Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 27 October 2003

Sudan key to Bush second term plans



NAIROBI, Oct. 27, 2003 — Moving U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to and fro costs good money. It’s worthy it. His is probably the only bearable sound in President George W. Bush orchestra of the top brass. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Mr. Powell has more recognition outside the United States than his boss.

Anyway, Mr. Powell wasn’t in Kenya to consult President Mwai Kibaki. That took place a few weeks ago in Washington D.C. amidst pomp. Mr. Powell certainly didn’t bump over potholes to Naivasha to see Rothschild giraffes. He was seeking a feather his boss needs and Sudan’s Vice President Osman Taha and rebel leader John Garang weren’t delivering fast enough.

Mr. Powell’s hobnobbing with Mr. Garang had a plus. The man isn’t just a Dinka whose accomplishments amount to dancing for his cattle. He has a doctorate, understands Iowa cornfields and can fix artillery. Simplified, the message to an American audience would be the U.S. is contributing to producing more Garangs. That’s on the surface.

Beginning next month, Mr. Bush has a year to canvass for a renewal of his contract. He definitely doesn’t relish once more limping to the White House with a minority of the popular vote plus another messy court ruling. He will need every vote. Southern Sudanese won’t be casting ballots. But they have friends with clout in the U.S.

Sudan is unique in the United States. It’s the only African nation that excites significant sections of the American society the way South Africa did in the days of apartheid. At the time, anti-apartheid lobbyists generated plenty of heat against U.S. companies doing business in South Africa. The late Rev. Leon Sullivan came up with seven principles such firms were to follow. Most did. A few packed up. Of course there were lobbyists for apartheid, in camouflaged language. They didn’t carry the day.

Contrary to popular opinion, Mr. Bush, or rather his handlers since he had problems with African geography in the beginning, didn’t just discover Sudan, its southern conflict and, of course, oil. During his campaign, he promised to prioritise ending the fighting. Sudan was an item in U.S. domestic politics.

There was the issue of terrorism. President Omar el-Bashir and his mentor, Hassan Tourabi, were myopic enough to host Osama bin Laden. It endeared them to Muslim fanatics and enraged peace lovers. Pressure from Washington contributed to Mr. Laden’s departure to Afghanistan.

Crucial though, was a U.S. coalition of Christian groups and African-American legislators. They had a simplified but plausible version of the conflict. Muslim northerners were committing genocide against Christian and animist southerners. Those they didn’t slaughter, they sold into slavery.

Floated were images of horse-mounted and bearded Dervishes whirling sabres. Pictures of bombed churches, hospitals and schools didn’t endear Khartoum. Neither did those of American politicians and clergy meandering through the ruins. Add Antonov’s dropping bombs on emaciated mothers and pot-bellied children while collecting meagre relief food and Khartoum is full of ogres. Forgotten is that in war each side has good and bad guys.

Money people were seething. Their government was keeping them from fortunes to be made in Sudan. This was particularly so with oil people. Sudan has an estimated 800 million barrels of recoverable oil reserves. Natural gas is equally galore.

Successful politicians are oversensitive to constituents’ whims. It happens a good chunk of God-fearing Americans and money people are fond of Mr. Bush. Barely two years in office, he signed the Sudan Peace Act. The House of Representative had passed it with a vote of 359-8. The Senate unanimously consented. Getting a bill through U.S. Congress is tortuous. Such support of a foreign bill is a rarity.

Critics rightly argued the act favoured Mr. Garang’s Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army. They were wrong it would prolong the war. Khartoum faced severe penalties should it fail to fulfil certain conditions, including seriously negotiating on ending the conflict. Mr. Bush was for once waging a war by peaceful means.

Since assuming the presidency, Mr. Bush, an American footballer’s stern face and all, has fumbled nearly every catch. Afghanistan and Iraq wars are albatrosses. North Korea remains defiant. Uncle Sam begs diplomatic support. U.S. economy isn’t anything to boast about. Mr. Bush has hardly a Hurrah!

Southern Sudan’s conflict started when Mr. Garang was a kid. The conflict only had a short-lived lull. Mr. Garang is in ripe middle age. It’s been a tormenting long haul.

Ending the conflict would be an accomplishment. That, though, is small potato for the president of the world’s sole superpower. In an election year, though, a seemingly healthy potato counts, especially when the rest in the basket are soggy.

Mr Mbitiru, a freelance journalist, is a former ’Sunday Nation’ Managing editor

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