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Nii Akuetteh: US wants to use South to gain strategic advantage but China may be the peace broker

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

In Sudan, President Bashir has said it’s a time of reckoning with South Sudan, the newly formed country (Juba is its capital). He says either South Sudan will take Khartoum and control all of Sudan or, the other way around, Bashir says he will take South Sudan, where most of the oil now is. And, of course, that’s what in the final analysis most of the conflict in Sudan is about—oil.

Now joining us to talk about this is Nii Akuetteh. He’s an independent analyst of African and international affairs. He writes regularly on Pambazuka News, and he’s a former executive director of Africa Action, and he was a professor of African studies at Georgetown University. Thanks very much for joining us, Nii.

NII AKUETTEH, FORMER DIRECTOR, AFRICA ACTION: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

JAY: So before we get into the specifics of what’s happening now, these threats and what seems to be intensification and possible open, all-out warfare between North and South Sudan, give us some basic context, some historical context of how we got here.

AKUETTEH: Yes. You know, Sudan, South Sudan, the smaller of the two countries in the conflict, became independent just a few months ago. In fact, it’s designated as the youngest country in the world. It broke off from Sudan. So this is a sort of a divorce, a bitter divorce.

The quarrels leading to the divorce have been a very long way in coming. Sudan actually got its independence from Britain and Egypt in 1958, but the quarrel between the North and the South actually predates independence, before independence, the Southerners agitating. In fact, Southerners in the national army broke out in revolt in some camps before independence. So there’s been a big quarrel.

What has the quarrel been about? Number one, one of the reasons is just cultural differences. The North is largely, quote, Arab and Muslim. The South is, quote, African, black African, and non-Muslim, some Christian, some indigenous religions. And the capital, Khartoum, it has always maintained power. It has marginalized the South. Incidentally, it has marginalized other peripheries too, such as Western Sudan, which most Americans will remember as Darfur. So Sudan is a big country where different groups felt marginalized and repressed, in the South particularly so, and they have been fighting the North for a long time.

Eventually, in the last ten years or so, the world got very concerned, came up with what is known as the CPA, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And under the agreement, it was agreed that the South, who vote to see whether it wanted to succeed or not, they did have that vote a year and a half ago, and 90 percent of the voters chose to secede. So they peacefully seceded.

The problem we have now, as you rightly said, is being aggravated by the fact that Sudan is a big oil-producing country now. Most of the oil is in the South. So now that they’ve split into two countries, about 75 percent of the oilfields are in the South, but the outlet for selling the oil internationally, the pipelines go through the North to Port Said which is on the sea of north [incompr.]. So these two countries hostile to each other are stuck over oil, transporting the oil.

But there is also the issue of where the proper borders have to be drawn. There is also the issue of ethnicity. And there is the issue also of each of the two countries sponsoring dissidents and fighters in each other’s country.

JAY: Now, in theory, at least, a deal is there to be had, because the South needs the North for its refineries and infrastructure for shipping the oil out. They could come to some kind of revenue split. Some people even talked about a 50-50 split. So it’s not like inherently there has to be this conflict over who’s going to control South Sudan’s oil. On the other hand, the conflict continues. And let’s just add one more factor to this, which is most of the oil, if I understand it correctly, produced in South Sudan is being done by the Chinese. So you also have that ingredient, and then, of course, U.S. foreign policy here, which would like to topple Bashir in the North and is financing, if I understand it correctly, a lot of the army of South Sudan and is fully backing South Sudan. So that’s a complicated, volatile mix.

AKUETTEH: It absolutely is. And, in fact, before independence, some of us actually expect that China will put all its weight behind North Sudan (and I’m saying North just to distinguish it from the South, but officially it is Sudan). The surprise, the pleasant surprise is that China has actually not shunned the South, it has also started wooing the South. So if there is going to be a broker who both sides might listen to, it might be China.

As you rightly said, the United States and the West have been behind the South for a long time, so they are not seen as being able to talk to both sides. Incidentally, they have indicted Omar Bashir in the North, and therefore it’s unlikely that he’s going to listen to them. They’ve been putting pressure on a lot of countries to arrest Omar Bashir. The countries have not.

So I think in all this I’m looking to see what the Chinese are saying.

And I think you are right. The two countries have to live with each other forever. In terms of the oil, they have to have a deal for a while. And actually there is a deal on the table, with some disputes over how much is to be paid.

I think that this recent flareup, the obstacle’s been—of course, as everywhere, it’s been the politicians and the generals who are running the country. But most of the ordinary people there, I think, will very much like to have disputes resolved peacefully so that the oil can flow and the revenues can be used to improve their lives.

JAY: Why is the United States so antagonistic towards Bashir? I mean, Bashir’s been playing ball with the IMF, if I understand it correctly. He follows IMF guidelines. I mean, it’s not like the U.S. has a problem dealing with dictators. It’s just they don’t like dictators that don’t play ball. But to some extent Bashir does play ball.

AKUETTEH: He played ball a little bit. But, you know, Darfur—I’m sure that many of the people watching might remember Darfur from a few years back, which was the big issue in the administration of George W. Bush. I think that during that time, the dominant narrative was that Khartoum and Bashir was brutalizing—I mean, we have been talking about things done to the South, but he was brutalizing people in the West, which is called Darfur, and it was from there the indictment—the ICC indictment is based on atrocities committed in Darfur. And this was the time when I was actually running Africa [incompr.] here in Washington. So Darfur was the number-one issue for us. So part of the Western animosity toward Omar Bashir is, number one, over what he did in Darfur. It is also because until now he’s been a very close friend of the Chinese.

