On August 2, the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime in Khartoum decided to delay the medical evacuation of ten Ethiopian peacekeepers who were injured by a powerful landmine explosion in Abyei, a highly contested region in Sudan. The convoy of peacekeepers, operating under UN authority, hit the mine near Mabok, southeast of Abyei town and very close to 1956 North-South border. One man died instantly and ten were badly injured—three critically. And yet for more than three hours, Khartoum’s Sudan Armed Forces, including their military intelligence, refused a UN helicopter permission to leave Kadugli in South Kordofan (some 200 kilometers away). Indeed, according to the head of the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations Alain Le Roy, the SAF commander threatened to “shoot down the helicopter” if it attempted its medical evacuation mission. The three critically wounded soldiers all died before they could be brought to medical facilities in Kadugli.
Details of the events have been confirmed by Le Roy and other UN diplomatic sources. One “expressed shock at the incident,” and another was reported by Agence France-Presse as saying that at least one of these peacekeepers could have survived his wounds if transported promptly.
Even in their outrage, UN officials showed a perverse unwillingness to offend Khartoum—the most likely reason for their anonymity. This determination runs deep in the UN, as it responds to crisis after crisis in Sudan, on both the political and humanitarian sides of the organization. This muting of criticism has been justified in a number of ways: to preserve aid access, to facilitate “negotiations,” to seem—especially in the Arab and Islamic worlds—”evenhanded” in all criticisms of parties to the conflicts in Sudan. But in the end, it is precisely this diffidence and fecklessness that allow Khartoum to threaten humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in the first place. And in the end, the UN is all too accurate a reflection of its member nations.
An Ethiopian peacekeeping force—the third UN-authorized peacekeeping force in Sudan—was required only because the SAF unilaterally seized Abyei on May 20, in violation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South and a “final and binding” determination of Abyei’s borders by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2009. (Not coincidentally, shortly after the regime seized Abyei it launched a genocidal assault on the Nuba people in South Kordofan, North Sudan, an assault that continues unabated.)
The Ethiopian force was deployed in order to create secure conditions for the more than 120,000 displaced Dinka Ngok to return to their native Abyei. But Khartoum declared that its military forces will withdraw from Abyei, as they have nominally agreed, only when all 4,200 troops of the Ethiopian armored brigade have deployed; and there is no provision for the future threat posed by Arab Misseriya militia proxies that were so active in the looting of Abyei. Since it is now the height of the rainy season, and transport is difficult if not impossible, deployment could take many months. During this time, Khartoum’s seizure of Abyei will increasingly become a fait accompli.
SO WHAT does it say about the regime that it would issue orders to shoot down a UN medevac helicopter trying to save badly injured UN peacekeepers? To be sure, in one sense it is nothing new: such acts of barbarism have defined the regime since it seized power by military coup in 1989—in South Sudan and Darfur, and in Abyei and in South Kordofan. In the 1990s in the Nuba Mountains, home to the African Nuba people of South Kordofan, Khartoum launched a genocidal jihad, which killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of the indigenous Nuba. There are no firm figures for these terrible human losses, but Julie Flint—an expert on the Nuba—estimates that 60,000 to 70,000 were killed by Khartoum’s militia forces early in the campaign. And in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains today, the deliberate aerial bombardment of civilian and humanitarian targets continues unabated. (I have recently chronicled these particular atrocity crimes in detail from 1999 to the present.) The list of such crimes is long and various. Human rights groups reported, while they still had access in Darfur, countless brutal raids against the villages of African tribal groups perceived as the civilian base of support for the insurgency that began in 2003. By Darfuri estimates, some 4,000 to 5,000 African villages have been completely or partially destroyed and depopulated. Antonov bombers, helicopter gunships, ground troops, and Arab militia allies (known collectively as the “Janjaweed”) ravaged the agricultural livelihood of African farmers, by poisoning wells, destroying food and seed stocks, burning dwellings and markets, and looting and killing livestock. Radio Dabanga continuously reports on the epidemic of rape that Khartoum loosed upon the girls and women of Darfur, as well as on deadly attacks on camps for displaced persons. The regime has engineered or permitted widespread insecurity in order to attenuate humanitarian access to the region.
