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The challenges involved with establishing a peaceful, stable Sudan

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Sudan, two generals are vying for power, causing chaos and raising fears of another civil war. This East African nation has endured internal conflicts throughout much of its history. NPR's Greg Myre looks at why Sudan has been plagued by so much turmoil.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The world has gained a new nation, and the new flag is hoisted - blue for the Nile, yellow for the desert, green for agriculture.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Sudan became Africa's largest nation when it won independence on New Year's Day 1956. But that massive size also presented problems.

SUSAN D PAGE: It's huge. If you take Sudan, you look at other large countries throughout the world, not just in Africa, they are almost always very difficult to govern.

MYRE: Susan D. Page is a former U.S. diplomat who spent years working in the country. She's one of three former negotiators who spoke to NPR about the challenges of establishing a peaceful, stable Sudan.

PAGE: Countries could be divided by language, by religion, by family. But when people are very different, one from another - farmers, herders, nomadic, etc., it's always going to be quite difficult to rule.

MYRE: Sudan has multiple fault lines. Arab Muslims in the north have traditionally dominated the country, alienating Christians and other groups in the south and the west. There are a range of ethnic and tribal differences. These fractures have contributed to three civil wars that have spanned well over 40 of Sudan's 67 years of independence. Page helped negotiate the end of one war and later became the first U.S. ambassador to South Sudan when it broke away from Sudan in 2011. She's now worried about two feuding generals battling for control.

PAGE: I think we have a notion that, well, powerful countries can sort of wave a magic wand and get people to stop doing what they're doing. I mean, that is what diplomacy is about. But it's very difficult once the big guns, literally, have come out.

MYRE: The previous conflicts, waged in the remote southern and western parts of Sudan, were disasters for one of the world's poorest nations, yet the current fighting could potentially be even more devastating. It's playing out in and around the capital, Khartoum, the most developed part of Sudan. Payton Knopf was a U.S. envoy to the Horn of Africa until last year.

PAYTON KNOPF: What we're essentially seeing is the deterioration of the Sudanese state itself with consequences again, first and foremost, for the Sudanese people.

MYRE: Yet there's no easy solution. Knopf says previous peace deals kept military figures in positions of power, which created conditions that then led to future conflicts.

KNOPF: It's sort of like saying you're going to put the foxes back in charge of the henhouse after the foxes have bombed the henhouse and killed a lot of the hens.

MYRE: The two warring generals currently at odds have shown no signs of ceding power. Alex de Waal at Tufts University is an expert on Sudan. He was called to the country in 2005 in what proved to be a failed attempt to negotiate an end to fighting in the Darfur region. That experience taught de Waal how hard it is to in conflict in Sudan.

ALEX DE WAAL: Quite a few times, I've been meeting with Sudanese generals, and they have this mindset when they go to war, which is we will land a knockout killer blow on the other guy. We can win a decisive victory, and don't stop us. And they're always wrong.

MYRE: As a result, Sudan's wars have been painfully long, all lasting more than a decade.

DE WAAL: I recall from so many meetings that glazed look in their eyes when they had resigned themselves, pretending they had no agency and that war was inevitable. Getting them out of that mindset to recognize, yes, they started it and, yes, they can stop it is the challenge of the mediator.

MYRE: The rival Sudanese factions are talking to mediators now in Saudi Arabia, but there's been no breakthrough.

Greg Myre, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.