Think-tank sees unique chance for peace in Sudan

By Fiona O'Brien
NAIROBI, Feb 12 (Reuters)

Five months of global turmoil and a pressing government need to control Sudan's lucrative oil fields could help resolve one of the world's longest and most intractable conflicts, a leading analyst said on Tuesday.

John Prendergast, former special adviser on African affairs in the Clinton administration, said the current climate in Sudan provided an opportunity for peace unprecedented in the last 18 years of war.

"There's a window of opportunity (in Sudan) that I haven't seen in the last 18 years," the author of a new book entitled "God, Oil and Country -- changing the logic of war in Sudan" told journalists in the Kenyan capital Nairobi.

"In Sudan, peace is always a very low percentage chance. As always, there are a lot of obstacles, but there's enough political will now that the potential exists that it could work this time," said Prendergast, Africa Programme co-director at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The war in Sudan, Africa's largest country, is one of the longest and most complex in the world. Religion, oil, ethnicity and ideology have fuelled fighting between the government and rebels that has killed around two million people since 1983.

While the conflict is often portrayed as a battle between Muslim north and Christian or animist south, Prendergast said that view was anachronistic.

"It has evolved from a north-south conflict to a national war," he said. "We have groups fighting politically or militarily against the (Khartoum) regime in all corners of Sudan.


Oil is a major incentive for heavily indebted Khartoum to consider peace talks, Prendergast said.

Recent offensives by rebels, increasingly unified under the main Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), have already stopped production in some fields and also prevented access to more lucrative fields further south, he said.

The post-September 11 war on terrorism has also proved conducive to peace-making in Sudan, which since the 1990s has faced U.S. sanctions and scrutiny for alleged terrorist links .

"It has driven the regime into a sort of tactical compromise -- the peace process and an operation to remove terrorism are the means by which they can remove themselves from this semi-isolation they have been trapped in for many years," Prendergast said.

Peace talks were also a viable option for the rebels, who face improved government tactics and problems in obtaining weapons.

Diplomats have said a regional ceasefire signed last month to allow humanitarian access to the central Nuba mountains could prove a prototype for a wider truce, but Prendergast warned that humanitarian agreements had a history of failure in Sudan.

"Both sides are very committed to their principles, such as state versus religion and self-determination (for the south)," he said. "It's going to take a long, long time, which is why we're going to have to have long-term commitment."