Hope of lasting peace

Print edition : July 02, 2004

The deal signed by Sudan's government and the warring factions in the south of the country promises lasting peace and a rapprochement with the United States.

THERE are signs that the longest running civil war on the African continent may finally come to an end. The Sudanese government and the main rebel groups signed a peace accord in the last week of May in Naivasha, Kenya. A full-fledged peace treaty is expected to be signed in a couple of months.

Sudan's First Vice-President Ali Osman Mohamed Taha shakes hands with Sudan People's Liberation Army rebel leader John Garang, right, as Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki watches, at the ceremony to launch the peace process on June 5, in Nairobi.-ANTONY NJUGUNA/REUTERS

More than two million Sudanese are estimated to have perished in the civil war, which first erupted in 1962, six years after the country gained independence. There was a decade-long lull in the fighting between the Central government and the rebels from the mainly Christian and animist south of the country.

Sudan has two distinct cultures - Arab and black African. There are also hundreds of ethnic groups living in the country. The majority of the 22 million Sudanese are Arabic-speaking Muslims. The southern region has a population of around six million. Decades of civil war has forced the people there to survive on a subsistence economy.

The failure of the government in Khartoum to deliver on the promises of genuine federalism was one of the major factors that precipitated the civil war. The first phase of the civil war ended with the signing of the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, which granted southern Sudan wideranging regional autonomy on internal matters.

Civil war broke out again in 1983, involving government forces and the southern Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) led by John Garang. Starting from the early 1990s, the guerilla movement started splintering, though Garang continued to be a major player in the politics of the region. Three southern guerilla groups that had split away from the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), as Garang's military wing was called, formed the "SPLA United", which signed a separate peace deal with the Central government in Khartoum. But as long as Garang refused to play ball, lasting peace proved elusive. Washington had also made it clear that Garang was their man and a separate peace would not be feasible without his concurrence. Since the late 1990s, the Sudanese government has attempted to mend fences with Washington. Hassan al-Turabi, a prominent Islamist leader, has spent most of the last couple of years under house arrest. He has been a critic of the West and was the leading figure in the government until the mid-1990s. Washington on its part put on the back burner its efforts to destablise the government in Khartoum.

It was, therefore, significant that Garang was present at the signing ceremony along with Vice-President Ali Osman Taha. Speaking on the occasion, Garang said: "We have reached the crest of the last hill in our tortuous ascent to the heights of peace. There are no more hills ahead of us, the remaining is flat ground." Taha said that his government was serious about the accord. "Peace is our gift to the entire region," he said.

Since 1993, the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Kenya have pursued a peace initiative for Sudan under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD). Member-countries had adopted a Declaration of Principles (DoP) that sought to identify the elements necessary for a just and comprehensive settlement. These included the relationship between religion and state, power-sharing, wealth-sharing and the right of self-determination for the south. The "Machakos Protocol", signed in June 2002 under IGAD supervision, provided the framework for the May agreement.

The two sides have agreed on how to resolve the tricky question relating to power-sharing and the status of Sharia (Islamic law) in the country. Sharia was introduced all over Sudan in the last days of the authoritarian regime of Jaffar Nimeiry in 1983. The introduction of Islamic law triggered the second round of bloodletting between the north and the south. Since the early 1980s more than four million Sudanese have become internal and external refugees.

The Navasha agreement has provided the framework for sharing power in the three areas between Sudan's north and south. The government and the southern faction have agreed to share power in Abyei, the Nuba mountains and the Southern Blue Nile regions. Even after the latest ceasefire between the government and the rebel factions, the violence has not come to an end.

Fighting has erupted in the western region of Darfur. The majority of those residing in the Darfur province are Muslim but are black Africans. Some of their leaders evidently calculated that if the banner of revolt was raised against the Central government, they too would get autonomy and significant concessions, like their Christian compatriots in the south.

Officials in Khartoum claim that the rebellion in Darfur will be short-lived and will have no impact on the peace process. A ceasefire agreement signed between the government and the rebels in Darfur in April was broken shortly afterward. However, reports appearing in the Western media about alleged atrocities being committed by government-supported militias have put the pressure back on Khartoum. Reports from some humanitarian agencies say that more than a million people of Darfur have taken refuge in neighbouring Chad. Fighting has spilled over across the border; Chadian forces reportedly clashed with pro-government Sudanese militias. In the second week of June, the government in Khartoum agreed to allow international aid workers and observers freer access to the strife-torn region.

Officials of the Bush administration say that the signing ceremony of the peace treaty between the Sudanese government and the rebels at the White House in the presence of the United States President, which is scheduled tentatively for July, could be postponed if the fighting in Darfur continues. They have also said that once the government signs the treaty officially with the rebels, the existing U.S. sanctions on Sudan will be lifted and relations with the country, which has been on the State Department's list of terrorist states, will be normalised.

Under the terms of the agreement signed in May, the south will remain autonomous for the next six years. After that a referendum will be held. The people in the south will be allowed to decide whether the region should opt for independence or remain part of a federal Sudan. Protocols have also been signed on the sharing of oil revenues, the establishment of separate monetary systems in the north and the south, and security arrangements involving the Sudanese National Army and the rebel forces.

A woman and her children who fled the fighting in the Darfur region at a camp near Nyala, the capital of the province.-SALAH OMAR/AFP

Many knowledgeable African commentators are sceptical about the longevity of the deal. They point out that under its terms, Garang will be wearing two hats - that of First Vice-President of Sudan and Commander-in-Chief of his own army based in the south. In effect, Garang will be the numero uno in an area that will be bigger than neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Burundi put together.

For somebody who was just a Colonel in the Sudanese Army in 1982, Garang has come a long way. The former radical, whose closest ally at one time was Mengistu Haile Mariam, the Ethiopian strongman, is one of Washington's closest allies in the region now. Among his close friends is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, whom former U.S. President Bill Clinton described as America's closest ally in Africa.

Until the mid-1990s, Garang had sworn by the concept of a secular and federal Sudan. He had refused to accept Sharia or the division of Sudan into Christian- and Muslim-administered areas. He had expressed confidence that if fair and free elections were held in Sudan, the SPLA, in alliance with like-minded secular parties in the north, would sweep the polls. Garang at that time wanted to be the President of the country. Now he seems to have settled for a large chunk of the country along with the sizable oil revenues that would accrue to it.

Meanwhile, the United Nations is preparing to send peacekeepers to Sudan. India has pledged 3,000 soldiers to serve under the U.N. flag. It has an important stake in the economic and political well-being of Sudan, with the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation-Videsh having invested more than $7 billion in the country's hydrocarbon sector. It is the largest single investment made so far by an Indian public sector company. The United Kingdom and other key Western nations have also indicated that they would despatch peacekeepers. A Sudan at peace with itself could soon be a reality.

Sudan is the biggest country in the African continent and has the potential to become one of the most prosperous. It has the human capital to exploit its huge natural and mineral resources.

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