1998: What Britain could do to stop famine in Sudan
A former district commissioner has a better plan than the Foreign OfficeBy John Ryle • 27 July 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Afterword • Posted 2016 • 1,222 words
Ranald Boyle is the former colonial District Commissioner of Gogrial, in Bahr al-Ghazal, a district that is currently the epicentre of famine in Southern Sudan. In 1953, as the era of the Anglo-Egyptian administration in Sudan was coming to an end, he resigned his post in protest at the independence agreement put forward by the British Foreign Office, an agreement that, by putting political power in the hands of the riverain Arab elites in northern Sudan betrayed, in his view, the promises that the Government had made to the non-Arab Southern Sudanese, the people for whom he was responsible as an official of the British administration. In his words, the independence agreement sold the Southerners down the river.
Forty-five years on his views have not changed. And nor should they have done, because he was right. The agreement that the British Foreign Office made, under Egyptian pressure, in the 1950s lies at the root of the terrible suffering seen in Sudan in the last few months. And in the last ten—twenty— thirty—years. The Southerners’ fight for effective political representation, for their slice of the national cake, began in 1956, immediately after independence, and has continued, with a decade-long break from 1973 to 1983, from that day to this.
This is not to downplay the responsibility of successive governments in Khartoum, nor the ineptitude of Southern rebel leaders, but to point out an undeniable historical truth. In Sudan, as in Ireland, the legacy of the British imperial presence has been political confusion and human suffering. On balance British rule in Sudan was not so bad, which is more than can be said for Ireland. But nothing became us British so ill as the leaving of it.
Two weeks ago Mr Boyle, who has since pursued a successful career as a merchant banker, wrote a letter—not for the first time—to the Daily Telegraph. In it he drew attention to the British government’s promises to the southerners before Independence, to the grievous post-independence history of the Sudan and to Britain’s possible role in a political solution. He called for concerted diplomatic action by the countries that are funding famine relief in Sudan. And again he was right.
For the fact is that Britain’s intervention in Sudan has not ceased. Over the last eight years several billion dollars have been spent on emergency aid to Sudan. British aid agencies have been in the forefront of this outpouring of assistance; Britain is one of the two or three main donor countries. In a country like Sudan a billion dollars is not a negligible amount of money. And too often it has simply provided more resources for the warring parties to fight over, and fight with.
Lives are saved in Sudan only to be sacrificed later. It is not necessarily the fault of the aid agencies. Their job is to get access to suffering populations. In the absence of an explicit link to a peace process this involves them in deals with men of violence. Government, rebels, militias—it’s all the same. Aid agencies generally cut a poor bargain in these circumstances, but their job is not international diplomacy. That is the job of governments and the UN.
Does it seem quaint to you, this talk of historical responsibility, of political conditionality, of Britain as a world power? Ask the thousands of Sudanese political exiles in Britain. Ask the Dinka villagers who sacrificed an ox for Ranald Boyle—the man they call “Timatiep” or Shading Tree—when he returned to his old district four years ago. Sudan is problem that will not go away. It is a problem rooted in our colonial history, the history that has left us rich and other countries poor. The fractured African state that was Britain’s legacy to the post-colonial world is the state that today brings you famine-as-a-weapon, that brings you the TV pictures you cannot bear to watch.
Since Ranald Boyle wrote his letter the Foreign Office has announced that it has obtained the agreement of the warring parties in Sudan to a three-month ceasefire in order to allow aid to reach the worst-affected areas of the south. This may not amount to much, but it’s something. Derek Fatchett, the Foreign Office Minister, and his colleagues should be commended for it. But where do we go from here? How can western governments, the governments of countries that finance the aid effort, make sure that in future their assistance contributes to peace instead of perpetuating war?
It will not be easy, but the cease-fire must be exploited to bring about a referendum in which the political future of contested regions of Sudan can be decided by their inhabitants. Such a referendum is something that all parties to the conflict have agreed to in principle: the southern rebels and the northern opposition on the one hand, and, on the other, the present Government in Khartoum and the former southern rebels who signed an agreement with them last year. The question is: how can they be held to it? Previous cease-fires and peace negotiations have quickly collapsed. Only immediate, direct, concerted action by donor countries, that is to say the United States and the states of the European Union, can prevent another failure.
The rains in South Sudan last until October. For many southerners it will be a time of struggle, of desperate stuggle for physical survival. The foreign policy establishments of western countries should be struggling too, struggling to achieve a consensus on the problem, and start a new phase in their intervention in the affairs of Sudan, a phase where every dollar of aid to either side will be systematically subordinated to the peace process, to forcing the warring parties to honour their commitment to a referendum, to ensuring that the referendum is free and fair and that its results are respected. UN time-servers must be brushed aside. For too long Western aid has kept men of violence in power; for too long it has helped perpetuate unrepresentative government. Sudan is a poor country; we are rich. It is time that the wealth that has been poured into the sand in the name of the people of Sudan during the emergency is used to give them a voice in their future
When I spoke to Ranald Boyle last week at his home in Scotland he reminded me that this year sees the centenary of the Battle of Omdurman, when Britain crushed the forces of the Mahdi and ushered in the Anglo-Egyptian regime—an imperial regime, British in all but its hybrid name, that administered the country until independence. 1898 was the year that British involvement in Sudan became irrevocable. May 1998 be the year that we, the former colonial power, finally acquit ourselves of it with honour. ★
Ranald Boyle—“Timatiep”—died the following year. The UK government continued to support the so-called IGAD process, a series of peace talks that in 2000 entered their fifth year without result. Finally, concerted US diplomatic pressure brought the parties to the negotiating table, resulting in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005. In 2011, following a referendum, South Sudan obtained independence from Sudan. In late 2013 a new, internal war broke out in South Sudan. A peace agreement was reached in 2016. But South Sudanese—and Sudanese—have yet to see long-term peace.