U.S. Played Key Role in Southern Sudan's Long Journey to Independence

Twenty years of U.S. involvement contributed to today's secession of Southern Sudan - but peace is yet to come


George W. Bush meets with First Vice President of Sudan and President of Southern Sudan Salva Kiir, January 5, 2009 / Reuters

Today marks the birth of the world's newest nation. The Republic of South Sudan has gained its independence from Sudan after decades of bloody civil war, and southern Sudanese around the world are celebrating. So too are their allies. And there are few outside Sudan who are likely to be more pleased than a tight group of U.S. Congressional representatives who have sustained their efforts on Sudan for over two decades.

This bipartisan coalition, known in recent years as the Sudan Caucus, has pushed three successive U.S. presidents to make Sudan a foreign policy priority. "It's a great day," co-founder of the Sudan Caucus, Democratic Congressman Donald Payne, told me. "A victory for the oppressed."

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who is heading the U.S. delegation to the independence celebrations, called the historic occasion "first and foremost a testament to the Southern Sudanese people" as well as to leaders in both Sudan and South Sudan. She added that, in terms of the international community, "the U.S. has been as active as anyone."

According to a U.S. official who is not authorized to speak to the media but has worked on these issues for decades, U.S. attention on Sudan has not been by chance. "Behind all this was [and] still is, a small group of people who have been working behind the scenes for almost 20 years" said the official.

South Sudan's independence follows a January referendum in which 98.8 percent of voters chose to secede from Sudan. The referendum had been promised in a peace agreement that ended the war between the Sudanese government based in the largely Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the mainly Christian and animist south of Sudan. The longest-running conflict in Africa, an estimated two million southern Sudanese lives were lost by the time the war ended in 2005.

Today, while southern Sudanese rejoice, the celebrations are marred by increasingly horrific reports of violence and civilian causalities in Southern Kordofan, on the northern side of the border between the soon-to-be nations of Sudan and South Sudan.

The Sudan Caucus, co-chaired by Rep. Payne, along with Republican Congressman Frank Wolf and Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano, was inaugurated in 2005. But its roots stretch back much further.

In 1989, Rep. Wolf traveled into the war-ravaged terrain of southern Sudan to become the first U.S. representative to meet with the head of the southern Sudanese rebels, John Garang. Payne followed a few years later, and on his return to Washington pushed for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a resolution endorsing the right of southern Sudanese to exercise self-determination. Congress subsequently condemned the Sudanese government "for its genocidal war in southern Sudan."

Backing up these congressional efforts was an unlikely activist coalition, formed years before the more high-profile Save Darfur movement. The southern Sudan cause brought evangelicals into alliance with African American, Jewish, and secular activist groups.

U.S. attempts to support the southern Sudanese struggle have been wide-ranging. A report released by the Congressional Research Service last week lists actions going back to the Clinton era, including the provision of more than $20 million surplus U.S. military equipment to frontline states of Uganda, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, which the report says "helped reverse military gains made by the [Sudanese] government" against the southern rebels. Further pressure on the Sudanese government came with the 1993 designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, and the 1997 imposition of comprehensive economic sanctions, which prevented U.S. companies from operating in Sudan.

On the eve of South Sudan independence, former National Security Council Africa Director John Prendergast, who today leads much of the U.S. activism on Sudan, told me he felt "major regret that we couldn't help get this done in the mid to late 1990s when I worked for the Clinton administration."

Instead, U.S. support for southern Sudanese self-determination gained momentum under the presidency of George W. Bush. His aides said the former president, pressed by evangelical activists, viewed ending the civil war in Sudan as a "legacy item" for his foreign policy. Bush appointed a special envoy to focus on peace negotiations, which finally bore fruit in 2005.

Celebrations of the 2005 peace agreement were dampened, however, by ongoing conflict in Sudan's western region of Darfur. In 2003, the Sudanese government launched a brutal military campaign to crush an insurgency by Darfuri rebels, mostly non-Arab and Muslim. In the summer of 2004, the same group of Congressional representatives who had long supported southern Sudan passed a resolution condemning the Darfur violence as genocide.

Supported once again by an improbable coalition of religious and secular activists, this time under the banner of the Save Darfur movement, these same members of Congress eventually passed the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act. The legislation prevented the White House from rewarding the Sudanese government for signing the agreement with the southern rebels until the situation in Darfur was resolved.

The Sudan Caucus, in partnership with their new Save Darfur allies, also secured over $6 billion in humanitarian aid, between 2005 and 2010, to the war-affected areas in Sudan. According to statistics from the U.S. Official Development Assistance database, Sudan has been the third largest recipient of U.S. aid since 2005, trailing only Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet peace in Darfur, which will remain in Sudan when the country splits, has proven elusive. According to the report Beyond the Pledge, issued by a coalition of non-governmental organizations last week, the government launched at least 80 airstrikes against civilian populations in Darfur between January and April this year. Visiting the region last month, the UN human rights expert for Sudan, Justice Mohamed Chande Othman, complained about limited humanitarian access, noting that some of those displaced by violence had not received food or medical care since January.

The unresolved crisis in Darfur is not the only concern as Sudan partitions. In May, the Sudanese government seized a contested and fertile border area called Abyei. The UN says that over 100,000 people were displaced by the violence. A peace agreement has since been signed, providing for 4,200 Ethiopian peacekeepers to be deployed to Abyei under the UN banner. But the agreement has not yet been implemented, and Abyei's future remains unclear.

Then on June 5, the Sudanese government began bombing Southern Kordofan, an oil-producing state that will remain part of Sudan when South Sudan secedes. Anti-government fighters in the area largely belong to the Nuba, a non-Arab and religiously diverse group who identity as northerners but sided with the southern rebels during the war. President al-Bashir has instructed the Sudanese army to "continue their operations in South Kordofan until they clean the state of rebels." But according to the UN, civilians appear to be bearing the brunt of the operation.

Jehanne Henry, Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the situation in Southern Kordofan is severe. "Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, many have been killed or maimed, and houses and property have been destroyed." The few remaining aid workers in the area, interviewed by phone, say the ordeal brings back memories of the Sudanese government's campaign against the Nuba in the nineties, which led to ten of thousands of deaths.

The violence in Darfur, Abyei, and now Southern Kordofan complicates the Obama administration's strategy of offering to lift Sudan's designation as a state sponsor of terror and normalize diplomatic relations in return for completing the north-south peace agreement and accepting the secession of South Sudan.

U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, said that failure to resolve the situation in Southern Kordofan will make it "impossible" for the U.S. to normalize relations. But Sudan Caucus member Rep. Wolf remains unsatisfied with the administration's response. "All the things that are going on in the Nuba Mountains are the things the White House said they wanted to stop in Libya," said Wolf.

Whatever it would take to resolve Sudan's violence, the U.S. will likely not be able to do it on its own, especially as Khartoum deepens its economic and diplomatic relationship with Beijing. "One country alone does not have enough leverage" says Jehanne Henry, who wants to see a coordinated multilateral approach."[The international community] need a united front to press Sudan to end the killing, destruction, arrests, and other violations -- not just in Southern Kordofan, but also in Darfur."

Experts worry that the violence is a harbinger of instability that could undermine the viability of both nations, leading some to question the legacy of U.S. efforts. But, for today at least, the focus will be on welcoming South Sudan as the world's newest nation.

This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Follow @PulitzerCenter on Twitter