Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 December 2007 - 2 January 2008
Issue No. 877
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sudanese spats

Gamal Nkrumah reviews the semi-successes and total defeats in the wrathful world of Sudanese politics in 2007

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A handout picture from the African Union Mission in Sudan shows AMIS Protection Force peacekeepers standing at attention during a funeral service for 10 comrades; Silva Kiir

"Your people, our people" -- expressions used with ominous frequency by the Sudanese. Once again, the perennial problem in Sudan -- northerners versus southerners -- surfaced in 2007 with horrifying ferocity, threatening to derail the tenuous peace process and abrogate the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir and the southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Signed on 9 January 2005, the CPA was the cornerstone on which the national unity government was formed. The SPLM argued that the NCP was not honouring the CPA and was siphoning off oil revenues when most of Sudan's oil wealth was produced in the south of the country. Tensions between the NCP and the SPLM mounted throughout the year's harsh rainy season, with flooding in August and September rendering an estimated 250,000 people homeless. Vast stretches of Sudan were declared humanitarian disaster zones in what was designated as Sudan's worst floods in decades as flooding victims hastily relocated to makeshift and temporary camps.

Meanwhile, the Darfur crisis simmered on, reaching boiling point in May when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Sudan's Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun and pro- government Janjaweed militia leader, Ali Mohamed Ali Abdul-Rahman, popularly known as Ali Kushayb. The ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, explained that the two men were wanted on 51 counts related to committing war crimes in Darfur. Sudan, however, insisted that the ICC had no jurisdiction to try Sudanese nationals abroad. Soon after, United States President George W Bush announced the imposition of fresh sanctions against Sudan.

Detractors of Al-Bashir's NCP accused the party of an irresistible reluctance to appease the international community and comply with UN resolutions. And, it stands to reason that the fate of two men cannot change the course of Sudanese history.

In July, the UN Security Council approved a resolution authorising the deployment of a 26,000-strong peacekeeping force in Darfur, the UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Sudan reluctantly agreed, but a chasm between the position of the NCP and the SPLM on Darfur grew wider. While the SPLA openly advocated the rapid deployment of the UNAMID peacekeepers, the NCP was seen as pussyfooting on the issue, first insisting on African-only peacekeepers and then reluctantly agreeing to the inclusion of peacekeepers from Muslim and friendly nations. SPLM leader, Silva Kiir, was given the red carpet treatment in Washington and other Western capitals, while NCP representatives were snubbed, shunned and rarely given a warm welcome abroad. Many were actually barred from visiting Western capitals.

In September, Darfur peace talks under the auspices of the UN and the AU resumed. The focus of the peace talks were the composition of a Darfur multinational peacekeeping force, which ended without agreement. The armed opposition groups of Darfur mounted a violent challenge to central government's authority in Khartoum.

The CPA was tested to the limit in 2007. In October, the SPLA pulled out of the central government, only to return two months later. However, the differences between the two parties are far from having been ironed out.

Was it only a minor spat? It clearly highlighted grave political and ideological differences, in spite of the fact that, undoubtedly, there are many issues on which the two parties see eye to eye. The question is how to make common interests count.

The spat could have hastened the break up of Sudan. The NCP attempted, with some success, to turn resentment against the US in predominantly Muslim northern Sudan into open hostility towards the West. This deliberate policy widened the gulf between northerners and southerners and has alienated southerners, in particular, from the anti-Western posturing and rhetoric of the Al-Bashir regime.

Turning a blind eye to the inherent dangers of Sudan's inner demons is imprudent. That was worth remembering in 2007. Sudan is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country occupying a vast territory -- Africa's largest country geographically. It is also one of the poorest countries in the continent. Worse, most of Sudan's outlying regions have long bitterly complained of political and economic peripheralisation and underdevelopment. Successive governments in Sudan have ignored the plight of people in southern, western, eastern and far northern Sudan. Development has been concentrated in the central region around Khartoum and the Gezira due to ever-increasing oil flows in 2007. Production now stands at around 500,000 barrels a day. Testimony to this is the unprecedented construction boom the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, is currently undergoing. Khartoum's about face is mainly funded by the newfound oil wealth. Now oil -- or, rather, the distribution of oil revenues -- is a major bone of contention between the SPLM and the NCP. The SPLM argues that even though most of the oil is produced in the south of the country, the north has the lion's share of the revenues.

This points to a precarious situation: oil can transform Sudan economically, but only if the wealth it generates is distributed evenly and fairly. Otherwise, oil might turn out to be a curse. The have-nots would grow even hungrier and decide to topple a handful of haves. The armed opposition groups of Darfur fall into this category, although their top leaders seem genuinely interested in retaining their Sudanese identity and are against succession. Their aim is to play a more prominent part in the decision-making process. The problem, though, is that there are too many factions claiming to be fighting for the rights of the long-suffering people of Darfur.

