Sudan: Half the horror remains untold

As the south prepares to declare independence, western media incorrectly frame current violence as entirely one-sided.

Abyei, Sudan
As many as 80,000 refugees fled their homes during the recent fighting. But the violence isn’t all one sided [EPA]

Between 19 and 21 May, the northern Sudanese Armed Forces annexed the southern border town of Abyei. Next in Omar al-Bashir’s violent re-mapping of Sudan’s savannah belt of the 1956 borders, is the Blue Nile and South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains.

According to the boundaries drawn up in 1956, shortly before Sudan gained independence from the British, these three areas “belong” to the north. However, these borders have always been contested, and the most recent territorial resolution, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, states that Abyei, Blue Nile and South Kordofan can choose via referendum or popular consultation whether they want to be part of north or south Sudan.

Effectively dishonouring the agreement, al-Bashir appears determined to repossess the unresolved territories in a bid to preserve the political power, economy and national pride of north Sudan. In resource terms the gains would mean more water, fertile land and oil – it’s been dubbed “oil-rich Abyei” despite the facts – contrary to sloppy media claims, the town is not “oil-rich”, but the outlying areas and South Kordofan are.

The battle for Abyei strikes at the heart of Sudan’s contemporary conflict, as the disputed colonial borders and ethnic tension between the nomadic Misseriya and pastoralist Ngok Dinka was one of the root causes of Sudan’s civil war in the 1980s. An emotional issue, Abyei has been exploited for political gain by both north and south in the past, and al-Bashir’s latest brutal insurgency is no different.

Apart from the material gains, the north’s 1956 borders agenda is, in my view, the act of a fugitive president jockeying for his place in history before the birth of South Sudan. Should he one day go down like Ratko Mladic – if the ICC successfully arrest him for war crimes committed in Darfur – or killed in his lair and dumped in the Red Sea, bin Laden style, he could be remembered by some northerners as he who regained (albeit brutally) what might have been lost forever in the secession of the South.

For the South’s government of rebels-turned-soldiers-turned-politicians riddled with in-fighting, ethnic rivalries and violence, the siege of Abyei is an unneeded problem. The South is already struggling with fending off attacks from rebel groups and disciplining its own forces from terrorising civilians. Though much of the international media has concentrated on reporting South Sudan’s preparations to become the world’s newest country on July 9, the political strategies of both north and south in asserting their nationhood is in need of intense scrutiny on both sides.

For al-Bashir it seems clear: a schizophrenic strategy of warn/threaten, attack and reconcile. Rinse. Repeat until Sudan 1956 is redrawn, power restored and South Sudan weakened.

On the weekend al-Bashir was on the reconcile spin cycle, talking about “brotherly ties between north and south” – so it’s better “we sit and discuss and consult” over Abyei. But on the ground, the troops increasingly appear to be enacting the attack phase in South Kordofon, where the UN is investigating reports of the looting and burning of civilian homes, and clashes between northern and southern forces.

Takes two to tango

And so what about Salva Kiir Mayardit, in his cowboy hat, flossing a chunky gold ring, looking like he just stepped off the set of Dallas to become president of South Sudan; what does he want? Peace, he says. Aware of the south’s military inadequacy, Salva Kiir has commendably refused to go to war with the North, but he’s still at war with ‘at least seven rebel militia‘ in the south – and this has had dire consequences.

It is alleged that on May 20, the South’s Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) burnt more than 7,000 homes in and around Mayom, because the Nuer villagers were believed to be harbouring rival miltia members intent on destabilising Kiir’s government. The rebels are said to be loyal to Peter Gatdet, a former SPLA general, now a defected rebel leader – allegedly bankrolled by the north. Whether these forces are part of al-Bashir’s proxy war against the south, or rivals genuinely frustrated by the corruption, nepotism and tribalism of Kiir’s Dinka majority government – or a complex mix of both – what’s clear is that civilian homes are not military targets. A government has a duty to protect, not persecute its citizens.

Against the north, the southern government is perhaps not the innocent, waylaid feline Malik Agar, governor of Blue Nile, imagines. Speaking to the New York Times, Agar described the situation thus: “It’s like putting a cat in a corner. They will fight.” However, it is reported that Khartoum’s advance on Abyei had been in disproportionate response to an attack by SPLA forces on northern troops as they were leaving the area under UN escort. Declaring the killing of 22 soldiers by SPLA forces to be an act of provocation, al-Bashir sent in the big guns.

Last Thursday, a confidential UN report obtained by AP claimed that dozens of civilians belonging to a rival ethnic group had been killed by the SPLA in a village near the Nile River, though some locals say the figure could be as high as 254. If Satellite Sentinel and Enough Project’s satellite pictures were described as hard evidence of Khartoum’s “war crimes” in Abyei, doesn’t the SPLA’s firing on unarmed members of rival ethnic groups also warrant serious attention? George Clooney’s “antigenocide papparazi” may not have been there to take satellite snapshots of the SPLA in action, but the UN covered it, so where are the headlines? 

Setting the narrative: ‘Goodies vs baddies’

The news of “ethnic cleansing” in Abyei headlined last Sunday’s Africa section of many international news sites and yet the documented atrocities by the SPLA have a lousy three mentions on a news web-search. Why? Because audiences suffer from War Attention Deficit Disorder – a Sudan conflict story has a life cycle of thirty seconds, before Lady Gaga or Rihanna does something to titillate the masses and provoke the moral crusaders. And more specifically, conflict reportage is often constructed through the limited lens of “good vs bad” – and for Sudan, the baddie’s role has already been taken by the “car-azy Ay-rab Mooozlim” in the north, so it would be difficult to start framing the “Dinka Christian dude” as a baddie, too.

Besides, Salva Kiir is the one whose country’s referendum the world’s celebrities and trendy activists supported and funded. The one who made George Clooney, the world’s sexiest man alive, smile. The one whose rebel troops were once kitted out and trained by Israel, harboured by Uganda and aided by the United States. And for spiritual strength, were given bibles and missionaries, compliments of Christian evangelists of the bible belt in the US deep south.

When selective reporting due to lack of interest leads to the portrayal of the internationally supported SPLA as perpetual victims, seldom aggressors; a straw-clutching conspiracy theorist could almost be forgiven for thinking there is something deeper at work here.

As the violence unfolds, all is quiet on the AU front, there is no African solution for this African problem. The Arab League has expectedly said nothing, while the UN, over-stretched and under threat, is doing the little it can.

An African proverb says: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In southern Sudan it seems as though there are ten elephants tussling and trampling on the population, continually dashing all hope of South Sudan’s secession ever being peaceful. Though July 9 may be marked on calendars as Independence Day, these fighting elephants shall surely live to fight again – and real peace is yet to come.

Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London whose research interests include African literature and global feminist theory.

Follow her on Twitter @KonWomyn

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.