4 September 2011

Sudan: Blue Nile State and the Resumption of Country-Wide War


The only beneficiaries of this ruthlessly destructive military action against Blue Nile State are the most extreme members of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party cabal, and senior members of the security and military apparatus; the calculation on which their decision has been made could not be more brutal

Those hoping that Sudan's 2005 "Comprehensive Peace Agreement" (CPA) and the July secession by South Sudan as an independent nation would bring an end to war in this ravaged country have been bitterly disappointed by recent events. Aside from continuing to wage a ghastly war of civilian attrition in Darfur, the Khartoum regime has militarily seized the contested border region of Abyei (May 20), has begun a widespread campaign of ethnically targeted destruction in South Kordofan (June 5)---targeting the Nuba and relentlessly bombing the Nuba Mountains---and in recent days has launched a major military offensive in Blue Nile State. Many thousands have fled into neighboring Ethiopia, the state capital of Damazin has been over-run, and there are reports of large numbers of civilian casualties and destruction of civilian infrastructure. There are also many reports of indiscriminate bombing attacks by Khartoum's air force elsewhere in Blue Nile---continuing a pattern of more than twenty years--and fighting seems to be escalating rapidly.* Calls for an immediate ceasefire by the UN and other international actors have fallen on deaf ears in Khartoum.

Blue Nile has many similarities with South Kordofan, which is also part of what is now North Sudan; this includes in particular a close alliance militarily and politically with the SPLM/A of the South during the long civil war (1983-2005). Its elected governor, Malik Agar, heads the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army-North. Like the comparable political and military entity in South Kordofan, the SPLA-North in Blue Nile is made up of indigenous soldiers, who cannot be "sent home to the South" because they are home. And as was true for South Kordofan, Blue Nile was promised by the CPA "popular consultations," which were to have determined the nature of the ongoing relationship with Khartoum after a Southern self-determination referendum. There have been no meaningful "popular consultations" in either South Kordofan or Blue Nile, nor does Khartoum intend to permit such.

As was also the case in South Kordofan (and in Abyei as well), Khartoum militarily provoked the fighting in Blue Nile and then claimed that they had been responding to attacks by rebels. But the recent arrival of a brigade-sized force near Damazin---accompanied by a dozen tanks along with 40 trucks carrying heavy Dushka machine-guns---makes nonsense of the claim. And again, as was the case in South Kordofan, it is clear that this military offensive had been well-planned in advance (in South Kordofan, for example, the Sudanese Red Crescent Society [SRCS] has confirmed that Khartoum gave them some 2,500 body bags and plastic tarps prior to the fighting and ethnically targeted executions that began on June 5; by the end of the month the SRCS was publicly declaring the need for more body bags).

The offensive in Blue Nile has long been threatened, and Malik Agar said two months ago that the longer the conflict in South Kordofan went unresolved, the more likely it was that Blue Nile would be drawn into the fighting. And several months ago, internal UN situation reports contained ominous intelligence about large troop movements and military threats in the general region of Blue Nile. It's not clear whether the UN and international actors of consequence simply didn't believe that Khartoum would move against Blue Nile---or disingenuously chose not to believe so. But the failure of anticipation is staggering, and suggests diplomatic incompetence of the first order. Certainly much was revealed with the breakdown of the important framework agreement signed by Malik and the powerful Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e of the NIF/NCP on June 28, and then was promptly disowned by President al-Bashir on his return from China (July 1, 2011). More than disowning the agreement, al-Bashir declared at Friday prayers:

"'[Al-Bashir] directed the armed forces to continue their military operations in South Kordofan until a cleansing of the region is over,' SUNA quoted Bashir as telling worshippers during Friday prayers." (emphasis added)

This should have been a clear signal of what would follow. But whatever the reason for lack of an effective international response---then and now---it yet again shows that there has been far too little preparation for, or anticipation of the events of the past few days, a terribly familiar pattern on the part of the UN, the U.S., the African Union, and the Europeans in dealing with Khartoum. All this is consistent with the exceedingly slow and still hesitant acknowledgement of themassive atrocity crimes that were committed in South Kordofan in June, which have been amply documented in a leaked UN human rights report on the situation. Moreover, satellite imagery has authoritatively confirmed the existence of many mass gravesites, capable of holding many thousands of bodies. The photographic evidence is confirmed in every case by eyewitness accounts provided to the UN human rights investigators (and included in their unredacted report) and to the Satellite Sentinel Project, with human intelligence assets in Kadugli. Many Nuba escaping from South Kordofan into South Sudan have also reported mass gravesites.

