Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 August - 1 September 2004
Issue No. 705
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Countdown in Khartoum

The Darfur peace talks in Nigeria stall over demobilisation, but efforts to secure peace in Sudan continue, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Click to view caption
A displaced Sudanese woman carries wood in the Otash camp in south Darfur amid heavy rains which have devastated the region and disrupted the supply of humanitarian aid

On Monday, the Sudanese government and the two main armed opposition groups in Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), began holding peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja. The talks, sponsored by the African Union, started on a bad note with the SLA and JEM refusing to discuss demobilisation. Sudanese government officials complain that both the SLA and JEM have repeatedly spurned the olive branches held out by the Sudanese government.

The SLA and JEM signed a ceasefire agreement with the Sudanese government in the Chadian capital Ndjamena in April 2004. But sporadic fighting continues and has intensified recently.

The Sudanese government has tried in vain to make the world notice that it is doing the best it can to contain the explosive situation in Darfur. Regardless, the unrelenting international pressure on Khartoum to resolve the Darfur crisis is being stepped up. The humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur has rendered 1.5 million people homeless and claimed the lives of 50,000.

Arabised militias known as the Janjaweed, closely allied to the Sudanese government, are being held responsible for the disaster. On 30 July, the UN Security Council passed a resolution urging Sudan to disarm the Janjaweed militia or face sanctions. The campaign by human rights organisations and relief agencies to keep Khartoum in diplomatic isolation is making it ever more difficult for Khartoum to make itself heard.

Khartoum will have to be careful not to put a foot wrong. There is a real danger of miscalculation and mishap, and Sudan appears to be teetering on the verge of breaking up. None of Sudan's neighbours will benefit from such a scenario.

Not content with their frontal assault on Sudanese government facilities in Darfur, armed opposition groups in the war-ravaged region are now dictating terms to Khartoum. The two groups are now considering pressing home their flanking attack by coordinating military action with armed opposition groups in eastern and northern Sudan. The Beja Congress, which is an integral part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella grouping of mainly northern opposition parties and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), is threatening to take up arms against the Sudanese government and linking up with the SLA.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Sudan officially closed its embassy in Washington DC. The Sudanese Embassy had become the scene of angry demonstrations by human rights organisations protesting "genocide" in Darfur. The protests came as a shocking embarrassment to Sudanese authorities, especially as diplomats found it extremely difficult to enter the premises.

In Cairo, too, demonstrations were staged, this time by Sudanese refugees against the Sudanese government and the allegedly biased Egyptian media coverage of the conflict in Darfur, which is portrayed as one between African and Arab. At the offices of UNHCR in the Mohandessin district of Cairo authorities responded to rioting with tear-gas.

Sudan, nervous about the seeming lack of Arab input in the determination of its political future, insisted that Libya participate in the Abuja talks.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa attended the Abuja meeting. During his visit Moussa outlined what he sees as the priorities with regard to Darfur. "First is the political dossier, second is the security file, third is the disarmament of the Janjaweed and the fourth is the economic file [economic development as demanded by armed opposition groups in Darfur]," Moussa told the Middle East News Agency (MENA).

Beyond the Abuja meetings international concern has continued to grow. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has taken a keen interest in resolving the Darfur crisis. As has United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This week, Khartoum also played host to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. Straw's presence led some analysts to conclude that contrary to the Sudanese government's rhetoric the West is pulling the strings. "What we have done is to provide military expertise to the African Union," Straw told reporters in Khartoum. Straw said that Darfur was Africa's most dangerous security problem.

"The West has a vested interest in widening the divide between Africa north and south of the Sahara. And Sudan is paying the price." Iglal Raafat, professor of political scienc at Cairo University, told the Weekly.

"A fierce power struggle is taking place in Sudan at the moment. Egypt and other neighbouring African and Arab countries as well as the international community as a whole should lend a supporting hand to the forces of moderation. Democratic practices should be encouraged and institutionalised," Raafat explained.

She noted, however, that certain sections of the regime appear to be resisting change and democratic reform. "The army remains overwhelmingly Islamist in orientation," she said.

The top brass remain solidly Islamist and the middle and lower ranking cadres have also been thoroughly Islamised. It is in this context that the Sudanese armed forces find it convenient to work closely with the Arabised militias -- the Janjaweed -- in Darfur.

Egypt, for its part, is working hard to bring rival Sudanese groups together. In addition to having sent Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit to Khartoum, Cairo is hosting talks between the Sudanese government and the NDA on Sudan's political future. "We are working on establishing a new political dispensation in Sudan. The basis of the new Sudan should be multi-party pluralism, democracy and respect for human rights," Farouk Abu Eissa, former Sudanese foreign minister and former head of the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Abu Eissa, who is currently the official spokesman for the NDA, said that the Sudanese government has recently expressed a keen interest in working more closely with opposition groups including those within the NDA. But Abu Eissa expressed cautious optimism, noting that several ministers and high-level officials remain suspicious of the opposition and do not want to see sweeping democratic reforms in Sudan.

"The days of the Sudanese government are numbered," added a Sudanese opposition figure based in Cairo who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I do not think that the Sudanese regime will survive 2004, and especially not if armed uprisings erupt in the north and the east of the country."

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