A political earthquake may be about to rock Sudan and send tremors across Africa. A referendum is scheduled to occur on 9 January in which southern Sudan's eight million inhabitants may vote to separate from the 34 million citizens of northern Sudan and create their own new nation -- the US-backed state of South Sudan.
Many of modern Africa's borders are artificial: they were drawn by European colonial powers heedless of the continent's tribal, linguistic or economic geography.
Any changes in these borders are likely to unleash dangerous tensions, even demands for secession across the continent.
One of Africa's strongest taboos has been that borders inherited from the colonial era were immutable. A break-up of Sudan, Africa's largest nation, will bring into question the continent's entire geopolitical architecture.
Sudan is a doleful example of a colonial Frankenstein, an African version of that other British-created national disaster, Iraq.
Sudan extends from the Arab world and the sub-Saharan Sahel into the heart of black Africa; it was cobbled together by the British Empire to safeguard the Nile, Egypt's sole source of water, and to provide agricultural lands.
Within Sudan is a dizzying collection of almost 600 often feuding tribes speaking 400 different languages spread over a vast area: northern, Arabic-speaking Muslims and Nubians; ferocious Beja from the Red Sea Coast ("Fuzzy-Wuzzies" to the British); wild Bagarra nomads from Darfur; and Stone Age tribes from the upper Nile.
It is remarkable that Sudan has held together for so long. A low-intensity civil war has raged for 60 years between Muslim northerners and non-Muslim southerners in which two million are said to have perished. Muslims make up 75% of Sudanese; animists (traditional African faiths) account for about 20%, and southern Christians some 5%. Islamic law has been applied in the north, but rejected by most non-Muslim southerners.
Southern Sudan's Christian secessionist movement has long been guided and financed by British and US Christian missionaries who saw the region's Stone Age tribes as fertile ground for conversion. Western "humanitarian" aid groups have played a key role in fostering the south Sudan independence movement.
American Evangelical groups, including so-called "Christian Zionists." who are fiercely anti-Islamic, have been playing an important role in promoting southern Sudan's secessionist movement. American evangelicals now account for over 40% of Republican voters.
South Sudan has been rent for decades by local conflicts between its three main pastoral Nilotic tribes, the Dinka, Shilluk and Nuer, who routinely launch raids on one another for cattle and women. Their feuds are likely to carry over into a new south Sudanese state.
Sudan has also suffered another confusing conflict in the remote western regions of Darfur and Kordofan between nomadic and farming peoples. The International Criminal Court in the Hague has indicted Sudan's strongman, Gen. Omar el-Bashir, for war crimes in Darfur's murky tribal war that has become a cause celebre in the West.
Just how much Gen. Bashir's regime is responsible for alleged mass killings in Darfur's tribal melee remain uncertain. But Sudan is on the US black list as a terrorist supporter and under US sanctions. Independent-minded Sudan, branded a "rogue state" by Washington, has long been targeted for "regime change."
The US media and evangelical Christian groups have demonized Sudan and Gen. Bashir, and branded him a dangerous Islamist. Hysteria in North America over Darfur is exceeded only by the public's total lack of knowledge about this remote, complex region that is deceptively portrayed by media as a simplistic morality struggle between wicked Muslims and helpless black farmers.
Israel has been very active in arming and supporting the South Sudan SPLA guerilla movement, and will assume an even more influential role if southern Sudan goes independent.
Israel has long exercised influence in Sudan. Israel successfully bribed the late Sudanese dictator, Jaffar al-Numiery, to allow Ethiopian Falasha Jews to fly to Israel from Sudan.
Sizable deposits of oil were discovered in Sudan over the past decade. They are mostly located in south Sudan but the Khartoum government controls the export pipeline which runs north to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. China has become a major customer of Sudanese oil. Washington intends to elbow the Chinese out of Sudan if the south breaks away.
Control of global oil plays a primary role on US foreign and military policy. As a result, the US has become ever more deeply involved in Sudan's affairs. Washington has been discreetly working with southern Sudan to create a government, financial system, police, and army. South Sudanese officials are being trained in the US. The number of US diplomats and intelligence officers in Sudan has tripled.
A break-up of Sudan may have an immediate effect on other unstable neighbors, like Somalia, Chad, and the Republic of Congo. Ethiopia, itself an unstable amalgam, may get more deeply involved in the region.
Egypt, eternally sensitive about who controls the Nile's life-giving waters, is deeply worried about Sudan's future and fears a new regime in the south may begin diverting the river's waters.
Just at a time when the US is increasingly active in Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, it finds itself deeply involved in engineering the break-up of Sudan.
All this may be a bridge too far for the already over-stretched US military, intelligence services, and State Department, not to mention the empty US Treasury that now runs on borrowed money.
So all eyes on Sudan in the coming weeks.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2010