Friday, November 14, 2008
Obama's Great Expectations Encounter Sudan
by Austin Bay
Ecstatic Kenyans declared a holiday, waved flags and expressed deserved pride when Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was elected president of the United States. They also killed bulls.
In East Africa, killing a bull is more than a barbecue. In southern Sudan, a sacrifice followed by festivities plays a central role in public celebration and in tribal peacemaking.
In 2002, the New Sudan Council of Churches published a handbook titled "The Story of People to People Peacemaking in Southern Sudan." I picked up a copy in a Kenyan church in fall 2002 and use it in a strategy class I teach at the University of Texas, in a course section asking, "What is peace?" The handbook is quite practical, the product of wisdom informed by facts and suffering -- suffering through Sudan's decades-long "North-South" civil war pitting the northern Islamist government (the "Arab" Sudanese) against the predominantly Christian and animist ("black African") south. It is also unblinkingly frank when discussing divisions within southern communities.
The handbook is a first-rate work in applied diplomacy, with resonance for Chablis sippers in Geneva and policy wonks in Washington, providing gritty lessons in the complexities of embedded conflicts where violence, greed, fear and corruption insistently erode common interests in physical and economic security. Peace may emerge among warring clans, tribes and even wealthy nation-states when common interests trump the hellacious forces of division. I repeat "may," for peace is never a certainty.
The handbook's guiding concept is that creating peace in Sudan begins by addressing divisions in south Sudan, where Kenyan churches in concert with southern Sudanese could encourage "factions for peace." I've used this pun in class: Think of creating a mosaic, piece by small piece, to forge a broader peace. Call it the incrementalism of realistic diplomacy, meeting small expectations by achieving reachable goals, a process certainly empowered by hope, but in the case of south Sudan permitted and protected by the battlefield successes of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) -- in other words, soldiers from the Christian and animist tribes.
The handbook includes case studies where mediators used reconciliation rituals to help amenable leaders draw antagonized tribesmen into a peace process with their enemies. The description of the sacrifice of a bull at a peace conference between southern Nuers and Dinkas is poignant. The "Bull of Peace" is sacrificed as an act of reconciliation. Participants get a slice of the meat. A curse is placed on "any who partake" and later "break the oath for peace ..."
This process contributed to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which supposedly ended the north-south war. However, the CPA left several hundred details unresolved -- tough ones like a definitive north-south border, refugee resettlement and a satisfactory split of oil profits from Sudanese fields.
Meanwhile, in Sudan's miserable west, Darfur bleeds despite the presence of U.N. peacekeepers. The United Nations also has a peacekeeping force in south Sudan, which hasn't prevented occasional firefights between the North and South.
The 2005 CPA created a "national unity" government in Khartoum, but North and South Sudan are increasingly appropriate names. The SPLA has become the GOSS -- Government of South Sudan, which regards Kenya as an ally. Recall the Somali pirates who hijacked a freighter loaded with tanks and other weapons. The bill of lading said Kenya. The likely destination? The GOSS.
Now back to President-elect Obama. After his election, a GOSS spokesman requested a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in south Sudan. Why? Perhaps expectations spurred Kenya's holidays as much as pride. Kenya and GOSS may assume they will have a great deal of influence on U.S. policy in the region.
Obama rhetorically promised hope and change, and seeded great expectations.
As 2005's fragile peace frays, more war threatens Sudan. Of course, war threatens Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and war rages in Somalia, in Chad, in Congo ... and the daunting list goes on.
Beware this irony: Great expectations unmet seed grand disappointments -- and add new bitterness to devilishly complex conflicts.