The Washington Diplomat / November 2009
By Larry Luxner
When Akec K.A. Khoc says Sudan has been embroiled in civil war for as long as he can remember, this doctor-turned-diplomat really means it. Khoc’s official date of birth is Jan. 1, 1956 — the same day Sudan won independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule.
And except for a lull that lasted from 1972 to 1982, the Republic of the Sudan has been wracked by violence ever since. Khoc, Sudan’s envoy in Washington, says it’s time for all hostilities to end, so that Africa’s largest country can get on with the business of exporting oil, reducing poverty, improving its shaky relationship with the United States, and preparing for a 2011 referendum that’ll decide Sudan’s political fate.
“There can be no development without stability, and there can be no stability without ending the conflict in Darfur, whether it’s low-intensity or high-intensity,” he said. “Until we do that, Sudan cannot be stable, and it cannot develop.”
Khoc spoke to The Washington Diplomat in his first sit-down interview with local media since taking office in September 2008 as chargé d’affaires — a status he’d like to dump as soon as possible.
“In Sudan, I am considered a full ambassador, but due to the low level of diplomatic relations between Sudan and the United States, I have not been accredited as an ambassador, and so I’m the chargé d’affaires,” he explained. “I hope that during my tenure, our relations will improve, and my rank will be upgraded to full ambassadorship.”
In the meantime, Khoc calls his current title a “hindrance.” Unlike the chief of the Cuban Interests Section, who may not venture outside a 25-mile radius of Washington, D.C., without the express permission of the State Department, Khoc can travel anywhere he wishes — but other limitations come with representing a country that the United States still considers a state sponsor of terrorism.
“All ambassadors can meet with the secretary of state, but I cannot,” he complained. “And when the State Department or White House has functions that involve the diplomatic corps, chargés d’affaires are not invited.”
Born in the town of Bor, in the southern state of Jonglei, Khoc studied medicine and earned his bachelor’s of surgery degree from Khartoum University. In 1983, he became active in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which for years waged a violent campaign in the semiautonomous southern part of the nation against the central government in the north to “bring equilibrium in development and provision of services for the whole country,” Khoc said. “The south was marginally represented in the past, and the SPLM wanted a change.”
Khoc later served as the SPLM’s representative in Paris from 1991 until 2003, responsible for France, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The 22-year civil war — pitting the predominantly black Christian south against the predominantly Arab Muslim north — killed an estimated 2 million people. The fighting ended in 2005 when a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was implemented, though many issues were left unresolved.
The SPLM’s envoys were eventually integrated into Sudan’s foreign service, and Khoc joined his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2006. He ended up in New York as Sudan’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, where he served until his transfer to Washington.
Although the war has ended, north-south tensions are once again on the rise, while violence continues to plague the troubled western region of Darfur. The United Nations says that conflict — which broke out in February 2003 when ethnic African rebels took up arms against Khartoum — has directly and indirectly killed at least 300,000 people and driven 2.7 million people from their homes. (The Sudanese government claims more like 10,000 have died, while some human rights groups put the toll as high as 400,000.)
As a result, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir stands accused of war crimes — and has the notoriety of being the world’s only sitting head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), though that hasn’t stopped him from traveling to a host of countries unwilling to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
“There has never been a more critical time in Sudan’s history than the present,” said Randy Newcomb, president and chief executive officer of Humanity United, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. “This summer, President al-Bashir celebrated two decades of dictatorship, having come to power in a coup in 1989. During Bashir’s tenure, Africa’s largest country has steadily declined into a model failed state. Home to the 21st century’s first genocide, Sudan now boasts more displaced persons than any country on Earth.”
Yet President Barack Obama’s new envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, recently caused an uproar when he said that violence in Darfur no longer amounted to genocide, and that the crippling U.S. sanctions against Khartoum should be lifted. Gration’s words — which infuriated civil rights organizations, Darfur lobby groups and a number of U.S. lawmakers — were like music to the ears of Sudan’s embattled government.
Yet a few voices have praised Gration for spearheading a rethinking of Washington’s strategy toward Khartoum, and recent developments have bolstered some of his arguments. The violence in Darfur has clearly calmed down — with 16 deaths reported in June, for instance, compared to an average of 130 a month the year earlier — although critics say that’s simply because there’s no one in the villages left to kill.
