Nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa does the lament "what might have been" apply more poignantly than in Sudan.
Africa's largest nation, by area, was once touted as the potential bread basket of that continent's northeast. Nature is kind to the midsection of this largely arid land. Plentiful water of the White Nile, flowing past fertile soils as it moves to join the Blue Nile at Khartoum, holds the potential for more cotton, grain, vegetable, and sorghum production than at present.
Population density, which weighs on Egypt far down the Nile, is not the problem. But population enmity is. For more than three decades troops of the predominantly Islamic, Arab north have been fighting insurgents in the Christian and animist black south in an on-and-off guerrilla war.
The current militant Muslim regime in the capital, Khartoum, has taken both a tougher and, paradoxically, more conciliatory line toward its enemies. It has stirred up fervor with calls for holy war, a tougher draft, attempts to starve out villagers who aid guerrillas, and praise for suicide-bombing mujahideen. But it signed a fairly lenient deal last spring with rebel splinter groups, and has scheduled talks next month with the main liberation army leader, John Garang.
The 1997 deal with splinter factions calls for a referendum on independence within four years. It also exempts them from observing Islamic strictures. Mr. Garang rejects that deal. He says he prefers to see a united but secular nation.
Given the vast distance - physical, social, religious, and racial - between north and south, a more realistic starting point may be a truce leading to autonomy in the south. The nation should be kept legally united. But blacks in south Sudan need self-government to organize, educate, farm, and build an economy after more than a generation at war.
Only after that can both sides decide how closely they should be linked by common economic interests. Then, perhaps, the old promise of Sudan as a continental breadbasket could be revived to their mutual benefit.