Home | Comment & Analysis    Thursday 23 October 2003

Why the US is giving Sudan a fresh look


The biggest obstacle to peace has been American policy which has been committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum. It has basically promoted the war.


NAIROBI, Oct. 23, 2003 — After months of speculation, United States Secretary of State Colin Powell finally attended the Sudan peace talks in Naivasha yesterday, confirming the increasingly held view that America was finally giving the push for peace in Sudan, the attention it deserves.

The talks have been proceeding fairly well so far under Kenyan mediator Lt-Gen Lazarus Sumbeiywo. At the advanced stage which they had reached, perhaps, it was the presence of a man of Powell’s stature that the Sudanese protagonists required to help push the negotiations to their logical conclusion.

To many southern Sudanese, privileged enough to comprehend the trends in global politics, one of the major stumbling blocks to the attainment of peace in their motherland, has been the lukewarm interest from the United States. Sharing this view are those in the humanitarian and religious circles.

None other than former US President Jimmy Carter, now a reknown humanitarian worker, once acknowledged that the US policy was an obstacle to peace in Sudan. He once said in the Year 200O: "For the past eight years, the US has had a policy which I strongly disagree with on Sudan; supporting the revolutionary movement and not working for an overall peace settlement."

Earlier in 1999 Mr Carter had said: "The people in Sudan want to resolve the conflict. The biggest obstacle is the US government policy. The US is committed to overthrowing the government in Khartoum. Any sort of peace effort is aborted, basically by policies of the United States. Instead of working for peace in Sudan, the US government has basically promoted a continuation of the war."

And this position is not totally unfounded. Few can doubt that in the current unipolar world order, the global political and development agenda is determined not by the United Nations or other such international organisations, but by the US and her allies. With their awesome resources and their influence that permeates every corner of the globe, the latter can have virtually anything their way.

So far, the Sudan government and the southern rebels have resolved the delicate issue of security arrangement. The parties have agreed to merge their armies and are now deliberating on the modalities of the implementation such as the location of the central command. Yet to be thrashed out are issues of wealth sharing, the status of Khartoum as the seat of government and the three disputed areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

But why the renewed US interest in Sudan’s peace negotiations?

The reasons are many and varied and they certainly transcend the US’s self-proclaimed roles of defending democracy and human rights.

One could merely be a face-saving effort in view of the debacle that the US has encountered in Iraq. With the death toll of US soldiers in Iraq currently standing at one soldier a day, President George W. Bush is keen to grab any opportunity to win new allies, especially those that may be more sympathetic to its Middle East enemies.

Like the Sudanese protagonists, the US must also have realised that neither Khartoum nor the John Garang-led Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement/Army is capable of winning the 20-year-old war comprehensively.

When Sudan began exporting oil in August 1999, it was largely believed that the balance of power would change in favour of Khartoum. With an average income of about $2 million a day, many believed the military regime would lose whatever incentives it may have had in pursuing a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The revenue from the oil, it was thought, would be directed to financing the war efforts, while the Western states, the homes to multi-national oil corporations, especially the US, would be placated to look the other side as the Africans butchered each other.

It was equally feared that the tacit support the US had been extending to the SPLM/A, would be terminated, giving Khartoum the might to overrun the south.

No doubt, the US, like other world economic giants, has a keen interest in the Sudan oil. However, the effective exploitation of the same, it has become abundantly clear, lies in first reconciling the Sudanese. Nothing short of that would invite unnecessary censure from the conscientious world community. The Sudan oil has in many circles been referred to as blood oil and any beneficiaries of the same branded as accomplices in the genocide of the southern Sudanese communities.

For the SPLM/A, in the absence of an acceptable formula for sharing the oil wealth, the oil installations and all personalities involved in their operations are a legitimate military target.

Sudanese President Gen. Omar el-Bashir seems to underscore the fears when on celebrating his 10th anniversary in power in 2000, he commissioned the production of a wide range of military arsenal in Sudan and hailed the achievement as the hallmark of his rule.

Four years down the line, this oil experiment seems to have come a cropper, convincing the protagonists and the US alike, that dialogue was the most viable option. Apart from a flurry of bombardments of mostly civilian targets that shook the south in the year 2000, Khartoum has largely failed to change the status quo fundamentally.

Indeed the SPLM/A has over the period managed to hold its ground and has in several instances scored surprisingly impressive victories. Its capture of Raga, a strongly fortified Khartoum base in southwest Sudan in October 2001 is a case in point. Though the government later recaptured the town, the incident did send a strong message to Khartoum about the SPLA’s potential.

As if to further confirm their resilience, the rebel group even managed to win back Dr Riek Machar, one of its former prominent figures that Khartoum had managed to lure to its side in 1997. It will be remembered that it was in the period when Dr Machar consorted with Khartoum, that the latter managed to complete the construction of the 1,550-km oil pipeline to facilitate the exportation of Sudanese oil from Unity State in the south through Port Sudan in the North.

President Bashir too could have contributed to the US’s increased interest in the Sudan. The Sudanese strongman has uncharacteristically softened in his anti-American stance and those opposed to his rule. Last August, Mr Bashir formally requested President Bush to help push Sudanese peace talks forward. Last week, he released from detention Islamic ideologue Hassan Turabi.

Turabi helped Bashir come to power in 1989 and for years was largely believed to be the most powerful man in Sudan outside State House. In 1999, Turabi was ousted from key political positions after a power struggle. He was then arrested in February 2001 and detained without trial. Another manifestation of Bashir’s hardline attitude was made manifest last August when he released some 32 political prisoners.

President Bashir has even chosen to end press censorship in his country, a development that must have further changed the US’s perception of his leadership.

The US’s latest overtures to Sudan must also be seen in the perspective of the American’s anti-terrorism war. Securing peace in Sudan fits in pretty well with this grand design. Having for years been blacklisted by the US as a supporter of international terrorism, the Americans could now be trying to extend an olive branch to Khartoum to avoid further radicalising them. Sudan once played host to Osama bin Laden.

When suspected terrorists attacked Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, the US was quick to target Sudan as a possible accomplice in the acts that claimed more than 200 lives in Kenya alone. Much to the embarrassment of the US, it later turned out that the Khartoum pharmaceutical firm the US targeted in its revenge attack, had absolutely nothing to do with the manufacture of biological weapons.

With Kenya having warmed up to the US’s anti-terrorism war, President Bush is keen to exploit the role Kenya plays in regional politics to bring the Sudanese to the fold. And in this, he can count on President Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki too is naturally keen not to squander any opportunity to play the role of a regional peacemaker like his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi. For Kibaki, helping bring peace to Sudan would also be a stature booster especially at this time that his ruling Narc coalition is almost being torn apart by internal wrangles.

But signing the peace accord and implementing the peace are totally different things, at least in Africa. Thus the US would well be advised to appreciate that getting the Sudanese to sign the peace documents is only a first step in a long journey.

Way back in 1994, and after fighting for over two decades, former Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi signed a peace accord with the government in Zambia but never lived up to the ideal of the document. It was not until the guerilla leader was killed by Angolan government forces last year that the civil war in the southern African nation finally ended. Hopefully, the same does not happen to Sudan.

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