Sarah Palin recently announced that she would be heading to Sudan soon. The purpose of her trip wasn't divulged but it likely has something to do with south Sudan's independence as the world's newest nation on July 9. American administrations have been involved with the south's struggle for nationhood to a greater or lesser degree for the last two decades. As someone who visits Sudan frequently, here's some advice for the aspiring politician.
A region rooted in complexity -- During the past presidential election campaign, you became an object of some derision for stating that Africa was one of your favourite countries. Maybe you knew it was a continent, I don't know, but you'll need to have a better grasp of the difficult histories of those nations comprising the Horn of Africa and why Sudan's peaceful resolution of the continent's longest-running civil war is vital to the entire area. Don't just jump off the plane and announce that it's great that the South has achieved independence. Understand that it's been a lengthy struggle and that for some of the neighbouring nations south Sudan's autonomy can still be a problem.
Know that there are troubles ahead -- Just because the South successfully engineered its own freedom doesn't mean all will be smooth sailing. Don't just commend the people of South Sudan for their efforts; challenge them to mature as a new nation, as America had to in its early years. There is legitimate concern that all the various tribal factions in the South might have trouble holding it all together. Some of those tribes will be winners in the ensuing power arrangement, while others will be isolated. It will require all the diplomacy and resourcing that the Western and regional neighbours can muster to see it through to the end. Don't blow it by celebrating a conclusion that is still years off.
Don't fall for the simplistic Muslim/Christian rhetoric -- This has been a danger faced by far too many American politicians. While the North is primarily Muslim, the South is mostly animist and not Christian. Don't frame the successful peace talks and independence of the south to be a triumph of Christianity over its foes. The good people of North Sudan have struggled against their own totalitarian leaders for decades and personally sought their own form of peace. Christian leaders in the South came to understand that the way forward was through a healthy respect for the faith of all peoples. Don't mess that up by trumpeting the virtues of Jesus Christ and his followers over the peaceful intentions of all of Sudan's people.
Talk openly about Darfur -- The troubled region of Darfur is still a mess, but technically it is still a part of the North. Peace talks have continuously broken down and the West has been hamstrung in knowing what to do. But don't shy away from it; the ultimate success of the South's independence could well depend on how it manages its relationship with the Darfur region and its leaders. Don't permit southern leaders to use the people of Darfur as guinea pigs to continuously trouble the northern government. And encourage the North to respect peace talks and stop trying to scuttle them. Use your voice to come to the defense of a disparaged people, but please do it with a sense of background and knowledge of the complexities.
Don't use Sudan as a platform for your own ambitions -- This might well prove impossible since so many other American politicians fell prey to such a yearning. Millions have died in Sudan and millions are still homeless. They've lost so much in both North and South, and the mountain they have yet to climb is daunting. Don't cheapen that by making it about you... please. Southerners are a heroic people who survived decades of the worst kind of human violence you can imagine. For years they wielded crude weapons like AK-47s against tanks and MIG jets and yet they won their independence. They are a remarkable group and deserve this moment in the sun. It is their time; don't make it about you.
Stay engaged -- so many people and groups of all kinds have flown into Sudan and then exited just as quickly. The deep disagreements that led to this conflict in the first place yet remain and they will not all be solved by independence. Don't be another one of those politicians who did what was trendy and then never returned. Promise the people of Sudan that you're with them whatever comes. The future will require American politicians of character and endurance. Don't mess with their emotions by making all this political. Keep all this in mind, and I sincerely wish you every success in a truly remarkable land.