Obama’s Second ‘Rwanda Moment’

President Obama failed to make good on his campaign commitments to Darfur; unless he takes strong action, urgently, he will have failed in the face of the second genocide on his watch, currently accelerating in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan

By Eric Reeves

June 13, 2011 (SSNA) — Recalling President Bill Clinton’s massive moral failure in the face of the Rwandan genocide of spring 1994, many spoke of Darfur as President Obama’s "Rwanda moment"—the moment in which he was obliged to choose whether or not to commit truly substantial American diplomatic and political resources to halt the ethnically-targeted human destruction that has raged for more than eight years.  As I’ve recently noted, candidate Obama virtually invited such a framing of his actions, declaring: "The government of Sudan has pursued a policy of genocide in Darfur. Hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children have been killed in Darfur, and the killing continues to this very day" (April 2008).  But more than three years later the situation has not improved in Darfur; rather, a grim genocide by attrition continues, and Obama’s incompetent special envoy, former Air Force General Scott Gration, made no progress on the key issues.  He failed to secure a peace agreement (or even the trust of Darfuris), and he produced no improvement in access for humanitarians or freedom of movement for the UN/African Union peacekeeping force.  Conditions are if anything worse than when candidate Obama spoke, and his "Rwanda moment" has passed.  He has failed.

But the consequences of General Gration’s incompetence extend to critical issues that remain unresolved between Khartoum and Juba, the capital of what will be in less than a month the independent Republic of South Sudan.  Most pressing is the genocidal violence that has exploded in South Kordofan over the past week and threatens to take all of Sudan back to civil war.  There are increasingly ominous reports of mass executions and the ethnic targeting of civilians, especially those with origins in the Nuba Mountains—including women and children. Arab militias armed by and allied with the Khartoum regime are going house-to-house, searching out "SPLM (Southern) sympathizers," who are either summarily executed or detained.  The fate of a great many of these people is unknown.  Numerous reliable accounts from the ground make clear that Khartoum’s military aircraft are again engaged in the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets throughout the Nuba.  Churches have been burned in Kadugli (the capital of South Kordofan) and church staff murdered.  Most terrifyingly, a humanitarian situation that is already desperate is deteriorating rapidly: Khartoum has engineered a security crisis that has produced mass evacuations of humanitarian personnel from South Kordofan, and if this is not very quickly reversed, vulnerable populations that have fled up into the mountains will die from exposure, malnutrition, and dehydration.

General Gration came to his position without significant diplomatic experience or knowledge of Sudan; his conviction, evident from his first pronouncements, was that we should make friends with the men of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party, and that they in turn would become reasonable and accommodating.  His notorious policy of appeasement was most conspicuously on display when during an early trip to Khartoum he declared diplomatic success was more likely if the U.S. offered the regime’s génocidaires "cookies," as well as "gold stars" and "smiley faces."  Out of such foolishness are genocides sustained.

Gration, having failed in Darfur, was just as ineffective in securing full implementation of the North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (2005).  Khartoum refuses to negotiate in good faith on border delineation, oil revenue sharing (approximately 75 percent of Sudan’s reserves lie in the South), citizenship and civil rights for southerners who remain in the North, and a host of economic issues, most pressingly the $38 billion in external debt that the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime has run up.  Khartoum is pressing Juba to accept a significant percentage of this debt, even as none of the money borrowed was seen by the people of the South except in the form of military hardware directed against them.  This intransigence and unconstrained pursuit of self-interest is the ultimate consequence of ill-informed and expedient diplomacy.

But most critically, Gration failed to deal effectively with the two most obvious flashpoints for renewed civil war—the contested Abyei region and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan (immediately to the north of the border with the South).  Indeed, many blame Gration for Khartoum’s intransigence on Abyei, and ultimately its decision to seize the region militarily. For in mid-May Khartoum responded to Gration’s various offers of treats, including yet further compromises on delineation of the contested border area, by taking full military control of Abyei—a move that was foreseen by a number of analysts, and indeed had taken de facto form by March 2011. These military actions violated not only the key Abyei Protocol of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, but also a "final and binding" ruling by the Permanent Count of Arbitration in The Hague (July 2009).  In the immediate wake of Khartoum’s military move, more than 100,000 Dinka Ngok have fled for their lives to the South; this represents the entire estimated Ngok population of Abyei prior to the invasion.

