Recalling the Secret Wars of the 1990s
As President-elect Barack Obama puts together his administration, he will be seeking to avoid many of the errors of his predecessor. But he should also learn the lessons of the 1990s, when the last Democratic Administration first began to focus on Sudan, at that time in the context of terrorism and the war between Khartoum and the SPLA.
In 2001, I began writing a review of the foreign policy of the Sudan Government since the 1989 coup. My focus was mostly on Khartoum’s relations with its immediate neighbours, with whom it had been engaged in a series of secret wars for most of the previous twelve years, but U.S. policy was also in focus. After the September 11 attacks by al Qa’ida, I added some additional details on U.S. counter-terrorism policy. One reason for this was that after 9/11 there was an attempt to pin the blame for Usama bin Laden’s activities on Clinton’s Africa team””who, it was claimed, had passed over the chance to have him arrested. That was, I felt, unfair. In my judgement, the Sudan Government was not acting in good faith when it made the offer to hand him over, and at the time (1996), bin Laden was not a prime terrorist suspect in Khartoum.
The paper was later published in an edited volume, Islamism and Its Enemies in the Horn of Africa. The pdf is available on this link: politics-of-destabilisation.
Looking back on this review seven years on, some different lessons emerge. The most important of these is that the governments with the power of changing the regime in Khartoum were the neighbours, acting in concert. The policy of the second Clinton Administration was to support those neighbours–regime change by proxy. But when Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war with each other in May 1998, the possibility of regime change slipped beyond grasp. However, by this time, America’s moral solidarity with the Southern Sudanese (especially in Congress) meant that the policy was still pursued.
Those who would like to draw the lesson that “pressure works” on Khartoum will have plenty of evidence in support of their claim from the story of the 1990s. But during those years, the pressure that worked was direct military pressure by the Ethiopians, Eritreans, Egyptians and Ugandans. In 1997 and 1998, for example, Ethiopia had entire tank battalions in Sudan and some of its most senior and experienced combat generals directing combined operations by the SPLA and units from the Ethiopian and Ugandan armies. Because this chapter in Sudanese history has not been properly written up, it is easy to overlook the importance of the immediate neighbourhood. In this context, it would not be correct to draw the inference that U.S. sanctions and condemnation brought about Khartoum’s policy changes on their own.