The Sudan, Africa's largest country, is in serious trouble. But no matter how well-founded its fears of Libyan attack, the main dangers are internal. Rushing supplies of American jet fighters and tanks to the semidesert nation is thus a misplaced short-term solution to deep-seated problems. Doing so could also deepen the difficulties of a vast country on the verge of internal collapse.
The United States has been responding to the cries of alarm of Sudan's President Gaafar Nimeiry. It is doubtless true, as President Nimeiry has said, that Col. Muammar Qaddafi, the leader of Libya, has designs on the Sudan. They have been personal enemies for years, and Qaddafi is passionate about the legitimacy of Libyan expansion at the expense of his neighbors.
Libya has attacked border posts in the western Sudan, and made some bombing runs. Their targets, however, are the defeated Chadian forces loyal to Hassan Habre, until last year a contender for the Chadian presidency. There is as yet little evidence that Libya dares invade or make a frontal assault on the Sudan. Correspondents reporting from the western Sudan indicate that any invading army would need to surmount the logistically difficult 600 miles of almost roadless desert from the Chad-Libyan border to Sudan's capital on the Nile River.
Colonel Qaddafi has backed coups against General Nimeiry. He has doubtless attempted to subvert the fragile political alliances of the Sudan from within. Many of the Sudanese who have traveled to Libya to seek employment are Libyan economic hostages, and perhaps a source of potential subversive recruits. But the real worry in the Sudan is its parlous economy.
The Sudan no longer feeds itself. Nor do its exports provide funds sufficient to pay for imports, especially costly petroleum products. Even Sudan's membership in the Arab League has not prevented imported fuel costs from increasing during the last eight years from about $20 million to $550 million. Over the same period, the Sudan's production of cotton and peanuts, its main earners of foreign exchange, has plummeted.
Under British rule, the Sudan grew cotton on a vast state-run plantation between the ample waters of the White and Blue Nile Rivers. The Gezira Scheme, as the plantation was known, was a showpiece of Africa. In the last two decades, however, mismanagement and its ecological byproduct, increased soil salinity, have taken their toll. The cotton yield has fallen over the same period from 1 million to 400,000 bales per year. World prices are also low, and this year's earnings will not even match the nation's fuel bill.
The import and export curves have crossed, and most financial experts think that the Sudan may well be bankrupt. Its national debt is probably at least $4 billion; this year the balance of payments deficit is expected to be about $700 million. Only the intervention of the International Monetary Fund has kept the Sudan afloat.
The IMF has recently been negotiating another credit for the Sudan. But that credit, which the Sudan desperately needs, will not be tendered without stringent conditions capable of causing serious internal unrest. Now that the Sudan has agreed to the IMF recipe for devaluation of the Sudanese pound, the prices of government-subsidized commodities will rise dramatically. Flour, sugar , milk, and kerosene cost more, and the political tempers of the urban masses of Khartoum and Omdurman may well rise.
President Nimeiry has with great agility survived several coup attempts and the vicissitudes of politics in a part-Arab country with its own fervid Islamic fundamentalists and many rival military factions. He has also managed to yoke the non-Arab southern half of his country to the Arab north in reasonable harmony. But a functionally bankrupt country the size of the Sudan may be ungovernable, and fundamentally implosive, without sophisticated, targeted assistance from abroad.
The US has proposed a military arms assistance package of about $100 million. Since the Sudan cannot be expected to pay for any sizable part of that package, the American plan has been for Saudi Arabian payments to offset the purchase. In the wake of the American decision to sell AWACS and F-15s to the Saudis, that offset may be likely. But no matter who pays, the Sudanese cannot yet man or service the aircraft that have been promised. Nor do they have the manpower to service tanks and antitank vehicles.
The Sudan needs butter anyway, not guns. A more imaginative, more far-reaching method of combating Libyan designs on the Sudan, and of shoring up President Nimeiry, would combine defensive arms in modest quantity with food shipments, technical and managerial assistance in the agricultural sector, and infrastructural help for road-building and basic communications.
Selling guns to a country that may not have the capacity to use them, and cannot afford them, is a knee-jerk response that will succeed only in obscuring the fundamental problems of an impoverished land under assault from within as well as from without.