President Obama will make his historic first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa this weekend. In Ghana, the president is expected to deliver some tough love to a continent he believes has too often blamed the United States and the West for its own "disastrous policies."
"I think what's hampered advancement in Africa is that for many years we've made excuses about corruption or poor governance," Obama told reporters ahead of the trip.
Obama's words are undeniably true. But it is also true that the United States has some obligations to Africa. In Southern Sudan, a U.S.-brokered peace agreement is on the brink of collapse. But there are steps the U.S. can take to help bolster that peace accord, steps President Obama is uniquely positioned to take.
The Bush administration admirably helped secure Sudanese peace in 2005, applying pressure to achieve the historic Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA ended what was then Africa's bloodiest (2.2 million people killed) and longest-running (22 years) civil war, between Sudan's mainly Arab government in the north and Black Africans in the south.
Since then, little progress has been made in implementing the terms of the CPA. The north still has troops massed in the south, and there are arguments over the results of a census that's a prerequisite for elections which, according to the CPA, were supposed to take place this month. In Khartoum, Sudan's capital, government officials keep pushing back the date for elections, first to February 2010, and recently to April 2010.
The south's government is tottering as well. Facing a $100 million-a-month cash-flow shortage caused by declining oil revenue, the government hasn't paid many of its workers, including its army, for months. Most southerners subsist on less than $1 a day, and women in the south are eight times more likely to die in childbirth than they are to finish primary school.
Tribal fighting over cattle and grazing rights is on the rise. The United Nations says 187,000 southern Sudanese were displaced by tribal fighting last year. This year tribal fighting has killed more than 700 people. The south is also threatened by Uganda's monstrous Lord's Resistance Army, parts of which are killing and raping their way through Southern Sudan.
Many of Southern Sudan's 11 million people are just as bad off as those struggling to survive in the displaced persons camp of Darfur, Sudan's western region, where six years of genocide have left more than 300,000 people dead and another 2 million homeless.
As an indication of how bad things have become in the south, the UN's special envoy to Sudan, after a visit to the region in June, said that in recent months tribal violence has claimed more civilian lives in Southern Sudan than in Darfur.
Overall, conditions have deteriorated so much that some locals wonder whether they were better off during the civil war, when the international community at least was engaged.
The UN Security Council's recent decision to extend for another year its peacekeeping mission in Southern Sudan may offer some reprieve. But there are credible rumors that Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir is preparing to re-start war with the south.
Southerners suspect Khartoum is sending in high-powered weaponry to stoke tribal tensions. After a recent visit to Akobo in Southern Sudan, UN Humanitarian Chief John Holmes said, "…there's a real fear this fighting [between the north and south] will re-start. This area cannot afford another war."
The last thing Bashir wants is full implementation of the CPA, which recognizes the south's autonomy and allows southerners to vote for independence from the north in 2011. Southern independence worries Bashir in part because though the south comprises roughly a quarter of Sudan's land mass, it contains 85 percent of the country's oil, the revenue from which most of the Sudanese government's budget is generated.
But Bashir, whose grip on power has lasted 20 years this month, has other problems to address. He recently became the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.
Amid the chaos, there are opportunities for the Obama administration to help. Its primary focus should be on bolstering the CPA, whose collapse, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon believes, could bring about a humanitarian catastrophe.
During her confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said ensuring implementation of the CPA would be a "top priority" of the State Department. So far, though, little has been done.
As a signatory of the CPA, the U.S. has an obligation to act. Given his widespread global support, President Obama should urge European nations to impose trade and monetary sanctions on the Sudanese government, as the U.S. has done. The United States should provide defensive weapons and communications equipment to the south, and can offer to help mediate issues like border demarcation and oil revenue sharing between the two sides.
When the CPA was signed in 2005, all Sudanese dared to dream of a lasting peace. Chief mediator and former Kenyan general Lazaro Sumbeiywo said, "The comprehensive agreement is a precious child to nurture with love and care." Sadly, this precious child is on the verge of death by neglect. But it's not too late. It's time for the U.S. to help save the child it helped create.