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The Forgotten Powder Keg

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December 4, 2007

The Forgotten Powder Keg

While world attention focuses on Darfur, Southern Sudan simmers

by Jay Heisler

An August 2005 rally of members of Calgary's Sudanese community. Calls for deployment of Canadian forces in Darfur (as opposed to Afghanistan) have been loud amongst members of the Canadian left, but few have raised the deterioration of the situation in Southern Sudan. [CC 2.0] Photo: Grant Neufeld

Jay Heisler will be travelling in Southern Sudan over the coming months and will be writing original material for the Dominion during that time. This is his first report from the region.

While world attention focuses on Darfur, the south of Sudan is a ticking time bomb, one that could draw the whole region into war. The 22-year civil war between the Arab North and the African South reached a cease-fire in 2005, but the peace is fragile at best. This is understandable considering the fact that over 2 million were killed in the conflict.

The government and the southern rebels, the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and their political wing, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), have already been waging a war of words, which reached a boiling point when the rebels stormed out of the new coalition government in November. However, many on the ground say that neither the SPLM nor Khartoum have anything to gain from war. The SPLM wants autonomy, not to take control of the country, and Khartoum has never been weaker. Bogged down in Darfur, and quickly losing cohesion among the various Arab groups and opposition parties, the Khartoum government cannot survive another war with the south. To make matters even worse for the despotic Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, there is a large population of southern refugees in Khartoum who could rise up and bring a renewed war to the capital for the first time.

As is always the case, the global superpowers are not helping matters. The US has had a love/hate relationship with Khartoum. They have backed the dictatorship in the past when the southern rebels seemed too leftist for their liking, and then backed the rebels after the end of the cold war. Khartoum is friendly with China and Russia, which makes them a prime candidate to be the next Baghdad. However, despite their help in arming and training the SPLA, Washington has been wary of directly attacking Khartoum. Not only would that create problems with China, but Khartoum has, like many despotic dictatorships, become an ally of sorts in the war on terror. Despite Washington's rhetoric about Darfur and the harbouring of Bin Laden, Washington has used Khartoum's help on several issues, including spying on insurgents in Iraq. This may explain why Sudan has yet to be carpet-bombed, despite its oil and its status as a rogue state.

China, however, may not protect Khartoum for much longer. Like the US, China is fickle, and is mainly interested in oil. If the SPLA gets the upper hand, China will deal with them instead. Like the US, China supports each side, sometimes at the same time.

To add to this powder keg, Ethiopia and Eritrea may push for war in Sudan, in order to gain territory or to continue their proxy war with each other. Chad may try to use this opportunity to undermine Khartoum, their hostile neighbors. Furthermore, Uganda and the Central African Republic may decide to step in as well. It seems that only the Sudanese, in both the north and the south, are resisting civil war.

Of course, multinational corporations have found a way to profit from all of this. Defense contractors have been active in the South, ostensibly building military bases, but possibly doing more sinister things as well. Western energy corporations, including Canadian Talisman Energy Inc. and Swedish Lundin Oil AB, have been happily dealing with the Khartoum regime, despite its human rights abuses. Like the US and China, their support for either side shifts with the tides. It goes without saying that incidents of child soldiers, massacres, mass rapes and scorched earth campaigns have yet to deter them from any involvement in either side. Canadian oil giant Talisman's activities in the region were accused by diplomat John Harker of actually prolonging the civil war. Ottawa has never brought any sanctions nor condemnation against them, although a divestment campaign organized by human rights groups prompted Talisman to withdraw from Sudan in 2003.

And then, of course, there is Darfur. A mess of different groups and different interests, Darfur has shattered Arab unity in the North. As Khartoum continues to stagger politically and militarily in Darfur, marginalize its opposition parties, and spar diplomatically with the south, there is the danger of a coup. The military or another Arab faction could take control, assuming that Bashir has become too weak to govern. This would be a nightmare scenario for the south. After all the diplomacy and peace agreements, the new government could say "we didn't sign anything" and war would return.

All of this remains completely ignored by the corporate media, who look away from the Middle East only long enough to report that Bush has criticized Khartoum about Darfur. Meanwhile, under the surface, the whole region is ready to explode.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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