Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 June 2005
Issue No. 746
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Untying every Sudanese knot

This was a week in which Sudan stood poised to form a new government, ratify the interim constitution and receive food aid and a torrent of foreign dignitaries, writes Gamal Nkrumah

In the strange pandemonium that has always bedevilled Sudanese politics, even weirder things have happened. Deadly clashes between the two main Darfur armed opposition groups -- the secularist Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Islamist Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) -- erupted this week. Fighting flared even as the protagonists prepare for peace talks. Indeed, negotiations aimed at ending the conflict in Darfur are scheduled to resume tomorrow, Friday, in the Nigerian capital Abuja.

At last, the Sudanese anticipate what looks like a breakthrough in the long quest for peace in Darfur. In Cairo, negotiations between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Sudanese opposition umbrella grouping, on the one hand, and the Sudanese government on the other are also taking place next week. A couple of things have broken in the Sudanese government's favour: the in- fighting among Darfur's rival opposition factions and Arab League and African Union commitment to peace in Sudan, especially Darfur. The Cairo and Abuja talks give the Sudanese authorities an opportunity to appear more credible in the international arena. The Sudanese government is finally making serious conciliatory moves.

The NDA frames its vision of a "New Sudan" in terms of restraining untrammelled power rather than wielding it. The Darfur conflict has played into the NDA's hands. The Sudanese government, however, is under intense pressure to appear to be pragmatic, and willing to accept democratic pluralism and the rule of law -- including an independent judiciary. Hitherto, the ruling National Congress Party, a virulently Islamist bunch has been bent on controlling the judiciary so they can have all three branches of government in Sudan.

It's too early, of course, to say anything with much conviction about the future of Sudanese politics. There is no greater thunderbolt that the Sudanese opposition likes hurling at the Sudanese government than the accusation of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The Sudanese opposition has two powerful arguments on its side. The first is that the Sudanese authorities have, to date, refused to accept fully the concept of democratic pluralism. The second is that it insists on the Islamist nature of the state in Sudan -- flatly rejecting the notion of the separation of religion and the state.

The Sharia law governing Sudan since its promulgation by former military dictator Jaafar Al- Numeiri in September 1984 has turned into a millstone, which has burdened Sudanese politics for more than two decades. But, today Sudan stands poised for a new government.

The new government, an uneasy coalition of the Islamist government and the secular, southern- based Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) is scheduled to assume office next month. How it will function remains a mystery to both Sudanese and foreign observers.

Still, the precarious situation in Darfur remains the dominant issue of the day in Sudan. The international community's patience has run thin. The Sudanese government claims to be cleaning up its act, but has little to show for it. But, there are inklings of change.

On Monday, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, announced the commencement of a formal investigation into suspected crimes against humanity in Darfur -- they include Sudanese government officials and leading members of the allied militias, the so-called Janjaweed.

Small wonder then that the Sudanese authorities strongly condemned this unprecedented United Nations move. The case of Darfur is the first referred to the ICC by the UN Security Council. Khartoum claims that it will prosecute suspects in Sudanese courts and insists that it will not hand over suspects -- Sudanese nationals -- for prosecution in foreign courts.

"The investigation will be impartial and independent, focussing on the individuals who bear the greatest criminal responsibility for crimes committed in Darfur," read a statement by the ICC. The Janjaweed militiamen, who were used extensively by the Sudanese authorities to quell the uprising that broke out in February 2003, are generally regarded as the main culprits.

The nomadic and sedentary tribes could succumb to the weight of history and start squabbling again. Nomadic Arabs and sedentary non-Arab tribes have been struggling for centuries for the control of pasture and arable land in the rugged mountain terrain of Darfur, in western Sudan.

The Darfur conflict has claimed the lives of some 300,000 people and rendered 2.4 million people homeless. The Sudanese government and allied militiamen could yet upset the tentative peace process through a spectacular act of terror inflicting more suffering on the people of Darfur. But, African peace-keepers are set to keep the warring factions at bay. About 3,000 AU troops are currently stationed in Darfur. The AU intends to increase the number of its peace-keeping forces in Darfur to 7,000 by September.

Peace talks are always long on pageantry and symbolism. Here too, the atmosphere has become more positive. The 53-nation African Union (AU) is officially spearheading the peace process in Darfur. A high-level AU team visited Darfur last week. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the current AU chairman, has taken a keen personal interest in Darfur.

However, Washington, playing puppeteer, is working hard behind the scenes to secure peace. Indeed, in Sudan, all roads lead ultimately to Washington.

Not to be outdone, the Arab League has taken up a belated interest in Darfur. The armed opposition groups in Darfur have long accused Arabs of siding with Khartoum. Last week, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa paid a visit to Sudan. Moussa wound up his trip to Sudan by visiting Darfur to inspect the situation for himself.

"We express our gratitude to the Arab League for its positive contribution to efforts being exerted for addressing the Darfur crisis," said Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Othman Ismail.

For his part Moussa said that the Arab League "fully supports the AU in its endeavours in Darfur." Moussa toured Abu Shouk camp in the vicinity of Al-Fasher.

"I cannot see any justification for concentration on differences between the Arab and African tribes in Darfur," Moussa added.

"We respect the Security Council resolutions which cannot be ignored and it is in our best interest to respect and implement them."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) announced plans for undertaking a two- month $2.2 million food aid airlift operation out of Khartoum. The ICRC's first food aid airlift left Khartoum for Darfur on Tuesday.

"It's not enough to provide humanitarian support and food and security here -- we need to press forward the peaceful reconciliation process," United States Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said.

The Americans prefer to see more African boots on the ground in Darfur. "We are certainly sending a very strong message to the government of Sudan," Zoellick said. "We want them to stop the militias and we also want them to move to disarm the militias."

"The message we have is that where we have AU forces, conflict doesn't occur, and that's one reason why a key element of the strategy is to expand the AU force presence," Zoellick said.

Zoellick met Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in Rwanda last week. In Khartoum, Zoellick met Sudanese Vice-President Ali Othman Mohamed Taha and United Nations Secretary- General Kofi Annan.

Heightened international interest in Sudan exposes further the democratic dilemmas at the heart of the Sudanese political arena. Indeed, Sudanese politicians are sometimes described as paranoid. In light of Zoellick's statements they should be.

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