Is resumed war too costly for Khartoum?

In recent months it has become conventional wisdom to assert that however brutal and ruthless the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party Khartoum regime may be, they simply can't afford to re-engage in war with the South---that it would be too costly for the regime, especially given a Northern economy that is in shambles, with high (and rising) inflation, the prospect of substantially diminished oil revenues, and a vast external debt (more than $38 billion) that can't be serviced, let alone repaid, without significant help in debt relief from the international community. But this conventional wisdom has framed the question the wrong way; the question the NIF/NCP regime is posing in present circumstances is whether its stranglehold on national wealth and power can survive without war, war that the regime of course hopes to keep on the periphery. And that question is being answered, increasingly clearly, by the most ruthless elements within the military and their hard-line allies in the political cabal. There has been a "creeping military coup" in Khartoum, and as one source close to the regime has declared in a confidential statement, "It is the hour of the soldiers."

What Khartoum fears most is that with the secession of South Sudan, the forces rebelling against marginalization and discrimination---as well as against the relentless denial of political freedom and a fair share of national wealth and power---are now all in the North. If these variously rebellious forces are allowed to create a powerful military coalition---reaching from eastern Chad to Ethiopia and northward to the Beja region near the border with Eritrea---they could topple the regime, even without much help from the traditional Northern political opposition, which is in any event badly weakened after twenty-two years of NIF/NCP tyranny.

Several observers of the recent large-scale military actions in Blue Nile have made this point, if in somewhat different fashion. Chris Phillips from the Economist Intelligence Unity put it this way to Reuters: "(Khartoum's) objective is to knock out the SPLM-North before they become a serious military force." Fouad Hikmat of the International Crisis Group argues that Khartoum believes the SPLM in the North is "a threat for them politically, not just militarily" and that what we are seeing "could be a vanguard to mobilise the new South of the North of Sudan." In other words, what South Sudan was to Khartoum during the civil war could take new form in the North---what Hikmat calls "the new South of the North of Sudan."

But by attacking Blue Nile, and targeting the house of its elected governor Malik Agar, the Khartoum regime has burned its bridges to a negotiated settlement with the SPLM/A-North. It was Malik who brokered the agreement between the SPLM/A-North leader in South Kordofan, Abdel Aziz el-Hilu, and senior regime official Nafi'e Ali Nafi'e; it is now exceedingly difficult to see how negotiations might even resume while the governor himself is being attacked and pursued.

The greatest danger here is that the potent military forces of South Sudan become involved in the fighting. Juba and the SPLA have shown remarkable restraint to date in the face of relentless military provocation: Khartoum's repeated bombing of the South in Unity State and Northern and Western Bahr el-Ghazal going back to November 2010, as well as the seizure of Abyei, which aborts any chance for a fair self-determination referendum for the region. But it will become increasingly difficult for the SPLA in Juba to watch as their war-time allies in South Kordofan and Blue Nile are mercilessly pummeled by Khartoum's air force, and many thousands of civilians are sent streaming into Ethiopia, into the South, and even toward Khartoum (the UN High Commission for Refugees has already received reports of "some 16,000 civilians fleeing" from Blue Nile into Ethiopia; other estimates are much higher). The growing threat of a humanitarian catastrophe in the Nuba Mountains---Khartoum continues to block all significant humanitarian access---and the prospect of a similar crisis in Blue Nile are already weighing heavily on the leadership in Juba.

War as it is unfolding in South Kordofan and Blue Nile is in no one's interest---not in the South and not in the North. The only ones who see themselves as beneficiaries are the most ruthless and brutal members of the NIF/NCP cabal and the military and security apparatus: for they well understand that if they lose power, most will end up in The Hague facing prosecution for crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes.

"The hour of the soldiers." The phrase is cited by Julie Flint, a highly reliable and well-informed reporter on Sudan, and comes from a well-placed source in Khartoum, close to the regime, who is trying to give an account of how such immensely destructive violence against civilians has become the chosen course of action: "It is the hour of the soldiers---a vengeful, bitter attitude of defending one's interests no matter what; a punitive and emotional approach that goes beyond calculation of self-interest."

This is the face of power in Khartoum, and until the world awakes to the consequences of this "vengeful, bitter" outlook, war will continue moving closer and closer to engulfing all of Sudan.

*Eric Reeves is a professor at Smith College and author of "A Long Day's Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide"

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