Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 November 2004
Issue No. 716
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Trying to talk

On the eve of the American presidential elections, US President George W Bush extended sanctions against Sudan for yet another year even as Sudanese protagonists try to talk peace, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Ominously, United States President George W Bush extended comprehensive sanctions against Sudan on the eve of the US presidential elections, much to the chagrin of the Sudanese authorities. Sudan "continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the US. The national emergency declared on 3 November 1997, and the measures adopted [against Sudan] on that date to deal with that emergency must continue," read a White House statement signed by President Bush on Monday.

"I cannot see any radical change in US policy towards Sudan in the near future," Al-Shefie Khedr, a leading member of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the umbrella opposition grouping northern and southern Sudanese political parties, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Khedr pointed out that government troops are raiding displaced people's camps in Darfur and committing atrocities even as they negotiate with the armed opposition groups of Darfur. "Actions speak louder than words," Khedr said. "The Sudanese government talks peace, but is still waging war."

Reports of escalating violence in the refugee camps of Darfur, where displaced people languish under extremely difficult conditions, trickled out this week. On Wednesday, humanitarian aid agencies sounded the alarm bells. They warned that Sudanese forces attacked El-Geer refugee camp near Nyala, the provincial capital of southern Darfur firing tear gas on the displaced people.

United Nations Special Representative for Darfur, Jan Pronk, pointed an accusing finger at the Sudanese authorities. "The Sudanese government doesn't control its own forces fully. It co-opted paramilitary forces and now it cannot count on their obedience. The border lines between the military, paramilitary and the police are being blurred," Pronk observed. Pronk, who heads a UN team probing genocide allegations in Darfur, also criticised the armed opposition groups of Darfur. "There is a leadership crisis. There are splits," he warned.

In negotiations with the NDA in Cairo, Sudan's federal government minister, Nafie Ali Nafie, stated last Monday that there was now agreement on 70 per cent of the agenda. These talks included a wide range of constitutional, political and economic issues.

Nafie's claims were hotly denied by leading Sudanese opposition figures. "In my opinion the Sudanese government is trying to make political capital out of the negotiations in Cairo, in Kenya and in Nigeria. We have only agreed on 40 per cent of the issues on the agenda in Cairo. There is still disagreement on 60 per cent of the issues on the negotiating table," Khedr said.

Bush's re-election for a second term in office augurs ill for the Sudanese government. Sudanese papers picked up this theme. "The results of the American presidential election dashed many hopes," concluded Mohamed Latif in the Sudanese daily Al-Raai Al-Aam. However, he also pointed out that "Bush did not win one more vote because he decided to invade Darfur, nor did he lose one vote because he didn't invade Darfur." Essentially, the Sudanese issue had no impact on the US election.

As far as the Sudanese government was concerned the timing of the re-imposition of sanctions was simply inauspicious. When asked to comment on US policy the Sudanese ambassador to Washington, Khedr Haroun, played down its significance. "The US government has long stipulated that sanctions will be renewed on an annual basis if a comprehensive peace deal between the Sudanese government and the southern rebels is not signed."

However, Ambassador Haroun launched a scathing criticism of the US State Department's characterisation of Sudan's policy in Darfur as one of deliberate "genocide". He argued that the US State Department's investigation team that compiled the report had never even set foot in Darfur.

"Bashing condemnation and imposition of sanctions would only aggravate the situation and create more suffering and misery," Ambassador Haroun warned. "We urge the Americans to note that the methodology used by the State Department's operatives to reach this weighty conclusion was flawed from the outset." He said that the State Department report stood in sharp contrast to more comprehensive and thoughtful assessment of the European Union, African Union, Arab League, Organisation of Islamic Conference, Non-Aligned Movement and the International Red Cross Society. "All these organisations have personnel on the ground," Ambassador Haroun said.

The fresh outbreaking of fighting in the war-torn western Sudanese province of Darfur was cause for concern to the United Nations this week. There are an estimated 3.5 million displaced people in Darfur, many now in makeshift camps in the vicinity of provincial capitals such as Al-Geneina in western Darfur. Some four million southern Sudanese have now been rendered homeless because of the war.

The UN also warned that an estimated 200,000 people starved in October because of the escalation of fighting in Darfur. The intensity of the conflict had resulted in the World Food Programme stopping its deliveries of emergency food aid, thus making the matters worse.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned this week that he was gravely concerned about the rapid deterioration of the security situation. The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) wants Darfur declared a no-fly zone because it claims that the aerial bombardment of villagers by Sudanese government forces severely aggravated the already tense situation. The Sudanese government has since backed down, accepting a ban on military flights over Darfur.

Peace talks in the Nigerian capital Abuja are taking place under the auspices of the African Union, a continental body of 53 states. The Abuja talks are held between the Sudanese government on the one hand and the SLA in union with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the two main armed opposition groups in Darfur, on the other.

The Sudanese government has accused the two Darfur groups of escalating the fighting in order to drag the international community into the conflict. Both the JEM and the SLA have already urged the international community, especially Western powers, to intervene in the Darfur conflict.

Though while they act together at the conference, there are grave ideological differences between the JEM and the SLA. The SLA would like to see a secular and democratic state instituted throughout Sudan as a whole. JEM, in sharp contrast, wants to retain Islamic Sharia law.

The SLA's demand for a secular state was summarily rejected by the Sudanese government. Still, unconfirmed reports on Tuesday were hinting at a breakthrough in the talks. Sudanese officials and their Nigerian hosts in Abuja announced that the Sudanese protagonists were ready to sign protocols dealing with humanitarian relief and security issues.

"We believe that the problem in Darfur is mainly political and so the political issue must take the front burner," Ahmed Tughod, JEM spokesman told reporters in Abuja.

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