Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 12 February 2004

Peace prospects in Sudan (1)

NAIROBI, Feb 12, 2004 (IRIN) — This is the first of five reports on prospects for peace in the Sudan. The remaining reports will be published over the next two months:

For the first time in years, many dare to hope that the 20-year civil war in Sudan, which has claimed the lives of at least two million people and forced millions of others from their homes, may end soon. Sudan’s warring parties have spent the last 18 months discussing how to stop fighting and build peace in their country. After a break of a few weeks, they are to resume their discussions on 17 February, in what analysts say could mark the last stage of peace negotiations and lead to the signing of a comprehensive agreement that should usher in a new era of peace and stability in the East Africa country.

In a series of five in-depth articles, IRIN focuses on the implications of the prospective peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The series, which will be published over a two-month period, examines the prospects for stability in Sudan once the peace agreement is signed.

The first article provides an overview of the Sudanese situation. Others will focus on the continuing conflict in Darfur, internal displacement, humanitarian access and the spill-over of refugees into Chad; the perspectives of various sectors in the north, west and south on prospects for lasting peace; and a regional assessment of what the proposed peace deal would mean for Sudan’s neighbours, such as Uganda and Eritrea.

As the Sudanese government and the main rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) prepare to resume their meetings on 17 February for what many hope will mark the final stage of their 18-month peace process, rumblings of discontent in some parts of the country could have far-reaching repercussions on the gains already made during their talks in Kenya.

Bitter foes, the government and the SPLM/A are tentatively reaching agreement on hitherto inadmissible topics, and hopes are high that a comprehensive peace deal will finally put an end to a continuous and devastating 20-year civil war, during which about 2 million people have lost their lives, and millions more their homes, livelihoods and even their country.

AT WAR SINCE 1956

As the Horn of Africa analyst, Dan Connell, notes, Sudan has been at war with itself since the day it emerged from colonial rule in 1956. By then, the stage for conflict had already been set by the British and the Egyptians by way of a scenario of glaring inequalities between the north and the south, with much of the country’s resources and the instruments of policy-making concentrated in the Arab north. In such a context, the mostly Christian and animist southerners took up arms to fight against the imbalance.

There has been almost constant conflict, alleviated only by an 11-year hiatus from 1972 when a peace deal gave southerners limited regional autonomy. But fighting, led by the SPLM/A, resumed in 1983 after the then president, Ja’far Numayri, dissolved the regional government and imposed Islamic shari’ah law nationwide.

He was overthrown in 1985 in a military coup led by Lt-Gen Siwar al-Dhahab, who dissolved Numayri’s ruling Sudanese Socialist Union, then paved the way for a return to civilian rule by way of elections in 1986, which brought to power Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Ummah Party, as prime minister. Al-Mahdi was in turn deposed in 1989 in another military coup, this time led by the current president, Lt-Gen Umar Hasan al-Bashir.

THE PEACE DEAL IN A NUTSHELL

Since 1994, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) had been attempting to broker peace between the SPLM/A and the government, but its efforts failed until a breakthrough was made in 2002, leading to the landmark Machakos Protocol signed in Kenya on 20 July.

This success is partly due to the stewardship of the process by the chief mediator, Kenya’s Gen Lazarus Sumbeiywo, but also because each side acknowledged the other’s chief concern - the SPLM/A’s demand for a referendum on self-determination after a six-and-a-half-year interim period, and Khartoum’s insistence on retaining shari’ah law in areas under its control. The result was a momentum to move forward.

In October 2002, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed on a cessation of hostilities for the duration of the talks and, in the course of the negotiations, momentous accords were reached on key issues.

These included security arrangements for the interim period (which provide for the deployment of joint units in some areas) and agreement on wealth-sharing (under which oil revenue will be equally split between the south and the north, and a dual banking system will be in operation).

The talks have been given added weight by face-to-face meetings in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Naivasha between the SPLM/A leader, John Garang, and Sudanese First Vice-President Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha. Both sides have made references to the irreversibility of the process.

Remaining sticking points include the status of three disputed regions: southern Blue Nile, the Nuba mountains and Abyei, which are technically in the north, but whose inhabitants, according to the SPLM/A, identify with the south. Progress has been made on > southern Blue Nile and the Nuba mountains, but observers say Abyei is particularly problematic because of its large oil reserves and rich pasture lands. The issue of power-sharing during the interim period also remains unresolved.

HUMANITARIAN DEVASTATION

A probable peace deal between the government and the SPLM/A does not mean that Sudan’s overwhelming humanitarian problems will be at an end. Instead, many of the burdens will be concentrated within the country as millions of displaced people try to regain their homes, and hundreds of thousands of refugees start streaming back.

They will be returning to a country ripped apart by years of war and neglect. A massive rehabilitation programme will be needed for the south - an infrastructure will have to be built, services extended to the area, and people will have to learn how to live in peacetime rather than wartime.

Sudan’s vast oil wealth is due to be divided equally between the north and south. With production currently standing at 250,000 barrels a day and set to rise, oil revenue will undoubtedly bring some benefits to the long-suffering people. But observers note that billions more dollars will be needed for the reconstruction of the south.

