The Right to Freedom

January 5th, 2011

Sudan has been embroiled in two civil wars for most of the 55 years it has existed as an independent state.  In the 1980s and 1990s Sudan witnessed four million displacements and two million deaths as a direct result of this conflict.  Islamic-oriented military regimes have ruled Sudan since independence, which is large part attributable to the religious demographics.  Of Sudan’s sizeable population of over 44 million inhabitants, seventy percent identifies as Sunni Muslim, twenty-five with indigenous beliefs, and five percent as Christian.  Muslims are concentrated in Northern Sudan, while Christians mostly occupy the South.

This religious divide has in part contributed to the internal strife of the county, though nearly all of the major ethnic and religious groups have at one time fought one another.  In western Sudan, a separate conflict has ravaged the region of Darfur, has resulted in 200,000 to 400,000 deaths.  However, Sudan has suffered from its largest conflict in large part because Northern Muslims have considerable economic, social, and political control over their Southern non-Arab counterparts.  But natural resource endowments have complicated the matter: though the North has a larger population, the South controls the majority of the country’s vast oil reserves.

After years of peace talks, the North and South signed the final North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), in January 2005, which granted the southern rebels autonomy for six years.  Since signing this agreement, the South has enjoyed relative autonomy, controlling most if its own political decisions.  Both sides have also agreed to a referendum for Southern independence.  And this referendum will be held in five days from today.  Southerners are expected to vote in favor by 99 percent, which may result in an independent state.

Omar Hassan al-Bashir, a military leader, has controlled Sudan’s presidency since 1993.  Though the International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged al-Bashir with war crimes and genocide against Darfur, he remains genuinely popular in his own country.  In April 2010, Sudan held its first multiparty election in over two decades, which al-Bashir handily won thanks in large part to his deep support amongst the urban class in Khartoum.

But recent revelations may change that.  This week the chief prosecutor for the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has confirmed that his office found evidence al-Bashir has skimmed as much as $9 billion from his country’s oil wealth and transferred it to foreign accounts.

According to a diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks “Ocampo suggested if Bashir’s stash of money were disclosed (he put the figure at possibly $9 billion) it would change Sudanese public opinion from him being a ‘crusader’ to that of a thief. Ocampo suggested simply exposing that Bashir had illegal accounts would be enough to turn the Sudanese against him.”

While I believe strongly that al-Bashir should be brought to justice for his crimes, both human and financial, I do not support the sentiment exposed in this leaked cable.  If Sudanese public opinion turns against al-Bashir as a result of his crimes, then so be it, but I do not believe the West should value or promote this outcome.  The Sudanese are entitled to an opinion of their own leader, regardless of his crimes or the West’s perspective.

Furthermore, al-Bashir may prove to be instrumental in a bloodless Southern succession.  While many are skeptical of al-Bashir’s motives and point to his track record in Darfur as evidence of his inclination towards conflict, he has publicly stated he would support an independent South.  In fact, al-Bashir went as far to say that he would “not deny our Southern brothers their decision, and we will help them to build their state, because we want a secure and stable state.”

It is unlikely, even given the (even more unlikely) outcome that the referendum goes smoothly and the South secedes peacefully, that the South will install a democratic government.  As John Prendergast, of the anti-genocide Enough project, has put it: “Autocracy is the expected outcome on both sides of the border.”  But that does not necessarily mean the West has the right, or even the prerogative, to judge this outcome.

In five days Southern Sudan will seek independence from the North, just as the country of Sudan sought independence from British colonizers.  But sometimes independence isn’t so obvious.  Oppression doesn’t always take the form of a colonizer, a majority, or a leader.  Sometimes oppression is much more subtle. And unfortunately, regardless of the West thinks is best for Sudan, it doesn’t have the right to control its public opinion.  That’s the thing about freedom.  We all have the right to it.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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