An early UN assessment of the aftermath of the regime’s brutal military seizure of Abyei—an area a bit smaller than the state of Connecticut—found that the actions by Khartoum’s military and militia forces—including killings and ethnically-targeted destruction of property and food stores—were "tantamount to ethnic cleansing."  But shamefully, senior UN officials, in their own effort to accommodate Khartoum’s sensibilities, toned this down dramatically, suggesting only that these actions "could" lead to ethnic cleansing.  The spineless Ban Ki-moon declared flatly, "It is far too early to claim that ethnic cleansing is taking place."  Ban was evidently not interested in the mass of satellite and ground photography depicting precisely ethnic cleansing, or the testimony of hundreds of those interviewed once beyond the range of Khartoum’s security forces.  Nor did Ban think it important to consider the extraordinary statements by former U.S. State Department Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes, speaking about the evidence of "crimes against humanity."

Humanitarian conditions are poor for those who fled Abyei and for many there is no assistance at all.  Khartoum has thrown up an economic blockade on goods moving from North to South Sudan, including fuel.  This has had the effect of leaving many relief organizations without mobility.  A large number of the displaced are dehydrated and badly weakened. And in the voice of the survivors we can hear a despair that will only deepen:

"…life for the [human] bargaining chips [in negotiations over Abyei in the wake of Khartoum’s military seizure of the region], meanwhile, has been miserable. For Mary Achol, it has meant eating leaves. On a recent morning in the border town of Agok, Ms. Achol slumped in the meager shade of a thorn tree, her belly rumbling from the nearly toxic mix of wild plants she ingested, a baby sweating profusely in her arms. During the chaotic exodus out of Abyei, Ms. Achol lost two other children. ‘Maybe they died of thirst, maybe they were eaten by lions,’ she said. ‘I don’t have a lot of hope.’" (New York Times, June 5, 2011, dateline: Agok [South of Abyei])

All this has predictably set the stage for the much greater violence rapidly unfolding in South Kordofan State, which abuts Abyei and lies immediately north of oil-rich Unity State in the South.  For the past week events long warned of have exploded into violent ethnic slaughter and widespread military violence (including repeated cross-border bombing attacks just south of South Kordofan, in South Sudan’s oil-rich Unity State).  But it’s not at all clear whether the Obama administration appreciates the enormous differences between South Kordofan and Abyei, in particular the potential for large-scale genocidal destruction.

Certainly the administration’s response to the seizure of Abyei was far too muted and lacked a clear articulation of specific consequences if Khartoum failed to abide by a UN Security Council "demand" that the regime withdraw militarily.  This only encouraged Khartoum to believe that there would be an even less forceful response to military action in South Kordofan, which is geographically clearly in the north.  Gration, who had no diplomatic skills or instincts, has been replaced by Princeton Lyman, a seasoned and widely respected career diplomat, with much experience in Africa.  But Lyman seems out of his depth in dealing with the men in Khartoum, and there are signs that he only now realizes how dangerous the situation in South Kordofan has become in recent months.

The local events that led to the rapid escalation of violence in South Kordofan are not fully clear, but the premeditation that defined Khartoum’s seizure of Abyei—and which the Obama team now acknowledges—is again clearly in evidence.  Indeed, reports from assessments groups like the Small Arms Survey (Geneva) going back to October 2010 have made clear that the military build-up of regular military forces and particularly ethnic militias has been massive, and was undertaken with brutal ambitions.  Tanks had rolled into Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, within hours of the first shots.  El Obeid, the primary military base outside Khartoum, lies just north of South Kordofan, but connects by road to Kadugli, and puts the regime’s advanced military jet aircraft–including MiG-29s–within easy flying distance of the Nuba Mountains, a region the size of Austria in the middle of South Kordofan where fighting will be concentrated.  Significantly, the Nuba Mountains are nowhere contiguous with South Sudan.

The ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse people of the Nuba sided militarily and politically with the South during the civil war, and feel deeply threatened by Khartoum’s ideological Islamism and Arabism.  A gathering of Nuba civil society and military leaders made this point emphatically when I traveled to the region in 2003.  Commander Ismail Khamis, the senior military officer at the time, declared with both anger and resolve: "Khartoum does not consider us to be human beings."  There is much justification for this view; indeed, immediately before the self-determination in South Sudan (January 9, 2011) President Omar al-Bashir declared:

"If south Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution, and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity … shari’a and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language."

That leaves little room for the Nuba in the north, even as they were vaguely promised "popular consultations" in the 2005 peace agreement.  But these have proved meaningless in the wake of Khartoum’s rigging of the May gubernatorial election, which brought to the post an indicted war criminal and a primary executioner of the Darfur genocide, Ahmed Haroun.  Haroun, who has been acting governor of South Kordofan, was clearly brought in to undertake some very nasty business, and the reports of the past week are consistently of ethnically-targeted executions, destruction of churches, the killing of church officials, and widespread bombing in the Nuba Mountains themselves.  We have no way of now how many have fled in South Kordofan but the estimates are growing with terrifying speed; the UN estimate for Kadugli now exceeds 50,000, and people continue to flee, desperate to escape the ethnic killings.

