Home | Comment & Analysis    Sunday 7 December 2003

The Day After a Sudan Peace Agreement is Signed: Promises, Risks, Consequences


By Eric Reeves

Dec. 6, 2003 — Signs that a peace agreement between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) will be reached within the next month continue to increase. Yesterday saw news of both the arrival in Khartoum of a senior SPLM/A delegation, as well as an important agreement between the Khartoum regime and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), within which the SPLM/A is the defining southern presence. This agreement, according to an Agence France-Presse dispatch, "supports existing peace negotiations with the SPLA and calls for a new democratic Sudan benefiting all political parties" (AFP, December 5, 2003).

Mohammed Osman Mirghani, leader of the NDA, declared following the signing agreement in Saudi Arabia with Ali Osman Taha (powerful First Vice President of the NIF) that:

"This is a great day on which the nation is unified around the peace issue. All NDA factions, including the SPLA, have mandated me to sign the agreement." (Agence France-Presse, December 5, 2003)

Given Taha’s key role in the high-level negotiations now again underway in Naivasha (Kenya) between the Khartoum regime and the SPLM/A, we have every reason to believe that one way or another, both sides have signaled a determination to resolve in final fashion the key outstanding issue in the negotiations, the status of the three contested areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile.

Khartoum’s willingness to allow a crowd of tens of thousands of cheering Sudanese to greet the arriving SPLM/A delegation, headed by Pagan Amum, a member of the senior leadership council, is perhaps the most dramatic signal yet that the regime is preparing the people of the north to accept the reality of peace. Even brutal and tyrannical regimes, if sufficiently clever and if survivalist by instinct, will know that certain political developments require preparation. The National Islamic Front regime understands that the Sudanese people cannot go in a matter of days or weeks from hearing John Garang, chairman of the SPLM/A, described as an "outlaw" to seeing him as Vice President of the country. Yesterday’s highly significant symbolic event in Khartoum accelerates dramatically tendencies that have been fitfully in evidence for some time.

In turn, these events seem to ensure that international attention---at least diplomatic attention---will convince both Khartoum and the SPLM/A that excessive risk now attends being perceived as the party that obstructs final negotiating success. The Bush administration in particular appears poised to celebrate a major, and much needed, foreign policy success.

For all these reasons, it becomes increasingly apparent that attention should be directed toward the day *after* a final peace agreement is signed. For however much the occasion of such a signing ceremony must be cause for celebration, the realities consequent upon this purely symbolic gesture are all that matter in the end. The example of the Munich agreement in 1938, and Neville’s Chamberlain’s notorious declaration of "peace for our time," seems a troublingly apt analogy on too many counts. Munich was a moment of singular expediency on the part of the international community, at least as represented by Great Britain and France---a vain attempt to avoid war by surrendering Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland to Hitler and Nazi fascism. Telford Taylor’s magisterial study---"Munich: The Price of Peace"---offers patient readers all too many further disturbing parallels.

To be sure, without an understanding of how the contentious issues of the three contested areas are resolved, any present account of the justice of the final written peace agreement must be partial. To a lesser extent, the same is true of power- and wealth-sharing, and that status of the national capital. But only final resolution of the very difficult issues of justice and self-determination for Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue has the potential to define in fundamental fashion the success and fairness of the peace agreement. Here it is critical that diplomatic pressure by the international community on the two parties, Khartoum and the SPLM/A, not be a version of the perverse asymmetry that was one of the defining features of Munich. Because Hitler refused to permit even a Czech diplomatic presence in the Munich negotiations, the abandonment of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland was accomplished by means of German and Italian pressure on France and Great Britain alone, with the untroubled acquiescence of the US.

The SPLM/A has certainly made representatives of the three areas an integral part of their negotiating team, including the governors of both Southern Blue Nile (Malik Agar) and the Nuba Mountains (Abdel Aziz). But it takes no great act of imagination to see how, with an agreement hanging in the balance, the international community might direct disproportionate pressure on the SPLM/A to acquiesce in Khartoum’s continuing domination of these areas (in an ominous irony, the Nuba Mountains are generally described as "an area the size of Austria," bringing to mind the Anschluss the preceded Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland). The people of Abyei, Southern Blue Nile, and the Nuba Mountains have suffered as much as the people of the south, with whom they have made common cause---militarily and politically---and with whom they most fully identify themselves. There is either justice for these people or there can be no real peace.

But it nonetheless remains the case that the signing of a final peace agreement seems almost inevitable. It is thus more urgent that ever to assess the meaning of any such diplomatic "success," and to ask about its implications for Sudanese in the south, in the north, and in the variously marginalized areas. For we may be sure that however definitive the fact of any final signing, there will be many risks, uncertainties, and potentially troubling consequences to a peace agreement.

