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Opinion | Canada can’t run away from the mess it made worse in Sudan

Remember Sudan? Forget not the Sudanese.

A month ago, Canada and the West worried about not leaving any dual nationals behind.

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

Never mind. All those big headlines about dramatic airborne 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’s no longer told here, the toll in lives lost and a nation forsaken may soon come back to haunt us in the West.

As many as 1,000 Sudanese are dead as rival armed factions wreak havoc on one another — and all others in their way. More than one million civilians are newly displaced internally, with some 300,000 sheltering in neighbouring countries; the UN says 25 million Sudanese need help now.

For all the human suffering, the geopolitical convulsions may wreak even greater disruption — casting Sudan as another Somalia in the making. Rival countries in this volatile neighbourhood — 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 the regional rivalries, Russia and China are also deeply invested in the Horn of Africa. The mercenary Wagner force, now waging war in Ukraine for the Kremlin, also has boots — and missiles — on the ground in Sudan, having secured gold mine stakes; the Chinese have been mining in Sudan for decades.

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

I watched as Canadians were caught in the byplay of an earlier civil war between north and south, back when Sudan still counted itself Africa’s biggest country. I listened as Canadian parliamentarians briefly, if rashly, discussed sending our troops to impose order.

Now, nearly a decade after the old Sudan was carved up to bring peace, there are yet more civil wars within wars — unravelling each of the two separate countries that emerged. Not just in the north but the south, where nearly 400,000 died and an astonishing four million were displaced by the fighting since 2013.

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

The history of Sudan has been nothing if not complicated since independence from Britain in 1956. Khartoum has today reached a dead end after flirting with every form of political and religious governance since independence — from decolonization and democratization to autocracy, followed by Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism under military rule; a cycle of civil wars culminated in a referendum and separation, 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 its tail. Chartered by Calgary-based Arakis Energy Corp., the flight was destined for an oil camp 800 kilometres south of Sudan where a crew of 80 Canadians (with a former Mountie as security chief) toiled in the equatorial heat.

Deemed a “legitimate military target” by the southern rebels, the Canadians were protected by — and frequently co-ordinated with — a force of more than 1,000 government troops, whose human rights record was already the subject of international opprobrium. Sudan’s then-Islamist government couldn’t have been more pleased:

“I appreciate that Canadian oil company,” parliamentary speaker Hassan Turabi — the movement’s spiritual and political leader, told me in his Khartoum office back then.

Arakis soon sold out to another Canadian oil firm, Talisman, which ultimately bailed on its stake. But the head of another Canadian firm drilling for oil, Vancouver-based International Petroleum Corp., was unrepentant about the risks and rewards:

“It’s a risk that we can accept, because of the potential,” Ian Lundin told me at the time. (Years later, Swedish prosecutors indicted him, as chair of Lundin Energy, for complicity in war crimes carried out by the Sudanese Army and allied forces.)

The embattled and overstretched Canadian fortune-seekers grudgingly left Sudan, to be replaced by Chinese and Russian interests that made their own calculations about risks and rewards, human rights and political wrongs. Another foreigner who quietly took his leave was Osama bin Laden, whose residence in Khartoum pre-9/11, as a guest of the Islamists, was visible to any visitor.

All that is in the past, but it surely haunts the country’s present and serves as prologue to Sudan’s future. The country’s military rulers have flitted from sponsoring terrorism abroad to inflicting atrocities at home to turning their guns on one another.

Looking back at that recurring history of repression, militarism and adventurism, we ought not to forget that ugly chapter of Canadian meddling. We may be spectators now, barely paying attention, but we were once in the thick of it, profiting from an impoverished country’s oil boom.

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


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