Crises deepen rift between Arabs, Africans

THE CRISES IN Somalia and Sudan are pitting Arabs and African governments against each other, sharpening a centuries-old continental divide.

That’s clear from the way two regional groups — the Arab League and the African Union — have treated Sudan, a member of both.

Sudan currently chairs the Arab League, and was supposed to hold the rotating chairmanship of the African Union as well when it hosted the summit of the group’s 53 states and territories in February. The Africans withheld the privilege, however, because of Sudan’s alleged complicity in atrocities in its Darfur region.

UN peacekeeping has further highlighted the division.

The African Union wants the UN in Darfur, Sudan doesn’t, and the Arab states support Sudan’s stance.

Africa experts say tensions between Arab and ethnic African states over Darfur have been growing for months.

Egypt’s Ahram newspaper, which reflects the government’s view, charged in a recent editorial that peacekeeping missions are a cover for foreign powers “to find a toehold in a region rich with strategic minerals.” “Once a region is destabilised, international powers step in and rearrange it according to their needs,” Ahram said.

Helmoed Romer Heitman, a South African defence analyst for Jane’s Defence Weekly, agrees that when it comes to oil, outsiders don’t necessarily have Africa’s best interests at heart. “I’m not sure they really want good functioning states because they’re more expensive to buy and work with than weak, fractious ones,” he said.

But he said Arab states harbour a deep-seated racism towards black Africa, and Gamal Eid, executive director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information, accused them of having a “generally condescending view” towards their southern neighbours. He believes the rift is widening.

Compounding the friction is Somalia, where Islamic fighters — reportedly backed by Arab and other Muslim extremists — are vying for authority with a weak government. The Arab states oppose foreign peacekeepers for Somalia, a member of both the African Union and the Arab League, though that country’s own government wants them.

Somalia and Sudan are at the eastern end of a continentwide line where Islam and Christianity first collided 150 years ago, as Arabs moved south bringing Islam and bumped up against European colonisers with their Christian missionaries. Both Arabs and Europeans were involved in the slave trade, leaving a legacy of resentment among Africans.

Nowadays, the conflicts in the two countries are exposing the fault lines between the African Union and the Arab League, some of whose 22 members belong to both.

Iqbal Jhazbhay, a political analyst at the University of South Africa, noted that when the African Union was founded six years ago, it pledged not to ignore members’ human rights violations. The Arab League, however, though, rarely criticises one of its own.

The result, Jhazbay said, is that Arab League countries “have found themselves marginalised” in African forums.

He added that when the Arab League recently launched peace talks for Somali factions, some Africans saw it as interference. “That certainly has not gone down well with key member states of the African Union,” he said.

Race and religion were evident in the 21-year conflict that divided Sudan between northern Arab Muslims and southern black Christians and others.

That war ended in 2005, but, meanwhile, Darfur was becoming the vast country’s next battleground.

In Darfur, the fight pits Muslims against Muslims, though some identify themselves as African and others as Arab.

Somalia is mainly black and Muslim. There the fear expressed by many is of a Taleban-style government taking root, or of foreign intervention sparking a regional war and drawing in faraway powers.

Plans are afoot to send in Ugandan and Sudanese troops, as requested by the weak Somali government. The Islamic fighters vehemently oppose such a move.

In Darfur, some 200,000 people have died in a three-year rebellion by ethnic African tribes following years of government neglect. Some of the worst atrocities are blamed on the janjaweed, Arab tribal militias unleashed by the government — a charge officials deny. The UN Security Council wants to send in peacekeepers, but only if Sudan consents.

But Sudanese officials have declared UN troops could spark a holy war. Al Qaeda leader Osama Ben Laden — who was based in Sudan in the 1990s until the government ousted him — has called on Islamic fighters to battle any UN troops that deploy in Darfur. Ben Laden also has identified Somalia as a battleground in his war with the West.

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