African non-solutions for African problems

Sudan’s referendum in 2011 looms large on the agenda of think tanks and humanitarian do-gooders following African affairs, and for good reason. The result (if it isn’t delayed again) will see the creation of a new state and all manner of challenges to Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s grip on power. The one major trend in preliminary articles surrounding the referendum, however, predicts a strong chance of war or, at the least, the distinct possibility thereof.

The Carter Center has helpfully chipped in by suggesting reporting techniques to media covering the event, and the foreign press have exhibited an overall keenness on covering this momentous occasion. But the entire affair stinks of a freshly-deceased carcass surrounded by a cloud of well-meaning yet utterly foreign vultures. Sudan holds a special place amongst the humanitarian community as the veritable fly-infested kwashikor baby of disaster areas: Not as hopeless (and dangerous) as Somalia, and sufficiently unstable for front page material, but still utterly fashionable to get involved in. And heck, there’s the very-real chance of violence breaking out, which is always press gold for any semi-competent journalist or photographer.

And yet we hear absolutely nothing from fellow Africans.

Post-referendum conflict in Sudan is a very real possibility, and yet nobody seems to be planning accordingly. Our own president’s distinct lack of concrete foreign policy is only made more profound in light of this impending crisis.

Here in South Africa the press have zero budget to send a foreign correspondent or two, let alone a cameraman or news anchor, and yet they are precisely the individuals we need involved in this. DIRCO will probably make some suitably generic statement encouraging free and fair elections, but likely has not thought beyond this overly much (or if they have, this is not the impression portrayed to the public). Instead of relying on foreign wires and journalists swooping in from all corners of the humanitarian aid world, African leaders and African press should be taking a look at this referendum and finding ways to make sure it doesn’t wind up in violence. This is after all an Africa problem, so perhaps it would behoove us to find an African solution if we’re to put any purchase into the rhetoric exuded annually by the continent’s foreign ministers.

On the one hand, Foreign Policy criticises Obama’s lack of force in backing up his rhetoric on Sudan, which is fair, considering the POTUS’ general tendency to promise/threaten more than he is actually willing to deliver, but also missing the point. If African leaders considered American intervention viable there would be an Africa Command headquarters on, well, African soil. But there isn’t, and for a multitude of reasons. Instead, Kader Asmal’s little chestnut of finding “African solutions for African problems” and its subsequent adoption throughout the continent must be taken to heart if it is ever going to mean anything. With all the talk of an inevitable conflict in Sudan, and with America’s unwillingness to get involved and China’s default apolitical stance, where are the African leaders? We cannot rely on the Americans to solve this problem precisely because we have shunned their offers of assistance for years. Not only would it be hypocritical, it would also be incredibly pathetic to have to appeal to a power that Africans have a thinly-veiled, instinctual resistance to in the first place.

Post-referendum conflict in Sudan is a very real possibility, and yet nobody seems to be planning accordingly. Our own president’s distinct lack of concrete foreign policy is only made more profound in light of this impending crisis. South Africa is both capable and experienced in the task, having done a pretty decent job of it in the DRC and Burundi. Sudan’s regional neighbours would also do well to ensure the referendum does not result in a violent implosion, given the country’s current refugee crises. And yet we have heard scant resolution from foreign ministers and state leaders in Africa on how to go about ensuring the referendum results in progress rather than violent regression. This would be the perfect opportunity for African think tanks to get involved in DIRCO’s affairs. If private institutions are able to silently yet strongly push governments into planning for a Sudan with or without conflict, with or without secession, it would be a major shift in the role which they can play in African foreign affairs.

If Sudan sinks into murder and suffering once more nobody will be overly surprised. But three months out from this critical moment we are faced with the very real chance for Africans to actually step in and solve a problem before it even becomes one. The world has already acknowledged the potential for violence. All that remains is for Africa to take steps to prevent it. And yet, to borrow from Eban’s criticism of Arafat’s PLO, I suspect that “nobody misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity” as much as Africa’s political leaders.