"I am an African," declared Thabo Mbeki. Of course, by the time the post-production was finished and we all saw on television the familiar vistas of Africa with which his PR people illustrated his rousing speech, he was off to another foreign country, on some or other pressing business.
The travels for which he became infamous are more tolerable now that we have a new president, and Mbeki isn't supposed to be running South Africa any more. Yet he is a man whom many, for all his failures, still remember fondly, despite his impotence on Zimbabwe, his intransigence on AIDS, and his summary dismissal by his impatient successor.
Besides, like Tintin in some far-flung country, our hero now finds himself in the Sudan. The question is, what does he hope to achieve, and why should we care to read on?
Mbeki is head of the African Union's High Level Implementation Panel, which was established to see a fragile five-year-old peace agreement in Sudan to its conclusion: a referendum on the independence or otherwise of South Sudan. It is part of a major multilateral operation, in which the world's only superpower, the United States, also plays a very active role.
Here's the back-story. The mostly non-Islamic South Sudan has spent most of the years since independence in 1955 in some form of war against the Islamic government of the north. The last civil war started between the National Congress Party (NCP) of the north, and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south, in 1983, and did not end until a peace deal brokered in 2005. Many more people died here than in Darfur, which became the pet cause of well-intended celebrities seeking to assuage their guilt and bolster their popularity by appearing on magazine covers in dusty, war-torn locations kissing babies.
Resistance among traditional animists and Christians against the north's harsh Islamic law is one bone of contention in Sudan. Tribal conflicts, past atrocities, and instability or war along borders with neighbouring states, some of them decades old, complicate matters. So do issues of control over water resources. No issue, however, is quite as explosive as the conflict over the oil-rich region of Abyei, situated where North Sudan, South Sudan and Darfur meet. It is this territory, most of all, that focuses the animosity between the north and the south, and as a result exercises the foreign mediators, including South Africa, the United States, the African Union, and the United Nations.
South Africa's negotiated settlement looked complex and precarious, even for those of us who were here to follow it in all its grim and glorious detail. The Sudanese crisis is even more complex. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the partition of India, which created Pakistan, and left behind it the festering sore of Kashmir.
The regime of Omar al-Bashir has often been accused of stalling tactics in implementing peace agreements or political settlements with rival or breakaway elements within the vaste expanse of the country he rules with an iron fist. He also stands accused, formally, before the International Criminal Court, of genocide for his part in overt actions and covert support of actions targeting what his government views as rebels in regions like South Sudan and Darfur.
The outstanding issues, and the sword hanging over al-Bashir, make for difficult negotiations. Although the primary players in this drama remain officially committed to a referendum on South Sudanese independence to be held in early January next year, as per the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement, several key people in the region, such as Egypt's defence minister, have already hinted that a postponement of the referendum is not only inevitable – preparations are already behind schedule – but desirable. Leaving explosive matters such as border disputes and oil revenue agreements for two independent countries with a rancorous relationship to settle is an invitation to another war, which could draw in neighbouring states and engulf the region. This would guarantee the spread of safe-havens for extremists, gangsters, despots, pirates and terrorists of all colours, and would condemn more millions of Africans to oppression, starvation, or death.
The trouble, as usual, is that external mediators or peacekeepers lack the power to keep rival parties to their commitments. When al-Bashir reneges on a promise, the AU doesn't have the teeth, and the UN rarely has the unanimity to do anything about it. On occasions when they do act in concert to put pressure on the regime, al-Bashir's party does tend to concede the point and comply. Intermittent obstructionism from key UN Security Council members is not uncommon, however. Let's face it, faith in the UN, these days, is increasingly the province of one-world idealists and career bureaucrats.
This places all the more responsibility on the shoulders of individual personalities such as Thabo Mbeki, as the US Special Envoy to Sudan, Major General J Scott Gration, has explicitly said: "We expect that Chairman Mbeki can help bring the parties [the NCP and SPLM] together."
The matter is too important to snigger cynically at one of his initiatives: training South Sudanese government officials in matters of leadership and service delivery. When you have nothing but armed struggle, massacres and chaos on your CV, any training is better than nothing.
A more promising approach may be through the carrot of trade. South Africa has sent a number of trade delegations to Sudan. The most recent involved more than 20 private and public-sector organisations in a wide variety of sectors. The self-interest of South Africans, both black and white, was a major factor that prevented our own nation from sliding into civil war. Although there were sparks aplenty in the tinder, there was always the promise of future prosperity to prevent a conflagration. There is much reason to hope that the expectation of a peaceful future of trade will motivate both north and south to settle their differences amicably, rather than with a return to civil war.
This is one reason Mbeki's involvement in the Sudan crisis is so important. He has a lot to offer, as a South African, with his detailed experience of the complexities of, and motivations behind, South Africa's negotiated peace.
The broader reason, however, is better stated in Thabo Mbeki's own words:
"I am an African.
I am born of the peoples of the continent of Africa.
The pain of the violent conflict that the peoples of Liberia, Somalia, the Sudan, Burundi and Algeria is a pain I also bear.
The dismal shame of poverty, suffering and human degradation of my continent is a blight that we share.
The blight on our happiness that derives from this and from our drift to the periphery of the ordering of human affairs leaves us in a persistent shadow of despair.
This is a savage road to which nobody should be condemned."
That is moral clarity. Let us hope that the practical action in Sudan can realise this dream, when it has so often failed elsewhere in Africa. On this rests the peace, prosperity and pride of an entire continent. DM
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