There are three overarching issues that must be borne in mind if the chances for a just peace succeeding are to be assessed with any post-signing sobriety. Not to think about them now, not to accept that a tremendous amount of work remains to be done however florid the signing ceremony, is to betray Sudan in deepest consequence.

[1] The character of the National Islamic Front regime and the political landscape of Sudan

The National Islamic Front (NIF) regime is essentially unchanged in personnel, character or ambition: those responsible for the military coup in June 1989---deposing an elected government and aborting a nascent peace agreement---remain in power. The decision to reach an agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army is born not out of reform or an access of good will, but out of necessity. International pressure, the costs of the war, the general war weariness in the north, and above all the ongoing military crisis in Darfur have worked together to create a moment in which NIF political survival seems to depend upon reaching a peace agreement with the south, appeasing the international community, and avoiding the risky venture of fighting two major wars at once (see commentary on Darfur below).

For this reason, the final power-sharing arrangement is much more than a footnote to heretofore-negotiated agreements in the Machakos/IGAD process. The first real test of any more inclusive governance in Khartoum, if it should truly come to pass, will be an urgent review of policy in Darfur. Given the deeply disturbing parallels between the regime’s present conduct of the war in Darfur and Khartoum’s conduct of the war over past twenty years in the south, it is critical that there be an immediate movement to resolve the crisis peacefully and by internationally sponsored diplomatic means.

For its own part, the SPLM/A recognizes the importance of expanding the inclusiveness of any peace agreement. There have been legitimate criticisms of the SPLM/A made on this issue of inclusiveness, and certainly the critical tasks facing the SPLM/A leadership as it moves from a war footing to a peace footing will include allowing a significantly wider range of southerners to own the peace and participate in governance. Civil society positions, economic opportunity, and national representation must be extended on a broader basis than is reflected in the present composition of the SPLM/A.

At the same time, it is politically essential that the opposition forces from the north of Sudan own the peace as well, and become a part of the national political scene. This is the importance of yesterday’s signing of an agreement between Mirghani and Taha in Saudi Arabia. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), along with the Umma Party led by Sadiq el-Mahdi, are too much an entrenched part of the northern political landscape to be ignored. These two sectarian parties have sufficient followings to make a purely bilateral agreement between the SPLM/A and the National Islamic Front very difficult---and perhaps impossible when we consider the other political actors, north and south (Mirghani was signing for the National Democratic Alliance, and thus nominally representing such groups as the Beja Congress, the Sudan Alliance Forces, the Communist Party, and others).

But the difficulties here are immense: southerners will not forget the brutal ways in which the war accelerated under the government of Sadiq el-Mahdi once Jaffer Nimeiri was gone from the political scene in Khartoum. The years 1986-1989 will be a very heavy burden for Sadiq to bear, and are an example of how exceedingly difficult north-south reconciliation will be.

In a notable southern political and military development, the SPLM/A has been increasingly successful in bringing Khartoum-allied militia groups in the south back from the "dark side." Some of these militias and their commanders (e.g., Paulino Matip and Peter Gadet in Western Upper Nile and the notorious Chaiyut in Eastern Upper Nile) have terrible amounts of blood on their hands, and their future in any peaceful southern Sudan must be fiercely scrutinized. But it seems a given that the threat to peace would be intolerably great if Khartoum were to retain military control of these militias: they would constitute an ongoing source of military intimidation and could serve too easily as the means by which war might be re-ignited. In thinking about the future of these brutal militia forces and commanders, we catch a glimpse of some of the agonizingly difficult moral questions that will confront Sudan if peace finally comes after twenty years of unfathomably cruel and destructive actions by all parties.

But the focus of international attention must remain on the Khartoum regime, and its response to the setting in motion of political forces that will inevitably come to pose a threat to the very survivalist ambitions that presently are driving the regime to sign a peace agreement. After more than 14 years in power, the National Islamic Front has become a master in the arts of reneging, delaying, obstructing, and concealing. An account of how the regime has, for example, recently and perversely managed to earn a reputation for greater press freedoms should begin with the fact that The Khartoum Monitor was recently shut down for the seventh time this year. Other press restrictions have been noted with urgency by Reporters Without Borders in a press release of December 3, 2003:

"President Omar al-Beshir said in August that press censorship was being lifted and that everyone would be free to say what they liked in the newspapers and even on the state-run TV," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "This was confirmed by the Sudanese permanent mission to the United Nations in Geneva which said papers would never again be censored. Yet the secret services and the state security prosecutor, Mohammed Farid Hassan, are still targeting the press. We call on the authorities to keep their promises and allow the immediate reappearance of the Khartoum Monitor, which has already been suspended for a total of more than six months this year." (Reporters Without Borders, Press Release, December 3, 2003)

This is a regime that will hardly warm quickly to the idea of legitimate opposition, and yet the terms of any peace agreement will require precisely the tolerance of such political opposition. We might well ask, for example, whether the comments of John Garang, as Vice President of post-war Sudan, will be allowed to be published freely in Sudan. If he calls the war in Darfur immoral and in need of political, not military settlement, will his voice be allowed to be reported?

