Darfur's fall from the headlines has rendered Africa's largest country, Sudan, an afterthought to most Americans. But the country is at the most significant crossroads in its short and tumultuous post-colonial history. Over the past few days, Sudanese have been casting ballots in the first national elections in 25 years. Though the outcome in the presidential election is predetermined—the major opposition parties pulled their candidate—Sudanese are turning out in large numbers to vote in parliamentary and gubernatorial elections
In Darfur, death rates have fallen dramatically since 2004. Since then, according to The Lancet, the vast majority of deaths in the region have resulted from disease, not violence. This has led casual observers to assume that the worst is over in Sudan. But the massacres in Darfur were always a smaller part of the broader crisis of governance in the country. By narrowly focusing on the killings in Darfur, activists missed the larger story, misrepresented the conflict, and allowed the country to fall out of the headlines precisely at the moment in which the world's attention should be focused on it. Still, Darfuris have bravely sought to participate in the elections, despite the displacement of so many in poorly run camps or across borders.
Though Darfur has been seared into the American consciousness, the real story in Sudan is the scheduled vote for Southern independence in 2011. The Bush administration had a strong interest in Sudan, largely due to prodding from evangelical activists. In 2005, the United States helped push for a comprehensive peace agreement between the government in the north and the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, who had fought to a standstill after two decades of war and over 2 million were killed. The agreement stipulated many contentious conditions that needed to be met before the referendum on independence could take place, including the conducting of a census, the demarcation of a border, an oil revenue sharing formula, and of course, national elections.
What about the United States? Historically, the United States was the key backer of the Southern insurgency. But the death of John Garang, the former Sudan People's Liberation Army leader, combined with China's increasing presence in the region has steadily chipped away at American influence. Sudan is one of China's largest suppliers of oil, sending 40 percent of its production to the Asian superpower. Whereas Bush saw Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, as pure evil, the Obama administration is far more divided. Prominent administration voices such as Susan Rice, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once called for America to use its military might within Sudan to stop the killings in Darfur. But the current U.S. envoy, Scott Gration, advocates for greater engagement with the regime in Khartoum. Gration even traveled to the country to push for the elections to be held as soon as possible, despite the serious concerns raised by almost all credible opposition parties. This reflects the generally pragmatic approach taken by the Obama team to foreign policy issues. Indeed, issues of human rights and democracy have not had much impact in shaping American foreign policy, despite the hopes of activists both within and outside the Obama administration.
So where does this go from here? Both the government and the former Southern rebels continue to size each other up. When Garang was alive, there was some hope that the SPLA could become a fulcrum around which a broader national transformation would occur. But his death has allowed the pro-secession forces to the fore. It is now clear that the South is preparing for independence, if given the chance in next year's referendum.
At this point, the best possible outcome is that both North and South Sudan recognize that a peaceful separation is in the interests of all sides. But for multiple reasons, allowing a region to secede from a country is one of the oldest taboos in international politics. And the situation in South Sudan can never be disentangled from the multiple political crises that shape Sudanese politics. If the two regions do go back to war, expect a blood bath. China, no doubt, will continue to arm the government, which it relies on for oil. And though I doubt the Southern rebellion can persist in the long run—split as they are by multiple internal divisions—it does have the capacity and experience to mount an effective, and brutal, resistance. The long-term prognostications for the country seem grim, indeed.
Zachariah Mampilly is an assistant professor in the Departments of Political Science and Africana Studies at Vassar College.