Juba, the administrative capital of Southern Sudan, itself the centre of a war zone only a few months ago, is these days playing host to a peace conference between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group of northern and eastern Uganda led by Joseph Kony, and the Ugandan government, to end a war that has been going on for 20 years.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa. With its 2.5 million km2, it is one-third the size of the continental United States. The north is Arab, Muslim, with pitiless expanses of desert, broken by the oasis of Khartoum, the capital, where the streets are set out like the Union Jack, and where the Blue and White Nile meet, the “longest embrace in history”, in the words of an Arab poet. The South is animist and Christian, and ethnically and culturally it is Nilotic. In the rainy season, which is now, the South is lush with tropical vegetation – and oil, besides gold, copper, marble, silver, chromium and zinc. The discovery of oil contributed to the end of the war between North and South and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Nairobi in January last year. Oil and international pressure managed to achieve what years of lop-sided negotiations failed to do.

A land of wars

But this country, once known as Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, is no newcomer to the self-interest of foreign powers. The waters of the Nile, the endless abundance of ivory and slaves, made it a battleground in the late 19th century, so that by the year 1900, the country could count barely two million inhabitants, a drop of about a half.

Anglo-Egyptian rule ended in 1956, but the year before a 17-year civil war had begun which resulted in 400,000 deaths and displaced one million people. It resulted in limited autonomy for the South. Independent Sudan has oscillated between military and civilian rule –- mainly the former –, and varying degrees of application of the sharia law.

In 1991 the sharia penal code was imposed by the government of General Al-Bashir, a move that was totally unacceptable to the mainly non-Muslim South. Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 and is still president. Although presidential and parliamentary elections were allowed in 1996, he is seen as hard-liner. From 1989 to 1996, the National Islamic Front (NIF) was the only party allowed. All men intending to go to university had to serve one year in the NIF, and all primary-school children had two years of compulsory Islamic education.

In Sudan, since the time of Mohamed Ahmed ibn-el Sayidd Abdullah, the Mahdi, the charismatic leader whose men put to death the governor-general, Charles Gordon, on the palace steps in 1885, while he was awaiting a relief expedition, Islam has had a strong Mahdist, that is milleniarist, tendency. Al-Bashir is in this strict tradition. His immediate predecessor as prime minister was Sadiq al Mahdi, the great-grandson of the Mahdi, who was overthrown in a coup. Before him, General Jafaar Numeiri, who ruled from 1969 to 1986, had a reputation as a mender of fences. Nevertheless his regime put to death the apostate Muslim thinker, Mahmood Taha, who taught that one message of the Prophet was intended for the people of his time, and the second for all time. This fundamentalist streak, as well as Sudan’s refusal to extradite suspects in the attempted assassination of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, have helped contribute to fears in the West that Sudan is a breeding ground for terrorists.

Poverty and strife

Figures from 1994 showed a population of 28 million people for the whole country — 23 million sheep, 22 million cattle and 3 million camels- with about 80 per cent of the population living in the countryside, including 2 million nomads. Most people live a subsistence existence. The years of war have taken their toll, and Sudan is among those countries with the lowest life expectancy, highest infant mortality rate, and lowest literacy (50 per cent for males and 17 per cent for females in the year 2000). The North has clearly been top dog since independence. The South, as one would expect, presents quite a different picture, because of years of war and occasional famines and droughts. Forty years ago, Juba was one of the largest towns in east and central Africa. Teak forests had been planted by the British, and are now mature. Yet the only signs of development are where the Catholic Church has managed to keep its projects operating.

With peace comes hope

After years of carpet bombing by the forces of the North, many Southerners people remain in camps, until the mines and unexploded bombs have been disabled. The infrastructure is non-existent: Juba is being rebuilt, almost from scratch; Rumbek is a town of tents, and Yei is just makeshift dwellings of grass thatch. Kenyans and Ugandans have gone to rebuild the physical structures and help relay the logistical and civic foundations -– and some money is also finding its way back to the South as part of the CPA.

Investors from the region are being invited to enter partnerships with Sudanese investors, and to direct most of their resources to develop the more remote areas. Cement and electric power are in great demand; banks, especially from Kenya, have opened for business and there is talk of a rail link to Kenya. Visitors to southern Sudan say that despite the years of turmoil and the existing harsh conditions, the people there are hopeful.

Yet a cloud remains. Was the death of the southern leader, John Garang, in an aircraft accident exactly a year ago, really an accident, as official finding declared -– or was it organised by the North to weaken the leadership in the South? In a region where political leaders die in mysterious circumstances, and where trust has been so deeply and regularly undermined, even well-founded explanations are suspect. Garang was a power for the North to reckon with and he had his commanders firmly under his thumb. His successor, Salva Kiir, is seen as more conciliatory and less firm. Already the commanders are starting to assert themselves and the first signs of corruption are appearing.

Southern Sudanese have good reason to be cautious. China desperately needs oil, and China was known to support the North before the CPA was negotiated and signed. Once basic infrastructure has been set up in the South, and the foreigners have left, will the past repeat itself, perhaps not militarily but politically?

Oil may upset the balance

A recent report casts some light on the situation on the ground. Published by ECOS (the European Coalition on Oil in the Sudan), a group of more than 80 European organisations working for peace and justice in the country, it exposes the negative consequences of oil drilling there. It focuses on the activity of the Petrodar Operating Company, which has an exploration and production sharing agreement with the Sudanese government. Petrodar has 47 per cent owned by the Chinese, 40 per cent by Malaysians, 8 per cent by Sudanese and 5 percent by the United Arab Emirates. The report found that Petrodar had acted as a loyal partner of the Sudanese government, and that in defiance of the CPA it has not respected the environment or the rights of the local people.

In Melut, one of the two counties where oil is being drilled, production comfortably exceeds $10 million a day, yet returns to the area are negligible. The cost in human terms is the demolition of Dinka settlements and the desecration of their graveyards. In ecological terms, the famous Machar Marches wetlands are threatened, since the oil works cut directly through it. There is risk of polluting the Nile, which would have disastrous consequences for both Sudan and Egypt.

Although cautious, the southern Sudanese also see within their grasp the peace and development that have eluded them for so long. If in northern Uganda too, peace is finally established, after years of terror, the region will begin to flourish as well. People are exhausted with war. But in the case of southern Sudan, the North must show it is serious and genuine, and the oil companies must treat the local people and the natural environment with respect. Both must ensure that resources return to the development of the South. The oil fields must not become killing fields, and the Western Upper Nile a modern African replica of the Wild West.

Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.