Human Rights Watch reports "tens of thousands of people" fleeing toward el Obeid; the town of Dilling to the north is reportedly completely deserted; virtually all civilians have fled from el-Fayd; and there are almost hourly reports from Nuba on the ground and in the diaspora that the number of women and children fleeing to the bush is growing rapidly. The World Council of Churches, with close ties to the people of the Nuba, reports that as many as 300,000 civilians are besieged and cut off from relief assistance. Humanitarian conditions have deteriorated precipitously, with critical shortages of water and food already reported; these will only grow worse, and more deadly.  Khartoum’s forces have permitted the looting of UN World Health Organization warehouses in Kadugli, which contained critical medical and other humanitarian supplies.  Roadblocks have been put in place in some areas, "preventing medical and humanitarian access," according to the UN High Commission for Human Rights.

Ominously, we also know that President al-Bashir and his top advisor, Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e, have given a "free hand" to military forces in South Kordofan, and this is a license for the slaughter of highly distressed civilian populations, overwhelmingly non-Arab and conveniently labeled "SPLA sympathizers." The nature of the violence is all too familiar from Darfur and from the previous genocide in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s (very few dissent from this characterization of the ruthless killing and displacement of the time, as well as an accompanying total humanitarian embargo).  Human Rights Watch reports receiving "credible reports" that:

"…[Sudan Armed Forces, or SAF] soldiers and Popular Defense Forces, a militia force, deployed in large numbers in Kadugli and other towns, targeted a number of civilians they suspected to be SPLM members. The forces carried out house-to-house searches and set up checkpoints, where they stopped civilians trying to flee the violence and killed some of them, according to witnesses. Reports from the ground indicate that military personnel arrested people who had sought refuge inside the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) compound, in violation of international humanitarian law. One of those arrested was later found dead."

…forces carried out house-to-house searches and set up checkpoints, where they stopped civilians trying to flee the violence….

The echoes of Rwanda become louder, and we are seeing mainly what is occurring in Kadugli, which lies west of the Nuba Mountains, Khartoum’s real target.  The highly reliable Sudan Ecumenical Forum has declared in outrage that "[other civilians] have fled to the Nuba Mountains, where they are being hunted down like animals by helicopter gunships" (listen to a June 13 BBC interview with John Ashworth, senior advisor to the SEF).   Reports of indiscriminate air and artillery attacks are too numerous to catalog, as the ethnically-targeted destruction of non-Arab people in the region gathers pace.  There are also a number of reports that Nuba civilians have been collected in cattle trucks (in one instance witnessed by a security office of the UN High Commission for Refugees); that these human round-ups are being conducted by Arab paramilitary and militia forces, including the notorious Popular Defense Forces (PDF), is extremely ominous.  Most chilling are the repeated reports, from various quarters, of mass graves in the Kadugli area.

The militia and paramilitary forces are in one sense the Interahamwe of South Kordofan, and once loosed, once blood lust is in the air, violence (including reprisal attacks) will be extremely difficult to restrain.    The fact that Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces—and those fighting in the SPLA are themselves nearly all from the Nuba Mountains—are evidently defeating Khartoum’s regular forces on the ground in a number of locations may not prevent Khartoum from achieving its largest goal.  For that goal is the same as it was in Abyei and in Darfur: to "change the demography" of South Kordofan.  Here we should recall the ominous words of Musa Hilal, the primary Janjaweed leader in Darfur:

"The ultimate objective in Darfur is spelled out in an August 2004 directive from [Janjaweed paramount leader Musa] Hilal’s headquarters: ‘Change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes.’ Confirming the control of [Khartoum’s] Military Intelligence over the Darfur file, the directive is addressed to no fewer than three intelligence services—the Intelligence and Security Department, Military Intelligence and National Security, and the ultra-secret ‘Constructive Security,’ or Amn al Ijabi.’"