Gration also believes that the rebels have turned into criminal gangs and have not unified for peace talks — and indeed, the rebels have long been fractured among themselves — and he points out that Khartoum has allowed most foreign aid groups to return after Bashir expelled them following his March indictment by the ICC. Above all, Gration says that sanctions have mostly wound up punishing ordinary Sudanese.
Rodolphe Adada, the outgoing chief of the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, agreed with Gration that the current situation does not amount to genocide. “We can no longer talk of a war in Darfur,” he said. “I think now everybody understands it. It’s over.”
No it’s not, says, of all people, Khoc.
“I would not agree with the assessment [that the war in Darfur is essentially over],” Sudan’s man in Washington told The Diplomat. “The intensity of the fighting has been reduced, but the war is not over. If the people in Darfur continue to take hostages, if there are attacks here and there and the Sudanese armed forces are involved, it means there’s still a war situation.”
But attention — and violence — has clearly shifted elsewhere to a potentially more explosive problem looming on the horizon: South Sudan, where at least 2,000 people have been killed in bitter ethnic clashes, notably in Jonglei state, this year, threatening to spark a resumption of the civil war that killed millions.
“Since the CPA [comprehensive peace agreement] was concluded in 2005, much of it has been implemented, but a number of deadlines have been missed. This has made the south lose confidence in the north,” said Khoc. “All sides seem to accept that the south is going to vote for secession.”
That’s assuming of course the vote goes ahead as planned and isn’t contested or marred by violence. Some tentative progress was made recently when South Sudan announced that the north had agreed to terms for the 2011 vote, which would require a simple majority to secede as long as two-thirds of voters took part in the referendum. (In the past, the north insisted that 75 percent of voters must agree to independence.)
Under terms of the peace deal, a referendum on secession will take place Jan. 9, 2011. Simultaneously, the people of Abyei — an oil-rich region straddling the invisible north-south border — will vote on whether to become part of Sudan or join the newly independent country that is likely to result from the national referendum. If that happens, the map will be redrawn, and Sudan will lose its distinction of being Africa’s largest nation.
Khoc said that wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world.
“I would want Sudan to live in harmony and remain together. This is the ideal we all wish for,” he said. “But apparently, the south does not have confidence in living together with the north. So I’d prefer that if there’s a divorce, we make it an amicable one.” In that regard, Khoc said he hopes his country will follow the example of Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 peacefully became two separate nations — the Czech Republic and Slovakia — rather than Eritrea. That impoverished nation on Sudan’s eastern border also achieved independence in 1993 from Ethiopia, but only after a horrific 30-year war between the two sides.
“This is what we do not want to see,” he said. “All sides are working to avoid a resumption of the conflict and a waste of human resources. We’re already discussing the post-referendum agreements.”
A split between north and south would leave present-day Sudan with roughly 32 million people and most of the country’s current 967,000 square miles of territory. Upon independence, South Sudan — which would probably take a new name for itself — would have around 8 million people and Juba as its administrative capital (also see “Oil-Rich Southern Sudan Seeks Its Own Destiny” in the October 2008 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“Sudan’s south and north are united by historical and cultural ties,” Khoc explained. “There are many things that tie us together, and our future will still be united by economic needs. The south is landlocked, so it would need the cooperation of the north for access to the sea. And many people from the south have come to live in the north, and will continue to live in the north. For now, I don’t know. Let’s wait until it becomes independent.”
Yet many questions remain, including the contentious issue of oil. The International Crisis Group estimates that oilfields in the disputed border area produced $529 million worth of petroleum in 2007, though it warns that those fields are rapidly becoming depleted.
In the few months since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ceded key oilfields in the disputed Abyei region to north Sudan in a long-awaited decision, several tribal clashes have broken out, with some 1,000 people killed in such clashes over cattle and territory since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army warns that Khartoum is arming militias accused of being behind the recent ethnic violence.
Northern officials deny such accusations, saying politicians in the south simply want to shift the blame for their failure to establish peace and restore security since the end of the civil war in 2005.
