Sudan is a nation of civil wars. Two years ago its government signed a U.S.-brokered peace deal with the mostly Christian South after one such 20-year war. Open fighting may have stopped, but the stalled agreement-while conflict in another Sudanese theater, Darfur, rages-means frustrated southerners are seeing few gains.
Now the two sides have settled on a proxy battleground: Washington. When President Bush announced new sanctions against Sudan's government for directing genocide in Darfur, Sudanese Ambassador John Ukec Lueth Ukec perfected his strategy of denying everything at a demonstrative May 30 National Press Club gathering.
"See how many people are dying in Darfur-none," Ukec said. Ignoring evidence to the contrary, he said Khartoum does not back local civilian-terrorizing militias, and insisted the central government was an agent for peace.
It was too much for Sudan's southern leaders, who now run their own regional "government within a government," the Government of South Sudan or GOSS, while also participating as part of a unity government based in Khartoum. The South's diplomats rented one of the roomier, window-lined conference rooms at the National Press Club for their own press conference to counter Ukec. Expert estimates-including those of the UN-say the number killed in Darfur's conflict may range from 200,000 to more than 400,000.
Ukec went further to threaten a trade war: "I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country." Brandishing a bottle of Coke, he added, "I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this."
As it happens, the Bush administration decided not to sanction gum arabic, which is used by many U.S. manufacturers. But Ukec's performance was so outlandish for a diplomat that the Washington Post nicknamed him "Khartoum Karl," much like "Baghdad Bob," the Saddam-era information minister who denied U.S. troops were in the Iraqi capital even as they could be heard in the street.
At the June 7 press conference a week after Ukec's comments on Darfur and economic sanctions, southern Sudanese leaders-seemingly unafraid to jeopardize their power-sharing role with the government with Khartoum-broke ranks and spoke publicly against the official position. It was a first for the southern Sudanese, who only in January opened their own official diplomatic mission in Washington, manned by about 10 people.
Most seats went empty as only about a dozen attendees turned up. But before the conference started, a southern Sudanese official followed elaborate protocol, setting up a golden eagle-topped flag pole with the South's green, red, and black flag, while officials wore lapel pins bearing the same flag and the face of revered southern leader John Garang, who died in a 2005 plane crash just as his new peacetime government was forming.
Worried he might lose sound, a television reporter readjusted the speaker's microphone skyward to accommodate the towering officials: many southern Sudanese, particularly from the dominant Dinka tribe, are well over 6 feet tall.
Mission head Ezekiel Gartkouth did not mince words, disputing Ukec issue by issue. "We deplore the national government's role in the violence in Darfur. We experienced similar violence during the war in the South," he said. He called Darfuris "our Sudanese brothers and sisters. . . . We view them as freedom fighters."
Gartkouth may be a diplomat, but he too is emblematic of the South's war and rebirth. He grew up in a rural area of Sudan's Upper Nile state, tending to his father's cattle. Government troops began attacking his and neighboring villages in the early '80s, killing his father. His family moved to a refugee camp and training base for the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army in Ethiopia.
There Gartkouth became a foot soldier in the war, crossing back into Sudan to fight. In 1986, around the age of 15, he also learned to read and write for the first time in church schools. Years later, he attended college in the United States, rising to become the rebel movement's local representative, and now, the South's top diplomat in Washington.
Under Garang, southern fighters kept contact with Darfur rebel groups: both sides were marginalized people against an Arab nationalist and Islamist North that has long sought to retain power by dividing them. Having suffered a similar war, southerners readily sympathize with Darfuris. But identifying with them publicly also means southerners can present a stronger, more united front against Khartoum.
As such, Gartkouth also said new U.S. sanctions against Khartoum are justified, even if it means the South sees a dip in the oil revenues it shares with the North and other economic hardships. Under the peace agreement, the South is supposed to receive half of oil revenues, but because the North's leaders have not divulged exactly how much they take in, southerners cannot be sure they are getting the right percentage. Since March, the South's allocation has fallen with no explanation, Gartkouth said.
Working for peace with Darfuris, and attaching themselves to their cause is crucial for southern leaders ahead of national elections slated for 2009. The south's leader, Vice-President Kiir, has appointed a special southern envoy on Darfur to unite the balkanized rebel groups in talks in Juba, the south's capital.
Much is at stake, says Roger Winter, a Sudan expert and former assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). "They see both humanitarian reasons to be involved, and their own political standing and imagery, but also if they succeed they would be a truly national party, with implications for the election."
If Darfur's chaos prompts Khartoum to delay the election, Winter says that could lead to "an abortion" of the North-South peace agreement. A delay could push back other important deadlines, including a 2011 referendum, in which the South will decide if it wants to stay part of Sudan or become independent. So much already has gone undecided-such as taking a census or defining important north-south borders-that Gartkouth says "99 percent" of southerners would vote to secede today.
That does not mean southerners are ready to return to war, even if they blame Khartoum for little development despite two years of peace. High expectations came with the peace agreement, but rebuilding what he says was the world's "most devastated" place is slow. On a visit to his home village in 2005, Gartkouth said little had changed since the war: Refugees were returning, but the village still needed clinics, schools and a clean drinking water.
Still, the early fruits of peace do appear. On a trip to Juba last month, Winter noticed "a thousand points of light" as his plane landed in the city-the sun reflecting off of new iron roofing as buildings and homes sprout. Travelers now drive a paved road from the Kenyan border to Juba and beyond, trucks hum on the roads, and international banks have opened.
These are encouraging signs in a region once obliterated by war, and officials like Gartkouth want to keep them-but not at the price of false unity. At the press conference, he took a direct hit at Sudanese ambassador Ukec: "For your information, we have gum africa, not gum arabic in southern Sudan. . . . No one can threaten the people of the United States and the international community to stop [its] exportation." Sometimes even the smallest jabs in a war of words land a punch.