Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 16 March 2004

Sudan’s peace was a manner to break diplomatic isolation but now it’s a danger of being swept away


By Michael Griffin, The Daily Star

MARCH, 16, 2004 — The euphoria that has brightened Sudan since the government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) signed a deal on security issues last autumn shows every sign of fading as the peace talks falter and the crisis in Darfur worsens.

The fourth and final round opened in the Kenyan town of Naivasha on Feb. 17 and was due to conclude by March 16. But the negotiating teams, led by Vice-President Ali Osman Taha and SPLA chairman John Garang, have missed deadlines before and are expected to seek extra time due to the conflict near the border with Chad.

After 18 months of talks, the opposing sides were close to an agreement ending a 21-year civil war that has cost 1.5 million lives. But the new war in western Sudan has opened old wounds and reignited SPLA suspicions of government sincerity.

How could a regime serious about peace in the south choose the months before signing to unleash a violent campaign against African villagers in the west? And, even if government promises were made in good faith, SPLA leaders must be wondering, would the same generals directing operations in Darfur care to honor them in full?

"In Islam, they say ’when your enemy is strong, make peace. When it is weak, fight it,’" said an SPLA commander in Rumbek, southern Sudan. "They are giving themselves time to destroy the rebellion in Darfur. That is why they are so keen to make peace with us for the time being."

Over half a million people in Darfur were displaced in a recent campaign by the Sudanese military and its jenjaweed allies militias armed by the government but pursuing an agenda apparently at odds with official objectives.

Supported by bombers, jenjaweed irregulars have burned hundreds of Fur villages, stolen livestock and possessions, and gang-raped women and girls.

Meanwhile, President Omar al-Bashir has overseen a nationwide campaign of propaganda under the banner Peace and Unity to bolster national confidence in the peace process.

Khartoum blocked attempts by the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies to gain access to Darfur for over two months until March, although a number of eyewitness reports have circulated.

"You have an African population that is being driven from their homes in a very systematic, widespread and calculated, knowledgeable way," a senior USAID official told a House of Representatives committee earlier this month.

The United States has invested much time and diplomacy in winning an end to the civil war, and Secretary of State Colin Powell is in regular contact with the negotiating teams.

Critics of the Bush administration say the president needs another foreign policy triumph to offset voters’ concerns about Iraq in the coming elections. But the United States has had less success in influencing policy in western Sudan.

The discrepancy between what the government is saying in Kenya and what it is doing in Darfur also suggests that a major power struggle is under way in Khartoum.

Bashir’s military regime initially saw in the peace talks an opportunity to end its diplomatic isolation and resolve its chronic indebtedness. Now, it realizes it is in danger of being swept away by the very forces of democratization and regional self-rule the talks have released.

In the past two years, the government has granted the SPLA an equal share in Sudan’s oil revenue, the right to retain a standing army and a referendum in six years’ time on whether the south should become an independent state.

While diplomats and UN staff talk of the need for a peacekeeping force of anything from 6,000 to 28,000 men to monitor a future peace agreement, the government is resolute that no such intervention is under consideration.

Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former prime minister whom Bashir deposed in 1989 and replaced with an Islamist regime, believes that Sudan, along with Afghanistan and Iraq, is now grappling with issues fundamental to its survival.

"Is it possible to reconcile Islam with democracy? Is it possible to reconcile Islamic commitment with a nation state? Is it possible to create conditions in which Muslims and Christians can live together in the same state? What is happening in Sudan is part of a process that will either lead to a breakthrough, or a breakup," he said.

While welcoming an end to a war he calls the "landmark of our modern history," Mahdi thinks the government has conceded so much to the south that Sudan’s other regions, like Darfur, will inevitably follow in the SPLA’s footsteps and demand a bigger slice of a limited national pie.

Said al-Khatib, one of the government’s chief negotiators, acknowledges that danger.

"I think we’ll have to move fast from the south to Darfur," he said. "We have to make sure that a power-sharing agreement is one that would distribute power to the country horizontally and vertically, without the south being prominent in what it gets."

The urbane, Yale-educated director of the Center for Strategic Studies, Khatib is evidence of another fault line underlying Sudan’s ruling elite: the contrasting visions of those prepared to adapt Sudan’s institutions to reflect its people’s ethnic and religious diversity, and others who consider Islamic law to be the state’s defining characteristic.

High on the agenda at the fourth round of negotiations with the SPLA was the status of three other Sudanese "conflict zones," African areas designated as part of the north on early colonial maps.

Both parties have previously agreed on limited autonomy for the Nuba Mountains and the southern Blue Nile Province, but they remain stalled over oil-rich Abyei, a county that like Darfur contains a mixed African and Arab population.

"Abyei is like an eye," runs a local saying, "that is so small, but sees so much."

Like Kosovo in the Balkans, the county is a microcosm of Sudan’s ethnic and religious quarrels. During the civil war, the government armed local Messeriya nomads to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Ngok Dinka tribe, and more than 80 percent of Abyei’s pre-war inhabitants were displaced to cities in the north.

An identical strategy is now being employed in Darfur, though the region is less well-endowed with natural resources.

A referendum allowing the people of Abyei to choose whether to be ruled by the north or south is a core SPLA demand. Khartoum is equally adamant about not letting it go but not just because of the area’s oil potential.

The future of an enclave of, at most, 300,000 Africans pales by comparison with what Khartoum has already given away. But the government is only too aware that mishandling the "Abyei question" could inflict fatal damage on Sudan as a nation state.

Its previous generosity to the SPLA was based on the conviction that it could make a united Sudan appear a more attractive alternative to southerners when an independence referendum is held in six years’ time. Even if they do vote to secede, so the argument runs, the south’s underdevelopment and the 1,000-kilometer oil pipeline to the Red Sea coast will guarantee the region’s dependency for at least another generation.

The fate of Abyei raises a different set of what United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld memorably called "unknown unknowns."

Khartoum knows that whatever formula it employs to settle Abyei is likely to become a template for the resolution of future border disputes and it expects a cascade of them to follow on a successful conclusion to the peace talks in Kenya.

If Abyei is the missing link in the map of southern peace, it could also turn out to be the first thread in the north’s unraveling.

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