A Microcosm of General Realities in Africa
Legacies of Colonialism, the Cold War, Globalization, the Global War on Terror, and Geography
The state of affairs in Sudan has complex, intertwined historical roots. Many of the dysfunctions it suffers are shared by other African nations and are products of larger international forces and trends.
- European Colonizers’ Arbitrary Cartography: In the “Scramble for Africa” conference of European colonizers in the late 1800s, boundaries and states were created that benefited the colonizers, not the indigenous populations. Throughout the continent, many borders were drawn that arbitrarily grouped together diverse communities and divided other indigenous groups. These colonial cartographers had only their own convenience and Old World rivalries in mind as they drew up their maps. Many modern states in Africa and the Middle East should never have existed in their current configurations, which underlies many of the civil and inter-state wars that have plagued the 20th and 21st Centuries. The almost continuous conflict between Sudan’s diverse regions is a testament to the fact that modern Sudan, with its present borders, is a construct of colonial interference.
- Manipulation of Ethnicity in the Colonial and Post-Colonial Periods: Colonial powers ruled from afar and were concerned primarily with extracting and exporting local resources such as rubber, diamonds, oil and human slaves. They pursued a policy of “divide and conquer” with respect to different tribes and ethnicities. Where they had often previously lived in relative harmony, one tribe was favored over others with education, privileges, and jobs. As a consequence, artificially constructed and politically expedient ethnic tensions were inflamed. Colonizers did this to ensure that divisions would prevent unified dissent and revolt against their rule. This set the stage for post-colonial tensions, as many independent African governments continued these policies, leading to enormous civil strife.
- Lack of Infrastructure and Good Governance: Colonial masters disrupted the ancient tribal institutions and practices that had sustained pre-colonial African societies for generations, and left little in their place. Without viable democratic institutions that prioritized equitable distribution of wealth and the social and educational well-being of the people, former colonies had little to fall back on after gaining independence. Post-colonial independent governments thus continued the patterns of neglect, corruption, and autocracy they had learned from their former masters. In the absence of good governance, cronyism and warlords quickly filled the void, paving the way for dictators such as Idi Amin, Charles Taylor, Sani Abacha, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe…and the modern leaders of Sudan in Khartoum.
- Cold War Politics on the Continent: Following WWII, the world stage was dominated by two actors: the US and USSR. They scrambled to build alliances that would align the developing world into their respective camps. Newly independent African nations were easy prey and the policies pursued by both superpowers were nearly always disastrous for the development of good indigenous governments. The continent was carved up yet again, without attention to the long-term interests of civil society and civilians within the targeted countries. See dictators above.
- The Resource Paradox - Scarcity and Abundance: Like much of Africa, Sudan suffers from the twin evils of resource scarcity and abundance. Scarce water, timber, and arable land has been compounded by the effects of poor stewardship, distribution, and management of resources beginning in the colonial era. This was continued by the ineffectual leaders of modern Sudan. The resulting poverty is a cause and a consequence of insecurity and conflict. For an already weak state, environmental stresses create tensions that often lead to violent conflict.
Paradoxically, Sudan is also resource-rich. Sudanese oil and other immensely profitable commodities are coveted by wealthier nations; Sudan, like much of Africa, functions within exploitative economic systems created and perpetuated around the extraction of mineral wealth. From the colonial era forward, with income deriving from the export of oil, diamonds, rubber, and cobalt, rather than taxation, the colonial governments and the independent governments that replaced them were not accountable to the people. Economist Paul Collier has done extensive research on this phenomenon, finding it to be at the root of civil war in such parts of Africa.
- Globalization: There is an entire field of study now dedicated to analyzing the benefits and shortcomings of globalization. Globalization has been defined by Thomas Friedman as “the inexorable integration of markets, nation-states and technologies to a degree never witnessed before…(a process that) is also producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by this new system.”
