Opinion | Canada can’t flee disaster worsened in Sudan

Do you remember Sudan? Don’t forget the Sudanese.

A month ago, Canada and the West made a point of not leaving any dual nationals behind.

Today, what about the remaining 48 million Sudanese with no foreign passport and nowhere to go? Out of sight, out of mind.

It doesn’t matter. All those big headlines about dramatic air evacuations, triggering sniper fire on the ground and political sniping here at home, are yesterday’s news.

But the bigger story isn’t going away. Even if it is no longer counted here, the toll of lives lost and a nation left behind may soon come back to haunt us in the West.

Up to 1,000 Sudanese have been killed as rival armed factions wreak havoc on each other and everyone else in their path. Over a million civilians have recently been internally displaced, with some 300,000 refugees in neighboring countries; the UN says 25 million Sudanese need help now.

For all the human suffering, geopolitical upheavals may cause even greater disruption, turning Sudan into another Somalia in the making. Rival countries in this volatile neighborhood, from former colonial power Egypt to Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad and others in the Gulf, are quietly preparing for proxy battles with their chosen factions.

Beyond regional rivalries, Russia and China are also deeply involved in the Horn of Africa. Wagner’s mercenary force, now waging the war in the Ukraine for the Kremlin, also has boots and missiles on the ground in Sudan, having secured the stakes from the gold mines; the Chinese have been mining in Sudan for decades.

However, Canada has hardly been absent over the years. While Canadians see themselves as mere spectators today, we were once major oil magnates in Sudan.

I watched Canadians get caught up in the side game of an earlier civil war between North and South, when Sudan was still considered the largest country in Africa. I listened to Canadian parliamentarians briefly, if hastily, discuss sending our troops to enforce order.

Now, nearly a decade after the old Sudan was partitioned to bring peace, there are yet more civil wars within wars, tearing each of the two separate countries that emerged apart. Not just in the north but also in the south, where nearly 400,000 people have been killed and a staggering four million displaced by fighting since 2013.

The battle for Khartoum threatens to bifurcate an already battered Sudan in the north. Meanwhile, ongoing jousting in Juba, the fledgling capital of South Sudan, threatens to split the newly independent sub-Saharan nation in two.

Sudan’s history has been nothing if not complicated since independence from Great Britain in 1956. Khartoum has today reached a dead end after flirting with all forms of political and religious government since independence, since decolonization and democratization to autocracy, followed by Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. under military rule; a cycle of civil wars culminated in referendums and secession, followed by a fleeting return to democracy in each of the new countries.

So what was Canada doing drilling for oil in Sudan until a couple of decades ago?

In the late 1990s, I boarded a trusty Twin Otter with a Canadian flag painted on the tail. Chartered by Calgary-based Arakis Energy Corp., the flight was bound for an oil camp 500 miles south of Sudan, where a crew of 80 Canadians (with a former RCMP police officer as head of security) were working on the equatorial heat.

Considered a “legitimate military target” by southern rebels, the Canadians were protected by, and frequently coordinated with, a force of more than 1,000 government soldiers whose human rights record was already the subject of international opprobrium. The then Islamist government of Sudan could not have been more pleased:

“I appreciate that Canadian oil company,” Speaker of Parliament Hassan Turabi, the movement’s spiritual and political leader, told me in his Khartoum office at the time.

Arakis was soon sold to another Canadian oil company, Talisman, which eventually salvaged its stake. But the head of another Canadian oil drilling company, Vancouver-based International Petroleum Corp., was unabashed about the risks and rewards:

“It’s a risk we can accept, because of the potential,” Ian Lundin told me at the time. (Years later, Swedish prosecutors charged him, as chairman of Lundin Energy, with complicity in war crimes committed by the Sudanese military and allied forces.)

The harassed and overburdened Canadian fortune seekers reluctantly left Sudan, to be replaced by Chinese and Russian interests that made their own calculations on risk and reward, human rights and political missteps. Another foreigner who said goodbye in silence was Osama bin Laden, whose residence in Khartoum before 9/11, as a guest of the Islamists, was visible to any visitor.

All of this belongs to the past, but it surely haunts the present of the country and serves as a prologue to the future of Sudan. The country’s military rulers have gone from sponsoring terrorism abroad to inflicting atrocities at home and targeting one another.

Looking back on that recurring history of repression, militarism and adventurism, we must not forget that ugly chapter of Canadian meddling. We may be bystanders now, barely paying attention, but once we were in the middle of it all, benefiting from an impoverished country’s oil boom.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist who focuses on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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