War or negotiations?
Al-Bashir calls for military mobilisation against foes at home and abroad, but he is his own worst enemy, argues Asmaa El-Husseini
Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir stood with the People's Defence troops in his military uniform a few days ago to receive their "allegiance until death" to defend his regime against those described by these troops -- who have in the past fought in the South -- as agents of US imperialism, world Zionism, the claws of modern colonialism. Al-Bashir called for nationwide mobilisation in Sudan and ordered state governors to open training camps for volunteers and prepare 31 brigades of fighters to repel any "rebellion or agent or traitor".
He also threatened the government of South Sudan with a similar fate as Libya's late Colonel Gaddafi, adding that his country that has sacrificed 18,000 martyrs during the civil war is prepared to sacrifice the same again and will defend its dignity and Islamic project. He also declared that his country does not need the American carrot because it is poisoned and rotten, and neither does it fear the US stick.
This scene is not unusual for the people of Sudan who have spent most of their lives since independence in a state of war that not only cost millions of lives because of wars, famine, disease, suffering and oppression, but also thwarted any chance of development, progress, reform or conciliation inside Sudan -- a country that once represented a continent within the African continent because of its immense resources.
Neither is this scene unusual under so-called Salvation rule led by Al-Bashir since he came to power after a coup against democratic rule in Sudan in 1989. The Sudanese people have often seen the president and the leaders of the ruling party urging citizens to a holy war in the South against the forces of world conspiracy and southerners who are buttressed by them. This was followed by a war in Darfur and East Sudan, and now in southern Kordofan and Blue Nile.
But a call to arms today is different from previous ones although state media and agencies continue to rally the people to confront a foreign enemy that is targeting them. The differences are the circumstances, components and bitter lessons from the past decades. Very few believe that these are God's wars or in defence of the country, since most now realise that previous wars were absurd and futile, killing people in both the north and south, as well as in the east and west without reason. The people of Sudan also now realise that they never waged war abroad, but instead focussed their efforts on fighting each other in domestic wars.
Even some of the leaders of the Islamic movement in whose name the Salvation regime is ruling have admitted that the wars of the past were not jihad (holy war). These include Hassan Al-Turabi who once was the godfather of the regime and incited people to jihad, reminding them of God's promise of paradise to his soldiers and martyrs.
Today, many of the Sudanese people -- even those within the Islamic movement and perhaps even the army and other forces that included volunteers or irregulars -- have changed their minds after they once believed in the necessity of war and jihad. They no longer believe in the feasibility of war and military solutions after they saw it expand to include large sectors and regions of their country whose people cannot all be accused of heresy or disloyalty. Some of them question the viability of war since this regime was not able to hold onto the south for which precious blood was spilled to keep the former Sudan intact.
But why is Al-Bashir raising the rhetoric now? There are several reasons, including the seemingly effective attack by the revolutionary front that was recently formed of rebel forces in North Sudan against South Kordofan. Khartoum accuses the government of South Sudan of backing the attack. Another reason is the decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to arrest Sudan's Minister of Defence Abdel-Rahim Mohamed Hussein -- a move which Khartoum accuses Washington, the government in the South and rebels in the North of masterminding and using the ICC as their tool.
Washington directly accuses Khartoum of seeking to undermine South Sudan and called on it to open humanitarian corridors and allow relief agencies to enter the southern states of Kordofan and Blue Nile. Sudan refused.
Today, Khartoum believes it is the target of a triangular plot led by Washington, the hostile state in the South and the rebel revolutionary front in the North. Al-Bashir revealed that US envoy to Sudan Princeton Lyman knew about the plot of northern rebel leader Abdel-Aziz Al-Helw to take control of South Kordofan and overthrow the ruling regime in Khartoum, and that Lyman approved the plan and promised to support it.
Observers are wondering whether Al-Bashir's statements and strong threats are a prelude to imminent war or a way of putting pressure on domestic and foreign players ahead of talks between the two Sudans in Addis Ababa, sponsored by African mediation led by South African President Thabo Mbeki. Anything is possible.
These threats, which are met with similar ones by South Sudan, could mean several things in both countries since both regimes are trying to unite their domestic fronts to confront hostilities from abroad. Both countries are suffering from poor economic conditions, depreciating currencies, and a sharp rise in prices. UN organisations are even worried about famine in South Sudan and in the regions of the Nubian Mountains and Blue Nile in North Sudan.
Sabre rattling is also an attempt to pressure negotiations in Addis Ababa that seek a resolution to the oil dispute between the South where it is extracted and the North, which controls its export via pipelines. Oil production has stopped altogether for now because of disputes between the two sides about the price of passage and export, and because Juba accuses Khartoum of stealing some of its oil.
Recent escalation by both countries could also be an attempt by both to pressure Washington to calm conditions on the threshold of US presidential elections. Juba understands this well, as do the rebels in the North, and uses lobby groups in the US to press the administration to coerce Khartoum.
Tense words and talk of war do not cease in Sudan as tools to exert pressure or send messages, but they can also evolve into real wars that cost the lives, stability and dignity of the people. The choice now is to either beat the drums of war, as in the past, or sit at the negotiating table and reach real solutions.