Sudan in transition: An interview with Dan Griffin of Catholic Relief Services

Sudan Refugees 2 CNA World Catholic News 1 3 2011

CNA recently spoke with Dan Griffin, Catholic Relief Services' Sudan adviser, about the Church's role in helping Sudanese citizens prepare for a referendum that could divide the war-torn country. Griffin is the main contact between the agency's U.S. headquarters, and agents on the ground in Sudan.

Griffin and other observers say the referendum could bring peace and freedom to the persecuted people of south Sudan. But it may also cause a wave of immigration authorities aren't prepared to handle, or even restart conflict in a region where two civil wars killed 2.5 million people between 1955 and 2005.

The Catholic Church is an important and trusted element of society in southern Sudan. Church leaders have been working hard to maintain peace between the northern and southern regions, and help voters understand the implications of the independence vote.

Griffin expects to be in Sudan during and after the Jan. 9-16 referendum. Before leaving, however, he found time to discuss the central concerns of the Sudanese Church and its international partners.

An edited transcript of CNA's interview with Dan Griffin is published below.

CNA: Why is the participation of the Church so important for the success of the referendum in January?

Griffin: The role of the Church is extremely important in educating people across southern Sudan about what the referendum means – not only the conduct of the referendum, but also its outcome.

In many parts of southern Sudan, because of a long history of un-development and underdevelopment, the Church is the last real vestige of civil society. It has a broader reach, geographically and across ethnic lines, than the government of southern Sudan does in some places.

So it's extremely important that the Church use its moral authority, its experience, and its networks, to provide accurate, timely information about the referendum: how it will be conducted, what are the consequences to it. The Church plays an immensely important role, because it's trusted by the people.

In southern Sudan, with such a large illiteracy rate –anywhere from 80 to 90 percent– there's a huge contribution the Church makes in the civic education of the electorate. It has done this historically, and in the referendum registration process. It will fulfill that same role in the actual referendum.

This is a real case of the Church providing the vision. The Church is leading the way, talking about a Sudan that doesn't exist yet– calling people to participate, and engage, in building a nation.

CNA: To what extent is the division between north and south Sudan a religious division? In what ways is the conflict between them a religious conflict?

There is an overlay of religion in it. Currently, the government in Khartoum describes Sudan as a Muslim, Arabic country. Whereas the reality is, Sudan's far more diverse. But it is important not to see Sudan just as “Arab vs. African” or “Muslim vs. Christian.”

It's more complicated than that, in that it's really about power and powerlessness: about power being retained and defined in Khartoum, and the other regions, the peripheries of Sudan, being excluded. Which is why you see conflict in the East, the West, as well as in the south.

CNA: You want the referendum to go well, to be legitimate, and to have a clear result. On the other hand, there is the possibility for none of those things to occur, or for some of them not to. It sounds like you're trying to keep things from spiraling out of control, if the vote doesn't proceed in that ideal way.

Absolutely. It could go badly. There's a real need to do everything possible to prepare the people, not just for the referendum, but the outcome. A new country could be formed on the African continent. And if this new country is born, the intention is to make sure that it's born into an environment of peace, so that it's able to survive and thrive– rather than being born into bloodshed and conflict, which would be extremely difficult for any country to survive.

We're not pushing for what the outcome of the referendum should be. That's for the Sudanese to decide. But the Church is very much certain that the people need to be able to make their choice. And that result has to be honored and upheld.

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That's the question: will that happen? Will the government in Khartoum respect the expressed will of the southern Sudanese people? I think that remains to be seen. And that's what we are preparing for – if there's a large displacement, if there is a return to violence on the eve of the vote, or afterward.

In southern Sudan, a lot of people are not aware that freedom and secession and independence don't come on January 9 automatically. It is the beginning of a voting process, that should go for a week. And, should they win that process, it wouldn't be implemented until July 9, 2011. It's discouraging to find how few people are even aware of the discrepancy between what is on paper, what the U.N. has laid out as the process for this, and the understanding on the ground.

The big challenge now is to get accurate voter education done. That's what the Church is trying to do: to appeal to people for calm and patience. Not for a return to violence– should there not be, say, a polling place that actually opens around them on January 9. The pursuit of peace will perhaps take more time than what they've allowed. It is still better than a return to violence.

CNA: If southern Sudan secedes, some observers say this could result in persecution of southern Sudanese living in the north, which could in turn prompt mass immigration and cause a refugee crisis. Do you anticipate this kind of outcome?

It could happen – no one knows yet. We do know that anywhere from one to three thousand people are moving from the north into the south every day, which is a much larger and much earlier migration than anyone had anticipated.

But what will be the fate of the Church as it remains in northern Sudan? There's a lot of concern about the imposition of Sharia law—the legal system based upon the interpretation of the Koranic code—and that a very harsh interpretation would lead to further oppression of the Church and of minorities.

We can't be certain that it's going to happen. We're asking for guarantees of security, not only to the rights of people in the north, but their physical security. Because there are currently no protection forces whatsoever for the one-and-a-half to two-million ethnically-identified southerners, living in the north.

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What happens to them? It could be an orchestrated backlash. In its worst-case scenario, it could be similar to what happened in Darfur. Or it could be spontaneous repercussions, antagonism toward southerners, even if it's not orchestrated by the state.

CNA: What measures are the Church leaders taking in order to prepare for these possibilities?