And also you are right: U.S. has backed so many dictators across Africa. They used to—actually, Sudan, when it was being run by Nimeiry, another general who took power before Bashir—he was America’s best friend. But then Bashir and others who followed Nimeiry made a hard turn towards Islam, because to keep power they wrapped themselves in Muslim religious rhetoric and tried to politicize Islam. So that is also another part.

Of course, it’s very complicated, because one other thing I need to throw in is, for all of George Bush’s rhetoric about Sudan being terrible and committing atrocities in Darfur—and at the table he was working with them in Iraq, because, apparently, they had a joint program to infiltrate the insurgents in Iraq. And therefore Bush’s administration, while it was talking tough publicly, was cooperating behind the scenes with some of Bashir’s generals who had committed atrocities. We know that at least one was flown to the CIA to come and advise them and give them intelligence.

JAY: Well, we saw the same thing where Bush administration worked with Assad in Syria, Gaddafi in Libya, and they were all cooperating on this supposed war on terror. But let’s go a little further. So this kind of talk we’re hearing from Bashir now, you know, saying he’s either going to conquer the South or the South is going to conquer the North and it’s an all out war, I mean, is this bluster? Or are we on the precipice of all-out war?

AKUETTEH: I think it is likely bluster. I will say 70 percent bluster. But the reason I will not—and my reason is that Bashir has a long record of this kind of bluster and talking tough and saying all-out war and saying, I have given the order for the troops to go to war but they haven’t done so. I mean, I remember last fall we had such a situation, where he had just come back from China, and it was it’s all-out war, I don’t want to talk to the South, but we didn’t get that kind of all-out attack.

On the other hand, I don’t want to say that we can completely dismiss it, because, number one, he has a strong, big army; number two, in the last—the most recent flareup, it was actually the South, based on all the news accounts we can get, that was the aggressor—they crossed the recognized lines and took the oilfield of Heglig. But now they’ve been forced to give it back. And Bashir was—in fact, his statement was in that oilfield, Heglig, which is right on the border, and he’s saying now he will fight.

I believe that he does most of that talk for domestic consumption, because he has a hard time. Sudan is huge. There is a lot of different groups that are not happy. So to hold them together, he’s talking tough and pushing war. It is a lot of bluster. But I would not dismiss it, all of it, because in the [incompr.] that we have on the border, a little mistake can lead to a lot of war. Moreover—.

JAY: And what’s the U.S. interest here? Because some people have suggested that the U.S. would like to destabilize the situation, one, hoping Bashir falls as a result of it, and two, maybe the Chinese get muscled out as well, and that you have a kind of pro-Western South Sudan take control of it all. I mean, do you see evidence of that?

AKUETTEH: Well, in terms of the goals, I can share—I mean, I can believe that, I can share [incompr.] that U.S. goals will be—would love to get rid of Bashir and get some more compliant person in Khartoum, and that they definitely would like it if [they] were the big recipient of the oil instead of the Chinese. So I think those two goals sound credible to me.

I’m not willing to go as far as saying that it is in U.S. interests to destabilize the area, because I think the other thing that is important to the U.S. is to build up South Sudan as a strong, self-reliant, rich country because it has a lot of oil. The U.S. has a number of dictators in the region that are its friends—Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and even the Kenyans. So it would like—I think that a war, if it comes—and this is part of why Bashir is blustering so much: he has more muscle than South Sudan. South Sudan is young, and even though it has oil resources, it cannot exploit it fully right now. So it’s fairly weak. So it doesn’t sound credible or smart to me that the Obama administration’s policy would be to destabilize the area, because if they do, the country that they support, South Sudan, is likely to lose that war.

So I think they will want to use other measures. If anything, they wouldn’t want to start war until South Sudan is stronger. In fact, as I said, President Obama has been quite measured since the recent flareup. My reading is that it’s because the Bakas, the western Bakas of South Sudan are chagrined, and they don’t like it that South Sudan went and took Heglig, because they feel like it’s not yet ready, doesn’t have the military—.

JAY: Heglig is this oil town right on the disputed border with North and South, and the South took it. And if I understand correctly, Bashir has now either pushed them out or they withdrew.

AKUETTEH: Yes. Yes. You know, actually you are right. [incompr.] The South said, oh, we withdrew because Obama and others in the Security Council told us to withdraw. But Bashir says no, they did not withdraw, we kicked them out, and we’re going to go all the way to the capital, Juba.

JAY: Alright. Well, we’ll come back and discuss this further as events unfold. And viewers, I suggest: please send questions for Nii that we can ask him next time we talk about this. And we’ll try to come back and dig further into the situation in Sudan in the next week or so. Thanks very much for joining us, Nii.

AKUETTEH: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Nii Akuetteh is an independent analyst of African & international affairs, seen regularly on Al Jazeera and many other global TV outlets and published frequently, especially by Pambazuka News. He is the former Executive Director of Africa Action, and he was a professor of African Studies at Georgetown University.