Southern Sudan’s spiffy new outpost in Washington isn’t really an embassy. But it could very easily become one in 2011 if this vast, Texas-size chunk of territory decides to secede from Sudan and become Africa’s newest independent nation. For now, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth is content being called “head of mission” rather than ambassador.
“I report to Juba, not to Khartoum,” said Lol, who at six feet six inches towers over almost every other envoy in town. Lol, a veteran of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), spoke to The Washington Diplomat from his sixth-floor office at 20th and M Streets.
“The SPLM is calling for a united Sudan,” he insisted. “If it can be transformed into a democratic, secular state where everybody is equal and all religions are respected, there is no need for us to have two countries. But if the north thinks we’re still uncivilized peasants — just a bunch of African tribes who cannot even govern themselves — then it’s better for us to have our own independent state.”
That could very well happen for this semi-autonomous region, which is expected to hold a referendum on its political status in 2011 under the terms of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement that tentatively brought an end to a 22-year civil war between the north and south. The fragile peace deal also ushered into power the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), which now has 18 missions around the world, including branches in Cairo, Nairobi, Brussels, Pretoria and Washington.
In fact, unlike many African embassies that suffer from peeling paint and general neglect, the GOSS office in Washington is new and sleek. A steady stream of petroleum revenues fund Lol’s 14-member staff, not to mention a sophisticated, user-friendly Web site that puts the sites of many larger, wealthier nations to shame.
“Our mission is funded by GOSS and is completely legal,” said Lol of the D.C. office that was established Jan. 16, 2007. “It’s in the Sudanese constitution.”
The Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan was adopted following the Second Sudanese Civil War of 1983-2005, which displaced some 4 million people and killed an estimated 1.9 million — one of the largest civilian death tolls since World War II. That conflict though is entirely separate from the current crisis in Darfur in the western part of the country between militias backed by the Arab government in Khartoum and various rebel groups.
Given the widely reported atrocities in Darfur, it’s no surprise that Lol is doing all he can to distance his government from the generally abysmal image of the Sudanese dictatorship. Asked to describe relations between his own mission and the Sudanese Embassy only six blocks away, Lol said there’s cooperation on routine matters like the issuance of visas — but huge differences on issues like Darfur.
“In my opinion, what is happening to the people of Darfur is genocide,” Lol told The Washington Diplomat. “They suffer just like us, they are marginalized just like us, and we cannot allow this to happen to fellow Sudanese. When it comes to violation of human rights, discrimination or censorship of the press, we’re not going to tolerate that.”
But Lol sidestepped a question on whether Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, is a war criminal. “The International Criminal Court says he has committed atrocities and has requested his arrest,” he said. “It has nothing to do with us. Whatever they do, we have no influence over it.”
Rather than elaborate, Lol simply handed The Diplomat a prepared statement dated July 14 on the ICC indictment, which says that “the SPLM leadership was taken aback by the speed of recent developments … which has understandably created a serious situation that could threaten peace and stability in the Sudan.”
Not that the 42 million inhabitants of this country — Africa’s largest in size — have ever enjoyed much of either, whether they lived to the south, west, east or north. Lol, 36, grew up in a nation at war.
“Sudan got its independence in 1956. Our first war lasted from 1955 to 1972, and the second from 1983 to 2005,” he explained. “So we have had only 10 years of peace in this country.”
That first war saw the Anyanya movement — representing mainly Christian and animist black Africans in Southern Sudan — battling Arab Muslim government forces from the north. Civil war resumed in 1983, when the dictatorship ruled by Gaafar Nimeiri restricted southern autonomy and imposed Islamic law, known as Sharia.
“We were fighting on two fronts, the political and the military,” noted Lol, who was born in the village of Maluan, in the state of Upper Nile, and trained as a soldier in Ethiopia, where his rebel army unit was headquartered.
In 1993, Lol moved to Kenya and resettled in the United States the following year. After going to school in Texas, he became the SPLM’s deputy representative in this country, even as the civil war continued to rage back home.
