When negotiations in July 2002 at Machakos, Kenya between the Islamist government of Sudan and rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) produced a “framework agreement” of shared ideas on the future of the country, Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner touted the possibility of a comprehensive peace deal that would finally end Africa’s longest-running civil war. “There is good cause for optimism,” Kansteiner declared four months later, when the next round of talks yielded a temporary ceasefire. “We have a swath of territory through the heart of Africa that is on the verge of peace.” That was then.

In August 2003, the on-again, off-again talks, sponsored by the East African organization Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), hit a roadblock that could prove terminal. The difficulty arose when mediators called on the combatants to take specific steps to implement the principles they had — under pressure — claimed to accept in the earlier rounds, including the south’s right to self-determination. The IGAD mediation committee includes representatives from Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia, all of which border Sudan. The US, Britain, Norway and Italy play an important advisory role in the process, in which the Bush administration is heavily invested.

Before the opposing parties even sat down for the latest round, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir charged that the IGAD proposals — which included the right of the SPLM to maintain its army through a six-year transition before a referendum on the south’s political status — were “aimed at dismantling not only the present regime but the whole of Sudan.” If the mediators insist on the package, said Bashir, they can “go to hell.” When the two sides met on August 11, they quickly deadlocked and adjourned, but, under more pressure, they agreed to try again in September. Whether they will emerge with a concrete plan that is ever put into practice is doubtful, but neither side wants to be the one blamed for the failure of the process — especially because such a determination will automatically trigger strong US sanctions under the 2002 Sudan Peace Act.

How the Sudan peace process seemed to get so far only to stalemate so swiftly offers a study in both the weakness of an incrementalist approach to conflict resolution when the will to compromise is lacking and the softness of the Bush administration’s post-September 11 Africa policy — the more so as the limitations of US power become evident.

A Country Long at War with Itself

The Sudanese civil war does not lend itself to simple solutions, not only because both sides perceive themselves as potential victors in a protracted conflict, but also because the stakes are so high — from the definition of what it means to be a citizen of Sudan to who controls the country’s newfound oil wealth. As many as two million Sudanese have died from war-related causes since the latest fighting erupted in 1983. Another four million have been forcibly displaced and millions more are in urgent need of emergency relief, according to United Nations agencies. Meanwhile, the conflict has spilled over Sudan’s porous borders to threaten the surrounding region with chronic instability.

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, with borders that touch Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya. It straddles the Nile and abuts the Red Sea, a location that made it the target of revolving-door superpower intervention throughout much of the Cold War and that continues to give it strategic value for regional and global interests today, especially Egypt, which fears any loss of control over the Nile headwaters. The confirmation of substantial oil reserves in the contested south adds to the country’s geopolitical importance even as it fuels the conflict by providing revenue for new arms purchases.

Sudan has been at war with itself since the day it emerged from colonial rule. In fact, fighting between north and south actually broke out before the formal transfer of power from London to Khartoum in 1956, for conflict was built into the structure of the new state. Glaring inequalities between the two regions — administered separately by the British out of Khartoum and Nairobi — were institutionalized from the outset with political power and control of the country’s extensive natural resources, as well as decisions over education policy, language and cultural identity, centered in the north. Southerners, denied a viable forum to contest the inequities, took up arms.

The initial phase of the civil war halted in 1972 under an agreement mediated by Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie that gave southerners limited regional autonomy, but the accord did not hold. Fighting resumed little more than a decade later when Gen. Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who had signed the Addis Ababa agreement, unilaterally dissolved the regional government after receiving confirmation of extensive oil reserves there. When the self-declared imam imposed Islamic shari’a law throughout the country later that year, southerners joined the opposition in droves. The renewed revolt was led by the SPLM, whose army, the SPLA, quickly captured much of the southern third of the country. Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985, but the civilian government elected a year later did little to change the country’s basic policies, and it, too, lost ground in the conflict. At last, faced with a collapsing economy and rising political protest, the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi offered to compromise. However, days before a truce was to be signed in 1989 that would have suspended the controversial application of shari’a, Mahdi was deposed by Gen. Omar al-Bashir, who seized power on behalf of the extremist National Islamic Front (NIF).

