Conflict in Sudan defies simple label

Politics: Portraying the nation's civil war simply as religious persecution threatens to extend the misery.

May 20, 2001|By Adam Choppin

IN RECENT MONTHS, the 46-year-old conflict in Sudan has received renewed attention in American newspapers regarding the persecution of Southern Sudanese Christians by radical Northern Sudanese Muslims. Unfortunately, this gross oversimplification threatens to stoke the embers of religious fanaticism and make the world's deadliest and longest-running war even deadlier.

The complex factors that divide the people of the Sudan (north and south) have given rise to two prolonged wars during most of the second half of the past century. The first war (1955-1972) ended in a negotiated settlement. The current phase of the civil war, which started in 1983, is primarily between the radical Arab-Islamic northern government in Khartoum and southern rebels who are an amalgam of Christian, Muslim and animist Africans. Since 1983, an estimated 2 million people have been killed and 4 million displaced by the war.

Until very recently, the war has received scant attention from American policymakers or the media because of Sudan's remoteness and lack of national interests. Understandably upset about this lack of attention, a motley crew of humanitarian agencies, African-American activists, Christian groups and their congressmen hasassembled with the determination that it can do something about the war.

A few years ago, these groups began by attacking the companies involved in the extraction of oil from Sudan. They rightly criticized these companies as being complicit in the violence that was deliberately orchestrated by the government in Khartoum to clear the oilfields of their southern populations. Moreover, they began a campaign led by Christian Solidarity International to buy back slaves captured in the violence.

However, these groups now contend that the United States and other Western powers should get directly involved in the conflict because of the "massive persecution" of Christians in Sudan's south. Unfortunately, the truth does not support such analysis.

At the onset of the war (when the last census was done) Sudan was home to an estimated 25 million people, 8 million of whom were southerners, 4 million of whom have since been displaced by war. Accounting for a degree of proselytizing in recent years, 25 percent of the Southern peoples are Christians constituting just over 8 percent of all Sudanese.

The persecution described in recent months is nothing new. It constitutes the targeting of southern civilians, who are usually indistinguishable from the rebels, and often their capture or relocation. It has not been uncommon for these civilians, if captured, to be forced to work in homes or on small, family farms in northern Sudan with little or no pay and abysmal living conditions. They are often bought and sold as slaves.

In the process, these individuals are sometimes obliged or even forced to observe the practices of their "master" or "hosts" (usually Islamic ritual), regardless of their native religion or beliefs. However, these occurrences of "religious persecution" are rare. Sudanese people are generally regarded as warm, compassionate, understanding people who generally live in harmony with their neighbors, although their leaders seem to exhibit none of these traits.

Yet because it sells in the American media, the conflict is sold as one defined by religious strife and the persecution of Christians. If only Sudan's problems could be so easily described.

Fundamentally, the war is about the failure of two very different peoples to live together. Sudan's brief experiment with coexistence between 1972 and 1983 ended as a result of national politics and the ability of the northern government to control the resources and autonomy of the south. To date, the conflict is still defined as this same struggle for power -- the north possessing it and the south desperately wanting some.

In recent years, a resolution to this protracted conflict has become even more elusive. Huge oil revenues controlled by the northern government have removed what little incentive for peace it once had: economic debilitation. Now it appears that Khartoum can hold out indefinitely until the rebels are defeated, discredited or sufficiently disheartened.

If these groups wanted a real strategy to help end the war, they would continue with their campaign to shut down the money pipeline from the southern oilfields to the northern government. All this is made possible by the Chinese, Malaysian, Canadian, Swedish and Austrian oil companies operating in Sudan. Their current campaign will only fuel the most radical elements of the war and further embolden Khartoum to oppress its citizens.

Adam Choppin is a specialist on Sudan at the University of Southern California.

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