by Eric Margolis
Dangerous events are afoot in Black Africa. During my recent visit to Monaco, President Mobutu, the God-King of Zaire, lay gravely ill there with spreading cancer. A small army of worried flunkies and retainers clustered about his villa, wondering what would befall them when the great chief died.
In a chilling replay of the 1960's, white mercenaries are beginning to flock to Kinshasa, the seedy Zairean capitol, preparing for an inevitable battle for succession to determine who will rule and exploit Africa's great treasure house. A collapsing Zaire will shake Africa to its foundations, threatening wholesale warfare between the nation's 200 tribes.
Meanwhile, war is spreading in the south of Africa's largest nation, Sudan, a bewildering immensity that extends from the Egyptian border down into the heart of Central Africa. Northern Sudan is Muslim by religion and culture; its peoples, like Ethiopians, Somalis and Eritreans, are Hamites: a dark skinned, but non-negroid race whose roots are Semitic.
South Sudan, by contrast, is inhabited by animist or Christian Nilotic tribesmen of negroid origin -like the famous naked Dinka, who still live in the Iron Age. The two disparate parts of Sudan have been in conflict for decades.
In the 1960's and 70's, Israel and Ethiopia armed south Sudanese rebels in an effort to destabilize the government in Khartoum. Oxfam and other Christian `missionary' and `humanitarian' groups raised money and provided arms to the Sudanese rebels - which they do to this day in an effort to prevent the spread of Islam.
After a long bush war, the government managed to suppress the rebels. But when a radical Islamic regime came to power in Sudan, foolishly pledging to impose Islamic law on the south. The US and Egypt declared Sudan a `rogue state' and `promoter of terrorism.' They set about trying to overthrow the Islamic regime by promoting rebellion in the army, and by reopening aid to south Sudanese rebels - who by then were bitterly fighting among themselves. So far, about 1.5 million Sudanese have died in the long bush war, or from starvation caused by the conflict.
Last week, Khartoum charged it was being invaded on three fronts by troops from neighboring Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda. Anti-government Sudanese rebels have long been operating from bases in these three states, and striking across the border. This time, however, the invaders were well-armed and backed by tanks and artillery - a sure sign that regular troops were involved, most likely from Ethiopia.
The United States has been devoting much energy and money to forging a regional anti-Sudanese alliance. Rumors have circulated for months that CIA and Egyptian Intelligence were preparing an invasion force whose ultimate objective was to march north to Khartoum. Washington has sharply increased economic and military aid to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda over the past year.
Why is the US so preoccupied over Sudan which, despite its vast size, has only 29 million people and no resources other than the Nile and fertile land? First, because the aggressive Islamic militancy of the Sudanese regime - much of which remains purely verbal - set of alarm bells in Washington, where Muslims under the mattresses is the current scare du jour. With Libya and Iran isolated, and Iraq demolished, the US needs a new Islamic bogeyman to justify defense budgets and expanding intervention in the Mideast.
Dirt-poor, remote Sudan seems a pretty miserable choice, but it's all that was left. Second, Washington accuses Khartoum of aiding Islamic opponents of Egypt's US-supported military government of President Husni Mubarak. An assassination attempt by Islamic militants against Mubarak in Addis Ababa was staged, claims the US and Egypt, from Sudan. This is likely true. Khartoum has become a refuge for extremist Arab groups opposed to US domination of the Mideast and any sort of peace with Israel.
Washington is deeply nervous about its client Egypt, which contains 40% of the Arab World's population. Egyptian Islamic rebels have waged a long, bloody war against the Mubarak regime - which fights back with merciless ferocity. Even the remote threat of an Islamic revolution in Egypt based from Sudan fills the US and Israel with dread. One good way to prevent this is by squashing pesky Sudan.
Ethiopia, an historic enemy of Sudan, would also like to crush Khartoum. Just a century ago, the last great medieval battle of history occured in the Horn of Africa as a huge army of Ethiopian Christian crusaders, composed of armored knights and spearmen, was defeated by the more nimble mounted warriors of the Dervish army of Islamic Sudan.
Today, the remains of the Ethiopian Empire are at least 50% Muslim, perhaps 54%, thanks to the fast-growing Oromo (don't call them Gallas - or else!) population. A Christian Tigrean regime now rules Ethiopia. Washington and Addis Ababa fear Sudan may rekindle demands by Muslim Ethiopians for political power, or an independent state.
The clever Eritreans, themselves 50% Muslim, worry about Sudan and are deep in cahoots with Israel, which continues to pursue murky business at the strategic mouth of the Red Sea.
All the above are now after undiplomatic Sudan's turbaned head. You don't see buttons in East Africa saying `Kiss Me I'm Sudanese!'
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]