Sudan: Peace in Peril

Al-Bashir and Garang
Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir (L) and Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang (Photo: AFP).

Violence has hounded the Sudanese people for much of their history since they gained independence from Great Britain and Egypt in 1956. Since the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement fell apart in 1983, fighting between the northern government and the rebels in the south has left more than 2 million people dead and another 4 million homeless. The violence has grown worse over the past year—fed by evidence that southern Sudan may be home to greater oil wealth than was previously thought. So when representatives from the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) signed a framework agreement on July 20 following five weeks of marathon talks in Machakos, Kenya, many hailed it as a breakthrough.

The agreement, which was brokered by the Horn of Africa’s Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), with the active involvement of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway, calls for a referendum in southern Sudan on self-determination within six years.

Until the referendum, the southern and northern region of Africa’s largest country will be governed by separate constitutions, under an umbrella constitution for the whole of Sudan. During this interim period, Sudan will have two armies, the north’s under the leadership of the government in Khartoum, and the south’s under the leadership of SPLA leader John Garang.

Considering the rancor between the SPLA and Khartoum, these are impressive accomplishments. But the agreement says nothing about a permanent cease-fire, or the all-important question of control over Sudan’s petroleum resources, which the U.S. Department of Energy estimates to be worth at least US$53 billion at current prices. A second round of talks, scheduled to begin on Aug. 12 in Kenya, will address these issues.

Until they do, many in the region are looking at the Machakos agreement with a healthy dose of skepticism. The independent daily Khartoum Monitor’s July 22 editorial read, “Those who are quick at making conclusions described [the Machakos agreement] as a historic event… others say it is a memorandum of understanding that will not come into force until hostilities cease. When? That is the question. The success of the framework, or understanding, or breakthrough hangs on so many ‘ifs.’ On our part, we keep our fingers crossed.”

SPLA rebels celebrate June 11, 2002 in Kapoeta, southern Sudan, after capturing the area over the weekend following heavy fighting that left at least 200 dead. "It's a major disaster for the government and a major victory for SPLA" SPLA leader John Garang told journalists (Photo: AFP). 

Evidence on the ground suggests the Monitor’s editors may be justified in their caution. Even as delegates shook hands before journalists’ cameras, fighting continued, towns changed hands, and civilians died. Commenting on the bizarre concordance of peace talks and fighting on the ground, Alfred Tabanv, writing for the July 24 edition of the same paper, observed, “This established the lack of seriousness by both sides.… Very few peace talks succeed in such a charged atmosphere.”

Just two days after Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and SPLA leader John Garang shook hands, the SPLA accused the Sudanese army of killing more than 1,000 civilians in fierce fighting in southern Sudan’s richest oil-producing region. The Sudanese government denied the claims, but human-rights groups active in the region said they had found evidence that civilians had been killed.

Faced with these reports, the Khartoum Monitor’s Aug. 1 editorial urged calm. “The peacemakers are going back to put the final touches to the peace agreement,” the editors pled. “We appeal to the warring parties to exercise self-restraint to protect the gains they have achieved at Machakos last month…. If they do that, Sudanese will escape from being regarded by the world as bunches of insincere savages that do not know the value of agreements.”

But others in Sudan and the region are less in favor of the accord. North Sudanese opposition parties fear the south will leave them alone in their battle against Al-Bashir’s government once the south wins a degree of autonomy, and are demanding to be involved in the peace process. The National Democratic Alliance, a coalition of Sudanese opposition parties based in Cairo, has expressed its reservations, on the grounds that “it would legitimize dictatorial rule in both halves of the country for the next six years.” Meanwhile, the similarly named Sudanese activist group National Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy has rejected the agreement outright.

Tabanv, writing in the July 20 edition of the Monitor, echoed their fears, warning that “any peace agreement signed during dictatorship, and without the involvement of the main political forces in the country, is simply unsustainable.” Al-Bashir, who led the Sudanese army’s 8th Brigade in combat against the SPLA, seized power from Ahmed Ali Al-Mirghani in a 1989 military coup.

The Egyptian response to the Machakos agreement was equally tepid. Egypt had earlier declined an offer to act as an observer at the Machakos talks, preferring to stand by the fruitless Libyan-Egyptian initiative of April 2000, which stressed that Sudan must remain unified under Khartoum’s Arab-Muslim rule. Egypt has close ties with Khartoum, notably on the issue of control over the Nile’s vital waters and, less publicly, as an intermediary in the “gray” arms trade.

If the Machakos peace protocol fails, “it may be due to Egyptian pressure to keep its hegemony over the Nile,” a commentary in the Aug. 6 edition of Johannesburg’s Business Day, Aug. 6, charged, “Egypt, no democracy itself, is militantly against southern Sudanese self-determination. Paradoxically, Cairo is a major power in the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD); but one reportedly willing to blackmail Washington on its Iraqi attack plans if the Bush administration presses too hard for a Sudanese peace plan entertaining southern self-determination.”

Business Day sees international designs behind the Machakos deal: “[Peace] could facilitate broader Afro-Arab cooperation, potentially leading to a new inter-African understanding governing the continent's petroleum sector.” Acknowledging that the two warring parties still must agree on the division of power and wealth, the paper’s editors asserted that “if these, among other issues, are ironed out, Africa's major oil exporters could strengthen the African Petroleum Producers' Association as a cohesive force for responding to mounting pressures to play Africa off against the Arab world as a means of shoring up the US-Israeli alliance in Israel's war with the Palestinians.”

In Kampala, closer geographically and culturally to the conflict, the editors of the independent weekly Monitor, insisted in a July 22 editorial that “[IGAD], must insist on frank discussion of the issues…. This suffering can only end if all well-meaning people support the peace plan between the Islamic-dominated northern government and the Christian south beyond the six-year interim period agreed on in the Machakos Protocol.”

And in Nairobi, the editors of The East African argued that the peace agreement must stand, with or without Egypt’s stamp or approval: “The peace agreement between SPLA and the Sudanese government must be supported and implemented,” the urged. “The region desperately needs peace.”