Issue 1, May 2008
|Khartoum (Northern Sudan)|
Internal Oppression and Rebellion
The colonial legacy in Sudan is like that in much of Africa: power was consolidated in one elite ruling group, which colonizers favored with education and privileges. After independence, this elite acted much the same way the outsiders had, setting up a system of internal colonialism throughout the country. In Sudan, this group was the Arab elite of the Northern capital of Khartoum. Though destabilized by a series of coups following independence, Khartoum became the hub of the new Sudan, modernizing and connecting with the outside world via its ports on the Red Sea while neglecting the development of the Southern, Western, far-Northern, and Eastern regions of the country.
Exacerbating vast inequalities of development that favored the North, Khartoum also increasingly fell under the influence of radical Islam with jihadist features. These combined tensions fueled the first of a series of regional insurgencies against the Khartoum government. In 1955, Southern Sudanese Christian and Animist populations rebelled, inciting a civil war that would continue for nearly 50 years with only one brief period of relative peace. When oil was discovered in the South, Khartoum claimed ownership of the oil fields and brokered terms of trade favorable to the North. Southern retaliation often took the form of attacks on government oil installations in their provinces. Khartoum responded with not only conventional military retaliation, but by arming local Arab militias and rival African tribes to protect the concessions and fight the rebels.
As this North/South civil war approached resolution through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) from 2003 to 2005, a similar rebellion erupted in a region of Western Sudan known as Darfur. Khartoum responded by employing what Sudan expert Alex de Waal has called “counterinsurgency on the cheap,” or as Human Rights Watch has called it, “chaos by design.” Khartoum inflamed ethnic tensions between Arab and non-Arab/African tribes to destabilize the rebellious areas, and recruited local Arab militias (Janjaweed) whom they incited to rape, displace, and kill civilians thought to be sympathetic with the rebels.
Unlike neglected and war-torn areas of Sudan beyond the capital, Khartoum is thriving. Foreign Policy Magazine has called it the 20th fastest-growing city in the world. International oil and other export and industry contracts, largely with China, fuel this growth. The Economist reported in December 2007 that over the past five years property values in Khartoum have quadrupled and the number of cars has doubled. More companies have been started since 2002 than in the last 75 years; economic growth has been sustained at 10%; annual oil revenues approach $5 billion. However, this growth means little for the areas and populations beyond the capital city. Corruption and cronyism are rampant and little of this wealth finds its way to development efforts in other parts of the country. Khartoum has blocked efforts by the international community to broker peace in Darfur through restrictions on an international peacekeeping force. Sanctions imposed by the US and UN have had little impact, as business with China and others keeps the Sudanese economy growing.
Khartoum officially denies many of the atrocities committed by the Sudanese military and its paramilitary agents in Darfur, and downgrades the collateral damage of the crisis. While the international community generally accepts the estimate of 200,000-400,000 people killed in Darfur over the past six years, Khartoum publicly puts that figure at 9000. Khartoum has consistently asserted that respecting Sudanese sovereignty is paramount, and has insisted variably that there isn’t a problem, and if there is a problem, it is not in control of or responsible for the atrocities committed in fighting the Darfur rebels.
Khartoum government officials who acknowledge the crisis assert that this is an African matter to be dealt with by Africans. They have steadfastly refused to permit non-African troops or logisticians to participate in the international peacekeeping force, and have appealed to the Muslim world to stave off what they perceive as Western imperialist intentions in the region. Khartoum today remains a stronghold of radical Islam ideology.
President al Bashir has enjoyed one of the longest tenures in Africa, coming to power in a coup in 1989, and prevailing in several subsequent elections criticized by outsiders for their legitimacy. Power lies with him and an elite group of security officers whom many characterize as war criminals. Khartoum is now in a fragile peace with the South Sudanese following the establishment of a power sharing government after the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). However, tensions persist, largely over disputed boundaries and distribution of income from oil-rich areas along their border. Many believe that resumption of hostilities between Khartoum and the South Sudanese is imminent in Abyei region, where al-Bashir has been accused of arming Misseriya tribal militias as his proxy army. While suppressing rebel forces in the West (Darfur) and engaging in brinksmanship with the South Sudanese, Khartoum also faces imminent rebellions in similarly marginalized areas in the East and far North.
