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New twists in the Sudan peace process

The crisis in Darfur threatens to scuttle the Sudanese peace process, currently on the home stretch.
Zachary Ochieng

Hopes are high that the 20-year civil war in Sudan, which has claimed 2 million lives and displaced 4 million people will soon come to an end. Sudan's warring parties have spent the last 18 months discussing how to stop fighting and build peace in their country.

The latest round of talks began on 18 February in the Kenyan Rift Valley town of Naivasha, in what analysts say could mark the last stage of peace negotiations and lead to the signing of a comprehensive agreement that should usher in a new era of peace and stability in Africa’s largest country.

A key milestone in the peace process was the January signing of an agreement on wealth sharing in the country between the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People Liberation Movement/Army [SPLM/A]. Under the agreement, the oil revenue is to be shared equally between the government and the southern region. 2 per cent of oil revenues will go to oil producing districts, while non-oil revenues from the south, like customs fees and taxation are to be equally shared.

“The peace process is truly now irreversible”, enthused SPLM/A leader Dr John Garang, who attended the signing ceremony. On his part, Sudanese Vice-president Ali Osman Taha said: “This moment, in which we have signed an agreement on wealth sharing spells the end of a long episode of war and conflict in our country”. He noted that the agreement confirms the sincere desire of the government to realize a just and comprehensive peace in Sudan.

Sudan has been virtually at war with itself since the day it emerged from colonial rule in 1956. By then, the stage for conflict had already been set by the British and the Egyptians by way of a scenario of glaring inequalities between the north and the south, with much of the country's resources and the instruments of policy-making concentrated in the Arab north. It is against this background that the mostly Christian and animist southerners took up arms to fight against the imbalance.

Conflict has been raging, save for an 11-year hiatus from 1972 when a peace deal gave southerners limited regional autonomy. But fighting, led by the SPLM/A, resumed in 1983 after the then president, Ja'far Numayri, dissolved the regional government and imposed Islamic shari’ah law nationwide.

But since 1994, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development [IGAD] – which groups Eastern and Horn of Africa nations- has been brokering peace between the SPLM/A and the government under the chairmanship of former Kenya Army Commander Lt. Gen. Lazarus Sumbeiywo.

However, a major breakthrough was made in 20 July 2002, following the signing of the landmark Machakos Protocol. The protocol – signed in the south-eastern Kenyan town of Machakos - commits the Sudan government to confining Sharia (Islamic law) to the north. It also grants south Sudan a six-year period of administrative autonomy, after which the population can decide in a referendum whether to stay in a united Sudan or secede.

But as the negotiations approach the home stretch, it has now emerged that peace in Sudan may remain a pipe dream, following incessant disagreements over power sharing. Notably, control of the three disputed regions namely the Southern Blue Nile, Nuba mountains and Abyei remains a major sticking point in the peace process.

The expansive southern territory covers three provinces of Upper Nile, Bahr-El Ghazal and Equitoria, according to the provincial boundaries defined by the colonialists at Sudan’s independence in January 1956.

However, the realities of the war made the northern regions of Nuba Mountains in southern Kordofan, Abyei and southern Blue Nile part of southern Sudan. Whereas the SPLM/A insists they are southern areas, the Khartoum government maintains they are northern regions.

Hopes of peace settlement in the near future were dimmed when president Omar Hassan El Bashir ruled out any chances of a deal over the three disputed areas, saying that the talks with southern rebels had no authority to settle the status of the three regions. Political analysts and commentators say Bashir's stand is a recipe to scuttle the peace process.

The official Sudan News Agency quoted Bashir in January as saying: "We have no mandate to resolve this issue in the current talks in Naivasha”. Media reports say Khartoum’s government would oppose any attempt to redraw the border between northern and southern Sudan.

The media has quoted Bashir as saying the government had in the past agreed to a dialogue on the territorial dispute only "out of respect for the other side" and on condition that it did not form part of the IGAD peace initiative.

Hopes of a lasting peace in Sudan have also been hampered by the crisis in Darfur. Six million people live in Darfur, which borders Chad in the western part of Sudan. A year of fighting between rebel groups and the Sudanese government has caused more than 100,000 Sudanese to flee to Chad and displacing more than 700,000 people within Darfur.

