The trumpets will sound; the drums will beat; the flags will flutter proudly. Remember those words? Of course you do: they’re the words with which I started my first newsletter of 2011 – and I was writing about Sudan.
I’m writing about Sudan again today – because with just over three weeks to go until the official birth of the new nation of South Sudan (trumpets, drums, etc.), there are ominous signs of a deal unravelling and a fragile peace giving way to renewed conflict. Just last night, President Obama expressed his “deep concern” about the growing violence.
Sudan is one of the most important countries on the African continent. It’s the biggest (two and a half million square kilometres, or nearly a million square miles); it has a population of around 40 million, and substantial oil reserves in which China has a major interest.
It’s also the only country in the world whose head of state is an indicted war criminal. A year ago, Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court in connection with offences allegedly committed during the war in the western region of Darfur, in which between 200,000 and 400,000 people are estimated to have died.
Osama bin Laden was based in Sudan in the early 1990s, after he left Saudi Arabia and before he set up shop in Afghanistan. In 1998, the US launched a cruise missile attack against a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory that it said was linked to al Qaeda and might have been used for the production of chemical weapons.
In other words, we ignore Sudan at our peril. The conflict in Darfur was, for a time, the focus of widespread global concern – and it’s by no means impossible that it could be reignited if current tensions boil over.
The birth of the independent nation of South Sudan next month is meant to mark the end of a grim 20-year chapter of civil war between the northern and southern parts of the country. A referendum held in January saw something like 99 per cent of southerners vote for separation – but even after the votes had been counted, and after President Bashir had said he would respect the result, tensions remained.
For one thing, the exact demarcation line between the two entities hadn’t been finalised. In one region, Abyei, there was meant to be a separate referendum in which its residents could decide whether they wanted to be part of the north or the south. The referendum still hasn’t been held.
In another region, South Kordofan, which is on the northern side of the notional border, most people feel a greater loyalty to the south. Two days ago, the United Nartions reported that an estimated 60,000 people had fled from the region after bombing raids by the Sudanese air force.
One southern group accused Khartoum of pursuing a “genocidal campaign’ in the region, and the UN was reported to have referred in a confidential document to what it called a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” by President Bashir.
So the omens aren’t looking good for South Sudan’s Independence Day on 9 July. At stake are vital reserves not only of oil, but also of water, on which the lives of millions of people depend. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the great misfortune of Abyei and South Kordofan to find themselves slap bang in the middle of some of the potentially most valuable Sudanese real estate.
President Bashir has shown himself over many years to be a master of saying one thing and doing another. There was a huge international sigh of relief when the independence referendum was held in January and the president responded with magnanimity.
But now, in the last few weeks before his country is formally split in two, the question is whether his actions will match his words, or whether he will seek to prevent the south seceding by returning to war.
By the way, if you’ve discovered the joys of Facebook and/or Twitter, you may like to know that The World Tonight now has its own presence on both. On Facebook, we have formed a World Tonight group – you’ll find us by searching for The World Tonight, BBC Radio 4 – and on Twitter we’re @bbcworldtonight. Happy hunting …