Center and Periphery

The new regime quickly banned all political parties, trade unions and other “non-religious institutions.” It went on to impose tight controls on the press and strict dress and behavior codes on women as it moved to restructure the entire society in its image. More than 78,000 people were purged from the army, police and civil administration, thoroughly reshaping the state apparatus, while dissidents were routinely detained in torture centers. Conscription of child soldiers became widespread, and long dormant forms of slavery grew in scope and frequency, as the government encouraged tribal militias to raid rebel-held areas for booty, taking captured civilians with them.

The NIF regime provided a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and his “Arab Afghans” from 1991-1996 and supported Islamist forces in Egypt, Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and as far west as Gambia, Niger and Senegal, as well as in Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. It also backed Christian extremists of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda in reprisal for that country’s aid to southern Sudanese opposition forces, and it helped Hutu militias based in Congo (formerly Zaire) for similar reasons.

To facilitate its larger project, the NIF merged religious indoctrination and conversion with education, social services, economic development and political mobilization. It used the paramilitary Popular Defense Forces, modeled on the Iranian Republican Guards, to enforce Arabization and Islamization along narrowly sectarian lines. This provoked many Muslims to join the opposition, which gelled in the mid-1990s into a multi-ethnic and explicitly secular coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), whose largest armed contingent was the SPLA, but which also brought in new forces from the west, center and north of the country. Though the NIF government scored major military successes in the south in its early years, the tide began to turn toward the middle of the 1990s. By 2000, the government was again on the defensive as the conflict spread toward the economic and administrative heart of the country.

Thus, what started as a conflict between the Arabized, Islamic north and the non-Muslim African south became 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. These groups called for religious and ethnic diversity and the reallocation of political power and economic resources to what they term the “marginalized majority.” This wider agenda is paralyzing the Machakos peace process and colliding with US efforts to end the fighting with an agreement that falls short of restructuring the country itself.

Two Directions at Once

The tangled US history in Sudan has veered back and forth between close support and active antagonism for decades, first according to the vagaries of regional Cold War alliances and later the exigencies of domestic American politics. Today, the dominant concerns are the “war on terrorism” — and oil.

The US broke relations with the Nimeiri government — then considered “radical nationalist” in the Nasserist mold — after its ambassador was assassinated in Khartoum by guerrillas from the Palestinian group Black September in the early 1970s. But Washington did a U-turn and provided Khartoum with more than $2 billion in arms later in the decade and then into the 1980s to counter Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia.

The first Bush administration pulled back from Khartoum after the NIF seized power in 1989, and then supported Iraq in the 1991 Gulf war. When Sudan became a base of operations for Osama bin Laden and a raft of radical Islamist guerrilla groups in the early 1990s, relations with the US soured further. They reached their nadir during the Clinton administration, which imposed strong sanctions on Khartoum and appeared to tilt toward a policy of displacing the NIF government, though it held back from providing more than token aid to the rebels challenging the regime.

In 1996, Secretary of State Madeline Albright called the country “a viper’s nest of terrorism.” In 1998, after accusing Sudan of complicity in the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton sent cruise missiles into Khartoum, destroying a pharmaceutical plant in a symbolic gesture that only seemed to harden the regime’s hostility. In one of the administration’s last diplomatic acts, it successfully opposed efforts to lift UN sanctions on Sudan that were imposed after an abortive 1995 attempt by Sudan-based guerrillas to assassinate Egyptian President Husni Mubarak.

