Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent four-nation trip to Africa produced a flurry of press coverage on renewed US interest in ending the 18-year Sudanese civil war. Despite Bush’s nomination of a special envoy to spearhead a new peace initiative, the Bush administration’s policy toward Sudan will probably not be much different from the high-profile but largely insubstantial policies of its predecessor. The Bush administration is coming under growing pressure to support the rebels from an unlikely coalition of conservative evangelical Christian groups and African-American organizations. Both are disturbed over the government’s persecution of the mostly black southerners, some of whom are Christians. The conservative-led US Commission on International Religious Freedom maintains a drumbeat of op-eds and public statements calling upon the administration to tighten US sanctions on Khartoum.

But powerful forces more quietly urge Washington to go in exactly the opposite direction. US oil interests, worried they are being left out of a petroleum bonanza in the new and expanding oil fields in southern Sudan, favor increased dialogue with Khartoum and a loosening of economic sanctions that have blocked them from doing business in Sudan. Egypt, the key US ally in the Nile basin, opposes a US tilt toward the rebels, fearing the breakup of Sudan and a threat to Cairo’s historical control over the Nile headwaters. Some Sudanese intellectuals living abroad argue that support for the rebels can only increase the people’s suffering without leading to a victory. Under these circumstances, they insist, the best southerners can hope for is negotiated autonomy — the sooner, the better. Special envoy nominee Chester Crocker, formerly Reagan’s assistant secretary of state for African affairs, appears to hold this last position.

Meanwhile, a highly touted “summit” that brought rebel leaders and government officials together in Nairobi for the first time last week failed to produce a ceasefire. In the end, the main protagonists — government leader Gen. Omar al-Bashir and Sudan People’s Liberation Army head John Garang — didn’t even meet face to face. The prospects now are for increased fighting as both sides seek to position themselves for future bargaining. Nothing in the menu of minor policy initiatives announced in Washington over the past month is likely to change this.

A North-South Conflict?

As various lobbies stir the political pot in Washington and media coverage focuses on the failed “peace” talks in Nairobi, the Sudanese regime has sharply escalated fighting in an attempt to contain the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in pockets of the south, where its main strength lies. The regime aims to expand its control of southern oil fields prior to any halt in the war. For its part, the SPLA has been defending its positions in the south, while threatening operations to curtail the government’s oil production and also attack strategic targets in the north and east of Sudan, where it has built strong positions for itself over the past decade. In the past few weeks, the SPLA has claimed major advances in fighting in the southern Bahr el-Ghazal region, near the oil fields. The Bush administration recently decided to send $3 million to a broader rebel group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a coalition of more than a dozen southern and northern forces that operates in the northeast.

The key issue here is whether Sudan’s civil war is defined as strictly a north-south conflict, or as a center-periphery problem that demands structural remedies in the country as a whole. Despite much rhetoric to the contrary, the SPLA has long been identified with a southern strategy. The south is where most of its forces are and where much of the fighting has been since 1983. An estimated 2 million people have died as a result of war and famine there. Another 4 million are reportedly displaced. The north-south border area is also where government-armed Arab militias have raided Dinka villages for booty and captives, leading US evangelicals to charge the regime with aiding and abetting the resumption of slavery — a hot-button issue that has helped galvanize support for a pro-rebel strategy in the US.

But the conflict in Sudan is considerably more complicated than the simple north-south, Muslim-Christian, Arab-African duality often presented by groups pushing the US to support the rebels. Most northern Sudanese are Arabized Africans, not ethnic Arabs. Most southerners practice traditional religions, not Christianity, though missionaries operating there hope to change this. Many Muslims are deeply engaged in armed opposition to the regime, as well. The second largest armed group in the country belongs to the Beja Congress, based among impoverished Muslims in northeastern Sudan, and there are several other groups from the north in the NDA coalition.

Under these conditions, Chester Crocker’s apparent preferred approach of placating southerners with a truncated form of autonomy, similar to that they were given (and subsequently lost) to end the first round of civil war in 1972, is not attractive to many Sudanese. For their part, though some favor a strictly southern “solution,” most southerners continue to manifest a deep-rooted skepticism toward anything short of full self-determination. The real questions are: can the opposition do any better if it keeps fighting? Would US support for them at this juncture make any difference in the outcome?

