Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

With negotiations between the government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) about to break off as both parties consult with their leaderships, UN and US officials express unguarded optimism that a deal can be hammered out to end the longest-running and one of the bloodiest conflicts in Africa. In fact, the opposite is far more likely. Fighting is almost certain to escalate to levels not yet seen in a civil war that has claimed an estimated two million lives since 1983 and displaced as many as four million Sudanese. Sadly, the Kenya-based peace talks, set to break on July 20 and then reconvene in August, could help set the stage for an intensification of hostilities.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, in Khartoum for meetings with Sudanese officials, forecast a peace agreement by the end of this round of talks on July 20. “Peace is coming soon,” he told reporters in the Sudanese capital on July 11. US Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner echoed these sentiments when he returned to Washington last week from the Kenya talks. Yet the two sides remain far apart on the basic issues that drive the civil war, and nothing in the current exchanges suggests the gap is closing.

Digging In

While world attention has centered on the US role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Bush administration has engaged far more actively in the “peace process” in Sudan. The White House’s approach to peace in Sudan has been to sidestep the tough questions in favor of interim measures that will contain, if not halt, the violence, much as it has sought to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As in Israel-Palestine, the likely outcome in Sudan is that both sides will perceive the interim period as an opportunity to strengthen their negotiating positions before thinking seriously about a final agreement. Both the regime in Khartoum and the SPLM appear convinced that they can dig in to gain advantage over the other, despite a common perception in Europe and North America that this conflict is an “unwinnable war.” So what is the reality on the ground?

While the government’s use of oil revenues to beef up its arsenal and escalate the war is well-known—and often cited as a reason to seek a hasty settlement—what is less well-understood is that the rebels, too, have substantially improved their military and political position. Major splits in the opposition have been mended, new alliances struck, organizational weaknesses remedied, additional arms acquired, fresh recruits and many veterans trained at a more sophisticated level than ever before, the mobilization of civil society within guerrilla-controlled territory and in government-controlled areas strengthened and expanded, and more.

The Sudanese war is not a static situation, as it may seem from the outside. Nor is it one easily amenable to an approach constructed around modest confidence-building measures or short-listed grievances. Instead, it is a highly fluid confrontation between conflicting visions of what it means to be a Sudanese, who will enjoy the full fruits of Sudanese citizenship and whether those who have until now been forcibly excluded will remain a part of Sudan at all. Southerners, some of them Christians, are playing the lead role in the revolt against Khartoum, but they are not alone in it. A halt to the fighting that fails to address these deeper issues is bound to founder.

Roots of War

The army of the SPLM was born out of military mutinies in Sudan, as disgruntled officers led their troops into the bush in 1983 to join a revolt already underway. Southerners were outraged by northern government moves to rescind the limited autonomy they won in 1972 after a first round of civil war. The imposition of Islamic shari’a law on the Christian and animist southerners that year was another factor. But the roots of the confrontation lay in decades of grossly unequal development of the Arabized north and the black African south, first by British colonial forces and then by Arab-dominated northern Sudanese governments, of which the “Islamic” regime of Gen. Omar al-Bashir is only the latest incarnation. To ignore the longer history and focus only on the amelioration of recent grievances, as the Bush administration has done, is folly.

Sudan has been rent by intermittent civil war almost from the moment the country—Africa’s largest—gained its independence in 1956. Much of the southern third of the country is now under the control of the SPLM, which also holds pockets of territory in central and eastern Sudan in the Nuba Mountains and the Inghessina Hills. The SPLM’s counterparts in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) run the political gamut. Traditional northern parties shouldered aside by al-Bashir’s National Islamic Front after it seized power in 1989, like the pro-Egyptian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose leader Muhammad Mirghani is the NDA’s titular head, sit in council with the formerly underground Communist Party and the Sudan Alliance Forces (SAF), a group led by disaffected military officers, trade unionists and urban professionals which recently merged with the SPLM to form a single integrated north-south force.

What started as a conflict between the Arabized, Islamic north and the non-Muslim African south has become a fight between the “fundamentalist” Islamist movement at the country’s center and a diverse alliance of peoples and political groups, Muslims, Christians and animists alike, challenging the government from the periphery. Together, the allies are committed to religious and ethnic diversity and the reallocation of political power and economic resources to what they term the “marginalized majority.”

A recent visit to the NDA’s base area in northeastern Sudan, near the Red Sea coast, found the guerrillas fully prepared to launch new military initiatives there, but reined in by political considerations. Two highly trained SPLM divisions operating under the NDA umbrella are poised to attack the strategic road and rail links between Khartoum and Port Sudan, through which the country gets most of its imports, and to cut the pipeline through which the government exports its new oil wealth. Only pressure from external forces, notably Egypt, which exerts a strong influence over the DUP, has kept the rebels from launching these operations until now.

