Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 June 2008
Issue No. 901
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abyei in abeyance

A disastrous plane crash, a dubious peace deal clinched -- and a tense atmosphere prevails in Sudan, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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A Sudanese jetliner veered off a runway after landing amid thunderstorms and exploded into flames at the Khartoum Airport killing at least 29 people

"What do you say to a man who was forced to watch his eight-year-old daughter being raped? Many people in Sudan, in Darfur, demand justice," Luis Moreno-Ocampo, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) told Al-Ahram Weekly. He had extensive experience prosecuting abuses by senior military officials in his native Argentina. Moreno-Ocampo was also assistant prosecutor of Argentina's national committee on the disappearance of persons in 1984-85 and the trial of the juntas and military dictatorship 1976-83.

He is passionate about redressing the wrongs suffered by Sudanese people at the hands of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir. He wants to see justice done, he insists.

This is a vexing time for those looking for solutions to the Sudanese crises. The calamitous crash of an Airbus belonging to Sudan Airlines with some 217 passengers on board, which was engulfed in flames during a thunderstorm, comes at a most defining moment in the country's history.

"A thorough investigation into the causes of these recurrent plane crashes is prerequisite," warned an editorial of the Khartoum daily Al-Watan.

What is it with Sudan? The country's poor aviation record was highlighted by a series of crashes in which top officials and military lost their lives in suspicious circumstances, beginning in July 2003 when a Sudanese airliner packed with prominent businessmen and politicians crashed on take-off from Port Sudan. The next one was the death of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) leader John Garang when his helicopter came down in July 2005. On 2 May this year, South Sudan's defence minister, Lieutenant General Dominic Dim Deng in the latest such disaster. Why does the country experience so many cataclysmic air crashes with important political personalities aboard?

Rumours of conspiracy theories are flying about in Khartoum, the national capital, and Juba, the southern Sudanese administrative capital. The recurrent plane crashes are no coincidence. Something is afoot.

Aboard the plane were 36 patients en route to Khartoum from Amman and Damascus. The unfortunate plane was forced to land at Port Sudan International Airport because of adverse weather conditions in Khartoum. After an hour, the pilot decided to fly to Khartoum in spite of gale-force winds and heavy downpours that beset the city. The plane actually landed, but skidded the tarmac and skated into a residential area. There were conflicting official explanations for the crash. "There was an explosion in one of the engines," noted Khartoum Airport Director Yusu Ibrahim. "We believe that most of the passengers were able to make it out and escape with their lives," said Sudanese police chief Mohamed Najib.

An estimated 120 surviving passengers, presumably mostly Sudanese, fled the airport for their homes in Khartoum without having to endure the tedious rigours of customs and emigration procedures. Most left their belongings behind. The Sudanese airport authorities could not account for them.

A terrorist attack has not been ruled out even though adverse weather conditions are thought to be the cause of the disaster. Some 38 charred bodies were recovered from the debris and devastation. The remaining passengers and crew have not been accounted for.

The unfortunate incident comes at a time when the Sudanese government has come under intense fire for adamantly refusing to hand over two senior suspects of human rights atrocities and war crimes in Darfur.

"I personally was persecuted by our own junta," Moreno-Ocampo explained. "I am from the South. I understand how people in the South feel. I know of the double standards of the powers that be. We are an impartial court." True to form, Moreno-Ocampo demanded that Sudan hand over two senior Sudanese officials including the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun.

"Sudan didn't ratify the July 2002 treaty which launched the ICC. That is why the UN referred the Darfur case to me," Ocampo disclosed.

Moreno-Ocampo is not shy on weighing in on the perennial question of leftists versus fascists. As far as the Sudanese official media was concerned, Al-Beshir adroitly traded jargon for jargon. Sudan requested Interpol to arrest 20 armed opposition leaders, including the leader of a main Darfur armed opposition group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) leader Khalil Ibrahim.

Still the NCP and its main coalition partner the southern-based SPLA clinched a deal over the disputed territory of the oil-rich Abyei straddling the border between the North and South. Officially administered as part of Kordofan region, it is inhabited by Meseiriya Arab tribesmen and members of the Dinka ethnic group, the largest numerically in southern Sudan.

Internecine fighting continues unabated between the two groups, with the former supporting the NCP and the latter, the SPLA. Sudan is in danger of disintegrating. An estimated 90,000 Sudanese fled Abyei in the past month alone. And, the fighting threatens to derail the Sudanese peace process. President Al-Beshir met Vice-President Silva Kiir, the SPLA head. The SPLA deputy secretary-general Yassir Arman described it as a "historical meeting".

Every day on every front this was President Al-Beshir's contra mundum. The drive for peace will come to a head with nationwide elections in 2009. Sudan's agreement on Abyei is decisive in determining the country's political future. There are growing fears that the 2011 referendum on whether South Sudan should secede would result in an independent southern Sudan, perhaps including the oil- rich Abyei enclave.

The leaders of Darfur are closely watching developments in Abyei. Abdul-Wahed Mohamed Al-Nour, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Al-Nour faction, rejects the 5 May Darfur Peace Agreement signed between the Sudanese government and his rival Arko Minni Minnawi, leader of the SLA Minnawi faction. Minnawi is now special presidential advisor to Al-Beshir. Minnawi, an ethnic Zaghawa, is opposed by Al-Nour, an ethnic Fur -- the largest ethnic group in Darfur. JEM, closely affiliated with Turabi's PCP, also opposes the 5 May Agreement and its forces stormed the country's most populous city Om Durman last month.

Does this mean Al-Beshir is on the skids? Not necessarily. Perhaps it is a question of playing to his own strengths. It will take time for confidence and trust to be rebuilt. It is easy to see why.

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