The Church has been extraordinarily active in advocacy. Two delegations of the Sudanese Church leadership came to the United States and to Europe, raising these issues and raising these alarms.

Their congregants, the people of Sudan, are concerned (about) what will happen next. Will the international community engage, to the point that there is –hopefully– monitoring and intervention? Or will they be abandoned to their fate? The Church has been the most vocal element of civil society– to raise those alarms, as well as engaging international actors and donors like the Caritas network, and Catholic Relief Services and others, to urgently help prepare them for emergency response.

Whether that's conflict mitigation, serving displaced peoples, everyone has been working extremely hard to prepare for a fundamental transformation of Sudan, without knowing exactly where and how that transformation will take place.

We do know that Sudan will be dramatically different in a matter of days. Not knowing what's going to happen obligates us to prepare for the worst, and that's exactly what the Sudanese Church and Church leadership have been doing now for quite some time.

CNA: One of the worst-case scenarios that one could imagine, would be a renewed war between the north and the south – either an independent south, or if somehow they voted for unity and then reverted to civil war. What do the bishops and other observers in the Church think about the possibility of such a war starting up again after the vote on independence?

That's certainly what they have always mentioned as the worst case scenario. But as they're quick to point out: because each side has spent a great deal of money and time arming themselves, it won't be a “return” to war; it will be a new war, which will probably be far more lethal, just as targeted against civilians. The casualties are often the people who are caught, or displaced, or starved.

It could be an escalated war, greater than what they fought last time. And it could draw in Sudan's nine neighbors– into what some analysts say could be the largest conventional war on the African continent.

If the referendum goes badly, the worst case scenario is the Horn of Africa destabilizing, and proxy wars that are ignited and played out across Sudan – a region of insecurity that would make Somalia and Yemen look manageable by comparison. That's certainly the worst-case scenario.

The Church has been very mindful that this could happen. They're not saying that it's likely, but that it is a possibility, that all steps have to be taken now to prevent it. Because we see it coming, because this is a time-bound conflict, we are obligated to do everything possible to prevent it.

Unlike a natural disaster, we know exactly when this referendum is scheduled to take place. So we have to prepare the people for this. We can't stand by and let another humanitarian catastrophe of this size unfold– anywhere in the world, particularly in Africa.

CNA: Right now, southern secession is considered very likely. However, if the option for Sudan to remain as one country were to win out, what do you think some of the results would be?

I firmly believe that the people of southern Sudan, in their hearts and minds, see themselves as a free and independent people, and they're waiting to assert that freedom and that independence. I think secession is all but inevitable in the outcome. Now we have to see whether the process is able to deliver that. Everything I have seen, and read, and everyone I've spoken to – there's an overwhelming sense that the south needs to move forward as an independent country.

People feel that they have exhausted any meaningful efforts at unity– especially with the death of Jon Garang [Southern Sudan's first president, after the region achieved a measure of autonomy from the north], the person most likely to be able to bring unity to Sudan. With his passing in 2005, I think, the real prospect of a unified Sudan went with him.

People feel that this vote on succession is as fundamentally transforming as the fall of apartheid was to South Africa. So, should this referendum not happen, I believe that the southerners would just continue the struggle. Politically, militarily, in whatever form it takes. They are prepared to keep moving forward until they achieve that measure of self-determination. It's too late for anything else to make sense to them.

CNA: Is it the case that this referendum will not change the status of the northern region of Darfur in any way?

Darfur is completely out of the picture. First of all, it was never part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, between northern and southern Sudan. But there's a lot of concern now, that the multiple conflicts in Sudan –unless they're addressed holistically, and comprehensively– will be allowed to play one off the other.

If the international community focuses on the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, what happens to Darfur? There is some concern that without international scrutiny or witness, return to violence could happen in Darfur. But of course, it's not part of the CPA and it's not part of southern secession. It's a related but completely separate conflict.

By any drawing, of any boundary, Darfur is historically, culturally, geographically, very different from southern Sudan.

CNA: Southern Sudan has significant problems of its own, including the lack of development and problems with its current government. How is the Church trying to help the south develop and ensure good governance?

The Church has been absolutely instrumental in raising the voice of civil society. There have been a series of meetings –called “Kajiko,” named after the town where this dialogue initially happened– where Church leadership has met with the government of southern Sudan's leadership, to talk about service provision, diversity, non-violent conflict transformation, the need for transparency in government, all of these things that we assume to be part of good governance.

Until there's a strong civil society, I think much of that falls on the Church. So the Church has been very instrumental in raising some of these challenges that the government of southern Sudan faces– moving from a rebel guerrilla movement, to a centralized democracy, in just a matter of five years.

There's also an advocacy piece, too. Because there's a great deal of commentary and analysis that says: “Well, the south is bound to fail, they're a 'pre-failed' state, they won't be able to govern themselves; they're wholly dependent on oil, they're decentralized, corruption is rampant, capacity is extremely limited; the ethnic tensions and the lack of development mean that Sudan is going to be the next Somalia, driven by ethnically identified clans or warlords.”

The Church, I think, has a more pragmatic view, in explaining that there are no guarantees that the people of southern Sudan will be able to move forward peacefully and successfully. But they have every right to try.

When our own country, the United States, declared our independence, how prepared were we? What U.N. guarantees did we have? What binding organization did we have? Or did our leadership make the decision that we, as a people, needed to declare and pursue our own independence? They're asking for that same right, that same opportunity.

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