Flawed Peace Efforts

US efforts to defuse the conflict have concentrated narrowly on the two leading combatants, the government and the SPLM, to the exclusion of the other NDA partners and without direct reference to issues that fall outside the north-south dimension of the conflict, such as the rights of marginalized northern minorities like the Bejas, the Fur, the Nubans and others and to Sudanese throughout the country who reject the Islamist politics of the current regime. Despite the fact that the State Department is sponsoring a Congressionally mandated “capacity building” program for the NDA to the tune of $3 million, the opposition alliance of northern and southern parties is not even mentioned in the lengthy report Bush’s Special Envoy to Sudan, former Missouri senator John Danforth, presented to the White House in April. Nor did Danforth even visit Eritrea, where the NDA is headquartered, during his regional fact-finding mission earlier this year. Danforth’s report serves as the basis for the draft peace plan that Kenyan mediators presented at the current talks underway near Nairobi.

The “Danforth initiative” urged the two sides to take steps to mitigate the suffering of non-combatants—a limited ceasefire, “days of tranquility” to enable public health campaigns, an end to direct attacks on civilian populations and an honest assessment of slave raiding. The draft “Sudan Peace Plan” the Kenyans put on the table at Machakos last week—widely viewed as an American initiative funneled through Kenyan intermediaries—proposed that such measures be expanded to give a limited measure of self-rule to the south in the name of “self-determination.” But the plan does not alter either the character of the regime itself or the structures through which it rules—and through which it controls the country’s newly developed oil wealth, all of which originates in the south. The area targeted for self-administration is defined as the three states comprising the southern region in 1956, when Sudan gained its independence, an area far smaller than that now contested by the opposition.

Critics charge that the Machakos plan is a thinly disguised rerun of the 1972 peace agreement that ended the first round of civil war by giving southerners in those states limited autonomy. It is built, they say, around the flawed concept of “two systems, one state”—with real power held by those who have dominated the country from the beginning and who can, at a later time, take away whatever limited rights they extend now. In effect, this would be a truce, not a resolution of the conflict. The Machakos plan is a non-starter for the opposition, though the rebels are loath to walk away from the negotiating table for fear of being branded pariahs by the international community.

Sterner Measures

Danforth counts as one of his key successes the promotion of a short-term, regional ceasefire reached in March between the regime and the SPLM’s army in the Nuba Mountains. On July 13, an international military team led by a retired US general arrived in Sudan to monitor protection of civilians under the ceasefire. But the agreement has merely facilitated the movement of government troops from one area to another to prosecute the war against the SPLM. At this stage, a more comprehensive and useful approach would insist on unrestricted access to war and drought-affected populations for humanitarian aid and public health campaigns. In a seeming split with the State Department, US Agency for International Development official Roger Winter warned in Congressional hearings on July 11 that tens of thousands of southern Sudanese face starvation if the regime does not desist from blocking aid deliveries.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration—in a break with the Christian right-led lobby that has pressured it to engage in Sudan peacemaking—remains cool toward the Sudan Peace Act, which would restrict access to US capital markets for companies doing business in Sudan and employ other measures that attack the regime’s economic standing in global markets. The Bush administration has strongly opposed the act, different versions of which have passed both houses of Congress, on the grounds that it establishes a precedent for the politicization of capital markets. Perhaps reflecting a similar uneasiness, Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle has thus far declined to appoint conferees to negotiate a compromise between the Senate and House versions of the bill, meaning that the Sudan Peace Act may be stalled by procedural rules. However, support for this measure now would send a clearer and sterner message to Khartoum that the US seeks a genuine, lasting peace.

Coming Battles Over Oil

It is likely only a matter of time before the Kenya-based talks, like negotiations before them, collapse into mutual recriminations, and the two sides go back to the battlefield to put their conflicting visions to another bloody test. Indeed, fierce fighting has gone on even as the talks were taking place over the past weeks, including violations of the Nuba Mountains ceasefire. The current talks are built upon a faulty premise—that a resolution to the Sudanese war can be constructed around gestures of regional reconciliation, not comprehensive (and truly national) restructuring.

The main battles in the next round, fought over the coming six to eight months, will be joined over control of Sudan’s vast oil reserves. The government will seek to increase its capacity to get oil to market; the rebels will try to stop them. The main points of confrontation will be in and around the oilfields themselves, which are in a government-controlled enclave in the south, and in the northeast where the rebels will seek to disrupt the flow of oil to Port Sudan.

If the Bush administration is serious about promoting a lasting peace in Sudan, and not simply achieving a respite to advance its “war on terrorism” in the region, it must let go of the fanciful notion of reconciling the warring parties and take on the far more difficult project of restructuring the country itself—how it is governed, who does the governing and what it means to be a citizen. This is nation-building by any other name.

Power, not the absence of good will, is the issue here, and it must be addressed head on. The Bush administration and its European allies must insist on a transitional power-sharing arrangement in which all parties are represented and that itself takes on the challenge to produce an egalitarian democratic Sudan in which all its citizens have an equal and compelling stake in its continued stability. Anything less is simply a recipe for more bloodshed.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Peace in Sudan Doubtful," Middle East Report Online, July 19, 2002.
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