Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 27 May 2004

Peace in the south, war in the west


Leaders, the Economist

A breakthrough in one civil war; the other still rages

LONDON, May 27, 2004 — The world’s longest-running war is ending. After 2m deaths and matchless misery, Sudan’s southern rebels have come to terms with the government in Khartoum. On May 26th, John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and Ali Osman Taha, the country’s vice-president, signed protocols removing the last obstacles to a formal peace deal, which should follow within weeks. The 4m people displaced by the war, which has raged on and off since independence in 1956, can finally go home. It is time to celebrate.

But not unreservedly, for two reasons. One is that the soon-to-be-formed transitional regime is unlikely to be a pleasant one. After six years, the mostly non-Muslim south will hold a referendum on whether to secede from the Muslim north. But in the meantime, the government and the SPLA will share cabinet posts and oil revenues. Neither party has ever shown much respect for democracy, and both have striven to minimise the share of power allotted to unarmed civilians in the transitional government. Still, autocracy is better than war.

The other, even bigger problem is that a separate civil war in western Sudan, which began last year, is getting worse by the day, and spilling over into neighbouring countries (see article). To crush a revolt by black Africans in the western region of Darfur, the government has armed an Arab militia and ordered it to drive blacks out of their homes. More than a million have fled. In much of Darfur, the ethnic cleansing is complete. Our correspondent, riding for four days across the savannah last week, encountered village after burned and gutted village, but fewer than a dozen civilians. The rest had run away, either into miserable camps within Sudan, where the government sometimes deliberately starves them, or into neighbouring Chad. Aid workers have been permitted only limited access to the displaced. Some say that hundreds of thousands of people will die in the next few months if the government continues to obstruct relief efforts.

Morality, and danger

The West should pay attention to Sudan. Mostly it should do so for moral reasons: Darfur is probably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But self-interest is also at stake: Sudan used to host Osama bin Laden, and is now exporting the kind of chaos that could provide cover for his acolytes. Terrorists with alleged links to al-Qaeda are already using the mountains of northern Chad as a base. Chad’s government, which is currently working with America to flush them out, is threatened by the war in Darfur.

Sudanese rebels and refugees have crossed into Chadian territory: the militiamen who kill for Khartoum have pursued them, and come to blows with the Chadian army. There was a coup attempt in Chad last week, almost certainly linked to the Darfur conflict. Unchecked, Darfur’s war could destabilise the whole sub-region, from the Libyan desert down to the rainforests of the Central African Republic.

It was a combination of exhaustion and western pressure that persuaded Khartoum to make peace with the south. More pressure could help pacify Darfur. The first priority is to get aid to the displaced, to prevent them from starving. There needs to be a proper ceasefire in Darfur, monitored by the UN’s blue helmets. Khartoum must rein in its militia and address the grievances of the rebels there. It should be rewarded with aid if it does, and chastised with sanctions if it does not.

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