On Point: Obama's Great Expectations Encounter Sudan


by Austin Bay
November 12, 2008

           Ecstatic Kenyans declared a holiday, waved flags and expressed deservedpride when Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan, was elected president of theUnited States. They also killed bulls.

           In East Africa, killing a bull is more than a barbecue. In southernSudan, a sacrifice followed by festivities plays a central role in publiccelebration 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 acopy in a Kenyan church in fall 2002 and use it in a strategy class I teach atthe University of Texas, in a course section asking, "What is peace?" Thehandbook is quite practical, the product of wisdom informed by facts andsuffering -- suffering through Sudan's decades-long "North-South" civil warpitting the northern Islamist government (the "Arab" Sudanese) against thepredominantly Christian and animist ("black African") south. It is alsounblinkingly frank when discussing divisions within southern communities.

The handbook is a first-rate work in applied diplomacy, with resonancefor Chablis sippers in Geneva and policy wonks in Washington, providing grittylessons in the complexities of embedded conflicts where violence, greed, fearand corruption insistently erode common interests in physical and economicsecurity. Peace may emerge among warring clans, tribes and even wealthynation-states when common interests trump the hellacious forces of division. Irepeat "may," for peace is never a certainty.

The handbook's guiding concept is that creating peace in Sudan begins byaddressing divisions in south Sudan, where Kenyan churches in concert withsouthern Sudanese could encourage "factions for peace." I've used this pun inclass: Think of creating a mosaic, piece by small piece, to forge a broaderpeace. Call it the incrementalism of realistic diplomacy, meeting smallexpectations by achieving reachable goals, a process certainly empowered byhope, but in the case of south Sudan permitted and protected by the battlefieldsuccesses 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 reconciliationrituals to help amenable leaders draw antagonized tribesmen into a peace processwith their enemies. The description of the sacrifice of a bull at a peaceconference between southern Nuers and Dinkas is poignant. The "Bull of Peace" issacrificed as an act of reconciliation. Participants get a slice of the meat. Acurse 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 severalhundred details unresolved -- tough ones like a definitive north-south border,refugee resettlement and a satisfactory split of oil profits from Sudanesefields.

Meanwhile, in Sudan's miserable west, Darfur bleeds despite the presenceof U.N. peacekeepers. The United Nations also has a peacekeeping force in southSudan, which hasn't prevented occasional firefights between the North and South.

The 2005 CPA created a "national unity" government in Khartoum, but Northand South Sudan are increasingly appropriate names. The SPLA has become the GOSS-- Government of South Sudan, which regards Kenya as an ally. Recall the Somalipirates who hijacked a freighter loaded with tanks and other weapons. The billof lading said Kenya. The likely destination? The GOSS.

Now back to President-elect Obama. After his election, a GOSS spokesmanrequested a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in south Sudan. Why? Perhapsexpectations spurred Kenya's holidays as much as pride. Kenya and GOSS mayassume they will have a great deal of influence on U.S. policy in the region.

Obama rhetorically promised hope and change, and seeded greatexpectations.

As 2005's fragile peace frays, more war threatens Sudan. Of course, warthreatens Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti, and war rages in Somalia, in Chad, inCongo ... and the daunting list goes on.

Beware this irony: Great expectations unmet seed grand disappointments --and add new bitterness to devilishly complex conflicts.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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