Arab horsemen toting Kalashnikovs provided by the Sudanese government thunder into a town. Women are raped in their huts. Men are gunned down as they flee for the bush, and children are packed off on the back of the raiders' horses while stolen cattle are herded away to be sold.
It's a scene that's become all too familiar for those who've followed the crisis in the western Sudanese region of Darfur over the past five years. But this isn't Darfur circa 2005. It's any one of hundreds of villages in southern Sudan in the 1980s. Or 1992, or 1997, or 2003, and quite possibly 2010.
Before there were Save Darfur panties or George Clooney-led Darfur peace missions, Sudan was engulfed in a much longer and more destructive civil war between Khartoum's Islamist government and the country's animist and Christian south. The most recent phase of that war, from 1983 until 2005, killed an estimated 2 million civilians—more than six times the number thought to have been killed in Darfur over the past six years. Now, as U.S. attention wanders, it's coming back, and it will be worse than ever.
The north-south war is threatening to reignite in a conflict that could spill over into a half-dozen countries in eastern and central Africa and bring misery to millions of people in one of the world's poorest corners. Already more than 2,000 people have been killed in ethnic fighting in southern Sudan this year—with the rate of violent deaths now exceeding that in Darfur, according to the U.N. A 2005 peace agreement that stopped the fighting is on the brink of collapse, and both sides are rearming in advance of an independence referendum in southern Sudan scheduled for January 2011. But the north has used a range of stalling tactics in an attempt to thwart the poll—a situation that would lead the south unilaterally to declare independence. If it does, the war will almost certainly begin again.
"All the signs now are pointing towards a cancellation of the referendum and a return to war," says John Prendergast, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration who now leads the anti-genocide group the Enough Project. "The war in Darfur was a picnic compared with what happened in the south."
Peace between northern and southern Sudan has been fleeting. Save for an 11-year lull from 1972 to 1983, the two sides were at war almost continuously from 1955 to 2005. At its root, the conflict is about the south's efforts to break free of economic and political domination by Khartoum—from slave raids by Arab and northern Sudanese groups, to control of Sudan's vast oil resources, much of which lie in the south.
In January 2005, the two sides signed a pact known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement after years of talks brokered by the U.S. and a bloc of East African countries. That deal was meant to do two things: first, give President Omar al-Bashir and his northern National Congress Party a window to show the south's U.S.-backed Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) the attractiveness of remaining in a unified Sudan. The agreement required democratic reforms and the creation of a unity government over a period of six years—during which time the two sides would split revenues from the south's oilfields. Second, at the end of the period, the southerners would be allowed to vote on whether they wanted formal independence.
But the first part of that pact has quietly withered. Though Khartoum has halted the shooting war with the SPLM (the SPLA's political arm) and made its leader, Salva Kiir, vice president of the Khartoum-based national unity government, not much else has changed. Al-Bashir's party still runs the show. Witness the war on Darfur, which is not in the south's interest, and the government's resistance to an arrest warrant for al-Bashir on war-crimes charges.
Meanwhile, key details of the peace plan have been killed incrementally by Khartoum. National elections mandated by the pact and scheduled for earlier this year have twice been postponed after disputes over the country's census and voter-registration process, thereby undermining the electoral organization needed to conduct the January 2011 independence referendum. The government has refused to change a national-security law that allows security forces to detain opponents at will; it has also resisted passing a media law freeing the country's shackled press—leading the SPLM and other parties to threaten an electoral boycott, should the election ever occur. And there's mounting evidence that Khartoum has been cheating the south out of oil revenues while arming rival ethnic groups to foment chaos in the south ahead of the independence referendum.
Now the second part of the pact is under threat, with Khartoum openly seeking to undermine the referendum itself—by demanding that ethnic southerners living in the north be allowed to vote (most would choose unity), and that a supermajority of 75 percent, or even 90 percent, be required for southern secession. It's also demanding a 50 percent share of the south's oil for 50 years, an issue that is supposed to be separate from the plebiscite.
Al-Bashir has been able to derail the peace deal partly because the attention of the United States and its African allies has wandered to Darfur and a passel of other African conflicts, says John Danforth, the former U.S. senator who helped broker the peace deal as the Bush administration's Sudan envoy. Meanwhile, Khartoum's cooperation with the U.S. on terrorism—and its discounted oil sales to neighbors like Ethiopia—have helped it shake its pariah status and warm relations with southern Sudan's key supporters.
The SPLM hasn't helped matters. Since its longtime leader John Garang died in a helicopter crash just after the 2005 peace agreement, the group has been unable to deliver schools, clinics, or even stability to many parts of the region under its control. Widespread corruption and the failure of the former rebel army to govern effectively has helped Khartoum sell the idea that southern Sudan will morph into a lawless state like Somalia if allowed to separate.
But that argument assumes Sudan, as currently conceived, is a functioning state—which it isn't. Counting the two failed pacts signed with Darfur's Sudan Liberation Army and eastern Sudanese rebels in 2006, "the whole country has ceased to exist and become a collection of peace agreements," says Medhane Tadesse, an East Africa analyst for the Ethiopia-based Center for Policy Research and Dialogue. "And [Khartoum] knows these peace agreements won't be implemented. They know how to freeze and paralyze these processes like they did in Darfur and in eastern Sudan."
That's a dangerous strategy for Sudan's civilians, now caught between a heavily armed northern government bent on maintaining control and an angry southern rebel army. The gush of petrodollars over the past five years has sent defense spending on both sides soaring. Khartoum has bought fighter planes, armored personnel carriers, and at least 28 attack helicopters from Russia and Belarus, according to a new report from the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. Meanwhile, south Sudan blew its efforts to keep quiet its purchases of dozens of Ukrainian-made tanks for its U.S.-trained army when a Kenya-bound ship carrying them was captured by Somali pirates last year.
Getting Khartoum to carry out its obligations under the 2005 deal is probably the only way to stop war. Though both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden took a tough line on Sudan during the campaign, the Obama administration's newly appointed Sudan envoy, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, has instead tried a charm offensive on Khartoum—a strategy that has drawn withering fire from human-rights groups.
It's not impossible that Gration's efforts to woo al-Bashir will work, but time is running out. History has shown that Khartoum responds more to sticks then carrots. In the past, international pressure has succeeded in getting the north to change policies on issues like the slave trade, aerial bombing of civilians, and harboring Al Qaeda. Analysts today say that, without a breakthrough from the Obama administration and new pressure from Sudan's African neighbors, violence will only increase as both sides feed arms to militias fighting their opponents—a familiar spiral that will lead to more attacks on civilians and, eventually, a clash of well-armed African armies.
"This is like Darfur 2002," says Prendergast.