In fact, the Khartoum government is reported to be increasingly unpopular throughout Sudan. Elections are slated for 2009, and many, including former US Special Envoy to Sudan Andrew S. Natsios, believe the Khartoum elite are worried about their chances of prevailing, even among their Arab base. In the May/June 2008 edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine, Natsios writes that al Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party (NCP), has evolved from its Islamic National Liberation Front (NLF) roots to its current iteration as a government that cares more about keeping itself in power and in wealth than in promoting Sharia law. This transformation, combined with simmering tensions in South Sudan and the conflict raging in Darfur, has made it likely that if elections were to be legitimately conducted the NCP would be defeated. The defeat of the NCP would leave a power vacuum that many fear would be difficult to fill and would place Sudan at risk of becoming a failed state. Prior to the 2009 elections, law requires a census to be conducted; some believe the census is being sabotaged by Khartoum so that the voting may be postponed. Khartoum is similarly worried about the upcoming referendum on South Sudanese secession that takes place in 2011. With most of the oil fields located in South Sudan, it is not likely that Khartoum will allow the South to go quietly, taking billions of dollars in annual oil revenues with them.
International Relations – The United States and West
Khartoum has a mixed record of allegiances with the West. Initially siding with the USSR in the Cold War, the government switched sides in the wake of a failed communist coup in the 1970s. Khartoum then enjoyed American support intermittently as the US hedged against Communist-allied Libya and Egypt. US-Khartoum relations broke down over the Persian Gulf War in 1991 when Khartoum split from the Arab Gulf states to side with Iraq as well as courting investment and good relations with Iran. This severed US-Khartoum ties, and Khartoum remained hostile to the US in the 1990s. The Clinton Administration took Khartoum to task to expel Osama Bin Laden and other jihadists from Sudanese training camps, and authorized a US missile attack on a Khartoum factory suspected of making weapons of mass destruction.
In the post-9/11 “us versus them” alignment of the Global War on Terror (GWT), Khartoum technically became an ally of the Bush Administration; al Bashir claims to have relinquished his support for jihadists in his country, even cooperating with the US on intelligence matters. However, Sudan remains on the US list of states suspected of harboring terrorists and continues to be subject to related economic sanctions. In the wake of its decreasing domestic popularity, al Bashir’s government has recently made overtures to the US, pursuing a resumption of normalized relations in return for greater cooperation in supporting the international peacekeeping force in Darfur.
Talks were held in Spring 2008 between al Bashir’s representatives and US Special Envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson at the behest of President Bush. The relationship is a tricky one – the US needs Khartoum close on the GWT and recognizes that the fall of the al Bashir government through elections or war with South Sudan would likely create more problems than it would solve, despite Khartoum’s complicity in the horrors occurring in Darfur. There are some like Natsios who believe that engagement, not further punishment and isolation (“carrots, not sticks”), are the way to address Sudan’s larger crises and save Darfur. However, there are others in the US and West who believe that any engagement with Khartoum at this point, while Darfur burns, is unconscionable and politically untenable. Another consideration is all that oil. US consumers are currently paying record prices at the pump; the instability of Middle East oil sources gives Khartoum leverage as the US competes with China for energy. (The US does not currently purchase any oil from Sudan, but others do, and a disruption in Sudanese oil exploration, extraction, and shipping would raise prices worldwide).
International Relations – China and Russia
China is, by far, Khartoum’s greatest international ally and trading partner. China owns a significant portion of Sudanese state-run and private oil-concessions, and exports over 60% of Sudan’s oil for its ever increasing domestic consumption. China has exclusive rights to nearly all Sudan’s known oil reserves; it explores for it, pumps it, refines it, and ships it via Chinese-made infrastructure and investments. The Chinese Import-Export Bank also provides millions in “development” loans on terms favorable to Sudan, and provides Khartoum with up to 90% of its small arms munitions (Human Rights First, 2008). In addition, China has been vocal in the UN in support of the al Bashir regime, defying Western powers on matters from sanctions to arms embargoes to peacekeeping. Many believe this political support has made it possible for Khartoum to obstruct the deployment of international peacekeepers. Russia, Algeria, and Pakistan round out the “Darfur Four,” a bloc of countries providing political cover for Sudan in the United Nations. Russia has also supplied Khartoum with much of its sophisticated systems weaponry.
International Relations – Chad
The regimes of Sudanese President al Bashir and Chadian President Deby are enemies, and have been for some time. Deby accuses Khartoum of supporting and arming rebels seeking to overthrow him in Chad; Khartoum responds in kind with allegations that Chad serves as a safe haven for Darfur rebels plotting attacks on Sudanese government installations. They share porous borders and enormous refugee crises – most of Darfur’s refugees are housed in Chad in camps run by the international humanitarian aid community; Darfur hosts Chadian refugees as well.
In Spring of 2008, al Bashir and Deby signed a non-aggression pact at the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Dakar that sought to defuse the tensions between the two regimes, tensions that contribute to conflicts on both sides of their border. Few believe this agreement will hold. In an editorial titled “Enduring Tensions,” Arab News cites three factors that underlie this prediction: the “enduring incompetence” of both regimes, the “demoralization of their populations,” and a long history of ill-fated similar agreements in the past. See Chad section for more detail.
Also see External Players section for more on Khartoum’s relations with its neighbors and beyond.