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Update: The Beauty and Courage of Sudan

Children fly a kite in a camp for internally displaced families near Zalingei, in Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.

By Linda Beher

In the months since publication of the geographic study, The Beauty and Courage of Sudan, flickers of hope have enlivened Sudan’s dream of peace.

The Politics of War and Peace 


After a year’s postponement, national elections were recently held in Sudan. The initial delay was widely welcomed, since it gave Southern Sudan more time to complete a population census and a voters’ registry. It also allowed for negotiations on disputed borders between North and South, notably in Abyei, which resulted in agreements on the division of land and oil fields.
Once the elections were scheduled for mid-April this year, representatives of the Carter Center, an independent election monitoring service based in the United States, called for a slight delay to ensure fairness. Ultimately, the end date was extended from April 13 to April 15. According to Internet reports on Afroline, the BBC and The New York Times, the election results, which preliminarily suggest major wins for President Omar al-Bashir and his party in presidential and parliamentary polls, has been marred by low voter turnout, allegations of voting irregularities, boycotts by several leading opposition parties and a tepid response from the international community. Further reports question whether the announcement of the final election results, originally due before the end of April, will be delayed indefinitely.

The scheduled referendum on Southern Sudan independence, one of the major components of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending nearly 20 years of civil conflict, is planned for 2011. A flurry of diplomatic and philanthropic activity has added to the hope that Sudan might find a path to lasting peace.
Bowing to international pressure, Sudan normalized relations with neighboring Chad by signing the February 23, 2010 preliminary peace treaty with the Justice and Equality Movement. For years neighboring Chad has protected JEM fighters, who are the most unified and well-armed of the militia insurgent groups roving Darfur. In 2008 JEM fighters stormed the capital, Khartoum, coming within miles of government buildings before they were driven back by the Sudanese military.
The treaty specifically calls for more Darfurian representation in the government. A Southern Sudan government representative was quoted as saying, however, that both the JEM and the government of Sudan are “fundamentalists,” with a similar agenda, to impose Islamic law on the entire nation.

The timing of the treaty and several strategic visits to Darfur by President Bashir in the past year may have been to garner votes. April’s national elections and the 2011 vote on secession were to be the first free elections since 1986, three years before Mr. Bashir came to power in a coup.

In yet another move to improve its public image at home and abroad, the government of Sudan has engaged civic groups in Darfur, funded by a foundation established by Sudanese telecommunications mogul, Mo Ibrahim.

Change in United States’ Policy

Maj. Gen. F. Scott Gration, the United States’ first full-time envoy to Sudan in nearly a decade, has encouraged the new peace initiatives. The former Air Force general, who was born in the Congo of missionary parents, speaks fluent Swahili (35 percent of which is made up of Arabic terms), and is familiar with Sudan’s political complications and leaders. His approach, unlike the sanction-loaded approaches of the past, is conciliatory.

Gration is appealing to and talking with all sides, to some apparent good effect. For example, in the fall of 2009, all opposition groups signed an agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Juba, which was seen by many as a positive sign. His efforts also led to restoration of life-saving assistance to millions of displaced persons by nongovernmental organizations, once expelled by President Bashir.
Gration had been using leverage of normal diplomatic ties with the U.S. and the West, holding out the hope that in exchange for President Bashir’s ending his military campaigns around Sudan and cooperating to ensure the success of the elections, the U.S. would remove Sudan from the Department of State’s list of countries that sponsor terrorists.

In January 2010 Gration met with leading Sudan activist organizations and representatives of 30 NGOs to discuss the best ways to deal with the myriad humanitarian issues facing Sudan, and with a group of Darfuri Diaspora representatives to hear their ideas about the way forward in Darfur. “These discussions were invaluable,” Gration wrote in January on “DipNote,” his blog. “I look forward to continuing an open and fruitful dialog with all those who are passionate about bringing peace to Sudan.”

