By Cathy Majtenyi, The East African (Nairobi)
August 4, 2003
NAIROBI — Former US Senator John Danforth, now President George W. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan, paused for a full minute and said simply and slowly: “I don’t know.” He was answering a reporter’s persistent question regarding Sudan’s 20-year-old civil war: Do the two major conflicting parties – the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – really want peace?
Mr Danforth called a press conference July 18 following his week-long trip to Sudan and Kenya in which he met officials from both sides. He told reporters that he felt there was no issue that couldn’t be resolved if the two sides had the political will to do so and if they were truly committed to peace.
He also warned that the following month would be crucial in determining whether or not year-long peace negotiations between the Sudan government and SPLM/A brokered by the seven-nation Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (Igad) would be successful.
“I’ve said to President Bush that I think this is the end game, that we are very close, that we will know very soon whether there is the prospect of peace, whether there’s going to be a peace agreement, and if there isn’t, as his representative, I don’t know what else I can do,” he told reporters.
The most recent phase of Sudan’s civil war began in 1983, when the SPLM/A was formed to defend the south against repression from the north. Investigations conducted by local and international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International throughout the years have found that, in its bid to impose Islam on all Sudanese, the Khartoum government has consistently violated the rights of southerners, who mainly follow Christianity and traditional African religions.
Added to the firestorm has been the struggle over oil, particularly in Western Upper Nile. Human-rights organisations have reported incidents of “scorched earth policies” and other measures pursued by the government to allow for unhindered oil extraction from southern oilfields.
The international community had been putting increasing pressure on the two sides to end the civil war, which has killed an estimated two million people and displaced many more. Igad finally brought the parties together at this time last year, in Machakos, Kenya.
There, the Sudan government and the SPLM/A signed the historic “Machakos Protocol”, which analysts hailed as being an unprecedented breakthrough for the two sides. In that document, they agreed that Sharia (Islamic law) would be limited to northern Sudan and that, after six years of an interim government, southerners would decide in a referendum whether they wanted to stay in a united Sudan, form their own state, or have an arrangement in between.
Negotiations since then have attempted to work out the “details”: How should oil revenues be divided between the north and the south? What percentage of the civil service, Cabinet, and lower house should southerners occupy? Should the SPLM/A be allowed to retain its army in the interim period, or must it be merged with the Sudan government’s army?
But one of the most contentious issues appears to be the status of Sudan’s national capital, Khartoum. Should Khartoum be subjected to Sharia law, since, under the terms of the Machakos Protocol, it falls within the north? Or should Khartoum be religiously neutral or “secular”, since it also represents Christians and followers of traditional African religions in the south?
According to Dirdeiry Ahmed, Sudan’s deputy ambassador in Nairobi, the status of the national capital was one of several issues that prevented the government from signing a draft peace agreement that Kenyan mediator Lazarus Sumbeiywo presented to the two sides on July 12, the last day of the sixth round of peace talks.
The draft peace agreement called for two separate armies and defence ministers – one each from the north and the south – and two separate banking systems, as well as a secular Khartoum. Mr Dirdeiry said the government found these and several other proposals objectionable, primarily because they would pave the way for a divided country.
“We don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be presented with a new draft in the next round of talks,” he says.
SPLM/A spokesman Samson Kwaje denies that the draft agreement called for separate defence ministers and banking systems, arguing that the proposal was that the SPLA’s armed forces would report to the vice president, who would come from the south, and that the banking system in the south would be a branch of the bank in the north.
Dr Kwaje says the SPLM/A wants its own army during the six-year interim period because so many agreements between it and the government have failed in the past. We would like a guarantee, he says. They are not sincere. They are dishonest.
The SPLM/A has also been asking for a section of Khartoum to be secular. Why do we want to make the whole capital reflect one religious group? says Dr Kwaje.
The rhetoric from the top leaders concerning Khartoum is stark. We cannot function in a Sharia-dominated capital, SPLA chairman John Garang said in the International Crisis Group’s July 7 report titled Sudan Endgame. I will not sit in Khartoum if Sharia is in force. This issue is the litmus test for unity.
Sudan’s President Omar el-Bashir is equally adamant. In a speech he gave on July 14 at Nur al-Dinn, about 150 kms south of Khartoum, he told mediators that they could “go to hell” if they insisted on pushing the draft document and said that his government was “committed to peace but not to surrender. He impressed upon the audience how his government fought for 20 years “to defend Islam.”
Negotiators are now preparing for the seventh round of talks, to begin August 10.