the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 March 4


Britain’s Food Standards Agency has withdrawn all products containing a particular dye, known formally as 1-phenylazo-2-naphthalenol and informally as Sudan 1, from sale. The dye was already banned as a carcinogen, but has nonetheless been used. The government, in its haste to remove a potential health risk from circulation, failed to consider the diplomatic risk. Sure enough, the government of Sudan complained that the country of Sudan was being unfairly associated with this cancer-causing substance. Chemists are like that, applying exotic African names to their potions without any thought of the consequences. I myself have used the chemical reagent Congo Red in junior high chemistry; a few of my classmates even made up a song about it, which they performed at a talent show. Congo Red had nothing really to do with the Congo, so ‘Sudan 1’ is nothing novel as far as chemical nomenclature goes. Still, Sudan was right; there was no connection.

The northern part of Sudan is an Arab territory, like the entirety of North Africa. (The Berber presence in the west is populous but powerless.) As the Sahara gives way to the Sahel, Arabia gives way to black Africa, all across the continent. That frontier runs through the official borders of the Sudanese state. The southern part of Sudan is a conglomeration of African nations related to those in neighboring states. The north, like the rest of Arabia, is Muslim. The south, like the rest of Africa, is animist and Christian.

The present government of Sudan may be the most extreme Arab and Islamic chauvinist régime in the entire Arab world, and considering the competition that is an accomplishment of grand proportions. And if you don’t like the government, you aren’t going to like its loyal opposition any more. The leading opposition figure is Hasan al-Turabi, an Islamist autocrat who originally ruled using Omar Hassan al-Bashir as something of a figurehead. Al-Bashir impressively won a power struggle, and has kept al-Turabi imprisoned much of the time since then. For decades, the Arab government fought to impose its will on the African nations of the south. This sort of imperialism would have been unwelcome under any circumstances, but it was particularly unwelcome among the southerners because they are not Muslim, and because the northern government was not merely Muslim, but fundamentalist. The two Arab factions are both keen to make Sharia the law of Sudan. This is bad enough in Nigeria, where northern (black) Muslims are imposing Sharia but face restraints from democracy and the popular power of the south in the central government. In Sudan, there is no democracy, and the central government is the source of fundamentalism. It is also, as other states, jealous of its territorial prerogatives, to control the population of the whole country, and to exploit its natural resources, which in this case means oil. Whether Khartoum is acting out of Arab nationalist chauvinism, crusading Islamist zeal, or materialist hunger for wealth, it has spared no lives in its effort to subjugate the south.

Southern Sudan has been at war with the north, and much of the south has experienced independence de facto; but it has been a troubled, impoverished independence. The war was long and bloody and many southerners died. For complex reasons, the north and the south seem to have reached agreement to end the conflict, setting boundaries, dividing up territory and power, and even establishing a mechanism for southern secession. But as the war in the south was winding down, a new war appeared in the west, a region of Sudan called Darfur. Arab militias called Janjaweed engaged in prolonged attacks on the black African population of Darfur, killing them, raping them, destroying their villages and fields, and driving them into exile. These Janjaweed have received professional military support from Khartoum, and only Khartoum says otherwise. Hundreds of thousands, no one knows exactly how many, have died in this short conflict, many of them from indirect causes but many of them simply murdered. All of them, though, are the direct responsibility of the Janjaweed and their allies, the recognized government of Sudan. Only the United States, among governments, has deigned to call this genocide. I was myself reluctant to do this in the beginning, thinking the term something of a cliché, which a word like ‘genocide’ should never become. But the ethnic attacks in Darfur are genocide. There is clear intention on the part of the Arab forces, military and paramilitary alike, to remove and even wipe out the African population permanently. They can hardly stop themselves, even as the world has been watching and even threatening. On its own scale, it resembles the final days of the Final Solution; but though the scale is smaller, no one can say that the deaths are not significantly, even appallingly, numerous.

Sudan does have a public relations problem. Of that there is no doubt. But whatever to do? Option one: the government can protect its reputation in the world by lodging a full diplomatic objection with Britain over the inadvertent chemical nomenclature used by one of its lesser agencies. Option two: it could stop murdering thousands and thousands and thousands of people. Perhaps if one of the options turned out to be cheaper ....


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