According to the October 19, 2009 edition of The New York Times online, the new approach has not been without its critics, who have termed Gration’s conciliatory moves as na ve. Some have called for his resignation over statements he made suggesting that sanctions do more harm than good. However, Andrew Natsios, an envoy to Sudan during the Bush administration, said, “Military officers are realists … he didn’t come to this crisis with the emotional baggage of so many people whose education about Darfur comes from the activists, or the media."

International Criminal Court Arrest Warrant

Complicating the diplomatic efforts is the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Pointedly there was no indictment for genocide but some ICC attorneys are now alleging that new evidence might be available for reconsideration. There is no consensus among Sudanese (or among people of the region of East Africa) on the value of the ICC action. President Bashir has traveled freely in friendly nations such as Egypt and Ethiopia. Shortly after the issuance of the warrant, he was greeted as a hero at a summit of the 22 Arab League nations, according to a May 7, 2009 report in The Economist.

The government of Uganda, on the other hand, issued a warning to President Bashir that he could be subject to arrest there if he attended a scheduled meeting of regional leaders. Some argue that the priority should be on implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, while others support the ICC.

Land Rush

A new “scramble for Africa” appears to be developing around arable land. Driving this development are the global economic crisis that began in 2008 and sharpened in 2009, water scarcity caused by climate change and the sharp rise in food prices as crops were lost to storms and drought. Some estimates place the amount of land under cultivation for food production globally at 90 percent.
The place where land is cheaply available and underused is the continent of Africa. A land rush is drawing investors from Asia and the Middle East to impoverished countries in Africa that welcome a new source of income. Sudan (especially Southern Sudan) and Ethiopia countries with favorable climates that are near the Red Sea are targets for this type of investment. The use of undeveloped land in Sudan for international agriculture projects has the potential to displace tens of thousands of people, spur conflict over grazing and water rights and planted acreage, and cause ecological damage such as erosion and the depletion of nutrients from the soils. All these issues will have implications for peace, food security and sustainable development in Sudan.

Darfur and Other Areas of Conflict

“Calm but Unpredictable” 

Today Darfur, the large area in Western Sudan that has been the site of armed movements in conflict with one another and with the government since 2003, is no longer the center of war. In fact, there is relative peace right now, described as calm, but unpredictable. That is how the lead peacekeeper, Lt. Gen. Patrick Nyamvumba, Commander of the African Union-U.N. Hybrid Operation in Darfur, recently characterized the 2010 landscape there.

Darfur has been home to an estimated 2.7 million displaced persons living as transients in crowded camps, but for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, U.N. officials say, thousands of farmers have left the camps for their home villages to plant crops and restore their farms. As many as 56 villages welcomed some who had fled years ago. Most displaced persons would have considered such a journey impossible only last year, due to the presence of armed militias. Though the intensity of engagement is lower, there is still vulnerability for the people of Western Sudan, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Peace Building and Returnees

The United Methodist Committee on Relief is investing in the facilitation of sustainable returns of internally displaced people in the Ed Daein and Adila areas. Among new projects during 2009 were rehabilitation of wells, or boreholes; latrine construction; training of hygiene promoters; and reconstruction of schools for both girls and boys. More than 2,700 children enrolled in schools supported by UMCOR programs, and parents have established parent-teacher associations with UMCOR assistance.

A new series of workshops conducted by UMCOR workers in South Darfur camps seeks to create an environment suitable for returnees. Approximately 100 youths and adults have participated in trainings on conflict resolution and peace-building skills.

New Study on Death in Darfur Blames Disease

Mortality in Darfur is back in the news with the publication of a new study by researchers at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels. The study, published January 23, 2010 in The Lancet, concludes that about 300,000 people have died in Darfur since 2003 but that diseases, not the violence of war, have killed as many as 80 percent of them. Displaced populations were counted as most susceptible, and their vulnerability was increased by humanitarian aid “being sidetracked because mortality data have been used for political purposes.”

Quoting the results of another study conducted by the U.N. in 2004, Mrs. Elmira Sellu, the missionary who represents United Methodist Women in Sudan and other regions of the East Africa Annual Conference, wrote that rural safe water coverage and access to sanitary latrines is estimated at 25 to 30 percent. Water-related diseases account for 48 percent of the deaths in children less than five years old.

