Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 June - 5 July 2006
Issue No. 801
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Get them moving

Khartoum is at loggerheads with the UN but is mending fences with its neighbours, writes Gamal Nkrumah

It used to be said that Sudan was a pariah state. It no longer is, in spite of the fact that it cannot yet find a permanent solution to the Darfur crisis -- nor for its many other crises for that matter. In a flurry of diplomatic activity, the Sudanese capital Khartoum hosted peace talks between the Somali Transitional Government headed by President Abdallah Yusuf and representatives of the Islamic Courts Union, whose militias now control the Somali capital Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia.

Click to view caption
A Sudanese youth holds a banner reading "America stop"

The unprecedented meeting proves that Khartoum can play a vital regional role as mediator. The Khartoum Somali peace talks take place under the joint auspices of the Sudanese government and the Arab League. Sudan is the current chair of the pan-Arab body of which Somalia is a fully-fledged member state. While Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa flew to Khartoum for the occasion, Sudan's detractors continue to downplay Sudan's growing standing in the region. Ironically, this high-profile Sudanese diplomatic mediating takes place against the backdrop of what Khartoum regards as a slanderous misrepresentation of its foreign and domestic policies. Demands for the punishment of those responsible for crimes against humanity are growing louder than ever in the international arena.

"Identifying those persons with the greatest responsibility for the most serious crimes in Darfur is a key challenge for the investigation," warned Luis Moreno Ocampo of the International Criminal Court whose report on Darfur was presented at the UN Security Council this week. The Sudanese are deeply divided over the issue. The result is that the Sudanese people find themselves confronted with increasingly fierce claims for possession of their political loyalties.

For its part, the Sudanese government suspended all UN activities in Darfur in protest against the airlifting of Soleiman Adam Jamous by the UN. Jamous, the humanitarian coordinator for the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), was incarcerated by SLA leader Arko Minnawi for insubordination and refusing to accept the 5 May peace agreement with the Sudanese government. Thousands of Sudanese students demonstrated in support of the government and against the deployment of foreign troops in Darfur.

"The government must accept the principle of the devolution of power. Democratisation and political reform in Sudan is closely associated with the concept of federalism," explained the last democratically-elected Sudanese prime minister and leader of the opposition Umma Party, Sadig Al-Mahdi. "I urge the government to co-operate fully with the UN and the African Union," Al-Mahdi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"We need to maintain the pressure on those who signed the agreement. That goes for the Sudanese government that has the responsibility for the disarmament of the Janjaweed, and for the rebel groups, and to maintain the pressure on the two rebel groups that are outside the agreement to join the process," United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said this week in New York.

The Sudanese government has indicated that it is now willing to accept a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has been less reluctant to bring in the Janjaweed, the Arabised militiamen accused of inflicting the most flagrant human rights abuses and committing the most brutal atrocities in Darfur. A failure to do so will no doubt engender a nightmare scenario.

However, despite such auguries, there are signals that the country is on the mend. At their core, though, the jitters about the new Sudan boil down to two questions: first, can a government of national unity be formed that not only includes southerners but other marginalised groups in this far-flung country -- Africa's largest? And, second, will the country remain one nation if the democratisation process reaches its logical conclusion?

"We know that even if we resolve the Darfur question, they will come up with the eastern Sudan question," Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir said soon after meeting with his Eritrean counterpart Isias Aferworki, who had earlier in the week embarked on a lightning trip to Khartoum.

Sudan's problems are not restricted to Darfur. There are increasing tensions in the eastern part of the country where fighting periodically breaks out between Sudanese government forces and members of the Beja people, the dominant ethnic group of eastern Sudan numbering an estimated three million people and inhabiting a vast arid region encompassing three countries -- Egypt, Sudan and Eritrea. The Arab Rashaida tribesmen also took up arms against the Sudanese government forces. Politically, the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions, two groups claiming to represent the interests of the Beja and the Rashaida people of eastern Sudan are members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) -- an umbrella grouping of opposition parties.

The Eritrean capital Asmara was for long the headquarters of the NDA in exile, and the Eritrean government is in a strong position to act as mediator between the Sudanese government and the eastern Sudanese groups.

This, say Sudanese officials, might not matter. What does matter is that the two groups accept the terms of the agreement between the Sudanese government and the NDA. On previous meetings, the Beja Congress and the Rashaida Free Lions refused to participate in talks between the NDA and the Sudanese government. The Egyptian, Eritrean and Saudi authorities intervened mediating between the two groups and the Sudanese government. More recently, the Eritrean government has stepped up its mediatory efforts.

Yes, there is the real danger of the country disintegrating; but a federal system in which all regions enjoy some degree of autonomy and participate fully in the decision-making process at the national level is not impossible to achieve.

So far, the government incorporating both the Sudan People's Liberation Movement and President Al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is holding together. Still, it must struggle to build wider political alliances. And, there is a pressing need to move more seriously towards a vibrant multi- party political system.

Khartoum can no longer ignore the demands of the marginalised groups for empowerment. So a great deal depends on the government's goodwill. The Sudanese economy is winning support in large measure to considerable oil deposits. Attracting private money, however, is complicated not just by the usual African-type constraints -- poor infrastructure, restrictive red tape and bureaucracy -- but by security concerns and political instability.

If Sudan is to move ahead, it must begin to address the question of its tarnished image abroad. A resolution of the Darfur crisis is key.

The Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) headed by Arko Minnawi (Minnawi faction) has signed a tentative peace agreement with the Sudanese government. The SLA faction led by Abdel-Wahed Mohamed Al-Nur (Nur faction) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim have adamantly refused to do so. They have put forward a set of demands that Khartoum rejects. Negotiations on that basis are the only way of securing a peaceful future.

The rhetoric of the protagonists in Sudan's many wars obscures the real challenges. The Darfur crisis, for example, is complicated but easily misunderstood. There are many in Sudan who believe that the country should not bend to foreign pressure. Others, however, believe that the perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Darfur must be brought to book: and these include not only the leaders of the armed opposition groups in Darfur who refused to sign the Abuja Agreement, but leading international figures. "The complexity of the conflict in Darfur exacerbates this challenge, given that it involves multiple parties, varying over time throughout the different states and localities," Ocampo stressed.

Despite commendable efforts by the international community, Darfur is still a far way off from lasting peace and sustainable development -- and the task is daunting. The protagonists in Darfur must learn to compromise. A failure to compromise would be a catastrophic mistake and would reverse the painstaking peace process.

If truth be told, in southern Sudan there are prickly problems lurking beneath the surface. There are unmistakable signs that the southern Sudanese are somewhat disillusioned with peace. Even in the milieu of booming revenues from oil exports, Sudan must rectify the deplorable socio-economic situation in the south and oversee a massive reconstruction scheme of the war- shattered region.

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