Globalization can exacerbate the economic fall-out described above that often plagues the developing world in areas of resource scarcity and abundance. As international players in the form of traditional corporations and public-private conglomerates enter the fray, the competition becomes fiercer. Those in control of the resources become more single-minded in their economic pursuits. As Joseph Stiglitz has famously documented, globalization is not good for everyone; it can be incongruous with social justice, and its “discontents” (those for whom “development is hard enough”) suffer disproportionately. The race to enter the oil industry in Sudan by foreign nationals, international companies and consortia, and foreign governments has accelerated the tensions associated with ownership, extraction, and exportation of this valuable commodity, serving to both increase the corruption and oppression practiced in Khartoum and shield it from international pressure to reform.
- The Global War on Terror (GWT): Led by the US and precipitated by the attacks of September 11, 2001, the GWT now dominates much of the world’s political and geostrategic dynamics in an “us vs. them” alignment. This has made for strange bedfellows. The US now struggles with its moral authority and the pursuit of its own political and security agendas, while satisfying the need to combat both state-sponsored and underground terrorist networks. Khartoum, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan have become Western allies in the GWT, and this complicates the ability of the US and the UN to push for democracy and social justice in these autocratic regimes. In a world where strategic Islamic governments can provide the intelligence to support an anti-terrorism agenda, it is more difficult to take a hard line with governments that may be compromising the domestic civil and political rights of their citizens.
- Geography: Sudan is an extraordinary example of how physical and human geography is destiny, or as Harm de Blij says, “why geography matters.” Sudan’s geography has shaped the present conflicts – its harsh climate, sheer size and diversity, shared borders with nine other highly unstable African countries, control of the Nile, unequally distributed agricultural and mineral resources, and its location on what de Blij has called the Islamic Front in Africa. Sudan is split along a religious fault line running along the 12th parallel, dividing the continent along social/religious lines as tangibly as the Sahara Desert (which also runs through part of Sudan) does environmentally.
The Sahara Desert’s boundary at the 13th parallel is called the Sahel, long a fertile margin of land that has made tenable the precarious balance between the region’s different inhabitants. Regarding the Sahel’s significance across the African continent (including not only Sudan, but also Chad, Nigeria, Mali and Dakar), National Geographic’s Paul Salotek has called it a “crack in the heart – a tightrope, a brink, a ledge.” In his view, it “separates (or joins) Arabs and blacks, Muslims and Christians, nomads and farmers, a landscape of greens and a world of tans (where) some 50 million of the world’s poorest, most disempowered, most forgotten hang fiercely onto life.” Climate pattern changes are altering the character of this critical boundary as rainfall ceases and Sahara sands consume lives and hope. See the cover story on the Sahel in National Geographic Magazine, April 2008, for more information on continental ramifications as well as a personal narrative by the author who was imprisoned recently in Darfur.
The Result: Modern Sudan
These factors provide the context and set the stage for Sudan today. Modern Sudan as a unified nation-state often seems implausible, and the larger tensions that play out between North and Sub-Saharan Africa on the continent and in supranational organizations such as the United Nations and African Union all coalesce in this large entity. Climate change forecasts will only exacerbate Sudan’s problems as the Sahara Desert continues to consume the Sahel. The growing tensions within the Muslim world in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere will only inflame Sudan’s fragile ethnic composition. And because of its unique geography, the Sudan will always be of importance to many outside interferences, a pawn in larger geostrategic and economic dramas.
Some Final Thoughts:
- The crisis in Darfur should not be viewed, as it often is, as simply “another example of ethnic tribal warfare.” It is much more complex. The following sections explore this complexity in great detail, and explain why many believe the conflict requires an international response.
- To be clear, there has been an international response; there has been an enormous, generous, multilateral effort directed at the provision of humanitarian aid, both in South Sudan in the 1980s and in Darfur over the last five years. But, as historian Gerard Prunier writes in his seminal article “The Politics of Death in Darfur” (now a book), humanitarian aid is often used to “fill the gap between media-raised expectations of public opinion and the prudent procrastination of the political and diplomatic segments of the international community.” Paradoxically, humanitarian aid often plays a role in forestalling political, military, and long-range development efforts when they are required. This edition will explore why some believe a different, complementary international response is required in Sudan.
Next: Annotated Timeline