By the time fighting between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army finally ended in May 2004, the country’s economy was in shambles — a result of strict U.N. sanctions imposed on it by an outraged world.
Lol said that under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed on Jan. 9, 2005, “we have one country, Sudan, with two systems. In the north, it’s the Islamic system, or Sharia, and in the south, it’s a secular system. We also have two armies, the SPLA and the Sudan Armed Forces, and we have a joint integrated unit — with soldiers from both armies — and have put them together as a symbol of unity.” The CPA also gives this enormous territory the right to secede after six years, which means that a referendum on political status will most likely take place on Jan. 9, 2011.
“The outcome has to be respected — whether we separate or remain united with the north,” Lol said. “If [the north wants] to go for another war again, that’s their choice, but they’ll be violating the agreement. And I don’t think it’ll be good for them. They can’t afford another war in the south.”
But it remains to be seen if the north can afford to lose an area that’s inhabited by 12 million people and encompasses the size of Kenya, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda combined. The south is also home to something else the north won’t want to give up so easily: oil.
That’s because under independence, Southern Sudan would enjoy 100 percent of the billion or so in oil revenues generated by the crude oil extracted from its territory. Currently, it must split those revenues 50-50 with the central government in Khartoum.
No surprise then that a recent poll conducted by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute found that 98 percent of Southern Sudan’s people favor independence.
“If Khartoum would provide developmental assistance like roads and hospitals, that would appeal to southerners and they’d say, ‘Why should we form an independent state if we’re enjoying these services?’” Lol argues. “But that’s not happening.”
On the contrary, the Sudanese government continues to clash with southerners over precious resources, with the latest flare-up in the town of Abyei disrupting three years of relative peace and quiet in the region.
In a March 2008 dispatch from this dusty but strategic town, columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times called Abyei — which sits on considerable oil wealth — “the tinderbox for Africa’s next war.”
“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was here that the [Khartoum] government perfected the techniques that later became notorious in Darfur: mass rape and murder by armed militias, so as to terrorize civilians and drive them away,” Kristof charged. “Now Sudan is coming full circle, apparently preparing to apply the same techniques again to Abyei and parts of the south.”
Lol prefers not to talk about war, but he insists his government will defend its interests if the time comes. “It has to be a peaceful divorce, not a violent one. If it’s violent, then the north will be the one who loses,” he said. “They won’t have access to our oil or agricultural products, and all our natural resources. The north is dry — it’s all desert. We are feeding Khartoum. All the agricultural land and 90 percent of the oil is in Southern Sudan. We also have minerals such as uranium. So basically they need us, and we need them.
“If they say no,” he added matter of factly, “we will seal our border and trade with East Africa.”
To hedge its bets, the south is also seeking greater cooperation with the United States. With the help of the Bush administration, Lol is aggressively seeking U.S. investment in Southern Sudan, particularly in hotels, agriculture, oil infrastructure and gold mining.
“The divestment campaign doesn’t affect us, because Southern Sudan is exempted from the sanctions,” he explained of the international movement to cut investment ties with companies doing business in Khartoum. “If you want to invest in Southern Sudan, you’re allowed to. We coordinate with the Treasury Department’s OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control], so if you call us, in less than two weeks you will get your license.”
In fact, a commentary published earlier this year in Forbes magazine makes the point that “nuance serves U.S. values and foreign policy objectives far better than blunt economic instruments” — especially in the case of Sudan.
“While broad sanctions still apply to much of Sudan, stemming from a series of executive orders and legislative initiatives, U.S. policy has incorporated carve-outs for the Government of Southern Sudan in support of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement,” said the article, jointly written by Jake Colvin of the pro-business National Foreign Trade Council and Adam Sterling, who directs the Sudan Divestment Task Force, a project of the Genocide Intervention Network advocacy coalition.
“More recently, with the support of the U.S. government, the Bank of Juba in Southern Sudan received its own international banking code needed for international wire transfers,” the article continued. “As a result, American and foreign investors can effectively do business in Southern Sudan without having to go through Khartoum.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.