In an ideal world, the Sudanese government would give the people of Darfur their full civil rights, including economic rights.

The pressing problem facing the Sudanese government at the moment is who should it be talking to, when most of the largest and better-organised armed opposition groups of Darfur are opposed to peace talks with it, insisting that the government simply cannot be trusted. Two of the largest groups -- the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) under the leadership of Abdul-Wahid Mohamed Ahmed Al-Nour -- have adopted this argument. Al-Nour declined to attend Darfur peace talks in the Libya because he stressed that such negotiations only bolster dictatorship against democracy. In short, he wants a total revamping of the Sudanese political system. He wants to institute radical democratic change in which the grievances of the outlying regions of Sudan would be seriously addressed.

Such arguments no longer sell in NCP circles. However, the SPLA and other opposition groups in Sudan have been sympathetic to the SLA, Al-Nour faction's cause. In 2007, he was, by all accounts of humanitarian relief groups, the most popular leader in the Darfur refugee camps. Even twitchier for Khartoum is that other Darfur armed opposition groups share Al-Nour's general perspective.

The horrors of the humanitarian catastrophe and political impasse in Darfur in 2007 were not lost on the southerners and other disgruntled groups in Sudan. The risks this new field brings are palpably real. There is a growing anticipation of political change in Sudan.

For the moment, Al-Bashir is holding his ground. But Kiir appears to have the momentum. He is plainly the leader of faster change. And, people in Sudan are yearning for change.

Exactly who is hope and who is trouble is an open question in northern Sudan. In the south, and other outlying regions of the country, there is no doubt as to who is the man of destiny.

These are very early days for judgement, however. Obstructions delaying the deployment of UN troops in Darfur is a key issue, indeed something of a bellwether as to which way the wind is blowing. If the international community's will prevails, that would be a setback for the NCP. There are, nevertheless, numerous face-saving mechanisms underway.

The SPLM withdrawal from government was a riposte. Jostling for position among southern politicians is another problem. For its part, the SPLM is united in its accusation that the NCP has not addressed southern concerns regarding oil wealth and power distribution. The SPLM leaders argue that the NCP has seldom made a positive case for southern fears and concerns, claiming that present arrangements are lopsided in favour of the NCP and cannot continue as such.

Still, if there is an answer to the southern question, it is less likely to lie in dramatic gestures.

Today's young southern thrusters favour the creation of a separate state in southern Sudan. Many southerners, however, are against secession and are keen to see Sudan remain as a united nation, or at least two political entities in a federation. At any rate, 2007 has proved to be a defining year as far as the Sudanese are concerned.

The year ended with a most bizarre episode in which a British teacher was sentenced for insulting Islam by allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohamed, deemed an insult to the Prophet Mohamed. The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, if convicted of blasphemy, would have been severely punished under Sudanese Sharia law. Not only would she have been incarcerated, but she would have been subjected to public whipping as well. She was freed after intense diplomatic pressure that resulted in a presidential pardon. Hundreds took to the streets of Khartoum calling for the 54-year-old teacher to be executed. The incidence, however, only served to spotlight the cultural chasm that not only divides the Sudanese along religious grounds, but also poisons its relations with Western powers. To the secular mind, the very notion of imprisoning a teacher for permitting her class to name a teddy bear Mohamed is absurd.

Yet it is wrong to judge the Sudanese predicaments in 2007 as purely a civilisational clash. True, the SPLM is committed to secularism, but the NCP insists on a political Islam that is central to the state's idea of itself -- its raison d'être. That is at least as far as northern Sudan is concerned, and, to varying degrees, where northern opposition groups stand. This includes the Umma Party of the last democratically-elected Sudanese premier, Sadig Al-Mahdi, ousted by Al-Bashir in 1989, and the Popular Congress Party of Sudan's chief Islamist ideologue and former speaker of parliament, Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi. The Democratic Unionist Party of Ahmed Al-Mirghani also basically subscribes to this view. The practical application, nevertheless, stems from separate and often conflicting strands of political Islam. Perhaps the only major northern exception to this rule is the Communist Party.

Secularist parties, both north and south, have argued against the imposition of a theocratic constitution in Sudan. Indeed, the SPLM has long argued for granting Khartoum, the national capital, special status in which Sharia laws are not applicable. The NCP has, on the other hand, flatly turned this proposition down.

The party's pitch to the southerners may be understandable, but risky in many ways. It may also embolden a southern nationalism and encourage southerners to pull out of Sudan altogether, which has so far been avoided in 2007 -- the year that has been somewhat of a barometric test for the years ahead.

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