The perils of aid
Sudan 1998: Aid will continue to feed conflict until donors pursue a common strategyBy John Ryle • 4 May 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • 11 June 1998 • New York Review of Books • Posted 2016 • 1,981 words
In the course of Sudan’s long civil war it has become easy to create famine, easy both for the government and for the military factions in southern Sudan that were formerly in rebellion against the government, but are now in alliance with it against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the surviving core of the southern rebel movement.
All that is necessary is to loot and pillage villages in a single area—steal livestock and burn crops—and do the same thing a year later. And the year after that. In drought-prone areas the weather will do the rest. When the rain fails there is nothing to fall back on. Sooner or later the population will be forced to move in search of food and safety.
For displaced people, movement is made more difficult by the fighting. Markets along the way are empty; there is no local food surplus. Access to emergency relief is limited by Sudan government restrictions on the operation of UN aircraft. Distances are huge. By the time a displaced person manages to walk to a relief centre, he or she is well on the way to becoming one of the stick people who have come once more to haunt the TV screens in luckier countries.
So it is an easy thing to do, to make a famine happen. And easy too, it seems, once you have done that, to change sides and demand that international agencies come to the aid of the people you have dispossessed. This is what a southern Sudanese warlord named Kerubino Kuanyin Bol has done. If there is anyone who bears immediate responsibility for these stick people, for the mute children with dying eyes who steal into our dreams like revenants from earlier famines in Ethiopia, Somalia, or Northern Sudan—if any individual is responsible for them this time—it is this Kerubino. And now it is he, among other rebel commanders, who controls the airstrips where relief planes land, when the Khartoum government permits flights.
Until four months ago, Major-General Kerubino was on the government side. As the leader of a government-sponsored militia fighting the SPLA, and latterly enjoying the title of Commander of government forces in the South, he spent four years, with support from the government, cutting a swathe through the north of Bahr- al-Ghazal, his own home province. Two years ago, in a manoeuvre that is becoming depressingly familiar in the world’s disaster zones, he detained three officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross, extracting a ransom of fuel and vehicles for their safe return. The deal, brokered by Bill Richardson, currently US ambassador to the UN, was greeted with alarm by aid workers in Sudan as setting a new and dangerous precedent in the entwined economy of war and relief aid.
Then, last January, in a sudden switch of allegiance, Kerubino changed sides and rejoined the SPLA. This provoked a new movement of civilians fleeing government retribution. Today it is under his protection—and that of the SPLA—that international aid agencies are, belatedly, unloading thousands of tons of food grain and cooking oil in the attempt to assist the inhabitants of the area before the rains begin and access becomes well-nigh impossible.
The cost of access
Something like this has happened repeatedly in different parts of southern Sudan over the past decade. The first time, in the late 1980s, when northern Arab militias raided Bahr-al-Ghazal every dry season, devastating Dinka herds and driving villagers northwards, no aid agency was present. There was no international outcry then. Tens of thousands died—perhaps hundreds of thousands.
In 1989 the UN established an agreement with the government and the SPLA to give aid organizations access to the war zone. The capacity of these organizations to foresee and preempt such food crises is, however, limited, despite a relief operation that has become, in its eight years of existence, the most costly in history. And their presence does nothing to bring an end to the conflict that causes these crises. On the contrary, the material goods they bring in provide one more scarce resource to fight over.
The SPLA, meanwhile, has welcomed Kerubino back to its ranks as a prodigal son. He was one of the founders of the liberation movement in 1983. Imprisoned for years by the man who became its leader, Colonel John Garang, he escaped in the early 1990s and joined a splinter group which made a deal with the Khartoum regime. From 1994 onward his troops carried out seasonal scorched-earth attacks on SPLA-controlled areas of Bahr-al-Ghazal, using arms and rear bases supplied by the government. These depradations were exacerbated by Arab militia raids out of the north, a repetition of those that led up to the famine of the late 1980s. It is thus the government in Khartoum that bears ultimate responsibility for the current devastation. But it was Kerubino’s choice to become their instrument. And it is to remedy the destruction caused by his feud with John Garang that the international community will spend tens of millions of dollars flying in food over the coming months.
For the leaders of the SPLA, Kerubino’s return has come at an opportune moment, when their offensive against the government is faltering. It suits them that the attention of the international community should be concentrated on Bahr-al-Ghazal, now that they control most of the province. And it suits them to forget what they said about Kerubino when they were enemies. But the people of Bahr-el-Ghazal will not forget. And the international community should not forget either.
