Khartoum Pulls Out Of Peace Talks

Jan 15, 2003 (IPS)

The tortured trek to peace in Sudan stalled again this week when the Sudanese government in Khartoum refused to attend the latest round of peace talks that were scheduled to open Wednesday.

The Sudanese said they did not sent a delegation to the talks in Karen, just outside the Kenyan capital Nairobi, because they did not agree with the agenda.

The government wants the border between northern and southern Sudan to remain as it was at independence in 1956. But rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), who control much of the south, want to renegotiate the status of three areas in the north whose inhabitants back the SPLA.

The Sudanese government says this issue is not even on the agenda of the talks, sponsored by the Inter Governmental Authority (IGAD). "The IGAD sponsors were unequivocal in stating that the borders of the south were those defined at the day of independence, on Jan. 1, 1956. This was again confirmed in the Machakos Protocol," says Sudanese Ambassador to Kenya Ali Nimeri.

The Machakos Protocol was an agreement signed on July 20, agreeing to exempt the south from Islamic Sharia (law) and allow it to hold a referendum on independence after a six-year interim period -- two key issues for which the SPLA took up arms against the government in 1983.

"The three areas, just like any other area in the northern part of Sudan fall out of focus of the IGAD initiative," insists Nimeri.

The Sudanese government charges that Kenya, which is hosting the talks, has started up a second, subsidiary peace process. "Karen is a new process, a process mediated by Kenya and not by the IGAD. A process on the three areas within northern Sudan and have nothing to do with southern Sudan," says Ahmed Dirdeiry, of the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi.

Even if this part of the talks is being mediated by Kenya, it has been sanctioned by IGAD, as evidenced by the presence of the chief mediator Gen. Lazaro Sumbeiywo in Karen Wednesday. Sumbeiywo spent the afternoon in closed-door talks with the heads of the government and rebel delegations, trying to iron out the issue.

SPLA spokesperson, Samson Kwaje, points out that the status of these three areas must be resolved before the two sides can move on to discuss other outstanding issues. "We cannot discuss security arrangements unless we resolve the issues of the three areas. Otherwise, we may have peace between the south and north but there will be fighting in Abyei, in southern Blue Nile and southern Kordofan, and there the forces are SPLA forces," he argues.

But the Sudanese government says that is the SPLA's problem, not theirs. "The claim by the SPLA that these areas constitute part of the problem of southern Sudan binds the SPLA not the government," says Nimeri.

There was a great deal of progress in peace talks between Sudan's warring parties last year. The two sides signed a ceasefire, which expires at the end of March. But after 20 years of war, the tension and suspicion between the two sides makes progress extremely slow and difficult.

Analysts say that the government of Sudan appears to be stalling on this issue because it knows that the SPLA has a strong claim to the three areas of the southern Blue Nile, Abyei and the Nuba Mountains. Abyei has a Dinka population, the same as much of the south, but its leader before independence voted to remain with the north. The other two regions are Muslim, which would logically make them part of the north, but their people have been firmly on the side of the SPLA for many years.

"The government does not want to set a precedent for marginalised northern provinces to dictate their future. It would open a Pandora's box," explains one analyst.

"In the west and the east, both part of the north, there are areas which have equally been persecuted by Khartoum," he claims.

Nonetheless, some observers are hopeful that a peace settlement will be reached this year. Both sides are under immense international pressure to resolve their differences and the two key issues over which they have argued for more than a decade -- state and religion and a referendum for the south -- have already been resolved.