Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 4 October 2003

If it’s peace in Sudan, how long will it last?


By Julie Flint, THE DAILY STAR

LONDON, Oct 4, 2003 — For the first time since peace talks began more than a year ago, there is real hope that Sudan’s Islamist government and the southern rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) will agree to end hostilities that have killed more than 2 million people, displaced twice that number and turned the country’s African south into a wasteland. The cause of the optimism is agreement on one of the thorniest issues under discussion: security arrangements in a six-year interim period before southerners would vote on unity with the rest of Sudan or separation from the predominantly Arab, Muslim north.

"A milestone of extraordinary significance in the search for an end to Sudan’s 20-year civil war," one analyst said of the agreement. But is it? Can any agreement that emerges from the present negotiations in Kenya be a genuine peace or merely a truce? Many fear that the agreement that is emerging, under the guiding hands of international mediators, including the United States and Britain, may end one war but, in so doing, set the context for the next.
The security agreement signed by the government and the SPLA on Sept. 25 took many observers by surprise. Only 11 weeks earlier, on July 12, the government had rejected a draft framework for the resolution of all outstanding issues, including security arrangements, as unbalanced and impossible to implement. Forty-eight hours after the government delegation walked out of the peace talks, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir added insult to injury by saying international mediators could "go to hell," or dissolve the draft in water and drink it, if they insisted on its discussion.
On July 12, the government was insisting on a single army in the interim period. State-controlled Radio Omdurman was calling SPLA leader John Garang a "rebel." By Sept. 25 the government had not only agreed that the SPLA could retain a separate army in the south, it had also said it would withdraw all but 12,000 of its own 103,000 troops from the region. Radio Omdurman, for the first time in the history of the conflict, dignified the SPLA leader with the title of "colonel."

What happened in those 11 weeks to turn the situation around? Some speculate that the government and the SPLA are hatching a deal under which the government will exchange security concessions for a political agreement that will disadvantage northern parties currently allied with the SPLA when the time comes for elections. This seems unlikely, but not impossible. What is certain, however, is that the September agreement came about, in large part, because of intensified pressure from a US administration that is desperate for a foreign policy success. Osama bin Laden is still at large. American body bags are piling up in Iraq. President George W. Bush needs Bashir and Garang shaking hands in front of the world’s press on the White House lawn.

Very difficult issues remain to be solved: power-sharing, wealth-sharing, the future of three contested areas Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile and the status of Khartoum. (The government rejected a proposal that all citizens of the Khartoum district enjoy equal status, arguing this would limit the implementation of Sharia law in the national capital.) In a more general sense, the government fears democratization and its implications. And with good reason: Its deep unpopularity was made very clear in recent elections in the Khartoum University Student Union, long regarded as a bellwether of national politics. The government list won just 20 percent of the total vote, finishing in third place behind a combined opposition list and an Islamist rival.

But despite the uncertainty that still hangs over the peace talks, senior US sources say the White House has already pencilled in Oct. 15-16 as a date for the signing ceremony. That’s less than a week before the Oct. 21 deadline set for peace by the US Congress’ Sudan Peace Act. Should this deadline be reached without a settlement and the fault deemed to lie with the government, the US is expected to revert to its previous policy of isolating and condemning Khartoum. Sanctions could be imposed on the Sudanese government and an additional $100 million in aid sent to the south annually.

In piling on the pressure, many fear that Washington is making the same mistake in Sudan that it made in Iraq: failing to realize that an end to fighting is not necessarily synonymous with peace. Unfavorable comparison is already being made with the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement that ended a separatist war launched by southerners in 1955, the year before independence. That pact collapsed after then-President Jaafar Numeiri introduced Islamic law and dissolved the autonomous southern government set up in 1972. But it also brought Sudan a decade of peace the only peace in the country’s 47 years of independence.

There are striking differences between the current peace process and the Addis Ababa process, and they do not augur well for the future. The Addis Ababa negotiations were widely supported by political opinion in northern and southern Sudan. The 2003 negotiations have involved only the government and the SPLA. All other political groups, militias and marginalized areas at war with the government have been excluded. Some parties have already said they will not consider themselves bound by an agreement over which they have not been consulted. The momentum for the Addis Ababa agreement was internal: It was initiated by Sudanese on both sides of the conflict for their own domestic reasons. In 2003, the momentum is largely external. In 1972, peace was monitored and implemented by the Sudanese without international backing. In 2003, it is generally agreed that an agreement without strong international enforcement would be doomed to failure. Southerners and northerners alike have expressed strong doubts about their leaders’ genuine commitment to peace.

Will international enforcement be forthcoming, sufficient and sustained? Given the high cost of the Iraq war and post-war reconstruction, this seems unlikely even if the same governments are wrestling with the same set of priorities in Washington and London in six years’ time. A period of peace, of a sort, now seems possible. A lasting peace, regrettably, is far less likely.

Julie Flint is a veteran journalist based in Beirut and London. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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