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NOT MUCH SOUTHERN COMFORT

At first glance, Sudan is just one more proof that Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live peacefully together. After all, Sudan’s north is Muslim, the south is mostly Christian, and the country has been mostly ravaged by north-south civil war since independence in 1956. But things really aren’t that simple.

“There is no reason why Garang cannot play a role both on the national and regional level,” said Sudan’s vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, last year, as peace talks between the government and John Garang’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army were getting underway. And that really is the key to a lasting peace in Sudan: the peace talks at Lake Naivasha in Kenya are now on their final lap, and if Garang and thousands of other rebels from the south do get important, well-paid roles afterwards, then all may yet be well.

The northern two-thirds of Sudan’s 38 million people are Muslim and Arabic-speaking, and they are the people who have traditionally run the country. The latest round of fighting between them and the Nilotic peoples of the south who speak African languages and have Christian or animist beliefs started 20 years ago in 1983, and there would be no prospect of peace even now if not for two new factors: oil, and strong pressure from the United States of America.

Oil them well

Sudan’s oil production has soared from almost nothing to a quarter-million barrels a day in only a decade, but the oilfields are mostly in the south, which means that well-heads, pipelines and ports are all SPLA targets. That’s one reason that the US wants an end to the fighting; the other is that the Christian right in America has taken up the cause of the Sudanese Christians. Nevertheless, US mediation in Sudan has been both even-handed and effective.

The deal could be done by the end of the year, and this time it actually recognizes that the long southern rebellion has been fuelled more by the resentment of southern elites at being excluded from power and perks in Khartoum than by religious differences. In 20 years as leader of the southern rebellion, Garang has never once said flatly that he seeks independence for the southern provinces of Sudan — and there is a reason for his reticence.

The idea that independence would solve all the south’s problems is juvenile romanticism, and there are not many romantics left 20 years into a civil war. In fact, Garang has been signalling that he and his colleagues can be bought, though the price would be high. Nor is there anything wrong with being bought, if what that means is good jobs, influence at the centre, and a fair share of oil revenues for southerners.

If tomorrow comes

That would certainly be a better outcome for the rest of Africa than partition, because there are a dozen other countries in the continent with a similar Muslim-Christian split. Dividing Sudan on religious lines would be a disastrous precedent for all of them.

Apply that precedent elsewhere in Africa and you unleash decades of bloody chaos where there is now peace. For almost half a century the continent has abided by the rule that the Organization of African Unity adopted at the beginning of the independence era that the colonial borders, however irrational, must not be tampered with. No region may secede, no border may be changed by force. It is very important that this rule not be broken by Sudan.

Six years after the peace deal goes into effect, southerners will have the right to vote on secession — and in the meantime, Garang will be allowed to maintain his own army in the south. If the deal goes sour, Sudan breaks up.

Fortunately, enough new money is flowing into Sudan because of oil so that there can actually be good jobs for most and a fair share of the national income for the south without alienating the key northern groups that currently monopolize power in Khartoum. “I can see the end is in sight,” said the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, on his visit to the talks last week. “This is a moment of opportunity that must not be lost.” And for once the platitudes were true.

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