Home | Comment & Analysis    Monday 12 January 2004

It’s a long journey as Sudan foes finalise deal



NAIROBI, Jan 12, 2004 — Every time the rebel South Sudan Peoples Liberation Army and the government in Khartoum agree on anything, euphoria edges toward a crescendo. The parties have agreed on plenty since July. The "Peace in our time" chorus is fine-tuning the melody. It’s understandable.

Contrary to popular opinion, the conflict between north and south Sudan isn’t 20 years old. It goes back to 1955. That’s a year before the Anglo-Egyptian rule in Sudan ended. The southerners saw a raw political deal coming and took up arms. Religion was irrelevant. Islam, Christianity and animism only became convenient propaganda verbiage later.

In fact the conflict preceded British General Charles Gordon, who was slaughtered by northerners in Khartoum. Then and before, northerners routinely looted the south. Southerners complain, but northerners need not apologise. Plundering was the game of the day. Thankfully, history has modified the game a bit.

The international community didn’t care much about what today passes as south Sudan’s first round of fighting. Enough was going on where the then world powers considered more vital spheres of influence. It was left to Emperor Haile Selassie to mediate an end to the fighting in 1972. He did a lousy job, but the slaughter subsided.

The second round began 20 years ago when Khartoum shredded every piece of paper signed in Addis Ababa. Colonel John Garang, the SPLA leader, a southerner, and President Hassan el-Bashir, a northerner, then both young, took respective sides. They didn’t start the conflict. By then it was known there was plenty of both oil and natural gas in the earth, mostly in the south. Fortunes would be made. Suddenly, the world cared.

Fortunately, the southerners were well in pace with the rest of the world. Col Garang and comrades didn’t only know how to repair artillery, some had doctorates. It’s amazing the number of doctorates in south Sudan jungles considering Khartoum systematically obliterated the few schools in the region.

More important though is that southerners were fed up with raw deals from Khartoum. They differed on how to get good ones, but fight they would and did. It was a costly war. There’s talk of two million dead, but who keeps body counts in jungle wars? Suffice to say the conflict has been vicious, deaths galore and famines and diseases plagues.

While financial and geopolitical interests have whirled tentacles in trying to end the conflict, human compassion has been abundant. Medical and food supplies flowed into south Sudan. Millions in many currencies went into trying to save lives.

The latest sound of peace melodies were heard last week, beginning in Naivasha. The rebels and Khartoum agreed on wealth sharing for a six-year interim period. That period begins when the parties agree on a comprehensive peace deal. Under the deal, each side will keep 50 per cent of oil revenues. At the moment Khartoum keeps all that. The south, which sends nothing northward, will deliver 50 per cent of non-oil yields. There are other fundamental clauses in the deal. They aren’t much publicised. Presumably they’re less sexy than oil money. Much as the Naivasha deal is another milestone because Col Garang will be a lesser beggar, there are previous agreements that, unfortunately, are potential Achilles heels as far as a united Sudan is concerned.

The rebels insisted on a referendum to determine whether southerners wish to remain Sudanese. Khartoum finally agreed to it, screaming and kicking. The southerners also remembered they had lacked a force to stop Khartoum from scuttling the 1972 agreement.

It is for this reason they insisted on a military arrangement that leaves their force virtually intact. Khartoum will only retain a token force in the south and Mr Garang won’t, to acquire arms, have to raid northern troops, his derisive quartermaster-general.

The SPLA wants people in the Nuba Mountains and southern Blue Nile also to vote in a referendum. Khartoum isn’t anybody’s darling there. Were referendums to take place, south Sudan will become larger.

It’s doubtful that within six years Mr Garang will change the mood in south Sudan and convince its people to embrace Khartoum. He will undoubtedly try in hope he might some day become president of Africa’s largest country. But disregarding the wishes of southerners isn’t one of Mr Garang’s options.

President Bashir is unlikely to help Mr Garang. He himself will be under increasing pressure from members of his National Islamic Front party. He’s giving away portions of the Golden Goose they gluttonously gobble. He’s a good candidate for elimination. That will mean a resumption of war. Hallelujah is a long way coming in south Sudan. It’s still a case of Inch Allah.

Mr Mbitiru, a freelance journalist, is a former ’Sunday Nation’ Managing editor.

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