An exit strategy
A new forum provides a glimmer of hope for Darfur, writes Gamal Nkrumah
It is no surprise that the Sudanese state is digging deep into its coffers to bail out its bankrupt policy concerning Darfur. The Sudan People's Forum (SPF) for the Darfur crisis was officially inaugurated this week in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Proceedings were later transferred to the city of Kenana. Major opposition groups participated on an equal footing with the Sudanese government and representatives of civil society groups affiliated to the Sudanese government. However, many important opposition groups boycotted the unprecedented SPF.
This was a bold move on the part of the Sudanese government for a number of reasons. Officials from political parties and civil society notables sat side by side next to representatives of the Sudanese government. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa was in attendance as was Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Libya's authority on African affairs Abdul-Salam Treiki. "The Arab League initiative is meaningless without the involvement of local Sudanese," Al-Bashir stressed in his keynote address.
Boycotted by no less than 20 Sudanese opposition groups, the SPF was, nevertheless, widely promoted as a resounding success by the government. The Umma Party, Sudan's largest and most influential opposition party, participated. Among the groups that boycotted the SPF meeting were the Communist Party of Sudan, the People's Congress Party (PCP) and several Darfur opposition groups. Minni Arko Minnawi, SLA leader, attended the SPF meetings. However, another SLA faction headed by Mohamed Abdel-Wahid Nour, adamantly refuses to collaborate with the Sudanese authorities.
The government made the most of the SPF, but at least some of the opposition felt that it was a golden opportunity for them too -- to put the government down. Indeed, even as foreign dignitaries flew in from Arab and African capitals, the trading of insults took place before all and sundry. The Sudanese authorities accused the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the two most influential Darfur armed opposition groups, of kidnapping a group of Chinese technicians working on oil installations in Darfur. JEM vehemently denied the charge.
Ahmed Hussein Adam, JEM spokesman, derided the "clownish antics" and "theatrics" of the ruling NCP. "We represent the popular base of Darfur. We are the people of Darfur, the ordinary Sudanese," Adam noted. "The NCP initiative is neither representative of the people of Darfur, nor of Sudan as a whole," the JEM spokesman said. He was highly critical of the manner in which the Sudanese government, in his view, stage-managed what he described as the "hubbub". Adam reiterated JEM's readiness to engage in peace talks with the Sudanese government, but he stressed that such negotiations are conditional. "We are for a peaceful resolution of the Darfur political impasse, but we can only negotiate with the Sudanese government in talks sponsored by the African Union and the United Nations. We cannot get to the negotiating table without the auspices of the UN," he added.
To make matters worse, the JEM spokesman made it clear that his movement was not too enthusiastic about the Arab League initiative. JEM obviously felt safer conducting peace talks under the auspices of the UN and the AU. This particular sentiment was expressed by most of the Darfur armed opposition groups and by a considerable number of mainstream Sudanese opposition parties. The heated exchanges did not occur on the fringes of the Khartoum and Kenana meetings, but rather beyond the parameters of the SPF. "If all else fails, we have to resort to revolutionary violence and the armed struggle," Adam concluded.
The leader of the Popular Congress Party, onetime speaker of the Sudanese parliament and Sudan's chief Islamist ideologue, Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, took the opportunity to lambaste the Sudanese government. "This is no way to conduct government business," Turabi told Al-Ahram Weekly. Hitherto, the political establishment in Khartoum has been riding roughshod over the interests of ordinary Sudanese citizens, Turabi concluded. He insisted that the personal ambitions of unscrupulous politicians must be subordinated to the interests of the country as a whole.
All of this thinking may be correct but the whole purpose of the SPF is to draw together the disparate Sudanese political groupings. The Sudanese protagonists are tearing at each other's throats while the country is in danger of disintegrating and fragmenting into warring states not all of them economically viable.
Khartoum is in a better financial state than many other African governments, thanks to its vast reserves of oil. It appears that the Sudanese authorities are now poised to make use of the newfound oil wealth to advance its own cause. As Sudanese officials are happy to point out, it is time to heal the wounds of the country. The question is whether the opposition parties are ready to parley.
Still, with his government riddled with turf wars and corruption, it was unclear what Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir was bringing to this particular party. The central government's fragile grip over the outlying region can only be resolved by peaceful means and not by punitive expeditions. A clear commitment to this is the only policy that will signal that a corner has been turned. Sudan will face a difficult political future if it doesn't adhere to a policy of reconciliation rather than one of containment of restive elements. The aim should be to safeguard the interests of the indigenous people of Darfur and other outlying Sudanese regions.