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Updated: July 10, 2011 11:45 IST

Sudan movement's mission is secured

Jeffrey Gettleman
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South Sudanians celebrate their country's independance during a ceremony in the capital Juba on Saturday.
AFP South Sudanians celebrate their country's independance during a ceremony in the capital Juba on Saturday.

Involvement of celebrities, religious groups helped the region

On the desk in his office in Juba, the capital of what will soon be the world's newest country, R. Barrie Walkley, the U.S. Consul-General, has a telling picture. It is of him and George Clooney shaking hands in a crowd during the independence referendum here in southern Sudan in January.

The photograph offers a unique window into what is happening now. American celebrities and religious groups teamed with policymakers and helped a forlorn, underdog region finally achieve what very few separatist movements achieve: independence. On Saturday, after decades of guerrilla struggles and intense international pressure, the Republic of South Sudan will officially split from the north and become Africa's 54th country.

“Once you got someone like George Clooney, for example ...” Mr. Walkley trails off with a smile. “George packs power.”

Sudan has been an obsession for the West for more than 100 years, and it is an interesting question why, of all the world's conflict war zones and all the bloodbaths Africa has witnessed Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few this place has grabbed so much attention.

On Friday, last-minute preparations were being made for the deluge of high-powered guests expected on Saturday, from Colin L. Powell to President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. Juba's streets were coursing with soldiers in red berets. Work crews were putting fences up and applying final coats of paint. Throngs of young people marched down the road in impromptu parades. Passing motorists honked gleefully and pumped their fists in the air, in solidarity.

“In the coming hours,” said Barnaba Marial Benjamin, South Sudan's Information Minister, “we will bear witness to the passage of history and the transformation of the map of Africa.”

Sudan or soon, the two Sudans is a vast, complex place with a dizzying amount of diversity. Before Saturday's breakup, Sudan was the biggest country, geographically, in Africa. But it also has an unusually clear fault line, reinforced by British colonisers, with the southern part mostly animist and Christian and the north mostly Muslim and long dominated by Arabs. A huge swamp, the Sudd, roughly separates the two, and in the 19th century, Western missionaries began to champion the southern Sudanese cause.

“Long before there was such a thing as secular human rights groups or a United Nations, missionaries rallied behind Sudan's suffering,” said Eliza Griswold, author of The Tenth Parallel, a book on the line of latitude that roughly separates the Muslim and Christian worlds in Africa and Asia.

Friend in White House

In 2001, Christian groups found a friend in the White House. The administration of George W. Bush pushed southern rebels, who had been fighting for self-determination for decades, and Sudan's central government to sign a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, which guaranteed the southerners the right to secede.

But this policy success — which Bush officials consider one of their top achievements and may be one reason why Powell, Bush's first secretary of state, was expected here Saturday — was soon overshadowed by the crisis in Darfur. That conflict became the focus of one of the biggest humanitarian advocacy projects since the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985 raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine victims.

Darfur, in western Sudan, exploded in 2003 after rebels attacked government forces and the government responded by arming Arab militias that burned villages, massacred civilians and drove more than two million people off their land.

Just about everyone in Darfur is Muslim, so looking at Sudan's north-south conflict through the Crusades lens did not really apply. But an even more powerful way of presenting the violence emerged: Many called it genocide.

There was a relationship between two seminal events in Sudan: the explosion of violence in Darfur and the end of the decades-long war in the south. Many Sudan analysts have said that Darfur and all the attention it was getting was the added pressure that finally pushed the Sudanese government, facing an international public relations disaster, to sign the treaty in 2005 that gave the southerners just about all they wanted.

In January, Sudan's divorce became a fait accompli when southerners voted in a referendum, by 98.8 per cent, to secede. In the months leading to the vote, celebrities like Mr. Clooney urged the Obama administration to stay focused on Sudan. — New York Times News Service

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