Take a good long look at the map of the Arab world today; the chances are that it’s going to change drastically pretty soon. The news in 12 months’ time will be the most significant transformation among the 22 Arab nations since Palestine was wiped off the map in 1948. But unlike Palestine, Sudan will probably be split via the ballot box in January 2011. Although the expected schism in Sudan is short on symbolism – there is no Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth or Jericho – it is no less of a tragedy for Arabs to endure.
Sudan is unlike other Arab countries in many ways. Geographically, at 2.5 million square kilometres in area, it is the largest Arab or African country. It borders nine states including Ethiopia, the source of the vital Blue Nile River, which converges with the White Nile in Sudan and provides drinking water to a third of the Arab world’s population on its way to the Mediterranean. This potential breadbasket of the Arab world has been ignored by most in the region. The very few exceptions include the UAE, which is considered the second largest investor in Sudan after China. In 2008 UAE investment there reached US$7 billion (Dh25 billion) in sectors as varied as real estate, telecommunications and agriculture. Other Arab countries that have invested in Sudan’s agricultural sector include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and Libya, but these remain individual efforts and not collective initiatives.
The reality is that the Arab world has largely forsaken the Sudan, as political differences and personal grudges held against the kleptocratic regime there has blinded us to the bigger picture. Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of a historic peace treaty signed in Nairobi between the ruling Muslim majority in the north and rebels from the Christian minority in the south, which brought an end to a two-decade bloody conflict that cost the lives of more than 1.5 million people. The cornerstone of the agreement was the referendum due to be held next January, when the autonomous South will vote to either stay part of the country or split into an independent state.
In the five years since the agreement, what has the Arab world done to strengthen the unity of the country? Very little in fact. It is typical for regional governments to pay lip service to “vital matters”; just read the final communiqués from the Arab League summits. There is no substance to what is said or promised or agreed. The decisions are simply words on paper. In Sudan’s case it is no differenct. In the final communique of the 2005 Arab League summit, a few weeks after the historic peace treaty, Arab countries vaguely promised to “support the peace, development and unity in Sudan” but offered no concrete action.
What is required is a major investment in the southern part of the country if it is to remain within the Arab world. Job opportunities for southern Sudan’s eight million people must be provided along with investments in infrastructure to strengthen the unity of the country. A rail track and motorway network linking the North and the South should have been commissioned within months of the 2005 treaty and could have been finished by today. Vocational and Arabic-language training centres should have been set up in the South and visa permits given to young people to work in richer Arab nations such as the Pan-African champion Libya and the countries of the GCC.
While the South was preparing for the referendum, the North was busy with a tragic conflict in the western region of Darfur, which has resulted in genocide charges filed by the International Criminal Court against the president Omar al Bashir in 2008. Because of the neglect of the Arab world and the policies of the central government in Khartoum, it is most probable that the South will vote to separate from the North. This would result in the country losing control of most of its proven oil reserves.
What can be done today to stop the country’s split? Mr al Bashir should, first, refrain from running in April in the country’s first multiparty elections in 24 years. His National Congress Party should introduce a clean slate of candidates who are not tainted with corruption and genocide charges. International observers should be brought in to make sure that the election process is free and fair. The Arab League has one last chance to move beyond lip service and save 640,000 square kilometres of territory by introducing a pan-Arab, multibillion dollar fund to invest in the South. The money should be placed this spring in a non-member country’s account to be readily available for projects in the South based on the expertise of neutral world agencies.
But of course, this won’t happen. Mr al Bashir will run in the elections, and the southern candidates will lose and feel disenfranchised. The Arab states will only pay more lip service to unity at their annual summit in March and Sudan will be split in two, for now. You can bet on it.
This article was originally published in The National on January 10, 2010.