Sporadic Insecurity Continues in the South

Areas of greater insecurity have shifted to Jonglei, Central Equatoria and Western Equatoria states, all located in Southern Sudan. The global economic crisis has reduced the ability of the semiautonomous government of Southern Sudan to provide social services. Late rains and rising food prices compounded a food shortage that is likely to continue throughout 2010. Scarce resources again have the potential to cause intertribal conflict as farmers move their animals into grazing lands and water sources outside community areas.

Eastern Sudan’s “Silent Crisis”

A “silent crisis” continues in Eastern Sudan, where some 100,000 refugees, mostly from Eritrea, stress the local economy. The region’s grinding poverty and the lack of opportunities for camp residents to pursue livelihoods threatens life in this humanitarian crisis zone.
Outside the camps, Kassala State residents are less educated, poorer and less well fed than their counterparts elsewhere in the country. In 2003 and again in 2007 massive flooding destroyed acres of agricultural land and crops as well as roads, homes and communications. A 2006 peace agreement that ended a protracted insurgency there is fragile.

Humanitarian Assistance

In addition to its work with returnees, and ongoing agriculture and education aid to residents of internally displaced persons camps in South Darfur, UMCOR continues to cooperate with other NGOs in providing assistance in Southern Sudan. Sustainable education at all Sudan project locations is a priority for UMCOR.

In addition to safe schools in South Darfur, an UMCOR-built school in Southern Sudan’s Lainya County is serving children from two villages. Teachers are receiving training in both classroom skills and providing psychosocial support to children. UMCOR workers constructed wells, or boreholes, so that schoolchildren there could have access to safe water. A vegetable demonstration garden in the UMCOR compound serves as a teaching tool for growing nutritious foods, and some 3,000 primary school students received training in hygiene and sanitation practices.

Women and Children

Regional Missionary for the Women’s Division Elmira Sellu continues to promote women’s leadership development among United Methodist churches in Southern Sudan. A major issue confronting the church in Southern Sudan is the limited capacity among women to promote peace, she wrote in September 2006. Top-down implementation practices (often due to culturally determined gender-based inequalities in decision making), lack of transport and communications, low literacy levels, early marriages and limited access to educational opportunities and trainings contribute to overall capacity gaps.

Workshop training focuses on educating women about the context of development in post-conflict Southern Sudan and their role in peace building; highlighting the impact of gender on nation development, conflict resolution and transformation; strengthening basic advocacy and negotiation skills; and designing concrete action plans for post-training engagement. Health is a primary area of engagement, with particular focus on HIV and AIDS.

“Women-specific consequences” of war, wrote Ms. Sellu, include in addition to physical harm “HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy and maternal mortality.” These “may remain for many years after the conflict ends.” The top three concerns on a long list of issues that women in post-conflict Southern Sudan face are illiteracy, domestic violence and lack of freedom and respect for women’s rights.

Women are identifying problems and they are also proposing solutions. Schools are being built and opened, wrote Ms. Sellu, and girls are going to school. Women are seeking and creating vocational training opportunities. Working through local churches, the United Methodist Church and NGOs, the women of Southern Sudan are promoting community awareness and equal opportunities in peace building. They are slowly but surely sensitizing their communities to the importance of education and gender equality.

Sudan Timeline

April 2009

  • International Criminal Court in The Hague issues an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • United States appoints a full-time envoy to Sudan, Maj. Gen. Scott Gration.
  • Sudan’s Permanent Court of Arbitration rules on disputed Abyei boundaries, providing land and oil field division between North and South.

May 2009

  • Chad and Sudan normalize relations.

October 2009

  • U.S. announces policy changes for Sudan, including a mix of incentives and requirements to encourage fulfillment of ceasefire and peace agreements.

January 2010

  • Opposition groups sign pact in Juba.

February 2010

  • Displaced persons begin returning home. 

April 2010

  • Elections take place.
Last Updated: 05/12/2010

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