“This is potentially a more explosive issue than Darfur, because the sentiments on both sides are very high, and the expectations of the people of the south for separation, as a result of the referendum, are also very high,” Khoc warned. “They are less likely to compromise those expectations, and the north would not willingly wish to be seen as having facilitated the separation of their country.”
Meanwhile in Washington, Khoc’s immediate priority is pushing to get his nation removed from the State Department’s dreaded “state sponsors of terrorism” blacklist. Sudan’s Islamic government, which has harbored members of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, was designated a terrorism sponsor in 1993. The three other countries that currently share the designation are Cuba, Syria and Iran (also see “Reality or Politics Shaping U.S. ‘Sponsors of Terrorism’ Blacklist?” in the October 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“Being on the terrorist list hurts Sudan a lot, because once a country is on the list, investors will not want to go there. They’re afraid for their own security and that of their staff.” In addition, he said the sanctions block most investors from spending any money in his country, although the south is specifically excluded from the sanctions.
Khoc said without hesitation that he’d encourage American investors to come to Sudan if sanctions are lifted. “They’d have so much profit to make in the oilfields,” he said. “We have given the whole market to China. I have nothing against the Chinese, but they came to Sudan because nobody else was there.”
But when asked whether U.S. assertions that Sudan supported international terrorism in the past are justified, Khoc was understandably less enthusiastic. “I would prefer not to answer that,” Khoc answered carefully. He also declined to comment specifically on SaveDarfur and the other grassroots organizations that frequently hold noisy demonstrations in front of the Sudanese Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue.
“I would only wish that they go to Sudan to see for themselves what’s going on,” he said, “because most of them rely on what they read and hear from others.” Khoc himself has been back home just once since taking charge of the embassy here — and that was in April, when he accompanied Gration for a month during the special envoy’s travels throughout Sudan.
The same week we interviewed Khoc, the Washington Post reported that Gration had met with Robert B. Crowe, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser who’s attempting to land a lobbying contract with Khartoum. A few days earlier, that newspaper reported that Gration had also met with Robert McFarlane, the former national security advisor to President Ronald Reagan who is trying to informally lobby for Sudan in Washington.
According to the article, McFarlane, of Iran-contra fame, had accepted $1.3 million — passed by the oil-rich emirate of Qatar — to represent the Sudanese government as it tried to thaw Khartoum’s relationship with Washington.
The Post quoted an unidentified senior official in Sudan’s government as saying that Gration’s office had repeatedly urged Khoc to sign off on the proposed contract with Crowe beginning in June, but that Khoc — which the newspaper didn’t speak to directly — had declined to endorse the deal.
Khoc confirmed that the article was factually correct, but that he’s not really in a position to sign any such contracts without the express approval of his bosses in Khartoum. “It’s not me who decides whether we’ll have a lobbyist,” he told The Diplomat. “It is the government of Sudan who decides to engage or not to engage.”
Khoc added that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “could approach me directly to find a lobbyist who would be of good standing, who can deliver. And it would be the government who pays, not me. Many governments have lobbyists, so if I had the funds available, sure, I wouldn’t mind having a lobbyist too.”
Besides getting Sudan off the State Department blacklist, Khoc would also very much like to see war crimes charges against his president dropped as soon as possible.
The African Union (AU), based in Addis Ababa, recently sent a delegation to the United Nations to try to halt the ICC’s arrest warrant against Bashir and “give a chance for peace in Sudan,” according to the chairman of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, Bruno Zidouemba. Several African countries, including Botswana, Chad, Uganda and South Africa, have said they will stand by the ICC’s ruling, though others are openly flouting it.
“Our president has been to Ethiopia, Libya, Egypt, Qatar and Saudi Arabia,” said Khoc. “In the Arab world, he’s not considered a war criminal. But some other African countries have also voiced their resentment and said they won’t respect the AU decision to cooperate with the ICC, and therefore not to apprehend the president if he were to come to their countries.”
Khoc, whose embassy displays a large portrait of Bashir in its reception room, added that the resolution of the Darfur conflict goes “hand in hand” with justice.
“I think our only way out now is for the conflict in Darfur to be peacefully resolved, so that no other complications — violence, depravation, or the need to protect civilians — arise,” said the ambassador-in-waiting. “If that happens, the ICC will no longer insist on arresting President Bashir.”