Home | Comment & Analysis    Friday 24 October 2003

Colin Powell’s Bumpy Ride to Naivasha (Kenya): What It May, and May Not, Mean for the Sudan Peace Process"

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By Eric Reeves, Sudan Tribune

October 23, 2003 — It is a bumpy, four-hour round-trip car ride to Naivasha from Nairobi; but US Secretary of State Colin Powell nonetheless arranged for an international itinerary that took him to the site of IGAD-sponsored peace talks for Sudan. This has garnered a good deal of press attention, and there can’t be much quarreling with the value of greater visibility for efforts to end Sudan’s catastrophic civil conflict. Powell’s visit also seemed to generate a good deal of talk about a year-end deadline for the peace process, with the promise of a White House signing ceremony as a reward. Again, it’s hard to quarrel with the importance of impressing upon the parties a greater sense of urgency, and the benefits that would be symbolized by a White House ceremony. But Powell wasn’t yet out of Kenyan air space before hedging began on the year-end deadline. So just what did this visit by the Secretary of State accomplish?

Perhaps the best way of answering the question is to ask about State Department expectations in scheduling such a trip for Powell. These expectations clearly included a signing ceremony of some sort; indeed, it had been made clear for weeks that Powell wouldn’t be making this proposed stop in Naivasha unless there were something for him to preside over. In the end, however, there was no agreement---not an interim agreement, not a partial agreement, not an agreement on any of the difficult outstanding issues. There wasn’t even real agreement about the practicability of a year-end deadline.

Though such a deadline made the headlines in various of the wire and newspaper reports, there was plenty in the texts to suggest reasons for skepticism. Agence France-Presse reported that Khartoum’s main Presidential Peace Advisor "bristled" at the suggestion of a deadline:

"But Khartoum bristled at this declaration. ’It is impossible for anyone to dictate a date on the two parties that are negotiating,’ presidential peace adviser Ghazi Salaheddine told AFP." (Agence France-Presse, October 22, 2003)

Ghazi’s comments were also picked up by the UN’s Integrated Regional Information Networks, and Reuters reported Ghazi as saying that a December deadline "is an expression of hope and commitment. It is not putting a rigid fix on the end of negotiations" (Reuters, October 22, 2003).

Associated Press reported that,

"Sayed el-Khatib, a member of the Sudanese government delegation, said the December deadline was not unrealistic but cautioned ’we do not want anybody to think it’s going to happen without any doubt.’" (AP, October 22, 2003)

And Agence France-Presse continued its report citing comments by NIF party secretary General Ibrahim Ahmed Omar:

"Sudan’s governing party Secretary General Ibrahim Ahmed Omar meanwhile said the two negotiating parties were well aware that an
agreement needed more time than what people tend to believe. ’It is obvious that the two negotiating parties are well aware that the matter requires more time than what people have estimated,’ Omar of the National Congress Party [the new name the National Islamic Front has given itself] told reporters in Khartoum. Asked to comment on Powell’s statement that the two chief delegates had told him they would sign a peace agreement by the end of December, Omar said: ’This may take a longer time.’" (Agence France-Presse, October 22, 2003)

Even before Powell’s visit, Said el-Khatib had played down hopes of any quick resolution of outstanding issues: ’’The spectre of signing something looks a bit distant, because for the past two weeks we have met without any progress on the issues which we have been discussing which are on wealth sharing. ***We have witnessed some backtracking***.’’ (Reuters, October 21, 2003; emphasis added)

To be sure, these comments may very well reflect a variety of diplomatic calculations on the part of Khartoum, and the evident dismay Ghazi Salah el-din feels on being sidelined by First Vice-President Taha in the Naivasha negotiations. And the SPLM/A for its part also indicated reservations about a December deadline: spokesman Samson Kwaje declared that, ’’It may not be a hard and fast deadline but it is realistic. It is always good to set a target and whether we achieve it or not will depend on circumstances" (Reuters, October 22, 2003).

In any event, perhaps sensing that it had not calibrated its skepticism appropriately, or the stir such skepticism would create, Khartoum today issued an official "clarification" of its understanding of the December deadline. The UN’s IRIN reports (October 23, 2003):

"On Thursday, a statement from the Sudanese embassy [in Nairobi] said: ’The date proposed by Secretary Powell for the conclusion of a peace deal was made in consultation with the two parties and reflects a realistic goal. The government of the Sudan expresses its commitment to redouble its efforts to reach a fair and sustainable peace deal before that date.’"

But it is certainly well worth asking, given the history of Khartoum’s diplomatic behavior in past negotiations, how much good faith there is in such expedient comments. The question becomes even more urgent if we consider just how difficult are the remaining issues in these peace negotiations. The three contested areas (Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, Southern Blue Nile) present problems as difficult as ever; indeed, there is a good deal of recent evidence that Abyei has become even more contentious. This bears some brief particular scrutiny.

