A big step in Sudan, but the road is still long

July 12, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

LAST SATURDAY, a momentous event occurred in Sudan, the largest country in Africa and a land whose people have been beset by conflict and poverty since Great Britain and Egypt gave them independence almost a half-century ago.

In a ceremony in Khartoum, John Garang, the leader of the main rebel force in southern Sudan's latest 21-year uprising against the Arab-Islamic government of the north, was installed as vice president. At the same time, the keys to most of the garrisons in southern Sudan were turned over to Mr. Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army.

The war, in which an estimated 2 million perished and millions of people were driven from their homes, ended officially in January after the two sides signed a peace agreement that called for a government of "national unity." This was celebrated with Mr. Garang's inauguration Saturday following his arrival in Khartoum, where he was met by a crowd estimated at 1 million, most of whom would have been southern Sudanese driven by the war to the north where they live in squalid camps on the outskirts of the capital.

"The peace process between north and south must be made irreversible," said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who attended the ceremony in Khartoum.

Well, yes. And if everything were to work out the way it is laid out in the peace documents, that could happen. Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it has oil and it has rich soil in the south capable of producing enough to feed the whole country. A genuine sharing of resources could go a long way toward the fulfillment of the hopes aroused by the peace agreement.

Moreover, international donors, led by the United States, have agreed to pay close to $5 billion for the development and reconstruction of southern Sudan.

Last month, I was in southern Sudan and got a glimpse of the magnitude of the task ahead in rebuilding the south. Peace has not brought about a feeling of security in the camps inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes by the enduring war. One travels the roads with an escort of armed men crowded into pickups. This is because another rebel force from neighboring Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army, has been wreaking havoc in the area, killing, pillaging and occasionally abducting children to serve as bearers or soldiers in the LRA.

The main road from the southern town of Nimule, hugging the border with Uganda, toward Juba, a hub in southern Sudan, is just being widened to bear the traffic of humanity that presumably would return home if the road were clear, and safe. But not many have moved yet.

A whole generation of southerners has grown up in the camps for displaced people. For them, it is a land without proper infrastructure, without sufficient food, without education. But for that generation, returning home is to venture back to a place and culture they do not know.

And even if full confidence were to be restored in the south, other civil wars are under way in Sudan, which will have a direct impact on the success of the peace arrangements celebrated in Khartoum last weekend. They are the conflict in Darfur, in the West, a war in which up to 30,000 have been killed and millions displaced, and in eastern Sudan, where the government is putting down another insurgency with equal brutality.

The international community, so heavily invested in southern Sudan, where there's a lot of oil, has not paid much attention lately to these other conflicts in Sudan.

But as Mr. Annan said last weekend, the peace in the south will not succeed "unless it takes root in the east and in the west as well."

What can America do about this? For one thing, it can make sure to keep the promise of money to rebuild Sudan. For another, it can refocus its attention on Darfur, which was a high priority a year ago, but like so many other high priorities, has drifted out of sight.

There are reasons for caring, and they shouldn't all be about oil.

G. Jefferson Price III was a foreign correspondent and an editor at The Sun.

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