Last week I met the parents of one of the Girifna activists, who I will call Nahid. It was a couple of the best hours of this trip. They have been studiously apolitical for years – the same tack taken by many Sudanese who want to stay safe. And then Nahid launched head-on into confrontation with the ruling regime. They are finding the transition tough, but are intensely proud of their daughter.
In part of a wide-ranging discussion we got onto the U.S. approach to Sudan, and what will happen in the coming year. Nahid's father thinks the U.S. will work intensively to help build the new government of southern Sudan, and that with all their energy on that "they will leave us to Bashir." Then he said, "Why they care about the south and not about the north, I do not know. Is it religion? What do you think it is?"
Tough question to be faced with. I did not dispute the premise. Whether it reflects the way U.S. government officials really feel or not, their actions tell Sudanese that they care about southern Sudanese as a bloc more than they care about northern Sudanese as a bloc. Now southerners have been through decades of horrific war the likes of which northerners outside of Darfur have not had to live through. So that is one objectively good reason for the U.S. to invest more effort in the south. But there are other reasons as well. One is that the south had a clear leader to deal with in the form of John Garang and now (less convincingly) Salva Kiir. Northern opposition has never come up with a convincing alternative to Bashir, in part because they have never managed to unify around a common agenda the way the SPLM (through ways good and bad) did.
I also wonder about reasons external to Sudan. Southern Sudanese have had decades of U.S. advocacy support behind them. If there had been a well-organized, politically significant coalition of Americans pushing the White House to support northerners who oppose Bashir's rule for the past decade, then the U.S. approach to northern Sudan might be quite different today.
If the U.S. supports a newly independent south, which it both should and will, what obligations does it have to the north? Separation is seemingly good for southerners – though no doubt it will be tough in practice. The same cannot be said for northerners. I am yet to meet anyone here who thinks that their life won't get worse if the south secedes. This is doubly, triply so given the NCP's total stranglehold on the government since the elections – elections that the U.S. accepted, despite State Department recognition that they "did not, broadly speaking, meet international standards."
I cannot adequately convey the level of indignation with which that particular quote has been recited back to me, word-for-word, on multiple occasions this trip. In-ter-na-tion-al-stan-dards is articulated with fury. "Do they not think that we, in the Sudan, are worthy of 'international standards'?" I am asked. "If an election in Europe or the U.S. did not meet international standards, would it be accepted?" In the words of Dr. Mariam al-Mahdi; "The U.S. talks as if it is enough for us to get out of our homes and put any kind of paper in any kind of box."