Is Sudan Moving Back to the Brink of War?

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Ashraf Shazly / AFP / Getty

Sudanese take part in a pro-democracy rally in Omdurman, Sudan.

Sudan enters 2010 poised between war and peace — in Darfur, in its decades old conflict between north and south, and in a host of smaller internal conflicts. The largest country in Africa and home to some of its largest oil reserves, the country faces a general election in April, an independence referendum in the south a year from now, and the indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of its president, Omar al-Bashir, on war crimes charges. Here's TIME's guide to (yet another) year of living dangerously in Sudan:

How likely is a new civil war?

Fairly likely, not least because this has always been a combustible part of the world. Sudan straddles the fault-line between the Muslim Arab world and black, largely Christian Africa and the two sides have a long history of enmity: The first Sudanese civil war lasted from 1955 to 1972 and the second from 1983 to 2005; combined, the conflicts cost more than 2 million lives. Ten aid groups warned this week that 2009 saw a "major upsurge in violence" along the north-south frontier, with 2,500 people killed and 350,000 displaced, and they expressed a widely shared view that such violence is likely to escalate this year to the point of a breakup of Sudan, and a major humanitarian crisis. Rob Crilly, author of the forthcoming Saving Darfur: Everyone's Favorite African War, cautions that aid agencies "have sometimes cried wolf in their attempts to raise funds." But with much of Sudan still controlled by militias, the boundaries of the oil-rich areas between north and south still unresolved, and convincing evidence of large-scale re-arming on both sides, he adds: "At best, the [general election and independence referendum] could ease Sudan along the path towards democracy. At worst, they could herald a new phase of repression, followed by a resumption of war."

So what can be done?

In a word, engagement. As Crilly points out, "Under pressure from China, Bashir allowed peacekeepers into Darfur. Under pressure from the U.S., he signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the south in 2005. In short, with the right combination of carrots and sticks, [Bashir] is prepared to do deals." In a report for the British parliament in October, Jon Lunn wrote that engagement was also crucial to helping create a "stable, cooperative and confident leadership in the south" without which, he wrote, a peaceful and successful outcome was unlikely.

Both the U.S. and China, which drills much of Sudan's oil, are engaging Khartoum through special envoys. Also attempting to mediate at one point or another have been Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Muammar Gaddafi and the royal family of Qatar. But more pressing international problems from Iran to Afghanistan and North Korea tend to divert attention away from Sudan. And while world powers agree on the need for engagement, disputes continually arise on how best to proceed.

What are the international differences over how to deal with Sudan?

Particularly contentious has been the role of ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo. The U.S. opposes the ICC in principle, while China, Russia, African leaders and many Sudan experts oppose Ocampo's 2009 indictment which, they say, has pushed Bashir into a corner and imperiled diplomatic efforts to avert a crisis. Ocampo has also been accused, along with the Save Darfur lobby group, of inflating casualty figures in the conflict and thereby allowing Khartoum to discredit international critics.

Of course, without such activist efforts, most people would never have even heard of Darfur. Still, even if you can forgive a little hyperbole, the Save Darfur lobby succeeded in garnering support in party by portraying a complex conflict in a faraway land in simple good-versus-evil terms, Darfuris against an evil genocidal regime in Khartoum. The simplistic picture of Africans being victimized by Arabs ignored the wider context and ethnic complexity of Sudan, and also the human rights abuses committed by Darfuri separatist forces. And the international attention won for Darfur came largely at the expense of southern Sudan, which is now threatening to become the center of a new civil war. To keep the peace, Crilly warns, the West needs to reacquaint itself with the complexity and interconnectedness of Sudan's conflicts, and to understand that the country is "not run by the madmen or genocidal maniacs of popular opinion but by a carefully calculating cabal, intent on securing its own hold on power."

What's climate change got to do with it?

The conflict in Darfur, and most of the disputes across Sudan and indeed the wider Sahel region, are fights over increasingly scarce vital resources — water, fertile land and, latterly, oil. Climate change exacerbates desertification, which aggravates those disputes, potentially sparking new wars and humanitarian disasters. The situation is not all bleak, however: Desertification since the 1970s in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ethiopia has prompted villagers to undertake massive re-greening efforts, generally without any outside assistance, that have reclaimed millions of acres. Similar efforts in Sudan, currently being mooted by environmental groups, would likely ease the pressures for war.

What if the Sudanese are set on a return to war?

International pressure and mediation can only do so much. And nobody expects a more robust intervention than the U.N.-African Union peacekeepers already deployed in Darfur. Whatever the calls for the world to act, to a great extent the future of Sudan — war, peace, unity, disintegration — will be left to the Sudanese to decide.