In the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, Abyei was promised a self-determination referendum: would it be part of the south or the north? This referendum never occurred, though it is clear that if a referendum were held, and the indigenous people of Abyei were to vote, then the choice would be overwhelmingly to conjoin with the south. But Abyei is in the very center of the Block 4 oil concession, and only about 50 miles west/northwest of Kaikang, epicenter of oil activities in Block 4. Khartoum is clearly reluctant to allow self-determination for an area of strategic importance for oil development.

Of course it is also possible that Khartoum is digging in its heals on Abyei in order to extract a better deal in the final resolution of the status of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile. In other words, by virtue of maintaining an adamant negotiating posture on Abyei, Khartoum may calculate that ultimately granting this area an already legitimated right of self-determination will make it possible to deny such self-determination to the geographically much larger areas of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

What else can we discern in the aftermath of Colin Powell’s car ride to Naivasha? There has been a great deal of discussion in news reports of removing Khartoum/Sudan from various US sanctions lists in the wake of a peace agreement. In fact, US sanctions against Khartoum are a good deal more numerous and complex than news reports have suggested. Here it is important to recall first that President Clinton’s November 1997 Executive Order imposed comprehensive trade and economic sanctions against Sudan: there is no legal economic or financial or trade activity possible for US concerns, including oil companies. But there are also sanctions that have legislative origin; moreover, the Sudan Peace Act (October 2002) stipulates further sanctioning measures if the Khartoum regime is found not to be participating in good faith in peace negotiations (President Bush quietly certified again on October 21, 2003 that Khartoum was indeed participating in good faith).

But the issue of most immediate concern seems to be Sudan’s distinction as one of only seven countries on the US State Department’s list of state sponsors of international terrorism. Khartoum clearly wishes to be removed from this list (which is published annually by the State Department in April), but it is not at all clear that the regime is willing to reform its behavior in ways that would justify such removal.

Perhaps not realizing his comments could be picked up within the non-Arabic world, Ibrahim Omar, secretary general of the National Islamic Front, is reported in ArabicNews.com as declaring that Khartoum will not end its support for either Hamas or Islamic Jihad (parts of the story were also picked up by the Associated Press [October 23, 2003], citing Khartoum’s state-run SUNA news service):

"Sudan has rejected an American request to close offices in Khartoum for the two Palestinian movements of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, according to the secretary general of the ruling National Congress party Ibrahim Omar. Omar said that the party rejected this request which was proposed by the US secretary general [sic] Colin Powell, without clarifying the date of this American request was made. Omar who refused to describe the two movements as terrorists said that ’our position regarding Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement is clear: they are among the Islamic forces which struggle to liberate the land of Palestine, which is a legitimate right.’ He continued ’we do not share the view which says that activities of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are terrorist activities.’" (ArabicNews.com, October 23, 2003)

Omar went on to say that Secretary of State Powell was just "politicking" on the issue of international terrorism.

Of course the question is not Powell’s well-known motives in characterizing Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or Omar’s motives in appealing to an Arabic audience; rather, it is the degree to which Khartoum’s view of these organizations has translated into direct support for their actions. The State Department has continued to list Sudan as a state sponsor of international terrorism in its most recent annual report on the subject (April 2003), declaring that "concerns remain regarding Sudanese Government support for certain terrorist groups, such as HAMAS and the Palestine Islamic Jihad" (State Department Report on Patterns of Global Terrorism, April 30, 2003).

In somewhat blunter language, J. Cofer Black of the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, declared:

"There are offices of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Sudan. Someone suggested these are political offices. We take exception with that. They are offices of terrorist organizations." (State Department briefing, Foreign Press Center Briefing April 30, 2003)

There is, moreover, ample evidence---coming after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001---indicating Khartoum’s willingness to provide training to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. In opening training camps for new recruits into Sudan’s paramilitary Popular Defense Forces, President Omer Beshir is reported by the BBC (April 7, 2002) as justifying these efforts as "preparing the ’mujahideen for the Palestinian cause and for freeing the Aqsa mosque from Zionist filth.’" There can be no doubt, given these vehement attitudes, that the Khartoum regime continues to support terrorist organizations in highly significant ways. There was, in short, nothing unrepresentative in NIF party secretary Ibrahim Omer’s rejection of Secretary Powell’s urging that the offices, and training camps, of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Sudan be closed.

*******************

If we step back from the encouraging, if brief, event that was Colin Powell’s journey to Naivasha and his hortatory comments about the need for peace, the difficulties of negotiations in the coming weeks should be clear, as should the even greater difficulties of implementing a peace agreement. The remaining issues of the three contested areas, wealth-sharing, and power-sharing (including the religious status of the national capital) are all contentious and there was no evidence of meaningful progress prior to Powell’s arrival in Naivasha, despite evident State Department expectations. Khartoum will have to compromise significantly on issues involving both wealth and power, and given the relentless efforts by the National Islamic Front to consolidate both, going back decades, this will be extremely difficult to do.