[2] Darfur

Darfur has rapidly, if largely invisibly, become a critical issue on Sudan’s political, military, and diplomatic landscape. It is also, in the view of the United Nations, rapidly becoming the greatest humanitarian crisis in all of Africa. Indeed, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said yesterday:

"The humanitarian situation in Darfur has quickly become one of the worst in the world. Access to people in need is blocked by the parties in conflict and now, as the need for aid grows, stocks of relief materials are dwindling," [Egeland is also Under-Secretary-General in charge of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)].
[UN News Center, December 5, 2003]

The sheer scale of the disaster is escalating in numbers that are terrifying in their human implications:

"Fighting between forces loyal to the Government of Sudan and the main rebel Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A) escalated in the Darfur areas last March and drove 670,000 people to join an earlier 200,000 internally displace persons (IDPs). Some 70,000 of them fled across the border into Chad, where they lack basic supplies, OCHA said." [UN News Center, December 5, 2003]

Reports from other humanitarian organizations that have conducted assessments in Darfur show highly alarming rates of malnutrition in various populations. This occurs against a backdrop of Khartoum’s severe restrictions on and outright denial of humanitarian assistance, and an unwillingness to allow the international community any meaningful diplomatic role or observational role on the ground. Many thousands have died and many tens of thousands may die soon. A UN report of November 30, 2003 notes that 299 deaths were registered in one week alone in mid-September among Internally Displaced Persons at Kebkabiya, a single camp of about 30,000 people in southern Darfur.

At the same time, Khartoum has clearly decided to resolve the issues that have produced the crisis in Darfur by military means. Despite the nominal cease-fire Khartoum signed on September 3, 2003, and it extension for a month on November 4, 2003, the regime gives no sign of reining in its Arab militia (the Janjaweed). On the contrary, militia activity has grown rapidly in recent months according to yet another UN account, especially in western Darfur. Neither the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) nor the uneasily allied Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) see anything but military options, given Khartoum’s brutal resolve.

[3] Peacekeeping and emergency transitional aid for post-war Sudan

Having promised Sudan a "large peace dividend" following a peace agreement, the Bush administration is now scrambling to avoid having its wholesale reneging on this promise recognized for what it is. But the promise was made explicitly in Congressional testimony on May 13, 2003 by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteinter: "we stand ready to support reconstruction and development in post-war Sudan." Further, in speaking of the need for Khartoum regime and the SPLM/A to reach peace under presently auspicious circumstances, Kansteiner declared that "both sides know that there will be a large peace dividend for reconstruction and development if, but only if, there is peace" (Scheduled testimony before the House International Relations Committee, May 13, 2003).

But the Bush administration sought no money for Sudan in its gargantuan $87 billion supplemental foreign operations bill. And Congress in the end added only $20 million for "famine relief" for Sudan to the bill. This is a scandalous US abandoning of professed commitments. And just as scandalous are Bush administration declarations that the situation is otherwise. The BBC reports an American official as saying, "A speedy agreement could bring as much as $200m to the war-torn country" (BBC, December 6, 2003). Reuters reports this official as saying "the United States had about $200 million to be used to develop impoverished southern Sudan, with more to come depending on the shape of any peace deal" (Reuters, December 6, 2003).

But what is the budgetary reality behind this promise of "$200 million"? This is the amount that the US Agency for International Development (AID) had already committed to Sudan for the present fiscal year---a commitment that was based on a presumption of steady-state humanitarian needs (i.e., the humanitarian needs that would need to be met if conditions were to remain essentially unchanged---no war, but no peace either). This is, then, no "large peace dividend," and to suggest otherwise is deeply disingenuous. Such disingenuousness has, of course, a number of precedents in Bush administration Sudan policy: one has only to look at the reports from the State Department and the White House of April 2003 (per the terms of the Sudan Peace Act) to see further egregious examples of dissimulation, tendentious skewing of discomfiting realities, as well as outright error.

The US still has not committed anything like the necessary resources for the sorts of emergency humanitarian transitional aid that will be required by the vast numbers of southern Sudanese that will be moving within the first half year of a peace agreement signing. Food security, emergency medical care (including efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and infant mortality), and rudimentary governance and civil society support for areas that have been utterly ravaged by war: all require commitment and resources that are nowhere in evidence. Disingenuous efforts to transmute previously appropriated US AID humanitarian resources into the promised "large peace dividend" are a disgrace, and augur poorly for the "day after" the peace agreement that is likely to figure so prominently in Bush administration claims for a major foreign policy success. Tragically, the US has far too many partners in this disgrace.

