|God and man in southern Sudan
Production charts the course of Egyptian diva’s history
During the first round of major peace talks between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in Abuja, Nigeria in May 1992, the biggest news item emerging from the round that two rebel factions were going to announce their decision to unite came from a representative of the German Lutheran Church, who brokered the unification talks. Journalists who knew the representative got the text of the unification communique a day in advance.
But there was another side to the story. Instead of uniting the two factions, the agreement splintered the rebels even further. SPLA leader Colonel John Garang was furious at a deal that he had not approved in advance. The leader of the SPLA’s delegation to the Abuja talks, William Nuyn Bany, fled for his life. He later joined the dissidents, defected back again to Garang’s faction in 1995, left again, and was eventually killed in inter-rebel fighting in 2000.
That incident reveals the paradoxical relations between the Christian-led southern Sudanese rebels and the zealous Christian missionaries supporting them. The SPLA emerged in 1983 as a radical secular movement supported by the Marxist regime in Ethiopia. Its main weapons supplier until 1985 was Libya. However, even in that phase, it had no qualms about accepting support from Christian groups. It also made no effort to dilute the intense propaganda that tried to portray the Sudanese conflict as one between Christians and Muslims.
Christian churches have played an important role in southern Sudan ever since the British colonial government parceled out the region as fiefdoms to Western Christian missionaries at the beginning of the last century. Since the government provided no education and little health services to the region, the churches acted as a surrogate state, providing education and health services in return for the beneficiaries being baptized as Christians. The inhabitants were pragmatic, accepting Christianity, but also adhering to traditional beliefs and norms. This explains why, despite the south’s being a mosaic of sects and denominations, conflict there flares along ethnic and tribal, rather than along sectarian lines.
When the south entered into conflict with the north over relations between the two parts of the country in the 1950s, the churches supported the southern struggle. They were blamed by successive Sudanese governments for stoking the conflict, if not masterminding it. In 1962, the then military regime expelled Christian missionaries and passed a law banning foreign missionaries from the south. This intensified the conflict and international Christian networks became the most significant propaganda tool for the southern cause. In 1972, the World Council of Churches played a key role in brokering the Addis Ababa agreement that brought peace to Sudan.
After the peace, missionary and church groups returned in force, and were active in many areas, particularly relief provision. A Norwegian researcher reported, for example, that the organization Norwegian Church Aid had become so powerful that it eclipsed the Sudanese state, which depended on it for resources. When the Sudan conflict flared anew, the churches again supported the southern rebels and took the lead in supplying aid and much more, the government charges to war-affected areas. They also provided vital propaganda for the rebels, while some missionaries were also active in the search for peace.
As in all conflicts, there was a fine line between providing humanitarian relief and logistical support for the combatants. One cannot, for example, provide food to civilians and allow rebel soldiers to starve. So the Christian relief groups in Sudan had to make compromises. Rebel commanders now routinely hitch rides on relief planes and use the extensive relief communications network for their purposes.
However, the relationship between the SPLA and its Christian supporters remains uneasy. The rebel movement has tried to control the activities of the churches. It established its own New Sudan Council of Churches (NSCC), to rival the existing Sudan Council of Churches. But even then conflict continued. The former leader of the NSCC, Bishop Paride Taban, was once beaten by rebel commanders over policy differences and has since been removed. Church leaders often complain of human rights abuses by rebel commanders, and are treated by the SPLA as a nuisance.
The SPLA also had no qualms about fleecing its church supporters. For example, the Swiss-based Christian Solidarity International made much fanfare about a slave redemption program, in which it paid millions of dollars to alleged slave traders to “redeem” slaves. It has since been revealed that local SPLA commanders staged the whole thing, rounding up men, women and children from surrounding areas and getting SPLA soldiers to pose as traders. The commanders then pocketed the cash.
However, the exploitation can be mutual. The Christian activists, who were apparently willing to be duped, also appear to be using the cause of the southern Sudanese to further their own objectives, such as fighting against the “Muslim fundamentalist” regime in Khartoum.
With deadlock continuing in recent Sudanese peace talks in Kenya, this situation is bound to continue.
Abdelwahab el-Affendi is a senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR
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