(An edited version of this article appeared in the Saturday, March 13, 2004 edition of the Washington Times, A Section commentary pages.)
By Chris Ingram
Recently I had the opportunity to visit Sudan on behalf of the International Republican Institute and the U.S. Department of State. I was asked to join a team visiting the country in order to help train leaders of the emerging democracy with their party governance and communications.
The people of Sudan have endured decades of civil war between various regimes in the North and those seeking liberty both in the South and in the western and eastern peripheries. Today, the hope for peace between the two main warring factions is closer than ever. While the international community remains concerned about the Government of Sudan’s engagement in the conflict in western Sudan’s Darfur, one cannot let pass the idea that the proximity to peace between North and South may become a reality.
Signing a peace deal between North and South isn’t the end of the process — it’s merely the beginning. Indeed, this is where the hard work begins – building a democratic state and a functional government. This means the terms democratic and functional will not just be for the government that is to emerge from the South, it will cover all of Sudan, as the opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is expected to participate in Sudan’s national government. Thanks to the foreign policy established by President Bush, America is committed to helping expand democracy in Sudan. Unlike any lone super power before it, the United States of America has not and does not use its superior strength to take advantage of weaker nations. In fact, as the world’s lone remaining super power, the United States of America works to rid the world of tyranny and oppression around the globe.
The people of Iraq are better off today now that Saddam Hussein is gone, and no doubt the people of Afghanistan are also better with the Taliban on the run and stable leadership in place. Democracy is evolving in both countries and our efforts to promote freedom continue around the world in such seemingly far-flung places as Sudan.
America’s greatest export is democracy. People who have lived under repressive regimes are being freed because of the foreign policy of the United States. “Thank you America” was frequently heard in Sudan. In East Africa, U.S. involvement is not only needed – it is wanted and appreciated.
For the Sudanese, the tasks that lie ahead are tremendous and overwhelming. Unlike other areas where the U.S. is involved in democracy building such as former Soviet Republics, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Sudan has been ravaged by its internal wars for so long it would be an understatement to say they are starting from the ground up.
Simply put, in South Sudan, there is no pre-existing government. Services are provided by humanitarian aid groups and other non-government organizations. Infrastructure is below typical third-world levels. Experience in government is nearly non-existent. Educated leaders are few and far between. Disease runs rampant. Tribal differences must be sorted out. The challenges are immense.
It is in “New Site,” the temporary capital of South Sudan, from where democracy will emerge. A misnomer, New Site is nothing more than a small village consisting of perhaps three dozen tents, and even fewer permanent structures for housing, a dining hall, and a school. The words “Judicial Administration” printed in black magic marker adorn the side of one tent, and “Agriculture” on another.
The city has running well water and electricity which is supplied by diesel generators. The city also recently acquired four computers with internet access and permanent satellite phone access. These few modern conveniences those of us in the West take for granted every day will be the lifeline of the new government.
Despite the lack of adequate infrastructure, the spirit of the South Sudanese all but ensures they will succeed. The people of South Sudan have fought long and hard to get to this point and they will fight even harder to ensure a safe, open, and democratic system as the country moves past the civil war.
The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), leading the peace negotiations with the Government of Sudan, has been preparing for its role as guide for the transformation to peace by transforming itself into a political party from a proto-military organization. Leadership at this time is daunting enough for any group that seeks to “bootstrap” themselves into responsibility, but couple that with the politics of tribes, regions and ethnic realities, saying that factionalism will be a problem is an understatement.
No, leadership and internal transition will not be easy, but the spirit I witnessed in their eyes, heard in their voices, and felt through the shake of the hands of the South Sudanese cannot be faked. They recognized that democracy will be the tool that they need to overcome their hurdles. They are determined to import democracy and we must not abandon them.
With great conviction, SPLM leaders spoke of their appreciation for President George W. Bush and his leadership and assistance to the area. Not being able to escape the ever-present American political pundits, they are concerned that the “experts” say Bush may be defeated. I told them the experts are wrong. Just like the South Sudanese, the American people recognize the need for a strong leader who says what he means and means what he says.
President Bush has successfully changed a wait-and-see foreign policy on Sudan to an aggressive policy of engagement between the South and the North. Only through this policy change do the South Sudanese believe the two sides would have ever come to the table to negotiate a lasting peace. For that, they are grateful. On the cusp of an agreement, the South Sudanese are beginning to develop the newest democracy in East Africa. The greatest challenge is the enormity of developing the government from scratch, not over-promising to their people, and balancing the interests of various tribes within the South.
All of this has to be done while dealing with an absolute lack of basic needs, transportation routes, and communications infrastructure. Under normal circumstances this would prove difficult. Add to the mix hundreds of thousands of hungry people, a war torn economy, disease, and a lack of medicine, and you have a recipe for failure.
Having visited New Site and the people who live and work there, in addition to a ten year old refugee camp of over 7,500 displaced Sudanese, I can only shake my head when considering the enormity of the work to be done. But the children all smiles and there is hope in the eyes of the adults.
It appears failure is not in the blood of the South Sudanese. While the challenges are immense, they are achievable. The hope for peace is close to reality. Today’s young people will carry books not weapons, and the country will slowly make up for its years lost to war. That is truly something to smile about.
For the West, we must not forget where the Sudanese have come from when considering where they need to go and how long they may need our help. The South Sudanese know they need our help. They long for it. They know that without President Bush’s continuing interest and long-term commitment to unifying Sudan, democracy will fail.
As the world’s lone super power we have an interest in seeing Sudan succeed. As Americans, it is our duty. Democracy is our greatest export.