BOONE, N.C.-Most heads of state held off on winter trips to the White House until after President-elect Barack Obama could take office Jan. 20. South Sudan's president Salva Kiir traveled to Washington earlier in the month to meet with the outgoing president. "I wanted to come and bid farewell to President Bush because he is leaving office and he has stood behind the people of Southern Sudan," Kiir told reporters Jan. 7. "We came to tell him thank you and that we will remember him and let him know that he must keep the people of South Sudan close to his heart."
Kiir, 57, holds dual positions in a unity government that took office in 2005 after the parties to Sudan's two-decade civil war signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) brokered in part by the Bush administration. He is first vice president of Sudan, the government based in Khartoum, and president of South Sudan, a semi-autonomous government which under the CPA's terms could split off from Sudan following a referendum set for 2011.
Behind the goodwill tour, which included a meeting with Bush on Jan. 5 and meetings in Washington with UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon and World Bank president Robert Zoellick, Kiir was seeking assurances about an Obama administration he does not yet trust. Despite popular support for the incoming U.S. president across Africa, Kiir fears the new administration will lose focus on the war-torn, oil-rich country that is Africa's largest. "Salva has heard from Obama insiders that he has reason to worry," said one former Bush administration official who attended meetings with Kiir and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse, a relief organization based in Boone, N.C., with a longtime presence in South Sudan, heard similar concerns in a private meeting with Kiir. The former rebel army general flew to North Carolina in snowy weather and under a State Department security escort that same week to confer with Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham. "He is concerned that the peace process doesn't get lost with this new administration," Graham told me after meeting with Kiir.
To that end, Kiir also told the officials he met in Washington that he opposes action to bring Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, to trial at The Hague. The International Criminal Court (ICC) indicted Bashir on three counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity, and two of murder in Darfur, the western region of Sudan that has received most international attention since signing of the CPA. Officials expected a decision to prosecute Bashir from the ICC judges this month but now believe it will be delayed. Speaking after he returned to Sudan, Kiir acknowledged for the first time that he had voiced concern to Bush and others that CPA could unravel if Bashir were prosecuted. "The problem we have here in South Sudan is what would happen to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) if Bashir is charged by the court?" Kiir told an audience in the South Sudanese capital of Juba on the fourth anniversary of CPA this month. "What about the outstanding items in the peace agreement? Will they be implemented afterwards? Will we have a referendum in 2011?"
Graham said he also believes that ICC action against Bashir "doesn't help the process. It makes things more complicated." His statements are surprising, considering that Bashir's air force bombed hospitals in the South run by Samaritan's Purse during the war, and Graham once called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion." But since that time, Graham has traveled to Khartoum and met with Bashir in a kind of informal rapprochement that has resulted in wider aid distribution by Samaritan's Purse and permission to use Sudanese airspace for relief flights. Bashir has given Graham permission to rebuild several hundred churches destroyed during the war-churches destroyed by Bashir's own forces-and recently promised to meet with Graham again in March.
Though Graham doesn't deny that Khartoum has committed atrocities against Southern Sudanese, primarily Christians, and Darfurians, he believes Bashir "is someone I think we can work with." Bashir is not the strict Islamist many others have been in the Khartoum government, officials who in the past granted safe haven to terrorists like Osama bin Laden. If Bashir is forced out of office by the ICC action, Graham said, "the Islamic fundamentalists coming behind him may be worse." Yet ICC judges could arrest Bashir as early as February-which would mark the first time it has taken action against a sitting head of state.
Support for Bashir, however, is pragmatic. Many fear, simply, that his arrest could set off a return to war. And the last thing Sudan needs is more war. Fighting and deprivation continue in Darfur, where more than 300,000 people have died and perhaps 3 million or more have fled their homes since February 2003.
In the South disputes remain in spite of a peace agreement. A credible census of the South has not been completed-necessary to ensure oil and other revenue-sharing with the North and to prepare the way for elections. Border disputes also remain, and led to armed conflict this past year in Abyei between Khartoum-backed militias and Kiir's southern forces. Abyei is a strategic region abutting Darfur as well as the North and South where oil revenues in 2007 were estimated at $529 million. Other outstanding disputes include the return of refugees, land reform, and reconciliation.
Observers don't expect these issues to be resolved in time for nationwide elections set for later this year, but they must see progress before a referendum on self-determination for the South set for 2011. During his U.S. trip, Kiir said he was concerned whether an Obama administration would take an active interest in the landmark vote. A diplomatic misstep at this juncture, Kiir believes, could lead to war.
Yet with Sudan on the verge of better peace or more war, the incoming president has not yet signaled that it's a priority. Susan Rice, an expert on South Sudan in the Clinton administration, was named ambassador to the UN, where she may be separated from Sudan policy formation in the new White House. Samantha Power, the Harvard professor who documented genocide in Sudan in her book, The Problem from Hell, had high marks as an Obama campaign adviser-until her remark that Hillary Clinton was "a monster" cost her her campaign post, and probably any position in a Clinton-led State Department. Some Sudan experts worry that Clinton's interest in Sudan will begin and end with Darfur, with its many Hollywood advocates. But as one official said, "There is no real solution for Darfur without successfully implementing CPA. Everything short of that just means more war."
Impetus on Sudan, noted Graham, may have to come from Obama himself: "If Obama were to make some strong overture to Sudan, say by inviting President Omar Bashir and Salva Kiir to Washington together, it could be a great encouragement for peace."