Sudan already hosts about 320,000 refugees, many of them from Eritrea - Africa’s longest-running refugee caseload. But tense relations between the two neighbours and the closure of their common border have posed problems for an ongoing repatriation exercise after the UN High Commissioner for Refugees declared an end to refugee status for Eritreans in Sudan in 2002. Conflict in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia has led to a further 5,000 refugees fleeing into the Pachala area of Sudan’s Upper Nile region over the last few weeks.

Meanwhile, it is the outbreak in western Sudan of another civil war that is giving the most serious cause for concern, threatening as it to torpedo any peace gains. As the Kenya talks made headway, intense fighting between the government and rebels in the Darfur region of western Sudan led to the deaths of several thousand people and the displacement of 670,000 more. Over 100,000 have fled into neighbouring Chad and are living in pitiful conditions.

Their flight did not lead them to safety. International aid agencies and journalists reported Sudanese government aerial bombardments of the Chadian side of the border, as the authorities attempted to gain control of the situation in Darfur. Incursions by mounted Arab militiamen, known as the Janjawid and believed to enjoy the support of the government, have been a daily fear for most Darfur civilians, who have long complained of neglect by Khartoum.

The Chadian government is attempting to mediate between the rebels and the government, but the rebels - represented by two groups known as the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement - are suspicious of its proximity to the Sudanese authorities.

THE EAST-WEST THREAT

Unless the situation in Darfur is addressed, there is a very real threat that the north-south problem will simply be replaced by an east-west conundrum. Most sides outside the SPLM/A and the government feel marginalised by the peace process. The leaders of the SPLM/A and the Khartoum government both come from powerful circles, but nevertheless represent only a section of their respective regions. And with a full-blown war in the west, and rumblings of disquiet in the east, the chances of conflict on a different axis are strong.

"The lack of meaningful participation of opposition groups can threaten the entire structure," the International Crisis Group (ICG) think-tank has warned. "Unless Chad’s mediation on Darfur is first linked to the IGAD process, agreement between the government and SPLA on how to divide the power and wealth ’pie’ could exacerbate the conflict in Darfur."

Disgruntled rebel groups in the west and the east have already joined forces to eradicate "marginalisation, poverty, ignorance and backwardness". Darfur’s SLA and the Eritrea-based Beja Congress in the east say their grievances are essentially the same and they will confront the government on the same platform. The Beja Congress has even warned of an escalation of fighting in the east unless its concerns are addressed and the government ceases seeking "partial solutions" to Sudan’s problems.

Indeed, the ICG has spoken of a "reactivation" of the eastern front under the banner of the opposition umbrella group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). It notes that indigenous groups such as the Beja Congress, the Rasha’idah Free Lions and the Fatah Forces have a few hundred fighters each, "but more than compensate for numerical weakness by intimate knowledge of the terrain and support from indigenous communities".

These groups want direct access to the negotiations, rather than simply being "represented" by the SPLM/A, which is the largest group within the NDA. A crucial issue now is the implementation of last December’s Jiddah accord, which provides for power-sharing between the government and the NDA, and which some observers see as an indication that the authorities want to involve the Alliance in the political reform process.

REGIONAL CONCERNS

The Sudan peace process, of course, cannot be conducted in isolation. The largest country on the continent has borders with nine nations, most of which will undoubtedly be affected by the outcome of the process. Many hope the prospect of peace will have a positive impact on a volatile region. But this may not always be the case.

Egypt, jealously protecting its vanguard position on the Nile, opposes a divided Sudan, which would create a new state on the river. Rebels in northern Uganda risk losing support from Khartoum.

Subregional groupings outside the aegis of IGAD are springing up. Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen across the Bab al-Mandab strait have formed a strategic alliance, aimed they say at enhancing regional cooperation and facilitating exchanges. Eritrea - which has had disputes with all three nations and whose borders with Sudan and Ethiopia are closed - calls it an "axis of belligerence". The three deny they are attempting to isolate the tiny Red Sea state and have even called on it to join them.

Eritrea, which hosts Sudanese opposition groups, has accused Khartoum of backing the extremist Eritrean Islamic Jihad Movement (EIJM), saying that the EIJM has been carrying out attacks on its territory from eastern Sudan. Khartoum denies the charges.

Analysts note that in the Horn in particular, a settlement of the Sudan issue could lead to a general release of tension and a change in the international community’s hitherto detached attitude towards the region.

PROSPECTS

The Sudan peace process has received a tremendous boost from direct US involvement, and independent observers are optimistic that a deal will be reached between the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A. They warn, however, that this progress will be minimised if the violence in the west is allowed to continue unchecked.

"It would be a terrible tragedy if peace in the south were to be achieved just as Sudan enters a new and equally vicious war in Darfur," says Justice Africa, a UK-based think-tank. "As well as humanitarian assistance, the Darfur war needs immediate political attention by the international community."

Many observers agree that both the government and the SPLM/A should commit themselves to a peaceful settlement of the Darfur crisis, and that this should be enshrined in the comprehensive peace agreement.

Noting the international community’s support for the IGAD-led process, the ICG urges formally linking the process to the Darfur peace negotiations in Chad "to ensure that an end to conflict in the south does not become the catalyst for a new bloody chapter in the west".

Other issues also need to be resolved, such as south-south and north-north reconciliation, and human rights questions. The most critical factor will be the actual implementation of the final peace accord.

"It is crucially important that the international community and Sudanese civil society remain closely and constructively engaged with ensuring that the transition to peace is successfully completed, and the parallel transition to democracy is also effectively undertaken," Justice Africa stresses.