The sixth round of Sudanese peace talks in Kenya ended abruptly when Khartoum rejected the mediators' proposals for a peace deal. But in an exclusive interview with Gamal Nkrumah, United States Special Envoy to Sudan John Danforth said he remained confident that peace can be achieved
'This is the endgame'
The sixth round of talks between the Sudanese government and Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the country's largest armed opposition group, has collapsed in failure. But the United States Special Envoy to Sudan, former Senator John Danforth, is optimistic about a speedy resolution of the two decade-long Sudanese armed conflict.
What has Danforth got up his sleeve? The US has, in the past, followed a carrot and stick policy vis-à-vis Sudan. The US has signalled its reluctance to use harsher methods of persuasion so soon after its invasion of Iraq. The wounds of Iraq are still fresh in peoples' minds, but, Danforth's message is that the gaping wounds of Sudan also need urgent attention.
But regardless of any carrots which he may have brought with him to entice the Sudanese government, one thing is abundantly clear, Danforth has Washington's full backing. "[The US] President [George W] Bush wants to achieve peace in Sudan. He has stressed that to me repeatedly," Danforth told Al-Ahram Weekly in an exclusive interview.
"The time has come to achieve a just peace," he insists, "this war has been going on for too long."
With the White House's blessing, Danforth hopes to kickstart a seventh round of Sudanese peace talks. The talks have been taking place in Kenya under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which groups seven East African countries, including Sudan. And Danforth was careful to underline his support for the IGAD peace process. He says he sees no need for any other organisation to interfere with, let alone manage, the Sudanese peace process.
"The peace process has been the IGAD peace process. And, it has been my position that you can't have more than one set of peace talks," Danforth told the Weekly.
He refuses to believe that the Sudanese peace talks have failed. "Let's get on with the IGAD peace process. It will be a real tragedy if this war continues to go on."
As far as he is concerned, the outcome of the conflict was never seriously in doubt.
Danforth plays by the rules, but it is Washington that sets those rules. He does, however, appreciate the regional and international backing of the Sudanese peace process. "One of the very good things in the last three years that I have been involved with ... has been the very close cooperation and the united voice on the part of interested countries," he said.
"The attention of the rest of the world has been very keen. There has been a lot of communication and I think that is very hopeful. It would be a tragedy if ... the parties turned their backs on the Sudanese peace process sponsored by IGAD."
Danforth was clearly unmoved by what he described as the temporary setback in Kenya. "This, as we say, is the endgame. It is not surprising to me that when the end is in sight -- when peace is in sight -- both parties would be more tense than if the peace process was more leisurely paced. But this is not leisurely paced. And I am very hopeful that in a matter of weeks a peace agreement is going to be signed."
He noted, however, that both parties -- the Sudanese government and the SPLA -- must be willing to sign the agreement. "The only thing that matters is whether the two parties are in agreement. It doesn't matter if the United States or Kenya or Egypt or anybody else wants an agreement. Both sides want to actually agree to the terms of the peace agreement. And they have to talk to each other."
Danforth is on his way to Khartoum, after which he will visit Kenya, and this flurry of US diplomatic activity signals the importance to the Bush administration of finding a peaceful solution to the Sudanese conflict. But Danforth made it crystal clear that in the eyes of the US, the Sudanese peace talks must be restricted to the Sudanese government and the SPLA.
He sees no need at present to include the Sudanese National Democratic Alliance (NDA) -- the umbrella opposition organisation grouping the SPLA and other mainly northern-based Sudanese opposition parties -- in the talks. He also felt the same as far as the Umma Party is concerned, which withdrew from the NDA a couple of years ago.
"I have spoken to them [the Sudanese opposition parties] in the past, but there can only be one forum for peace talks. I have been in touch with them. But there is the IGAD peace process, and I support the IGAD peace process," Danforth said in no uncertain terms.
Danforth would not be drawn into a discussion on the merits of involving other Sudanese opposition groups in the peace talks at this stage.
He also said that the talks would be resumed come what may. "What is going to have to happen is that both sides [the Sudanese government and the SPLA] are going to have to negotiate with each other."
Danforth noted that the goodwill and cooperation of the international community is much needed at this moment in time. "The interesting thing, which is also very encouraging, is that whether you are talking to the Egyptians or the Arab League, the European Community, the British, the Swiss, the Norwegians or whoever, the message from all of these parties is essentially the same. And the message is that this war has been going on for too long. Everybody knows what the issues are."
One of the biggest stumbling blocks at the Sudanese peace talks in Kenya has been the religious and legal status of the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The Sudanese capital insists that Khartoum remain under Islamic Shari'a law, while the SPLA wants to see a secular federal capital. "This is one of the issues that will have to be resolved in a way that is acceptable to both sides," Danforth told the Weekly.
When asked if he really believed that the Khartoum issue could be resolved, he strongly reiterated his position. "I understand the views of both sides. I think that there is room for them to discuss among themselves what their objectives are and arrive at a just resolution of this issue. I have no doubt that it can be resolved. There is not an issue that cannot be resolved," Danforth stressed adamantly.
"These are not new issues. Both sides have understood what the issues are from the beginning. There may be disagreements, and there is disagreement on the formulations; but both sides understand the issues and know their objectives. It is possible for both sides to reach an agreement," he insisted, even if the solution is not 100 per cent satisfactory to both sides. "But it will at least be better than war, the endless fighting that has been going on for decades."
Danforth believes that war fatigue is the final arbiter, the deciding factor that will effectively end the Sudanese civil war; he believes that both southerners and northerners in Sudan, Muslim and non-Muslims alike, are tired of war and want peace. "It doesn't matter what my views are. The question is: is it possible for each side to reach an agreement. And, I believe that it is."
"There is definitely a dividend for each side. There is a peace dividend in the form of stability, in the form of an end to bloodshed; and there is a peace dividend in the form of the normalisation of relations with the rest of the world, including the United States," Danforth emphasised.
A peaceful solution would also bring more development assistance, not to mention the fact that a unified country would be in a better position than at present to begin developing its oil resources. "Sudan is going to be a better, more prosperous country, for the benefit of both northerners and southerners, Muslims and non-Muslims, if there is peace," he insisted.
His personal commitment to a united Sudan also serves to dispel the belief common in the Arab world that the US wants to see the Sudan divided. "My views are that the country is better as a unified country," underlining the fact that the Bush administration also believes that a unified Sudan is better than a divided one.
But what does it take to unify a country? Both sides must want to live together, explained Danforth, and if one side refuses to be part of this, if they feel they have been unfairly treated and would rather fight than live in peaceful harmony, then there is no unified country.
Danforth also stressed that a unified Sudan will require fundamental changes. "Achieving a unified country necessitates both the SPLA and the government of Sudan reaching an accommodation of [several vital] issues." Both sides, he feels, must believe that they are full participants in the country, that they share in the governmental powers, that they share in the wealth of the country, and that they are treated as respected citizens of the country. If this is not the case, they will not want to be part of the country.
On issues such as the vice-presidency, Danforth is reluctant to give any details, saying it is not his place to interfere in the minutiae. The Sudanese themselves must make those decisions. "Clearly if the people now fighting the government will be part of a unified Sudan, they are going to insist on representation in the government... How exactly this is worked out has always been on the negotiating table."
The same applies to the question of the precise nature of power-sharing. "Both sides know what the issues are; it is not a novelty for countries in the process of formation to have extended debate on the subject of how to share power. Certainly that was the case in the United States. It is always the case unless there is a totally homogeneous population. People want to know how they are going to be included in the power-sharing formulation. I think that the time has come to decide that issue; both sides have to decide, I cannot decide for them."
In a new government of national unity, many heads might have to roll. There have been many calls to eliminate the hardline and militant Islamist elements from the government, but Danforth refused to comment. "That is absolutely not my role to determine which individuals are in the Sudanese government. It is my role to try to encourage both sides to try to come up with formulations which would allow for diversity," he explained, to enable people of different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds to live together.
"First things first. I think there is a lot to be gained from a meeting between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir and SPLA leader Dr John Garang -- a real heart-to-heart talk to try to understand each other."
"Both sides recognise that they cannot win this war," Danforth stressed. "The war is just not winnable. One or other of the warring parties can say, well the war has gone on for a couple of decades, why not go on a couple of decades more." Danforth insisted that such a cynical view is unacceptable.
Danforth remains optimistic about the future. "Either the country is going to continue with the status quo, which is fighting to no end and fighting to no good, or there is going to be some kind of accommodation so that both sides can live together. I think that is going to happen."