President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language recently. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan last July.
“Movement” in Arabic is “haraka” but Bashir has started using the word “hashara” instead. “Hashara” means “insect” and Sudan’s official media obediently have taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.
The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.
The war, if it comes, would be over the control of the oil reserves along the undefined border, but it also would be an ethnic conflict. The majority in Sudan thinks of itself as Arab and looks down on the “African” ethnic groups of South Sudan. Members of the Sudanese elite, conditioned by centuries of Arab slave-trading in Africa, sometimes even use the word “abd” (slave) in private when referring to southerners.
The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that [the SPLM] has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba [South Sudan’s capital] and take everything, or [they] end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
This is nonsense: Neither side’s army has the logistical support to advance as far as the other side’s capital. But they certainly could kill a lot of people — about 2 million died in the 22-year war that ended in South Sudan’s independence — and they seem determined to do it all over again.
So what are we to make of this folly? Many people simply will say, “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others, more sophisticated, will lament that mankind still is trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.
War between countries is not the norm in Africa: There are 52 African countries and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past twenty years.
Internal wars are much more common, and some, like those in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on average more than half a million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is and it’s getting better.
There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable, either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely.
No great power has gone to war with any other great power in the past 67 years. That is a huge change for the better, for the great powers are the only countries with the resources to kill on a truly large scale: It would take a century’s worth of Africa’s wars at their worst to match the death toll in six years of the Second World War.
This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production (although it provided 98 percent of his government’s budget) because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil.
No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil (which crossed Sudan in pipelines to the sea), just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash — and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.
But at least the rest of world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and special envoy Haile Menkarios to mediate between the two sides. China, which took most of the oil exports from both countries, has sent its envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, on a similar mission.
Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose commentary is published in 45 countries.