Just as scandalous is the failure of the United Nations to plan with sufficient urgency, and adequate commitment of resources, for the peace support operation that will be critical for the success of any signed agreement. If the time-frame for a final agreement is indeed roughly a month from now, there simply won’t be a full-scale, logistically well-equipped monitoring force ready to take up positions in southern Sudan and the transitional areas. Nor will the necessary personnel have been assembled---people with sufficient knowledge of southern Sudan and the transitional areas to be able to ascertain authoritatively whether Khartoum is in fact observing the terms of the peace agreement. Efforts to create an effective liaison between southern civil society (such as has prevailed) and a peace support operation should be well underway by this time: this is the only way in which a territory as vast as southern Sudan can be fully monitored. Instead, given the absence of any peace support operation, or even the operational nucleus of such an operation, this critical task has not even begun to be undertaken.


The odds in favor of a final peace agreement and peace signing ceremony, within the next month or so, are now exceedingly good. It is still, however, quite unclear whether the agreement will do justice to the people of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile, and even less clear that expediency on the part of the international community won’t translate into unreasonable pressure on the SPLM/A to abandon these people to domination by Khartoum. Though the principle animating the talks is that of a unified Sudan, decades of marginalization, exploitation, and military brutality have made clear the fundamental divisions within Sudan, and to imagine that these divisions will disappear with the signing of a peace agreement is more, and worse, than mere naiveté: it is a willful refusal to take cognizance of human suffering and destruction that has few if any rivals in the last half century.

It is even less clear that the international community recognizes or is prepared to respond to the needs of post-war Sudan. This is the greatest threat to a nascent peace, a threat so great that Khartoum may on present evidence calculate that signing an agreement will cost nothing. For the chaos and destruction and fighting that will be so easily engineered without adequate peacekeeping and transitional aid may provide the regime a ready pretext for renewed war once international attention has drifted away.

This will certainly be the case if Khartoum brings the military situation in Darfur under control. Of course, control will occur not through anything like conventional military victory. Indeed, recent first-hand accounts from Darfur reaching this writer make clear that the situation bears all too many hallmarks of the savage counterinsurgency war Khartoum has fought in southern Sudan for these many years. The Arab militias that are Khartoum’s most potent military weapon have been turned loose on the civilian population with a ferocity that has already produced fearsome consequences. The aggregate figures the UN is now using to characterize human displacement in Darfur reach to almost 1 million. Given the alarming malnutrition rates being reported from various locations, we know that in addition to the thousands who have already died in this new war, many tens of thousands may die soon if humanitarian access is not dramatically increased.

The situation has all the hallmarks of the terrible famine in Bahr el-Ghazi in 1998, when as many as 100,000 people starved to death. There again the major factor was Khartoum’s precipitous denial of humanitarian access. Despite the UN finding that Darfur’s humanitarian crisis is rapidly becoming the greatest in Africa, and indeed one of the greatest in the world, Khartoum is paying no real price for having engineered this massive human disaster. Basking in the forgiving light of nearly consummated peace talks with the south, Khartoum has not been challenged over it role in this vast and savage human destruction. Thus the extraordinary mendacity reflected in a statement today by NIF President Omer Beshir:

"All indications show that the war in the south, and in all other areas, has come to an end. What remains is only some final retouches for an agreement on a lasting, just and comprehensive peace." (Associated Press, December 6, 2003)

This comes in the wake of a substantial report, based on first-hand evidence, by Amnesty International, which finds "there is compelling evidence that the Sudanese government is largely responsible for the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Darfur in the western Sudan" (Amnesty International Press Release, November 27, 2003)

This glaring disparity and all it suggests about the National Islamic Front are the realities that should be borne in mind if we are to assess soberly the meaning of an agreement signed by Khartoum, a signing that will of course have as context what cannot be too often recalled: viz., the fact that the NIF regime has never abided by an agreement made with any Sudanese party---not one, not ever.

Sudan is far, far from central Europe of the 1930s. But the expediency that determined what was signed at Munich in 1938 reflects a temptation that remains very much alive and with us. And if we require a reminder of the price of such expediency in the currency of contemporary human lives, we need only look now to the terrible fate of the people of Darfur and their growing eclipse within the darkness that rules in Khartoum.

Will such darkness surrender power? Will it allow for political pluralism and guarantee the rights of all Sudanese? Will it suddenly gain a respect for the meaning of the lives of the many marginalized peoples of Sudan, north and south, Muslim and non-Muslim, Arab and African?

Khartoum will sign a peace agreement; but only the international community can determine the meaning of that signature. There are exceedingly few reasons to be optimistic on the latter score.

Eric Reeves,
Smith College -
Northampton, MA 01063

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