The Magazine

Two Sudans Are Better Than One

How to end the civil war and weaken the Islamists.

Jun 15, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 37 • By ROGER KAPLAN
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Modern Sudan is a complex geographical expression more than a country. Annexed by Egypt's Albanian ruler Mehmet Ali in the 1820s, it was poorly managed from the beginning, and the country's administration grew increasingly corrupt under Mehmet Ali's sons. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, it became Britain's problem, as protecting the route to India was a supreme concern of British policy.

Disgruntled Sudanese soon went to war with the British under the leadership of a man named Muhammad Ahmad ibn as Sayyid Abd Alla, Mahdi ("the guide"), a kind of proto-fascist Wahhabi preacher. The Mahdists and their fierce army overwhelmed the legendary English soldier "Chinese" Gordon in 1885 in Khartoum, established an Islamist state (to use an anachronism) for 15 years, and did not pay the price of trampling on the Union Jack until Herbert Kitchener returned in 1898-99 and gave them what-for at the battle of Omdurman, Khartoum's sprawling northern suburb. His troops made use of a famous machine gun, the Maxim, which could fire 600 rounds a minute, pretty serious firepower at the time.

The British Empire was chiefly interested in the eastern regions of Sudan, extending south as far as Khartoum. The colonial administrators worked to protect the sources of the Nile and the approaches to the Suez Canal. The southern savannahs and forests of the country mattered chiefly as buffer zones: The British wanted no French or Belgian intrusions from their colonies in central Africa and Congo.

Recall that much of French West Africa was originally called Sudan, an Arabic word for black. The Sudan is where black Africa begins and Arabized Africa ends; though, looked at another way, you could say the northern reaches of Sudan are where Africanized Arabia begins. Be that as it may, the Arabs who in our own time lead the government of Sudan (known as the GoS) look more African than Arabian, but they speak Arabic and practice the Muslim religion.

The Africans who lead the government of the autonomous region of South Sudan (known as the GoSS), however, look even more African than the northerners. They are black as coal and fabulously handsome. Their women are stunningly beautiful, characteristically tall and graceful. The South Sudanese speak their own languages as well as, often, Arabic. Most educated Sudanese, north and south, speak an English that is better than that heard in London or Washington. The southerners practice the Christian religion, usually in its Methodist or Anglican expression, a consequence of Victorian missionary activity.

As they laid the groundwork for the departure from east of Suez after World War II, the British made a stab at holding on to Sudan, but the Egyptians, under the leadership of a new government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, undercut them by renouncing Egypt's claims. Though the British had been running Sudan, they were legally and officially doing so under Egyptian authority, even if in practice they treated the country as a colony, so they packed up and left. The nation became independent in 1956, and, except between 1972 and 1983, there has been a north-south civil war going on ever since.

It is this civil war which the Bush administration helped put an unstable lid on by brokering a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. Under the terms of this treaty, the south, which the Anglo-Egyptians had always treated as an entity separate from the provinces to the north of Khartoum (going so far as to formally prohibit movement of southerners north and northerners south), has its own government and may secede in 2010.

No knowledgeable observers doubt that in a free and fair referendum (which the peace agreement calls for), a large southern majority would vote for secession. The problem is that the vote, and notably the census on which it would be based, is under the administrative control of the GoS, not the GoSS, and no one believes it can be free and fair, even assuming the GoS does not find excuses to postpone it indefinitely. As matters stand, most of the key "benchmarks" that were specified in the peace agreement as the necessary steps leading up to a vote on secession have not been met. These include technical issues such as conducting the census and setting up a credible electoral commission, as well as political issues such as deciding how the two states will maintain friendly, or at least peaceful, relations.