The current Bush administration made ending the Sudan conflict an early priority, but found itself under pressure from conflicting interests over how to proceed. An unlikely coalition of conservative evangelical Christian groups and African-American organizations urged support for the rebels, forming a Sudan Caucus that brought together such unlikely allies as House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a right-wing Republican from Texas, and Rep. Charles Rangel, a liberal Democrat from New York. Both were disturbed over the Khartoum government’s persecution of the mostly black southerners, some of whom are Christians.

But powerful forces urged Washington to go in exactly the opposite direction — toward a policy of “constructive engagement” that would alter the policies of the NIF regime while leaving it in place. US oil interests, worried they were being left out of a petroleum bonanza in the new and expanding oilfields in southern Sudan, favored increased dialogue with Khartoum and a loosening of sanctions that blocked them from doing business there. America’s key regional ally, Egypt, opposed a US tilt toward the rebels, fearing the breakup of Sudan and a threat to Cairo’s historical control over the Nile headwaters. Mubarak warned that independence for southern Sudan “would tear the region to shreds.”

The upshot has been direct US involvement in the East African initiative to negotiate a resolution of the conflict. As an early gesture toward Khartoum, the Bush administration withdrew its objections to the lifting of UN sanctions, which the Security Council promptly did in September 2001. The NIF reciprocated soon after the September 11 attacks by providing the US extensive access to its files on “terrorist” groups it had formerly supported.

Peace as a “Process”

The diplomatic dance between Washington and Khartoum started early in George W. Bush’s term. After barely five months in office, Bush named Andrew Natsios special humanitarian coordinator for Sudan at the US Agency for International Development, and signaled interest in the appointment of a special envoy to promote peace in the country. After being spurned by Chester Crocker, who had served as deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Ronald Reagan, Bush chose former Missouri Sen. John Danforth. The next steps were textbook “conflict resolution.”

Danforth toured the region — ducking the thorny issue of northern opposition by foregoing a stop in Eritrea where the NDA is headquartered — and proposed a set of confidence-building measures between the government and the SPLM to set the stage for substantive talks. The “Danforth initiative” urged the parties to mitigate the suffering of civilians through the imposition of a ceasefire in the Nuba mountains, the designation of “days of tranquility” to enable public health campaigns, the end of direct attacks on civilian populations and the investigation of allegations of slave raiding along the north-south frontier.

In the spring of 2002, diplomatic interventions by European and African states eager to jump-start negotiations, coupled with strong pressure from the US and tacitly reinforced by the Bush administration’s response to the September 11 attacks in Afghanistan, convinced the warring parties to sit together. They met in the Kenyan town of Machakos under the sponsorship of IGAD in July to hammer out a framework for solving the conflict.

The draft “Sudan Peace Plan” the Kenyan mediator put on the table built on a Declaration of Principles the antagonists had accepted in the 1990s, also under IGAD auspices. A breakthrough for its time, the original declaration had recognized the south’s right to self-determination and called for the separation of religion and the state, but it failed to spell out how either might work. This time, IGAD mediators went further, proposing immediate self-rule for the south and a plebiscite on the region’s ultimate status after a six-year transition, in exchange for SPLM agreement that shari’a law could remain in effect in the north.

Machakos Founders

US officials trumpeted the outcome as a major step toward a lasting peace. Critics charged that the declaration was a rerun of the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, giving southerners limited autonomy that could be withdrawn once the rebels were disarmed. It was built, they said, around the flawed concept of “two systems, one state” — with real power retained by those who had dominated the country from the beginning. This was the basis for a truce, not a resolution of the conflict. Despite such reservations, the rebels were loath to walk away from the negotiating table for fear of being branded pariahs by the international community, and the agreement stood.

In October 2002, the two sides met again and agreed to a cessation of hostilities throughout the country for the duration of the talks. This reinforced the sense of momentum in the negotiations, though the ceasefire was frequently breached, particularly in combat zones outside the traditional “south” and in southern communities near the oilfields, where the government, acting through tribal militias, sought to clear the area of hostile populations in order to expand production.

