End Africa's Longest War

West should be tougher on Sudan's oppression in its southern region

While the international community remains focused on the Zaire crisis, Africa's longest running civil war appears to be coming to an end.

The recent humiliating defeat of government forces in southern Sudan and along the Ethiopia and Eritrea border is likely to bring an end to the suffering of civilians in southern Sudan and the demise of the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum. Unfortunately, this promising development has largely been ignored by policymakers and the mainstream news media.

The attention given to Zaire is encouraging, but what about Sudan? An estimated 1.5 million people have died over the past 10 years in southern Sudan, and millions have been displaced from their homes and villages.

Despite evidence of slavery, human rights abuses, and support for terrorism, the international community hasn't been able to take firm measures against the National Islamic Front (NIF) government. Some governments are even flirting with the NIF regime - eager to win business concessions. Since the ouster of the democratically elected government in 1989, Sudan, Africa's largest country, has emerged as a hub for terrorist activities and a safe haven for terrorist figures such as Osama bin-Laden, the Saudi-born financier of extremist groups in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

Supporting terrorism

The NIF regime is considered a rogue state in much of the world, not because of its brutal suppression of dissent and its Islamic fundamentalist agenda, but because of its support for international terrorism. The June 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia by Gama Islamiya was reportedly carried out with the help of the Sudanese government.

The weapons used in the assassination attempt were flown to Ethiopia on Sudan Airways, while one of the assassins later escaped to Khartoum on Sudan Airways. In October 1995, a federal jury in New York convicted 10 people for conspiring to bomb the United Nations and other New York landmarks. Four of the 10 convicted terrorists were believed to be Sudanese nationals, and two Sudanese diplomats in New York were suspected of assisting the convicted terrorists.

The NIF government's support for terrorism is not limited to Middle Eastern groups. Sudan has been engaged in the destabilization of secular, pro-American governments in the Horn of Africa. In Eritrea, the NIF regime has been assisting at least two Eritrean rebel groups: the Eritrean Islamic Jihad and the Eritrean Liberation Front. In Uganda, the NIF provides military assistance and logistical support for the Christian fundamentalist group, the Lord's Resistance Army, which continues to terrorize the civilian population of northern Uganda. The NIF regime also has been assisting the former Rwandese army and militia responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Sudan hopes to get French support, and the two countries share some strategic interests in the region. The French hold Uganda responsible for the ouster of a friendly French-speaking government in Rwanda, and the Sudanese accuse President Museveni of backing the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The SPLA has been fighting successive governments in Khartoum since 1983.

International pressure on the NIF regime has led to an active diplomatic campaign by Khartoum to convince the international community that it does not support terrorism and is making progress in other fronts. Khartoum's diplomatic activities have focused on Washington and, to a lesser extent, on its Western allies. The architects of this campaign seek to drive a wedge between Washington and its allies in the Horn of Africa by addressing certain concerns Washington has. They hope to convince policymakers that they are carrying out reforms, as in the handover of Carlos the Jackal - who is neither Arab nor Muslim - to the French and the ouster of bin-Laden from Khartoum last year.

The NIF regime spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists and sympathizers to promote its image and will use anyone to do its bidding. Lyndon LaRouche and his Schiller Institute aggressively campaign on behalf of the regime. The group sponsors "fact finding" visits to Sudan to show how much "progress" the NIF has made. In September 1996 and February 1997, the institute organized trips for several state legislators. The targets of this campaign largely have been African-Americans; Sudan portrays the strain in relations with the US as a race issue.

US policy toward Sudan, as articulated by President Clinton in a letter to President Isaias of Eritrea, supports regional efforts and seeks to isolate the NIF regime. The president's policy enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress and in Africa. Although Washington does not call for the forceful removal of the NIF regime, its support to the "frontline states" in the Horn of Africa is seen as supporting the removal of the NIF regime.

Points of contention

Notwithstanding the administration's tough stance on Sudan, two areas of US policy have been contentious. Some critics claim the administration may have violated UN Security Council sanctions on Sudan by allowing Sudanese diplomats to travel and meet senior administration officials late last year. Another area of controversy is the exemption of Sudan from the anti-terrorism legislation restrictions on financial transactions.

NIF support for international terrorism is directly linked to internal developments in the country and deflects attention away from the absence of democracy and the civil war in southern Sudan.

If the US administration accepts the premise that the Khartoum government poses a threat to peace and stability in the region and to US interests, then it must consider policy options that would facilitate the removal of that threat. While the risks and costs by no means are simple, they should include the benefit of supporting the birth of a secular, democratic Sudan.

* Harry Johnston was a member of Congress and chairman of the Africa subcommittee until his retirement last year, and Ted Dagne is a specialist in African affairs at the Foreign Affairs Division of the Congressional Research Service.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to End Africa's Longest War
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today