Taking a STAND for Sudan

Speakers Address Problems Plaguing Africa’s Largest Coutry

Panelists discuss problems facing Sudan, where over two million have been killed during a 22-year civil war. Photo Natasha Macamond

In the wake of the recent referendum on secession, creating democratic institutions and developing a viable infrastructure are some of the biggest challenges facing Sudan, said Sudanese journalist Laku Bil.

Bil, who now lives in Montreal, addressed a group of about 25 people alongside Khalid Medani, a political science professor at McGill University, in an open forum at Concordia’s Hall building on Thursday. The forum was hosted by STAND, an advocacy group that addresses genocide, with a focus on Darfur.

Bil was born in south Sudan, and, like many, left at a young age for the north. He grew up and was educated in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. He worked for opposition newspapers after finishing university and then came to Canada because of the “lack of democracy and lack of freedom.”

The journalist spoke about many different issues including the difficult transition to peace for the Sudanese people.

“How are the people, after 25 years in war, going to put the guns down and become artists?” asked Bil.

To overcome a problem like that, he cited poor infrastructure and social injustice as issues that Sudan must address first. According to him, one of the main obstacles is elites provoking ethnic tension and violence to distract people from more pressing issues such as poverty and state oppression.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa, ended a weeklong referendum on Jan. 15 on whether the southern part of the country should secede. The official results will be announced on Feb. 14, but secession is almost guaranteed, with some districts reporting 99 per cent vote counts in favour of separating.

The referendum was the result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The CPA officially ended a 22-year-long civil war between the north and the south, over the course of which an estimated two million people were killed.

The agreement was reached in 2005 between the Omar al-Bashir government in Khartoum and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, the group that is expected to take power in south Sudan when independence becomes official in July.

Professor Medani, who was born in north Sudan and has studied the country extensively, said one of the many issues crucial to Sudan’s future was democratic reform within these two groups.

“Both of those parties […] are non-democratic. Obviously, the Bashir regime is an authoritarian government,” said Medani. “There is a history of human rights violations by the SPLA in the south, including land dispossession.”

Medani added that land is of particular importance because of the role that oil will play in the new country. It is estimated that oil will account for 90 per cent of south Sudan’s revenues. According to Medani, this makes peaceful negotiation over disputed regions, such as the oil-rich Abyei, crucial to maintaining stability.

It is still unclear how the referendum will affect Darfur, a region in western Sudan, where there was extreme violence from 2003 to 2004. The number of deaths due to violence, famine and disease during that time is estimated at anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000.

Since 2005, the violence has decreased significantly, but still continues. A United Nations report said that 98 people died from violence in September, 2010. If socio-economic policies are changed for the better in Sudan, Medani believes the peace process in Darfur would be greatly helped.

While the speakers presented a number of issues that could disturb the balance of Sudan, both were optimistic about the referendum and the possibility of recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt giving momentum to similar protests in Sudan, in which people are demanding more say in their government.

“[The protests] have galvanized and mobilized people in civil society to say we can actually go out on the street and express our grievances,” said Medani.

Alicia Luedke, a student of Medani’s at the forum, appreciated both the academic and personal perspectives of each speaker and the importance of the subject for her peers.

“Canadians do have a responsibility […] to help with state formation, but not in a way that’s intrusive,” said Luedke.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 21, published February 1, 2011.