A political earthquake seems about to rock Sudan and send tremors across Africa. A referendum is scheduled to occur in a little over a week – on 9 January 2011 – in which southern Sudan’s eight million inhabitants may vote to separate from the 34 million citizens of northern Sudan and create their own new nation – South Sudan.
Since much of Africa’s current borders were drawn by European colonial powers, any changes are likely to unleash dangerous tensions or demands for secession across the continent.

One of Africa’s biggest taboos has been that borders inherited from the colonial era were immutable. A break-up of Sudan, Africa’s largest nation, will bring into question the continent’s entire geopolitical architecture.

Sudan, which extends from the Arab world into the heart of black Africa, was created by the British Empire to safeguard the Nile, Egypt’s sole source of water. Sudan is a dizzying collection of almost 600 often feuding tribes speaking 400 different languages spread over a vast area: northern, Arabic-speaking Muslims and Nubians; ferocious Beja from the Red Sea Coast (“Fuzzy-Wuzzies” to the British); wild Bagarra nomads from Darfur; and Stone Age tribes from the upper Nile.

It is remarkable that Sudan has held together for so long. A bloody civil war has raged for 60 years between Muslim northerners and non-Muslim southerners, in which two million are said to have perished. The people of Sudan are 75% Muslim, about 20% animist and 5% Christian, Islamic law has been applied in the north, but mostly by southerners.

Southern Sudan’s Christian secessionist movement has long been guided and financed by British and US Christian missionaries and aid groups. Islamophobic American Evangelical groups, who now form the voter core of the Republican party, have been playing a key role in promoting southern Sudan’s independence movement.

South Sudan has also been rent for decades by conflict between its three main pastoral Nilotic tribes, the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer, who routinely launch raids on one another for cattle and women.

Sudan has also suffered another confusing conflict in the remote western regions of Darfur and Kordofan between nomadic and farming peoples. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted Sudan’s strongman, Gen. Omar el-Bashir, for war crimes in Darfur’s murky tribal war that has become a cause celebre in the West.

Just how much Gen. Bashir’s regime is responsible for alleged mass killings in Darfur’s tribal melee remain uncertain. But
Sudan is on the US black list as a terrorist supporter and under US sanctions. Sudan, branded a “rogue state” by Washington, has long been targeted for “regime change.”

The US media and evangelical Christian groups have demonized Sudan and Gen. Bashir, and branded him a dangerous Islamist. Israel has been very active in arming and supporting the South Sudan SPLA guerilla movement, and will assume an even more influential role if southern Sudan goes independent.

Sizeable deposits of oil were discovered in Sudan over the past decade. They are mostly located in south Sudan but the Khartoum government controls the export pipeline. China has become a major customer of Sudanese oil. Washington intends to elbow the Chinese out if the south breaks away.

Control of global oil plays a primary role on US foreign and military policy. The US is becoming ever more deeply involved in Sudan. As a result, Washington has been discreetly working with southern Sudan to create a government, financial system, police, and army. South Sudanese officials are being trained in the US. The number of US diplomats and intelligence officers in Sudan has tripled.

A break-up of Sudan will have an immediate effect on other unstable neighbors, like Somalia, Chad, and the Republic of Congo. Ethiopia may get more deeply involved in the region. Egypt, eternally sensitive about who controls the Nile’s life-giving waters, is deeply worried about Sudan’s future and fears a new regime in the south may begin diverting the river’s waters.

Just at a time when the US is increasingly active in Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, it finds itself ever more deeply involved in engineering the break-up of Sudan. All this may be a bridge too far for the already over-stretched US military, intelligence services, and State Department, not to mention the empty US Treasury that now runs on borrowed money.

So all eyes on Sudan in the coming weeks.

This post is in: International Politics

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