

As part of a rapprochement between Libya and Sudan following the fall last April of Jaafar Nimeiri, Sudan's pro-American president, tribal chiefs from the western Sudanese provinces of Darfur and Kordofan, which are close to Libya, were invited to Tripoli by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. There is nothing inspired about Qaddafi's designs on western Sudan, a tract of desert whose semi-nomadic Arab and African inhabitants are more likely to know the names of their tribal chiefs than that of the current ruler in Khartoum. "No umbilical cord links us with the central government," explains the commissioner of Northern Darfur, Abdul Hafiz, who communicates with Khartoum by radio from El Geneina. If not for relief flights operated by international agencies, Haliz would need nearly a month to travel to the capital. It is no surprise, therefore, that the goods on sale under the wattle stalls in El Geneina's market come by way of Libya and West African ports, rather than via Port Sudan.

The void in the western desert that the Libyans may be planning to fill has been deepened by the drought and famine of the past several years and broadened by the migration of Kababish tribesmen out of the region toward the Nile River in the east and the savannah lands in the south, in search of food and water. Many may never return to their original homes. Should Qaddafi ever decide to invade, he would find western Sudan emptier than ever. Libyan ambitions, of course, are not limited to an inhospitable bit of wasteland, however interesting that may be strategically. Several hundred Libyans are known to be in the Sudanese capital, taking full advantage of the freer political climate in Khartoum in the wake of the April 6 coup, by manning "revolutionary committees" and buying influence with local politicians. "Everyone suspects that a lot of money is changing hands," says a Western diplomat. And now that Nimeiri's 30,000-man state-security force has been disbanded, Qaddafi's advance men are able to operate more freely.

But the threat from Libya merely illustrates--rather than defines--the problems of a nation that, in the words of one seasoned relief worker, "is a textbook example of why Africa is the way it is." Sudan, about as large as the United States east of the Mississippi River, and stretching from Egypt in the north to Zaire, Uganda, and Kenya in the south, is a microcosm of Africa's ills; indeed, it has all of them in exaggerated form. Famine, particularly in the west and the northeast, affects nearly one fifth of the country's population of 22 million. In northern Sudan the Sahara desert is creeping south. The east, as a result of famine and civil war in Ethiopia, harbors one of the world's largest concentrations of refugees (the United Nations' most recent estimate is 746,000). And in the south a conglomeration of Nilotic tribes, pagan and Christian, led by the Dinka, are waging a separatist struggle against Moslem Arab Khartoum.

A city of 2.5 million inhabitants, at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, Khartoum is more a trading post than a political center; it is a base from which Arab merchants have traditionally exploited the surrounding territories under their tenuous control. "The basis of the entire Sudanese system," explains a Western economist, is to subsidize urban consumers by transferring wealth to the cities." Low exchange rates have made imports cheap for city dwellers, but they have also hindered the efforts of farmers to export sorghum, sesame, and groundnuts. The price of gum arabic is kept so artificially low that farmers earn more money by simply burning down their acacia trees and selling the charcoal. No significant investment has been made over the years in rural roads or grain-storage facilities. Former Khartoum regimes were not over-concerned with the countryside: in Africa peasants never start coups. The consequences of such policies were described by the newly appointed civilian prime minister, Dr. Gazuli Dafalla, in an interview: "In Sudan now, the farmer is dying of starvation while the city dweller-who produces nothing-is not."

The mass starvation of peasant farmers has not been a cause of much soul-searching in the capital. In the eyes of urban Sudanese it is a crisis best left to the khawajas ("foreigners"). The famine was not even an important factor in the coup, according to the Prime Minister. Certainly, during the time I spent in Khartoum before and after Nimeiri's overthrow, I rarely heard any discussion of it. In a moment of candor one strike organizer declared: "We don't care if millions starve, so long as we get rid of Nimeiri."

In a nation as large, and as short of communications facilities, as Sudan, a famine hundreds of miles away seems to make little impression on people in the cities. The general lack of concern was poignantly expressed by Osama Fatouta, a twenty-four-year-old Sudanese whom I met in El Geneina. Fatouta, the founder of the Sudanese Volunteer Services Association, a group of young people from Khartoum working with famine victims, said, "People I know think I'm crazy. They can't understand why I'm doing this. I've gotten little support; it's been an uphill struggle all the way." Fatouta said that he was motivated by shame: shame that the only people who seemed to care about the dying peasants were foreigners.

THE FAMINE HAS more political relevance than many Sudanese realize. Though it was not a direct cause of the coup, it indirectly helped to shape the atmosphere in which Nimeiri was toppled. Drought victims from the hinterlands, drifting into the capital, created various kinds of social tension, including an upsurge in crimes against property. Acute grain shortages forced bread prices up. Nimeiri removed subsidies in late March, and bread riots ensued. After the riots came peaceful, well-organized strikes and demonstrations by underpaid urban professionals, and these went on until the regime collapsed. It was about as bloodless and orderly a transition of power as Africa has seen. No radical elements, either Islamic or secular leftist, played a significant role. The country is now ruled by a Transitional Military Council, headed by General Abdul Rahman Swareddahab, fifty-two, who has deliberately maintained a low profile and seems sincere in his pledge to hold parliamentary elections later this year. (In February the elections were scheduled to occur this month.)

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Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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