So in a moral sense, there is ample and recent precedent for the decision to deny medical evacuation of the wounded UN peacekeepers. Even so, this act suggests something new about how the cabal in Khartoum sees itself in its engagement along the border regions with South Sudan. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that the regime is undergoing a “creeping coup,” orchestrated by elements in the military leadership. Several observers have noted this possibility, including Julie Flint in a recent dispatch based on a document from an official in Khartoum. No doubt this official is rightly fearful that if a military coup from within is successful, there will be very little room for civilians in the new configuration of power:
[A] well-informed source close to the National Congress Party reports that Sudan’s two most powerful generals went to [Sudanese President Omar al-]Bashir on May 5, five days after 11 soldiers were killed in an SPLA ambush in Abyei, on South Kordofan’s southwestern border, and demanded powers to act as they sought fit, without reference to the political leadership.
“They got it,” the source says. “It is the hour of the soldiers — a vengeful, bitter attitude of defending one’s interests no matter what; a punitive and emotional approach that goes beyond calculation of self-interest. The army was the first to accept that Sudan would be partitioned. But they also felt it as a humiliation, primarily because they were withdrawing from territory in which they had not been defeated. They were ready to go along with the politicians as long as the politicians were delivering — but they had come to the conclusion they weren’t. Ambushes in Abyei … interminable talks in Doha keeping Darfur as an open wound … Lack of agreement on oil revenues …”
“It has gone beyond politics,” says one of Bashir’s closest aides. “It is about dignity.”
We, in turn, might ask about the “dignity” of the millions of victims Khartoum has sacrificed for its own survival.
I think it is extremely likely that what Flint’s sources tell her is accurate, and immensely consequential. The decision to threaten to shoot down a UN medical helicopter—a gratuitously self-destructive action—is but one example of the regime having come ’round to the “hour of the soldiers.” Al-Bashir himself came from the army, and now goes under the title of “Field Marshal.” And he has depended on the military as his strongest constituency in asserting his presidential powers. So it’s possible that al-Bashir himself is leading the coup as a way to prevent political rivals from seizing power in the turmoil that now prevails in Khartoum—or that he is on the way to becoming a puppet of the military. But one way or another, the military is ascendant.
Flint’s document makes sense of a good deal of what we have seen recently in Sudan. Take, for example, the decision by notorious regime hardliner Nafie Ali Nafie to sign an agreement on June 28 with political representatives of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), an agreement that would address some of the issues that precipitated the crisis in South Kordofan and commit both parties to seek a cessation of hostilities. On returning from his visit to China in early July, al-Bashir promptly overturned Nafie’s decision and declared that the SAF would “continue their military operations in South Kordofan until a cleansing of the region is over.”
Nafie would never have made the decision to sign such a consequential agreement without confirmation from al-Bashir. Something changed in the political environment. Either the SAF leadership demanded that the agreement be renounced, or al-Bashir sought this opportunity to undermine his closest—and thus most dangerous—hard-line ally. Since then, the military campaign in South Kordofan has gone on undiminished, although a number of Nuba sources have indicated to me that the SAF is enduring a terrible beating at the hands of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/North (SPLA-N). Photographs of captured equipment, detailed ground reports, and assessments from other regional sources and U.S. government officials all paint the same picture of a Northern military force outmaneuvered and out-fought by the highly motivated SPLA-N. Indeed, morale is a fundamental problem in the SAF, especially among its African conscripts. Two full battalions are reported to have deserted rather than fight the SPLA-N; if true, this might explain why Khartoum appears to be utilizing proxy Arab militia forces more heavily.
Military defeats and desertions can only add to the humiliation that the SAF leadership undoubtedly feels, and may make an expanded war more likely. Indeed, Blue Nile State—like South Kordofan, part of North Sudan but traditionally allied with the SPLA/M—may be the next front. Malik Agar, governor of Blue Nile, is a political leader of the northern wing of the SPLM and a fearsome military leader, as he proved during the years of civil war. He has repeatedly warned that the longer the conflict continues in South Kordofan (now over two months), the more likely it is that Blue Nile will become involved in the fighting. Confidential UN reports from the weeks prior to South Sudan’s July 9 independence make clear that there have been large military deployments in the region, by both the SAF and SPLA.