In Sudan, as elsewhere, to gain access to the needy, aid agencies are forced to negotiate with men of violence—both military dictators and the rebels fighting them. Aid agencies know that they are provisioning fighters as well as civilians, but there is no other way. In these low-intensity wars soldiers are not the ones who suffer most. It is civilians under their control, the weak and powerless—women, children and old people—who end up as sacks of bones.
Aid prolongs war, even as it saves lives. And there is worse. While food is flown in under UN aegis, some UN member countries are providing weapons and other military assistance to the warring parties in Sudan. China, Iraq, Iran, and Malaysia have provided weaponry and training to the Khartoum government. Eritrea and Uganda—with US backing—currently give military support to the SPLA. South Africa has sold weapons to both sides. The country is infested with small arms. But no side has sufficient military superiority to win the war. It is as though, having put a fence round Sudan, the international community throws scraps over the fence for those inside to fight over. For the Southern Sudanese this is the worst of all worlds.
An arms embargo?
This month’s peace talks in Nairobi, Kenya, between the government and the SPLA ended inconclusively, as the previous three sets of peace talks have done. It seems unlikely that there will be any significant progress when they reconvene in some months’ time, unless some powerful new external pressure is brought to bear on the warring parties. Should there be an arms embargo? That is a difficult question. It depends on your view of the SPLA—and how bad you think the Khartoum government is.
The war in Sudan is one of the few wars in Africa where the rebels can clearly be said to have a just cause. And this cause long predates the militant Islamism of the present regime in the north. Southerners have been in rebellion for three out of the four decades since independence, ever since Britain, the imperial power, neglecting warnings from its own administrators in the south, delivered the new state, the largest country in Africa, into the hands of a northern riverain Arab elite. Arabs are a minority in Sudan. Muslims are a majority, but many Sudanese Muslims speak indigenous languages and do not consider themselves Arabs. And the inhabitants of the three southern provinces—a third of the country—are neither Arabs nor Muslims; they have barely any historical relation to the pre-colonial sultanates and kingdoms of the north, except as the historical victims of slave-trading. Their claim to the right of self-determination is hard to dispute.
But this difference from the northerners, and the history of exploitation that they share, is the single cause that brings them together. The peoples of the south are ethnically diverse; kinship is their main principle of social organization. Opposition to northern domination is the single cause that brings them together. And the long war has sapped their unity. Since the early 1990s the SPLA has been riven by splits that have left it dominated by a single ethnic group, the Dinka. Leaders of several former factions of the SPLA have made agreements with the government. There is thus a civil war within the south, as well as a war between the south and the north. At the same time there are the beginnings of a third civil war, a war within the north, as the government faces armed insurgency by regional interest groups and northern opposition parties allied with the SPLA.
A UN arms embargo, even if it could be made effective, would not by itself resolve the complex issue of the distribution of political power in Sudan. But it could, at least, make explicit the connection between the hidden military economy and the aid economy which fuels it. To do more, to bring useful pressure to bear on the combatants, an arms ban would need to be accompanied by a new policy on the part of the countries funding the aid effort—the United States and the countries of the European Union. This new policy would have to impose much more stringent political conditions on all aid to all sides, subordinating humanitarian assistance to a just resolution of the conflict. It would require acceptance by all parties of an internationally monitored ceasefire, to be followed by the restoration of civil liberties in government and rebel-held areas. And then a referendum that offered the inhabitants of regions that have been in rebellion against Khartoum the choice of secession from the north. It would involve the difficult threat of progressive curtailment of certain forms of aid in the domain of those warring parties that did not accept the agreement.
Since the government and the SPLA both claim to accept the broad principles of such an agreement, this threat might be the spur to make it a reality. But a high-risk tactic of this kind would require unprecedented coordination between the aid-giving bureaucracies and foreign policy establishments of several Western countries and Sudan’s neighbouring states, and the endorsement of the UN Security Council. It would require that we in the West trust in the good intentions of our own governments. The pro-Khartoum tendency of the French would need to be reconciled, for example, with the intermittently pro-SPLA stance of the United States and with a British position which is studiedly unclear.
Is there the political will to do this? Not at the moment. For the United States government the priority is to punish a regime in Khartoum it believes to be responsible for harbouring Islamic terrorists. But this does not necessarily mean the US government wishes to topple the regime. If it did it would presumably find ways of providing a higher level of support to the regime’s enemies. As in Iraq, perceived US interests may be served simply by the continuing weakness of the government in Khartoum. The people of Sudan—Southerners in particular—pay the price for this. The self-defeating nature of the relief operation and the culpable incoherence of Western policy serve only to exacerbate their long misery. ★
Kerubino Kuanyin Bol was killed in an ambush by a rival militia in 1999.