Stabilising the world’s youngest nation is in our enlightened national interest. A dummies guide to ‘why’
Rohit Bansal | January 1, 2014
The other day, on Twitter, former chief of army staff VK Singh saluted our fallen soldiers in ‘Sudan’. Since I track the region, I questioned the general, requested him to respect the difference between two sovereign nations: ‘Sudan’, which he had absent-mindedly referred to, and ‘South Sudan’, where two Indian peacekeepers serving the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) had been slained defending civilians who had taken shelter in their camp.
A range of trolls got after me for my ‘indiscretion and temerity’. ‘Why split hair’ was the refrain even as Gen Singh chose studied silence. ‘Plenty,’ my humble submission was, and remains. Here are four reasons why any Indian, and a former chief of the Indian army at that, shouldn’t foster indifference and illiteracy on the two Sudans:
1. Sudan was officially split on July 9, 2011. Hereafter, Juba has become the capital of the world’s newest nation: South Sudan. India has upgraded its consulate to a full-status embassy and we have, in Parmod Bajaj, a senior IFS officer, serving as ambassador. In my book, to refer to this sovereign country as ‘Sudan’ and justify this with nonchalance insults the 2 million lives it lost before achieving independence from the cruel regime in Khartoum.
2. Our stakes in South Sudan go beyond tokenism. Out of 7,500 UNMISS personnel stationed there – as the country was split, the UN Mission in Sudan too was split. One third of these brave men and women are drawn from the Indian army and police forces. True to form, Indian forces are deployed in the most dangerous territory of South Sudan, i.e., Jonglei state. Not surprisingly, it is our boys who have suffered the maximum casualties – seven out of the 10 UNMISS armed personnel killed have been ours. So, for a former army chief not to know the difference between Sudan and South Sudan slurs the memory of these gallant sons of India.
3. The root of civil war in South Sudan lies in the oil beneath. Oil has been the driver of Khartoum’s ‘colonisation’ of the southern territories. The entire liberation movement was, in fact, driven by angst that the north was sucking oil out of the south, refining it in a complex built with Chinese help, and then evacuating it via pipelines to Port Sudan on the Red Sea, leaving South Sudan with precious little of the bounties.
As Indians, it is therefore important that we guard our early investments in Sudan/South Sudan oil. Since 2003, we’ve invested some $2.5 billion in this game via ONGC Videsh, the overseas arm of ONGC. We have some 25 percent stake in four oil blocks in South Sudan, with China’s CNPC, Malaysia’s Petronas and the national oil company as our JV partners. To state the obvious, it is important, therefore, not to insult our host nation by our ignorance on their name and the struggle that went into securing their freedom.
4. The tricky bit is about placing our bets on one of the two gladiators in the ring. The incumbent, president Salva Kiir Mayardit, is from the Dinka tribe, and someone who has never quite built bridges with India. In fact, just a few months back, he backed out of visiting New Delhi at the eleventh hour, unmindful of many red faces in South Block. Challenging Salva Kiir is his former deputy, the British-educated Riek Machar. Now, Machar has visited us and is evenly predisposed to any power that supports him in his quest for the presidential palace in Juba. He doesn’t just harbour the long-standing rivalry with the Dinka; the wily Nuer genuinely believes he is intellectually better equipped than his former boss to guide the fortunes of the world’s newest nation. The UN, on its part, sees both Salva Kiir and Machar as perpetrators of mass violence.
Our stated policy of remaining ‘hands off’ in internecine warfare doesn’t quite help: the Chinese, for example, are quietly taking sides as it serves their deep interests in the oil sweepstakes. India had a pronounced role in assisting the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement which fought against Khartoum, first securing partial autonomy in 2005 and full independence in 2011. True to form, we were the first to open a consulate in Juba in 2005.
So, Juba matters, Gen Singh. And it’s in ‘South Sudan,’ by the way!
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