Sudan's war : A ceasefire, but not yet peace

The Economist
February 7, 2002

Sudan's long-running war has paused, but peace is still distant DANCING, drumming, blowing cows' horns and roasting bulls, the people of the Nuba mountains, a black African enclave in central Sudan, celebrated the ceasefire. They are enjoying the first properly-monitored break in the shooting in this region for 19 years. Announced on January 23rd, it has held, touch wood, for two weeks. For a people who have long feared that their culture, with its music, wrestling and body-painting, would soon be wiped out, the ceasefire seems like a last-minute deliverance from oblivion. But it is only a first step on the road to peace in the rest of Sudan, a nation that has been at war, on and off, for almost half a century.

The war's longevity stems from the way religious and ethnic differences have been inflamed by politicians. The military government in Khartoum is dominated by Muslim Arabs from the north. The rebels of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are largely black Christians and sky-god worshippers from the south. The SPLA says it wants democracy and secular government for the whole of Sudan, but is assumed by many to be aiming for southern secession. The government finds both options repellent, not least because there are large oil deposits in the south.

Into this maelstrom stepped an American senator, John Danforth, who was sent to Sudan as a special envoy last September, and has since moved fast. He announced that four conditions needed to be met before America could broker a lasting peace. Three have been met. The two sides have stopped fighting in the Nuba mountains. They recently maintained a nationwide ceasefire for long enough to allow children to be innoculated. And an investigation has started into reports that the war has allowed slavery to flourish (see article).

But the fourth condition has been flunked: President Omar Bashir insists that he cannot stop bombing the south. His excuse is that the SPLA continues to blow up oil pipelines. In the past couple of years, oil has become Sudan's main export, paying for much increased military spending and a boom in the capital, Khartoum, where luxury-car importers do a cracking trade.

Worn down by a decade of sanctions, Sudan is seeking removal from America's list of states that sponsor terrorism. Hence Mr Bashir's co-operation with American intelligence since September 11th, and his willingness to listen to Mr Danforth. But the regime is riven by factionalism, and the president may not be able to impose his will on his more hawkish subordinates.

Mr Danforth's formula for peace is “one country, two systems”: an Islamic government in the north, and a secular one in the south. The difficulty will be deciding how much autonomy the south is to be allowed. Southerners want a lot. The government has been dishonouring agreements with the south since the 1960s, and most southerners believe that self-determination is their best guarantee against future betrayals. On the other hand, the Americans will oppose anything that smacks of southern secession, largely because Egypt, an American ally, does not want multiple states controlling the Nile.

Time is not on Sudan's side. Mr Danforth's mission ends in March, and he has made it clear that he will go home. The SPLA's allies in America, mainly Christian fundamentalists who see the war as an assault by slave-trading Muslims on brother Christians, are lobbying for a Sudan Peace Bill, which would mandate aid to the SPLA and apply sanctions on oil firms that do business with the government. For now, Mr Danforth can use this bill as a stick to prod the government into making swift concessions. But if it becomes law, America will no longer be able to act as broker.

Other concerned outsiders could step in. Possible candidates include Clare Short, Britain's minister for overseas aid, or her Norwegian counterpart, Hilde Fraford Johnson. But the worry is that both sides may be content to go back to war. Mr Bashir's government uses the war as a reason not to hold elections. John Garang, the SPLA's leader, thinks that with southerners more united than for a decade, and with help from American Christians, he will be able to attack, and even capture, some oilfields. In the long term, however, neither side can win the war, and their people continue to lose from it.