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Contentions

Missing the Big Picture in Sudan

John Bolton has a good opinion piece about the upcoming (January 2011) referendum on independence for Southern Sudan. He points out that a break-up and its aftermath are likely to have repercussions for the internal ethnic disputes in many nations across Africa. The Obama administration, he says, is miscalculating badly in its carrot-and-stick approach to the Bashir government in Khartoum; its policy of “appeasing Khartoum” is only making the situation worse.

There are other considerations as well. Khartoum and the southern insurgency aren’t conducting their messy business in a vacuum. They’ve got plenty of outside help. China has been known for some years as the principal backer of the Bashir regime, but the southern insurgency is gaining patrons of its own from among the globe’s usual suspects in king-making and insurgency-arming. Russian and German international firms are taking out a big stake in Southern Sudan — and the Russians may be arming the South.

As Bolton notes, the majority of Sudan’s proven oil and gas reserves are concentrated in the territory that would go to the South in a break-up. Less visible to most Americans is the fact that the South is landlocked, and, under current conditions, largely inaccessible to modern transport facilities. The region’s aging and inadequate infrastructure has been an insuperable obstacle to independent economic development. This shortfall has made UN-contracted air links — in which Russian peacekeepers and aviation companies have figured prominently — a lifeline for Southern Sudan. It has also meant that any independence achieved by the South would be vulnerable and contingent.

This past weekend, however, African new outlets were full of a story that has been building since 2007. A consortium made up of German giant ThyssenKrupp, Russia’s MosMetrostroy, and the Texas-based firm Ayr Logistics Group will begin work in October on a long-planned modern rail line from Southern Sudan to Uganda — and ultimately, it is hoped, to the Kenyan ports of Mombasa and Lamu. This is somewhat more than just good news for Southern Sudan’s economic prospects. By promising to confer independent economic viability on the South, the rail project increases the stakes for everyone involved. From Khartoum’s perspective, the meaning of political independence for Southern Sudan will expand dramatically, and to Khartoum’s disadvantage, this would happen when the railroad becomes operational.

China has put a great deal into the national government in Khartoum and will view with disfavor the prospect of an economically connected South seceding with most of the oil and gas. Russia is positioned well to bolster the South’s bid for independence, however, with its commercial stake in the region’s development and its military force deployed with the UN peacekeepers. In a sign that Moscow recognizes the freighted significance of a North-South breakup, the Russians have recently sold the South 10 military transport helicopters, which can easily be fitted with weapons.

China also has a peacekeeping force in Darfur, however, and has been implicated this year in direct military support to the Bashir regime. The conditions are aligning for Sudan’s internal arrangements to become a proxy showdown for China and Russia, the world’s most brutal competitors for natural resources. Only one nation has the stature and power to discourage the Sudan question from hardening into such a proxy clash, to the detriment of the Sudanese people and the surrounding region. But as John Bolton observes, the U.S. administration is narrowly focused on incentivizing the Bashir regime with an all-carrot approach — a strategy that could hardly be surpassed for sheer uselessness.


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