Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Sudanese uncertainties

Washington's latest reprimand is set to rile the Sudanese as they struggle with stalled peace processes in the south and the west of the country, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned on Tuesday that talks between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the country's most powerful armed opposition group, had reached a "make-or-break" point. Powell urged the Sudanese parties to reach an agreement by the end of the week.

Powell, who said that he was determined to end Africa's longest-running conflict, dispatched Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Charles Snyder to Naivasha, Kenya, where the Sudanese peace talks are taking place. The Sudanese peace talks in Kenya are officially taking place under the auspices of the Inter- Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which groups together seven East African countries, including Sudan. The US, however, has been working closely with IGAD to facilitate the Sudanese peace talks.

Snyder had last month testified before the House International Relations Committee on Africa in Washington. "We have been supportive of the Sudan peace talks because we wanted to advance US interests, to promote human rights, counter-terrorism and regional stability," Snyder told US lawmakers. He went on to explain that the US policy was based on "three pillars" -- the achievement of a just and comprehensive peace settlement; unrestricted humanitarian relief access and respect for human rights; and full cooperation by the Sudanese authorities in rejecting and fighting terrorism.

US President George W Bush has invested much political capital in the Sudanese peace process, and is growing increasingly impatient with delays in signing a peace deal. Bush would like to see the Sudanese protagonists sign a peace deal before the US presidential elections in November. Peace in oil-rich Sudan will certainly boost his chances of staying on for a second term in office.

This is not the first time that Washington has rebuked the Sudanese protagonists for procrastinating on peace. Last October Powell flew to Kenya to secure a pledge from the Sudanese government and the SPLA that they clinch a deal by 31 December 2003. The Sudanese protagonists, of course, ignored Powell then and they appear set again to now.

"The point we are making to both the SPLA and the government of Sudan," explained US State Department spokesman Adam Ereli "is that this is a make-or-break time in negotiations." Ereli reiterated Powell's rebuke adding that there is absolutely no excuse for the Sudanese talks to drag on indefinitely. "It's time to bring the process to a conclusion this week, and that's what we're hoping to see," Ereli said.

But does the Bush administration actually have the resolve to end Sudanese prevarications? Sudanese Vice President Ali Othman Mohamed Taha and SPLA leader John Garang began a series of face-to-face negotiations in September 2003. While the two sides are weary of war and want peace, it is also clear that they have radically different visions of the Sudan they want to see constructed after the signing of a peace deal. The SPLA wants to build a secular Sudan, while the Sudanese government insists on the paramount importance of Islam as an inspiration for the country's political institutions and the judiciary. The Sudanese government has made it abundantly clear that peace at any price is unacceptable.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir announced on Monday that the clinching of a Sudanese peace deal is imminent. The SPLA is driving a hard bargain and refuses to budge on the question of the disputed areas of Abeya, Southern Kordofan, Ingassena, Southern Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains.

Washington, in conjunction with IGAD, wants the talks restricted to the SPLA and the Sudanese government, without the participation of any other opposition groups. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella opposition organisation grouping the SPLA and other mainly northern Sudanese opposition parties, is excluded from the Naivasha peace talks. Also excluded from the talks is the opposition Popular National Congress Party headed by Sudan's chief Islamist ideologue and former speaker of the Sudanese parliament Hassan Al-Turabi, currently incarcerated in Khober Prison, Khartoum, for allegedly fomenting unrest in the war-torn province of Darfur, western Sudan.

Al-Turabi accused the Sudanese authorities of stifling democracy and freedom of expression. Before his arrest, he warned that the Sudanese government is now intent on writing and enforcing a strict set of rules that apply to everyone in Sudan but themselves.

NDA leaders warn that there will be no lasting peace in Sudan until all the other political groups in Sudan are brought into the peace process. "The Sudanese opposition groups must have a say in the political future of the country," Farouk Abu Eissa, former head of the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union and official spokesman for the NDA told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Abu Eissa stressed that civil liberties and democratic rights cannot be restricted simply to southern Sudan. The people of northern Sudan are entitled to civil liberties, democracy and human rights as well. He said that many political groups in northern Sudan do not accept the concept of a theocratic state with limited civil liberties as propagated by the Sudanese government. "The political and economic reconstruction of Sudan must be founded on a new basis, one which takes into account the multi-religious and multi-cultural make-up of the country. Civil society groups -- including labour unions, independent professional associations and opposition political parties -- must be involved in the peace process. The state of emergency must be lifted," he added.

The international community and human rights organisations are especially concerned about the worsening humanitarian situation in Darfur. After a week of standstill, Darfur peace talks could be suspended again because of the acrimony and mistrust between the Sudanese authorities and representatives of the indigenous peoples of Darfur. US officials have signalled that a comprehensive peace in Sudan must include Darfur. The Sudanese government is engaged in peace talks with armed opposition groups championing the rights of the indigenous peoples of Darfur, who are predominantly Muslim but non-Arab.

The Sudanese Liberation Army, the chief armed opposition group in Darfur, is a fully- fledged member of the NDA. However, the other main Darfur rebel organisation, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is not, and has refused to make a peace deal with the government. JEM is a militant Islamist group reportedly backed by Al-Turabi.

The talks currently taking place in the Chadian capital Ndjamena started on Tuesday under the auspices of the Chadian President Idriss Deby. Darfur borders Chad and the impoverished and landlocked country is alarmed at the rate at which Sudanese refugees are crossing the Chadian-Sudanese border. Ndjamena has urged the international community to provide humanitarian relief and development assistance.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees recently warned that Darfur is currently "the world's greatest humanitarian catastrophe".

On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the situation in Darfur was untenable and that it now necessitates international intervention.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has recently released a report that is severely critical of the Sudanese government's alleged "scorched earth" policy in western Sudan, in particular in Darfur. Ominously the report also alluded to genocidal policies aimed at wiping out the indigenous non-Arab people of Darfur. Militias of tribal groups who claim Arab descent, such as the so- called jingaweit, have embarked on a systematic campaign of rape, pillage and the mass murder of non-Arab tribesmen. Civilians have borne the brunt of the fighting and have suffered additional hardships, including systematic looting and the confiscation of property and possessions.

The extra-judicial killings of 168 indigenous Fur tribesmen has provoked widespread international condemnation. The massacres were apparently carried out by the jingaweit militias, reportedly armed and funded by the Sudanese government. The jingaweit is feared and hated in Darfur, and local people in the province -- among Sudan's poorest regions -- have taken up arms to resist its onslaught.

Much is invested in the current peace talks in Naivasha, Kenya and Ndjamena, Chad, taking place simultaneously. The quest for peace, democracy and human rights in Sudan must continue unabated.

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