In the end, the process foundered over the specifics of political power, wealth sharing, internal boundaries (who is to be covered by autonomy provisions), what happens to the opposing armies during the transition and the character of the post-war national capital. One thread that knits these issues together is identity — what will it mean to be a citizen of a post-war Sudan and to whom that appellation will apply. But it also comes down to who will control the country’s abundant natural resources — both the Nile waters and the new oil reserves, each of which has its origins in the south. It turns on what guarantees each side has of the other’s good faith through the lengthy transition.

If the Machakos process does disintegrate, as seems increasingly likely — or if it stalls indefinitely and the mediators eventually walk away — the prospect is for more fighting that will be far more intense than ever before. The government, which recently purchased a fleet of sophisticated new MiG-29 fighter-bombers, will seek to dislodge the SPLM from bases outside the south and to clear the region around the southern oilfields in order to guarantee secure production. Rebel targets will be the oilfields, and the pipelines and barges that transport the oil north to Port Sudan for export. In such a scenario, the government would act quickly to press its arms advantage before the US or other states could impose meaningful sanctions — or assist the SPLM in resisting such an onslaught.

Perhaps it was not a coincidence that as these questions arose, a Uganda-Sudan pact to end a simmering conflict along their common border — in effect since March 2002 — broke down the same week the Machakos process was suspended. The central issue there was Khartoum’s support for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Christian-derived cult that operates in northern Uganda out of government-held bases in southern Sudan. The LRA is notorious for kidnapping young Ugandans and inducting them into its child-army through the ritual murder of others caught trying to escape. Sudan has supported the LRA as payback to Uganda for its backing of the SPLA, and there are reports that the LRA is again expanding its operations there. Ugandan officials withdrew their monitors from Sudan and sent their Sudanese counterparts packing in mid-August after accusing Khartoum of restricting the liaison officers to the two capital cities where they had no role in halting the fighting or policing the border. Kampala charged Khartoum with giving lip service to peacemaking efforts while failing to act on them, much as did the SPLA after the Machakos process seemed to collapse.

The Last Best Chance

The difficulty IGAD mediators and US and European “advisers” are having in getting the main combatants to take the last steps toward peace was eminently predictable. Both continue to see the totalizing concessions each demands of the other as unacceptable — as erasing who they are as well as stripping them of what little they have. Each also perceives the war as winnable, while suspecting — probably rightly — that threats of international reprisals for continuing the fight are, under present geopolitical circumstances, unlikely to be followed through.

But the Machakos talks were built upon a faulty premise: that a resolution to the Sudanese war could be constructed around gestures of regional reconciliation, not comprehensive (and truly national) restructuring. When modest restructuring was called for, the process fell apart. Even the proposals for limited power-sharing that the mediators placed on the table this summer — sending the NIF regime into paroxysms of anger and galvanizing public opposition from Egypt — do not go far enough, for they ignore the fate of the millions of Sudanese outside the south whose economic and political destiny (and identity) is glossed over in the peace plan. Fresh hostilities in the western province of Darfur underline the importance of transcending views of the war as a north-south conflict. One leading NDA figure, Sudan Alliance Forces commander and former Sudanese Brigadier Abd al-Aziz Khalid, has threatened to resume fighting if the agreement is signed as is. Meanwhile, SPLM chairman John Garang has said that his forces will not participate in new talks if the Machakos process collapses — and that this is the last chance for peace, after which there is only more war.

If the Bush administration is serious about promoting a durable 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 Sudanese citizen. Egypt could be given guarantees on the Nile water flow so that its diplomats will stop playing the spoiler. The US must put teeth into these premises or it will be viewed more and more as a paper tiger that cannot stay the course when the going gets tough. Yet such measures would defy Washington’s historical trend of greater concern for short-term stability — in the form of a “peace process” that looks alive from the outside — than for actual peace.

How to cite this article:

Dan Connell "Peace in Sudan," Middle East Report 228 ( ).
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