(Alex de Waal and Julie Flint, Darfur: A Short History of a Long War 2005], page 39)

The White House issued a belated statement about “Southern Kordofan” on Friday evening (June 10), and it was a first step—but far too tentative and lacking in the force necessary to change the thinking in Khartoum; and it gave no true sense of the scale of atrocity crimes we know to be occurring.  One would of course expect the administration to be "deeply concerned by ongoing developments in Southern [sic] Kordofan."  But it will take threats made a good deal more forcefully to effect change in the killing fields:

"The United States condemns reported acts of violence in Southern [sic] Kordofan that target individuals based on their ethnicity and political affiliation. Accounts of security services and military forces detaining, and summarily executing local authorities, political rivals, medical personnel, and others are reprehensible and could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity. We call on the UN to fully investigate these incidents, and we demand that the perpetrators immediately halt these actions and be held accountable for their crimes."

But the UN has a terrible record investigating atrocity crimes in Sudan, whether in Darfur, Abyei, or South Kordofan; a "UN investigation" is likely to take many weeks or months, even if access could be secured from Khartoum (a highly unlikely development); moreover, a UN investigation will be quite incomplete, as the UN force in South Kordofan, UNMIS, has completely lost the trust of the Nuba. Indeed, Egyptian elements of UNMIS in the region have repeatedly been accused of turning away those seeking UN protection, assisting in ethnic round-ups, and of raping Nuba women in the Kadugli area.  They should be immediately replaced, although they have already disabled UNMIS as a protective force, now feared and hated by those who were to have assist been assisted.

"Rwanda Moment"

We know what is happening, given the very substantial reporting, including desperate emails and phone calls from the ground, satellite photography, as well as many accounts from those in the region with contacts in South Kordofan.  We know what is happening, and waiting is not an option.  As Sudanese church groups have declared:

"Only … urgent international efforts can halt what is threatening to become a repeat of the mass atrocities, war crimes and protracted humanitarian crisis the world witnessed in neighbouring Darfur over the past decade, in Abyei in recent weeks and during the previous war in the Nuba Mountains in the early 1990s." (June 10, 2011)

But instead of promising decisive action to halt Khartoum’s genocidal ambitions, the White House statement of June 10 equates the responsibilities of Khartoum and Juba:

"Although the United States has demonstrated a commitment to forging closer ties with Sudan, grave violations of international humanitarian law as have been reported to take place in Southern [sic] Kordofan will negatively impact this process and put Sudan on a path toward deeper international isolation.  We also call upon the leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in South Kordofan to avoid reprisals and other human rights violations, to agree to a cease-fire, to provide full access to the UN and humanitarian agencies and to cooperate in a UN investigation of the reports of such violations."

In this key final paragraph the Obama administration spends as much time admonishing the SPLA as it does warning Khartoum.  This "moral equivalency—a perverse legacy of the Gration era—is wholly misplaced in the context of South Kordofan.  The ethnic killings, the summary executions, the indiscriminate aerial bombardments (only Khartoum has an air force), the use of heavy artillery against civilian targets, the destruction of churches and murder of church officials—these are singularly the responsibility of the National Islamic Front/National Congress Party regime.  As well blame the Tutsi resistance in Rwanda for the actions of the Hutu killing machine.

When I was in the Nuba in 2003 I heard again and again the same simple declaration: "we have no way out."  This meant that lacking geographic contiguity with the South, there was no physical exit and the only choice was to stay and fight for their traditions and lands.  Led by Abdel Aziz el Hilu, a formidable military commander, they will fight to the death rather than surrender to al-Bashir’s vision of what North Sudan is to become. No one in the Nuba has forgotten the genocide of the 1990s.

But the cost of such defiance, given the overwhelming military force—regular and militia—Khartoum has put in place, will be devastating.  The hundreds of thousands now besieged and without humanitarian relief are deeply endangered, as relief organizations are withdrawing rather than deploying.  Khartoum has shut down the Kadugli airport for all humanitarian transport, and has deployed instead military aircraft.  It is also now the "hunger gap," the period between fall/winter harvest and the next round of harvests beginning in October.  Mortality will swing sharply upward in the coming weeks and months unless humanitarian access is secured and protected.

Ethnically-targeted human destruction, genocide, need not make use of machetes, or even more sophisticated instruments of destruction.  As this regime has learned over the past 22 years, the cheapest way to wage war on the African peoples of Sudan is by pitting ethnic groups against one another and then denying humanitarian access.  We saw this in the Nuba Mountains in the 1990s, in South Sudan at many points during the civil war, and most recently in Darfur.  That it has begun again in the Nuba brings us full circle in the regime’s savage history of genocidal counterinsurgency wars.  The Nuba were largely invisible during the first genocide, even as we know now that hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced.  But this time it is as clear as April and May of 1994 in Kigali.

President Obama confronts his second "Rwanda Moment," and how he responds—now—will determine the moral character of his historical legacy for decades.

Eric Reeves has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade. He is author of A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide.

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