NAIROBI, Kenya — When it comes to bad guys in sub-Saharan Africa, it is hard to find one so universally despised as the government of Sudan.
Despite deep sympathy for the country's starving thousands, its neighbors hate the regime in Khartoum. Many of its own people do too. And for the better part of five years, so has the U.S. government, which took the extraordinary step Thursday night of launching a missile attack on a suspected chemical weapons factory in the Sudanese capital.
"A minority has hijacked the Sudanese government and has become extremely fanatical," said Jacob Akol of World Vision, an international relief and development organization with extensive operations in southern Sudan. "It does not represent the point of view of most Sudanese."
It's not just that the military regime in Khartoum has one of the worst human rights records in the world, torturing political opponents, using starvation as a weapon of civil war and tolerating slavery among its own people. Sudan, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has more than 4 million displaced citizens.
But the troubles extend beyond Sudan's borders. Since overthrowing the last democratically elected government in 1989, the ruling National Islamic Front has tried to destabilize neighboring Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea and is accused of participating in an assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Sudan's neighbor to the north.
To top it off, the U.S. government and others allege that Khartoum has provided a haven for international terrorists, at one time including Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born financier suspected of orchestrating the recent bomb attacks in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 260 people. Bin Laden now lives in Afghanistan, the other target of the U.S. military attacks Thursday, after finally being deported by Khartoum.
"You say terrorism, you say Africa, and you say Sudan," said Constance Freeman, director of African affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Whether that is fair or not remains to be seen."
In 1993, the Clinton administration placed Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, joining such countries as Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, North Korea and Cuba. Three years later, relations between the two countries had become so bad that the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum closed and moved to neighboring Kenya, ending years of efforts to moderate the Sudanese regime through so-called "constructive engagement"--and setting the stage for Thursday's attack.
"That was a hotly contested decision, but the threat of terrorism finally prevailed," said Freeman, who was the top economic officer at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi when the move was being debated. "As a result, we do not have regular live-in American presence in Khartoum."
In a statement Friday, Sudanese officials here in the Kenyan capital denied any link to terrorist groups and insisted that "tolerance, peace and respect for other opinion" is enshrined in their government policy. It went on to accuse the U.S. government of behaving like terrorists by destroying the Shifa Pharmaceuticals factory in north Khartoum.
"The sole motive behind the attack was the crippling of the economy of Sudan and stunting its development," the embassy statement said. "And the timing was chosen to serve the wish of a sexual pervert and maniac to divert attention away from his crumbling credibility and reputation."
Sudan is huge, stretching from a vast desert in the north to an expansive savanna in the south. It has a population about the size of California's, and as in other large countries, there is a sharp divide between north and south, which were swept into one by the fancy of colonial Britain.
The mostly Arab north looks to the Middle East for its ethnic and religious origins, while the predominantly black south is firmly rooted in African traditions. For the past 15 years, the two sides have been at war, as the Christian and animist south resists the Muslim government's bid to impose Arab culture and Islamic law on the country as a whole. Since independence in 1956, on-again, off-again fighting between the north and south has claimed about 1.5 million lives.
"The British left a very underdeveloped African south to get hooked up with a slightly more developed Arabic-speaking Islamic north, and that has led to a lot of discrimination against southerners and other marginalized people," said Jemera Rone, an expert on Sudan at Human Rights Watch. "It is a structural problem that has not been dealt with successfully by any government, democratic or military. The current government is taking it to the extreme by 'Arabizing' and 'Islamizing' the south."