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.
The benchmarks have not been met because, first of all, the government in Khartoum, led for the last 20 years by Omar al-Bashir, has lately been busy massacring and ethnically cleansing Sudan's western state of Darfur. This is a complicated and ugly business, reflecting Darfur's tribal and religious sociology, but what is not complicated is Bashir's emulation of the late unlamented Slobodan Milosevic of the former Yugoslavia. Bashir may be destined for a similarly grim end (Milosevic had a heart attack while awaiting trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague; the same court issued a warrant for Bashir's arrest on charges of war crimes in March). However, unlike the Serb strongman, who had some backing from a weakened Russia, Bashir has broad international support from the states of the Arab League and can appeal to Muslims worldwide that he is being pursued because of his religion.
The second reason the benchmarks have not been met is that perhaps the key economic provision of the peace agreement concerns the exploitation of the oil fields that lie, as luck would have it, astride north and south. The agreement calls for these resources to be shared, even now (during the period of southern autonomy), by both the GoS and the GoSS, but the GoSS has not been getting its share. With violence on the rise along a demarcation line between north and south that has yet to be officially agreed upon (another of the benchmarks) because of northern obfuscation, southerners fear the GoS wants to foment enough trouble to justify outright annexation of the oil producing regions.
The south has found it difficult to resist these depredations. Partly to blame for this is the death of John Garang, the charismatic southern leader and a powerful voice for southern unity and peaceful transition toward independence. He was killed in an air crash just after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed.
The government in Khartoum views the implementation of the agreement as a serious economic threat and cannot but view the south's leadership difficulties as an opportunity to subvert its own commitments. After years of imposing its will by violence, enforcing fundamentalist versions of Islamic law, supporting terrorist organizations like al Qaeda, and pursuing other enlightened measures, the Bashir regime has little popular support.
Most of Sudan's oil is bought by China, which also has invested heavily in energy resources development in the disputed area. But the Chinese, who have defended Bashir against the attempts by the U.N. to bring him to heel on Darfur, are pragmatists, and they believe that if they could deal all these years with Khartoum, there is no reason why they should not be able to deal henceforth with Juba (the large town in Sudan's extreme south, near Uganda, which serves as the capital of the autonomous south).
In the long term, it would seem Sudan, after a history of suffering, may have found a window toward a brighter future. But in the short run, the situation on the ground is grim. Renewed fighting between north and south is likely; indeed, it has begun already in the form of trouble in oil-producing regions and inter-tribal conflicts in the south, allegedly incited by the Bashir government.
Salva Kiir, South Sudan's president (who under the peace agreement is Sudan's vice president), said recently that such conflicts are, unfortunately, traditional, as clans and villages fight over cattle, grazing rights, and women. What he added, however, was that the level of violence, the methods used by raiding parties, and the weapons available clearly point to outside encouragement, if not outright leadership. This can explode into full-scale renewal of north-south violence, combined with tribal war, if not stopped in its tracks.
Observers point out that on the military side the Bashir regime is not very strong. A raid by a Darfuri rebel group last year reached the outskirts of Khartoum before being thrown back, and early this year Israel destroyed an Iranian convoy of munitions and arms, destined for Hamas in Gaza, as it transited through Sudan. Say what you will about the fact that these two astonishing events were hardly noticed in the United States--Israel made no secret of its strike, wanting to call attention to Iran's export of violence--they speak volumes about the Bashir government's lack of military preparedness.
By contrast, notes J. Peter Pham, an Africanist and defense expert at James Madison University, the southerners, while desperately poor and ill-equipped, held off the northerners for decades, and even the Darfuris are still standing. And this is despite absolutely fantastic crimes committed against the civilian populations in both regions. If they had antiaircraft capability, the hardened cadres of the SPLA (the [Southern] Sudan People's Liberation Army, founded by Garang and others in the 1970s) say they could handle the one asset Bashir holds that might beat them into submission, air power.
What next? Under the Bush administration, the United States did more for Africa than during any previous period. Funding for health and education resources was vastly increased. Security arrangements grew apace--notably initiatives to curb Islamist infiltration across northern Africa and the creation of an Africa Command to institutionalize military cooperation between the U.S. Army and eligible African defense establishments. There is no indication the Obama administration is taking exception to these policies, which, while relatively minor in relation to the region's problems and the rapidly growing challenges from other powers with an interest in Africa, nevertheless are widely appreciated on the continent.
The U.S. interests in Sudan are not difficult to discern. Diplomats and observers acknowledge that by every historical and sociological measure, Sudan as it is presently traced on the map has little meaning or even viability, but that two Sudans would each possess at least a certain coherence. The northern half, pro-al Qaeda and anti-Western, would be weakened; the south, pro-Western and potentially a base for sustained economic growth in east and central Africa, would be strengthened.
Of course, the emergence of two independent Sudans remains hypothetical, but a drastic geographic makeover would offer an opportunity for a fresh start.
Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington.