With the conclusion of a pact between the Sudanese government and the SPLA to share the country's oil revenues, Washington is pleased with the pace of progress of the Sudanese peace talks, writes Gamal Nkrumah
I meet Michael Ranneberger at the United States Embassy in Cairo. He is in the Middle East not only to consult with Sudanese opposition figures in Cairo, but also to brief the Egyptian government about the US perspective on the latest developments in the Sudanese peace process.
Ranneberger, who was the US ambassador to Mali from 1999 to 2002, is optimistic about his role as US special envoy to Sudan -- to speed up the Sudanese peace process and begin the more difficult task of reconstructing war-torn southern Sudan and politically transforming the country. As stipulated by the Machakos peace accords signed in Kenya in July 2002, the Sudanese government and the country's largest armed opposition group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), signed a revenue sharing agreement last week.
The Sudanese peace talks are taking place under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional grouping of seven East African countries, including Sudan.
Sudanese Vice President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha signed the agreement on behalf of the Sudanese government, while SPLA leader John Garang did likewise for the SPLA.
African and Arab countries, including Egypt, and the international community at large, welcomed the signing ceremony hosted last week in Naivasha. Washington, for its part, gave its explicit approval of the deal, which Ranneberger hailed as a milestone in the struggle to end the conflict, Africa's longest-running war.
We settle on the sofa, and it becomes immediately apparent that Ranneberger is very different in style and demeanor than his predecessor, former Senator John Danforth. Ranneberger is a career diplomat and not the politician and preacher that Danforth was.
Ranneberger has had an especially exciting career having been appointed to difficult postings at testing times. He was at these postings not by chance, but "by choice". Ranneberger says that he likes "dealing with situations where timely issues of great importance to the US" are being worked out. Right now, Sudan is one of those.
From the onset, Ranneberger stressed that Sudan is of "tremendous importance" to the US. "I cannot really overstate that. Sudan is a top priority for US foreign policy," Ranneberger told Al- Ahram Weekly.
Ranneberger was coordinator for Cuban affairs (July 1995-1999). He has served extensively in Africa and Latin America. He was deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Mogadishu in August 1994, and has also served on the Angola desk and in Mozambique.
Ranneberger was a member of the State Department team negotiating independence for Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. He helped oversee peace accords in El Salvador. Ranneberger who was awarded an International Affairs Fellowship at the Council of Foreign Relations, New York, assumed the US Africa Bureau's special advisor position on Sudan in August 2002.
Ranneberger says that the US is eager to keep Egypt and the Arab League involved in the IGAD-led Sudanese peace process. "Egypt's role in the implementation of the peace deal is vital," he told the Weekly.
Ranneberger made it clear that the US would prefer to see a united Sudan play a dynamic and constructive role in both the Arab world and on the African continent. "We want to see a Sudan that is truly transformed. We believe unity will promote a very profound transformation in Sudan -- political, economic and social."
He believes that the latest step towards overall settlement in Sudan is a step in the right direction. "Our first priority is to end the suffering of the war-weary Sudanese people." A secondary goal for the US government is to enlist Sudan in the war against terrorism, as "a force for regional stability".
Revenue sharing was one of the most intractable problems facing the Sudanese. The country's oil fields straddle the north-south divide. The full exploitation of the country' vast oil reserves necessitates a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese conflict.
So can this latest peace deal break the endless cycles of civil war and broken ceasefires? "For the first time the government will be self-reliant in the south and will have the resources and wealth for development and providing basic services," SPLA spokesman Yasir Arman told the Weekly. "We have a meaningful autonomy for the south supported by resources."
Under the revenue sharing agreement, the southern Sudanese government will retain half of its oil and non-oil revenues and give the other half to Khartoum.
Each oil-producing state is to receive two per cent of net oil wealth, and Sudan's National Petroleum Commission is to manage the Sudanese oil sector.
Moreover, the agreement stipulates that existing oil contracts are to be respected. Communities "have the right to participate through their respective states or regions in the negotiation of contracts".
One of the most controversial aspects of the deal is the dual banking system to be instituted in Sudan -- with the Islamic Shari'a system enforced in northern Sudan, where banks are not permitted to charge interest. A new national currency is to be introduced, while a separate Western-style banking system will be established in southern Sudan.
There are some fears among the northern Sudanese that the dual banking system would lead to the dissolution of the country or that foreign investors will invest only in the southern part of Sudan.
"Nothing is set in stone," Ranneberger assured, characterising the agreement simply as "an extremely positive start", and one which the warring parties achieved without outside interference. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank helped in facilitating the revenue sharing agreement. "The IMF and the World Bank drew up a draft agreement, but the Sudanese government and the SPLA objected to certain sections and altered the draft. We are in no position to second guess what the parties themselves have developed," he said.
Ranneberger conceded, however, that a unified banking system would have been preferable. "But there is nothing to preclude the parties, by joint agreement, from altering or modifying the deal if things don't work out," he said.
A lasting end to warfare in Sudan also entails an agreement on the status of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and the southern Blue Nile. The SPLA wants Abyei to be administered as part of southern Sudan, whereas it is now administered as part of western Kordofan. The SPLA also wants the right to self-determination of the people of the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile. The Sudanese government has so far refused these demands.
In the final analysis, Ranneberger stressed that real democratic transformation and broad popular participation was the key to the success of the implementation of the Sudanese peace agreement.
"Khartoum is not that democratic, that is true. But the situation is fundamentally different today. The engagement by the international community gives me a sense of optimism. The Sudanese are committed to peace." He cautioned that even if there were 50,000 peacekeeping troops on the ground, if the Sudanese were not interested in peace then all peace efforts were bound to fail.
Ranneberger expressed concern about the deteriorating security situation in Darfur. "We've communicated our concerns to the government of Sudan," Ranneberger said. "The war in Darfur is casting a cloud over the peace process."