President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan.
‘Movement’, in Arabic, is ‘haraka’, but Bashir has started using the word, ‘hashara’, instead. Hashara means ‘insect’, and Sudan’s official media have obediently taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.
The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.
The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that (the SPLM) has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or (they) end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
So what are we to make of this folly? Many people will simply say “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others will lament that mankind is still trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.
War between countries is not the norm in Africa: there are 52 African countries, and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past 20 years. Internal wars are much more common, and some, like the ones in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on an average more than half million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is, and it’s getting better.
There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious, or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely. This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil. No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash, and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.
But at least the rest of the world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig, and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, and the special envoy, Haile Menkerios, to mediate. China has sent its envoy to Africa. Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.