The rebellion in Darfur began when non-Arab minorities took up arms against the Arab Islamist government in Khartoum, demanding better representation and economic aid.

Until recently the Darfur crisis was seen as a sideshow to a much larger problem, the 20 year war between government and rebel forces in the south of Sudan. But independent observers now warn that the gains made so far will be minimised if the violence in the west is allowed to continue unchecked.

"It would be a terrible tragedy if peace in the south were to be achieved just as Sudan enters a new and equally vicious war in Darfur," says Justice Africa, a UK-based think-tank. "As well as humanitarian assistance, the Darfur war needs immediate political attention by the international community."

Yet, hopes for a comprehensive peace agreement in Sudan are being complicated by a "clash" of two separate peace initiatives - one backed by the U.S, the other involving the European Union.

The U.S. is actively pushing the main peace talks, currently taking place in Kenya while the European union is involved in the settlement of the Darfur crisis. A Kenyan political analyst James Mwamburi noted that the EU was keen to demonstrate its concerns to the plight of those suffering in Sudan, to avoid a perception by Africans that it is only the U.S. that is keen to see a peaceful future for the country.

But he voiced concern that a "parallel" EU peace initiative in western Sudan could cause delays to a resolution of the main conflict, by shifting attention away from the main peace process underway in Kenya.

Still, there is a lot of mistrust in the peace process going on in Kenya, given past experiences. Mr Lazim Ebasha, deputy executive director of the Nuba Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organization said that, ever since the Sudan government declared a jihad (Holy War) against the Nuba Mountains in 1992, there has been “genocide” in the area, with people being killed, and churches destroyed.

Another weakness with the negotiations is the fact that discussions on wealth sharing are only revolving around the sharing of oil wealth in the south, yet there are resources in the north, which could equally be shared. For instance, access to, and the revenues of, Port Sudan, the Gezira Cotton Scheme and the Kenana sugar factory are initiatives in the north that can be shared with people in the south.

The civil war has no doubt left a trail of misery to the people of southern Sudan. Numerous humanitarian, human rights and state parties have, over time, accused the Sudanese government of the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, restricting or endangering relief operations, and reportedly operating a "scorched earth policy" to clear oil production areas of civilian populations.

Since the 1980s, the Sudanese government has used militias, which it arms and supports logistically, for various purposes, such as clearing and controlling oil-rich areas, and sowing dissent within the SPLM/A in a divide-and-rule tactic.

Most villages in the south are now empty or completely destroyed, especially along the Bentiu-Adok road. As recently as February, paramilitary forces in Nimnim, western Upper Nile, deliberately attacked eight aid workers working in the area.

The area under SPLM/A dominance has neither an inch of paved road nor a railway line. For lack of bridges on the River Nile, people living on one side of the Nile must go through either Kenya or Uganda to reach the other bank, unless they are privileged enough to fly over the vast river.

Due to lack of medical care, residents have been born, lived to adulthood and died without ever being treated in a hospital. The situation is particularly grave in the three disputed regions, which have been no-go zones for the Operation Lifeline Sudan [OLS].

The war has also disastrously affected learning. In south Sudan, students constantly keep one ear on the teacher and the other on the distant whine of the Antonov, a Russian-made aircraft that the Sudan government uses to bomb villages and other places in the south.

Besides, students have to contend with an educational system that has virtually collapsed and, in some cases, with cultural beliefs that hold them back.

Ms Nelly Maina, education and scholarships coordinator at the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Regional Conference based in Nairobi, said schools in southern Sudan do not follow a common curriculum or standards. As a result, they follow the Ugandan or Kenyan curriculum, or a combination of both, making it difficult for students to pursue higher education, she said. Many of the teachers are untrained,

In the final analysis, there is a very real threat that the north-south problem will simply be replaced by an east-west strife, if the Darfur crisis is not addressed. Most sides outside the SPLM/A and the government feel marginalised by the peace process. Admittedly, leaders of the SPLM/A and the Khartoum government both come from powerful circles, but nevertheless represent only a section of their respective regions. And with a full-blown war in the west, and rumblings of disquiet in the east, the chances of conflict on a different axis are strong.

It is on this basis that many observers agree that both the government and the SPLM/A should commit themselves to a peaceful settlement of the Darfur crisis, and that this should be enshrined in the comprehensive peace agreement.

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