Sudan: A Microcosm of Africa's Ills

Hostile neighbors and militant rebels imperil Khartoum's new regime

By Robert D. Kaplan

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.)

With political parties springing up like desert grass after the rains, Sudan has more freedom of expression than anywhere else in Africa or the Arab world. This is a consequence both of the easygoing, tolerant nature of the Sudanese and of the temporary power vacuum that has emerged after sixteen years of Nimeiri's often stern one-man rule. There are, though, aspirants to power. Notable among them is Sadiq al-Mahdi, a great-grandson of the fabled Mahdi whose Ansar warriors ejected the British from Sudan in 1885, killing General Charles George Gordon. The Umma ("Nation") Party, which Sadiq leads, relies to this day on Ansar support. Its political creed, which is nebulous, is based on Sadiq's inherited historical legitimacy and personal magnetism. In a Western visitor his sharp gaze and white turban evoke the fanaticism of his great-grandfather. But during a long talk with me he revealed himself as an Islamic modernist, rather than a fundamentalist: he favors liberalizing the harsh Sharia code promulgated by Nimeiri, whereby alcohol was banned even for use as a disinfectant and thieves were punished by having their right hands amputated. For Sadiq, as for so many other local politicians, the famine is not a central issue. He has said that it is "no longer a serious problem because international aid has been forthcoming." To a Western visitor such denials of responsibility for Sudan's own peasants, while shocking, have a positive political effect. They express an attitude of unabashed reliance on the West for drought aid, which makes a non-aligned foreign policy a luxury that the country cannot afford.

Current U.S. aid to Sudan now exceeds $450 million. This includes over $200 million for emergency famine relief and $45 million in military aid. On the African continent only Egypt gets more of the American taxpayers' dollars. Of course, not only altruism is involved: Sudan controls the headwaters of the Nile--the lifeblood of Egypt. Egypt's survival as a pro-American power in the Middle East largely depends on Sudan's remaining passive, and this passivity can no longer be taken for granted. The Egyptians, who ruled Sudan together with the British for half a century, have always been looked upon in Sudan as colonialists. However, Cairo supported Nimeiri until the bitter end, whereupon President Hosni Mubarak decided to welcome into Egypt the deposed Sudanese leader in exile; these policies have brought Egypt's standing in Khartoum to an all-time low. The damage to American interests that Egypt's nemesis, Colonel Qaddafi, could do from a foothold in Sudan, slashing at Egypt's jugular, the Nile, would be far greater than any he could do by overrunning Chad or Tunisia.

More than Egypt would be threatened by a Khartoum regime hostile to the West. Sudan reaches into the heart of black Africa. It has a long border with Marxist Ethiopia and a coastline on the Red Sea. Were Sudan to be lost, it would join Libya and Ethiopia in an arc of Soviet influence stretching from the heart of the Mediterranean to the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, at the Gulf of Aden. In addition to menacing Egypt this arc would increase the pressure on the pro-American governments in Kenya and Somalia, where the United States has the use of important naval facilities. To many people Sudan may be just a big, empty space on a map. But it is such a big space that its loss would have a strategic impact in Africa comparable to that which the downfall of the Shah of Iran had in the Near East. "Were it not for the famine and the obvious need for American help, the April coup could have been a real disaster for us," a senior State Department official says.

A clear-cut victory by Sadiq al-Mahdi in the coming elections would bring a sigh of relief to American policy-makers. But even Umma Party officials say this is unlikely. The spoilers include the political parties associated with the rival Khatmiyah sect, and the National Islamic Front of Hassan Turabi, a sort of Park Avenue ayatollah who speaks impeccable English, dresses in well-tailored, expensive suits, and advocates Sharia law applied much the way Nimeiri applied it. Complicating the situation are the Libyans and the junior and middle-level officers who are thought to be increasingly fed up with the Sudanese army's dismal performance against the southern rebels. The nightmare of foreign diplomats and many local politicians is that somewhere there lurks a Sudanese version of Ethiopian Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam or Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, poised to fill the power vacuum and lock Khartoum away in a totalitarian straitjacket for the next decade or so.

This almost happened last September, when a group of officers and soldiers from the non-Arab Nuba and Fur tribes, which are aligned with the African southerners, mutinied in their barracks, near Khartoum, in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the government. "Democracy in Sudan is a lone bird surrounded by vultures interested in its flesh," Sadiq has said.

The present threat from the south is the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), led by Colonel John Garang, an American-educated Dinka, who is attacking ever closer to Khartoum. (The size of the SPLA has never been firmly established, but estimates range as high as 20,000.) While the West manages the famine and worries about the Libyans, the Sudanese are obsessed with the southern problem--the issue that presents the most immediate threat to their national integrity. The threat is not new. The black south revolted against the Arab north upon independence. From 1956 to 1972, when Nimeiri concluded a settlement with the rebels, the struggle cost well over half a million lives--many more than all the Arab-Israeli wars put together. Attempts by Nimeiri in his last years to exert more control over the southern region led to a new outbreak of fighting. After the coup everyone expected Garang to adopt a more conciliatory line. Instead he dismissed the new regime as "the hyena with new clothes," and intensified the war.

The Transitional Military Council responded by marching a 4,000-man unit of the 55,000-man Sudanese Peoples Army northward from Juba, the capital of Equatoria Province, in order to capture the SPLA stronghold of Bor. The operation was a "total, utter failure," according to one Western diplomat. Garang's forces attacked the column, and those government soldiers who weren't killed refused to march any farther. Sudan Airways no longer flies to Juba, and the only way in and out of the city is by chartered plane. By successfully attacking the town of Renk, barely 250 miles south of Khartoum on the White Nile, the SPLA has come closer than ever to the capital. Garang now appears capable of cutting off Khartoum's power supply by blowing up transmission lines connecting the city with the Roseires Dam, to the southeast. The Sudanese Peoples Army can do little: it has virtually no air force and is so short of fuel that it has had to requisition diesel fuel from famine-relief organizations to run patrols. So the army is now falling back on the old British-colonial method of arming local tribes. These are hostile to the SPLA because it has been stealing their cattle at an ever-increasing rate.

The SPLA has been financed by Libya and is headquartered at Itang, just inside the Ethiopian border. Herein lies the incentive for the Sudanese to accept the Libyans in their midst. Colonel Qaddafi, and the pro-Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu, hold the key to Sudan's main problemdisposing of Garang. The West, once the food situation significantly improves, may eventually prove expendable, if that is what Libya and Ethiopia demand in order to get Garang off Khartoum's back.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1986/04/sudan-a-microcosm-of-africas-ills/304699/