Jockeying for Position

The rebels have yet conclusively to demonstrate their capacity to change the military balance in their favor, or to be a viable alternative to the current regime in Khartoum. But the opposition may be increasing its political coherence and gaining military strength by default, as the regime is weakened by a debilitating split in the ruling Islamist party, the National Islamic Front (NIF). The recent arrest of NIF party founder Hasan al-Turabi on charges of treason for independently negotiating with the SPLA in opposition to the Bashir regime, has spilled over into the armed forces, where hundreds of Turabi loyalists have been detained over the past six months. Increasingly isolated from the NIF rank and file, Bashir has intensified his campaign in the oil-producing areas, to ensure that oil revenues — about $500 million yearly and growing—flow into his regime’s coffers. But despite the increased availability of oil money to purchase sophisticated arms, the Bashir-Turabi split has curbed the army’s fighting capacity. Rebel spokespeople say dissension in the army partly explains their ability to repel the current government offensive.

Fierce fighting has been underway since April in the southern province of Bahr el-Ghazal, as well as in the central Nuba Mountains and the contested eastern province of Southern Blue Nile. Fighting is likely soon in the Red Sea Hills of northeastern Sudan, where rebel forces threaten the country’s main road and rail access to the sea and where the government has been quietly building up an attack force in the small Red Sea port of Agig. But so far government forces have fared poorly on all fronts. The rebels say they will counterattack once the government’s force is spent. Such attacks have already started in Bahr el-Ghazal, where the SPLA claims to have recently captured a major town, Raga. The coming months may see decisive engagements as both sides jockey for position, both for future negotiations and to win favor for potential aid.

No Peace Without Structural Change

The best course for the US under these conditions is to keep the doors open to both sides, to get to know the situation better on the ground and to help the drought and war victims with emergency food aid. But the Bush administration should resist either a premature commitment to a false peace or a leap to high levels of direct military assistance that would only preempt the organic development of the rebel movement.

What is now on the table for halting the war is not a recipe for peace. The government has repeatedly offered a sham autonomy that no one in the opposition takes seriously. The first challenge to special envoy Crocker is to press the regime to make a substantive offer. If any such offer is forthcoming, the US should insist that the regime explain how autonomy for the south will be extended to other marginalized peoples in the country and translated into a democratization of the country’s center. Such an outcome is highly unlikely.

The second alternative would be to step up, but carefully target, aid to the rebels. The most important assistance now is not arms transfers. Whether the rebels are headed for protracted conflict or for postwar governance, the biggest need is currently to strengthen the institutional capacity of rebel political structures, civil administration and social services. The SPLA is the largest political organization in Sudan. Whatever the outcome of the civil war, it will be a major player in managing the country. But the NDA coalition, of which the SPLA is the largest constituent group, represents the best vehicle for a long-term political solution to the country’s deep ethnic and religious divisions. This is the one venue where groups from all across Sudan, including the SPLA, come together. It needs to be better developed as both a laboratory for creating a multi-cultural state and as a potential leadership for a postwar Sudan. A loose umbrella organization, the NDA is notoriously prone to intra-party squabbling. If it gains power, the coalition will face international pressure to adhere to an agreement in which all parties agreed to share power, hold a referendum on the question of southern self-determination and suspend Islamic shari`a law in the country.

Which Pro-Rebel Course?

The critical decision facing the Bush administration, if it follows a pro-rebel course, is whether to support the SPLA on its own, or to foster the growth and development of the NDA, with the SPLA at its core. The former strategy would focus the administration on a north-south solution, with the potential for the short-term pacification of the country an ethnic-federal basis similar to that adopted by neighboring Ethiopia in the 1990s and now threatening to unravel there. This might halt the conflict in Sudan for the short term, though even that is doubtful, but it would set the stage for another African Yugoslavia in the future.

The fact that the first direct US aid to the rebels is going to the NDA is a good sign. It needs now to be followed up with limited capacity-building assistance, coupled with quiet encouragement to the rebels to promote national forms of economic, social and political mobilization and deployment within their own movement. This means integrating southern operations more fully and organically into the NDA, as well as building the NDA itself and shifting some northern forces and logistical operations into the south, instead of treating each as a separate theater.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Sudan’s Opposition and the US," Middle East Report Online, June 11, 2001.

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