If conflict spreads to Blue Nile, the war will become truly national in scope, and rebel alliances—already evidently in the making—will become inevitable, as different peripheral regions make common cause against Khartoum. This civil war will likely involve Abyei, South Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur—but also Nubia in the far North, the Beja people in the east (victims of yet another fraudulent peace agreement with Khartoum), and other marginalized populations. At some point, it’s likely that even the military of South Sudan will no longer remain on the sidelines, despite the restraint it has so far shown in the face of Khartoum’s military provocations, including the seizure of Abyei.
In short, a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions is in the making. And this will occur sooner rather than later without an effective international response, which so far is nowhere in sight.
INTERNATIONAL POLICY responses, as John Prendergast has recently argued, have “stove-piped” Sudan’s various conflicts, attempting to treat them separately rather than as part of a pattern of action by the NIF/NCP regime. The root cause of conflict in Sudan is Khartoum’s decades of brutal misrule and marginalization (often violent) of the various populations on the periphery of Sudan. The purpose has always been conspicuous: self-preservation, self-enrichment, and the furthering of a radical agenda of Islamism and Arabism. A military coup of any sort will only strengthen these ambitions. We should expect no restraint: Many in the SAF leadership will eventually be indicted for atrocity crimes by the International Criminal Court (al-Bashir has already been indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity). These brutal men know there is no future for them except The Hague if there is genuine regime change.
Many Sudanese believe that the coup is proceeding. As Flint notes, “the Northern SPLA leadership has warned of the domination…of the military junta over the leadership of Bashir’s National Congress Party.” Such a coup would make things a great deal more difficult on any diplomatic front and may quickly lead to the expulsion of all humanitarian organizations from Darfur, completing the elimination of international witnesses to the ongoing genocide by attrition. Similarly, a military regime—with or without a figurehead—will do everything it can to forestall humanitarian access to South Kordofan.
The UN Secretariat gives no sign of appreciating the implications or connections of recent events in Sudan. Calls for “an end to the fighting” and for a “UN investigation of allegations of human rights violations” in South Kordofan will go unmet. Matters are hardly helped by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who persists in her skepticism about events in the region, despite a report by UN human rights investigators on the ground in June detailing massive atrocity crimes by Khartoum and its Arab militia allies. But the United States, the Europeans, and the African Union are no better. There is nothing approaching a consensus in assessing recent events, let alone in fashioning demands of Khartoum that will entail real consequences if unmet.
If Khartoum continues to deny humanitarian access in South Kordofan and to bomb the Nuba Mountains in the coming weeks and months, the consequences are clear. In the absence of a fall harvest that now seems impossible, the real dying, by famine, will begin.
Is the world prepared to watch as this unfolds? All evidence suggests that the answer is yes. By refusing to acknowledge the implications of current developments, UN and Western officials will be able to indulge expressions of outrage after the fact. In early March in this space I argued that “if war resumes in Abyei, it is likely to spread quickly to the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan and Southern Blue Nile. The entire North/South border could become one long military front.” This prediction is perilously close to being fully realized. And yet at the time of my warning, the Obama administration was encouraging both Khartoum and the leadership in the South to “compromise” on Abyei—to ignore the terms of the Abyei Protocol in the CPA and the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This was all the encouragement Khartoum needed. By late March it had become clear, I argued, that the regime had taken effective military control of Abyei, making the May 20 invasion inevitable. Protests from the Obama administration at that point were meaningless.
In their current form, demands for a human rights investigation and humanitarian access in South Kordofan simply carry no weight with Khartoum, particularly as the military continues its ascent. Such demands by international actors of consequence—with no entailments or credible threats—are a form of moral dishonesty. This is nothing new when it comes to Sudan; but given the changed political dynamic in Khartoum, such convenient self-deception is likely to result in unfathomable destruction.