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'God, Oil and Country'

The aftermath of the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington last year has opened a window of opportunity for peace in Sudan, says a recently released report by an NGO, the International Crisis Group.
Clement Njoroge and Boro Klan

If a recent report is to be believed, now is the moment for the international community to construct a viable peace process in Sudan. This is from the fact that the Islamic regime in power in Khartoum can wait no longer to remove itself from global isolation that saw sanctions imposed on it over ties with terrorist organisations thus forcing the regime into a ''tactical compromise.''

The 250 page report, titled "God, Oil and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan" which is authored by a private Belgium based research centre, the International Crisis Group (ICG) further argues it is time that the world community played an active role as a peacemaker in Africa's largest country where a brutal civil war has been going on for the last 19 years.

It notes that between 1991 to 1994 when Khartoum's Islamist radicals had consolidated their power, Sudan saw rapid growth of top terror suspect Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network. It was a growth aided also by money laundering, adds the document authored by John Prendergast, adviser on Africa during the Clinton administration.

These efforts were assisted by the country's newfound oil wealth that made Khartoum very comfortable in its war effort as it could afford to beef its military chest. But that has changed, argues the report pointing that the government of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir is in a difficult economic situation due to a weakened oil market, Khartoum's strong desire to escape international isolation and the quest to enjoy the oil wealth in the south. There is also the increasing defence spending and the military threat posed by the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).

"What is becoming increasingly clear, is that a confluence of events and factors provide a window of opportunity for peacemaking efforts in 2002. The US, with its new special envoy, former Senator John Danforth, is best positioned to act as a catalyst for peace at this moment, whether in support of other efforts or more directly," says the report. The September 11 terrorist attacks on the US make Sudan, as a state with a history and a certain affinity toward extremist Islamic groups and radical movement, of even greater international interest, says the report. It is however uncertain how this will translate into longer-term policies, both in Khartoum and in Western countries.

During a media briefing in Nairobi on February 12, Prendergast now ICG's Africa Programme Co-director: "Progress towards peace will require deeper, more direct international engagement in a process that the Sudanese parties take seriously. A new peace effort must also meaningfully involve Sudan's neighbours and address the traffic jam of competing peace initiatives, which must be united on a single track." Prendergast, who made several trips to Sudan between June and November 2001 and conducted scores of interviews both in Khartoum and war torn areas of the south - as well as in Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Europe an North America stressed that the new US stance is a window of opportunity that should be exploited by all sides involved in the war.

In his foreword to the book, the ICG President, Gareth Evans observed that the peace efforts made until now - by the regional Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), by Egypt and Libya jointly, and by Eritrea and Nigeria - have all been of a piecemeal character. "There has never been a single, multilateral, high level sustained international exercise to put it all together," he says.

The government has generally controlled roughly the northern two-thirds of Sudan, while the SPLA has largely been based in the southern third with some pockets of resistance in the north as Sudan is 65 per cent African and 35 per cent Arab. Over 70 per cent of Sudanese are Muslim, of whom a large percentage is of African descent. Most of the rest follow traditional religions, with 5-7 per cent being Christian. Up to two million originally southern Sudanese live in the north, further diversifying the picture. The reality is thus much more complex than the stereotype of an Arab Muslim north battling an African Christian south.

Also the issue of southern self-determination is only one of a profoundly divisive groups of factors fuelling the civil war led by the SPLA commanded by Col. John Garang. Outstanding points of conflict also include the role of religion and the state, the nature of the political system (authoritarian vs. democratic), resource sharing, border disputes and racial and economic discrimination. A southern Sudanese community leader in an interview with ICG on 30 September 2001 is quoted as saying: "Calling (Sudan's civil war) a north-south conflict disadvantages the cause of the southerners and those marginalised throughout the rest of the country … Because people are Muslims does not mean they are Arab."

ICG also notes that the cost of the conflict to the international community are much higher than the humanitarian bill it has been paying through expenses by UN agencies and NGOs operating in the war-devastated areas of the country. The turmoil is destabilising neighbouring states, many of which struggle with violence and secessionism themselves.

The book observes that the last two decades have only produced a grave of failed international peace initiatives. That there has never been a multilateral, high-level effort to build a viable peace process and create co-ordinated leverage to encourage serious engagement by the parties. The book incisively insists that until such an effort is initiated no one can tell if "genuine compromise or even a substantive dialogue might be possible." ICG would like to see a unifying of peace initiatives with the Kenyan general Lazarus Sumbeiywo as the main mediator backed by a representative from the Libyan initiative and European plus American mediators. "The US has only three options over the Sudan; withdraw, adopt a low-key role or take part fully,'' said Prendergast.

The September 2001 appointment of former Senator John Danforth as a special U.S. peace envoy suggests this might be a real possibility. Danforth, ICG notes "is best positioned to act as a catalyst for peace at this moment, whether in support of the efforts or more directly". At the same breath, Gareth says that "with active engagement by the U.S. and key Europeans, a mediator that is taken seriously by the Sudanese parties, a mindset intolerant of diversion, circumvention and prevarication, and a process that is backed with significant leverage in the form of a robust package of both carrots and sticks".

It is however worth noting that there have been calls for the international community - particularly the US - to make a comprehensive peace agreement a "major policy priority." Such calls have been made by Francis Deng and Stephen Morrison of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in their paper, "US Policy to End Sudan's War", on February 2001 and CARE, World Vision, International Rescue Committee, and Save the Children", in their joint statement "US Government Must Adopt a 'Peace First' Policy Towards Sudan".

Still, despite any assurances it may give the international community including claims that it offered US diplomats a dossier on the Al Qaeda network, an offer rejected by then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, it will take time before the regime gains acceptance. Sudan itself cannot deny the fact that it aided and abetted representatives and businesses of terrorist groups and it provided bin Laden refuge until US pressure led to his departure in 1996. However, if the current overtures are not exploited, Sudan, much like Afghanistan, will provide a rich breeding ground for international terrorism and extremism, cautions the ICG.

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