In this same vein, the current Africa Confidential offers an appropriately sobering observation concerning the six and a half years of interim and "pre-interim" periods that will follow the signing of a final agreement (the self-determination referendum will culminate this interim period):

"The big question is whether [the southern] self-determination referendum will in fact happen.... Six and a half years is a long time in politics and the NIF is adept at long-term planning, as evidenced by its patient infiltration of political, economic, judicial and social structures in the decade before it seized power in 1989." (Africa Confidential, Vol 44, No 21; October 24, 2003. AC offers an especially fine overview of a number of Sudan-related issues in this edition)

Since southern self-determination remains the central issue, of overriding importance to virtually all southern constituencies, these historical realities can hardly be overlooked or ignored.

Nor can the insistent opposition of many in the Arab world to southern self-determination. Two recent pronouncements are especially worth noting (both are reported in the October 24 issue of Africa Confidential):

"On 17 October [2003], the final communiqué of the Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Putrajaya, Malaysia---attended by a large Sudanese delegation under Lieutenant General Omer [Beshir]---spoke of ’hostile designs’ on Sudan’s unity."

This is, of course, quite unsubtle code for "no southern self-determination referendum." If there is any doubt on this score, we have only to note that,

"On 15 October [2003], Cairo’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, told parliament that his government ’rejected the Machakos agreement’ (the 2002 framework) and had ’refused to take part in these negotiations since their start because of the acceptance of southerners’ right to self-determination.’" (Africa Confidential, Vol 44, No 21; October 24, 2003)

It can’t get any more explicit than this: Egypt opposes the Machakos Protocol (July 2002), the breakthrough agreement that has brought Sudan as close to peace as it is today---and this because of Egypt’s viciously self-interested opposition to a southern self-determination referendum. This threat must be actively confronted by the international community. We cannot expect that Egypt will continue to watch silently and inertly from the sidelines---though like the NIF regime, the regime in Cairo may be biding its time, waiting for opportunities in the interim period.

This Egyptian view of Sudan and its future should highlight yet again the urgency of both transitional aid for southern Sudan and the marginalized areas, as well as the present importance of a full and public US commitment to the necessary peace support mission following any concluded agreement. The more fully peace and economic recovery are allowed to take hold in southern Sudan and the marginalized areas, the more difficult will Egyptian mischief-making be---and the more difficult for Khartoum to engineer a reneging on its commitments.

But there is yet more that is ominous in the backdrop to the negotiating situation in Naivasha, and here Darfur’s increasingly destructive conflict must be given its full due. The UN’s IRIN today reports on the immense human displacement that has taken place, largely by virtue of Khartoum’s loosing its extremely violent Arab militias on the farming communities of the Masseleit, Fur, Zaghawa and other non-Arabized populations. It is a pattern of war-making that is all too reminiscent of what we have seen in the south for many years:

"Conflict in Darfur, western Sudan, has displaced over half a million people since March, in addition to 70,000 who have fled across the border to eastern Chad, according to the UN. Figures remain uncertain due to access constraints and poor road conditions, but the latest estimates document at least 300,000 IDPs in northern Darfur, and 126,000 in the western state. In southern Darfur 76,000 have been displaced this year, on top of 200,000 who fled north from Bahr el Ghazal between 1988 and 2001." (IRIN, 23 October 2003 [Nairobi])

Here John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group offers a telling comment on the relevance of all this to the peace negotiations in Naivasha:

"[It is a] mistake to view the war in Sudan as simply between north and south. [Prendergast] said an eventual peace deal between the government and the SPLM/A could spark further instability in both Darfur and eastern Sudan, if people felt left out of the peace process. ’The potential is that westerners and easterners may feel so excluded, that the only way to join the table is to pick up a gun.’" (IRIN, 23 October 2003 [Nairobi])

Here again we should be reminded that Sudan’s conflict is not so much "north-south" as it is "center-periphery," with the marginalized peoples of nearly all regions of the country suffering terribly under Khartoum’s tyranny. If we are speaking of peace for all of Sudan, then the reality of the National Islamic Front regime must be examined with a good deal more realism and determination that has been in evidence on the part of the international community.

*****************

Despite the promise of this historic opportunity, in many ways emblematized by Secretary Powell’s bumpy ride to Naivasha, much remains to be done both to secure a peace agreement, and to insure that this is a lasting peace. Khartoum has yet to show its full commitment to either peace or the necessary conditions for sustaining peace. Unrelenting international pressure is all that has brought the process to this point; continued pressure is all that will insure further progress, especially in resolving the issues growing out of the three contested areas. Darfur must in the very near term receive much more international attention, and Khartoum held much more fully accountable for the fighting and massive human displacement that continue despite a nominal cease-fire. Egypt and the rest of the Arab world must be put on notice that narrowly perceived national interest will not be allowed to block a self-determination referendum for the people of southern Sudan. The US must fully commit to both a UN peace support operation, whether peacekeeping or peace-enforcing, in post-war Sudan---and to the transitional aid that will make it possible for peace to take hold.

Merely to catalog these tasks should make clear how much further than a trip from Nairobi to Naivasha this journey to a just and lasting peace for Sudan will be.

Eric Reeves, Smith College - Northampton, MA 01063

ereeves@smith.edu



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