Obstacles To New Round Of Peace Talks Resolved

Jan 16, 2003 (IPS)

If all goes well, the third round of peace talks between the government of Sudan and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) will open on Jan. 22, according to mediator Lazaro Sumbeiywo.

Sumbeiywo, who represents the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is organizing the talks, says he is meeting the two parties on Friday morning to discuss this latest proposal.

Talks were due to start Wednesday but the government of Sudan refused to attend, complaining that it was not happy with the agenda. Participants were being asked to discuss the status of three disputed areas in the center of the country.

The government of Sudan says IGAD is only mandated to discuss southern Sudan. As these three areas are in northern Sudan, it argues that they can only be discussed under a separate, parallel peace process.

"If we are going to expand that mandate we should either get back to the heads of state of the IGAD countries or have a fresh new peace process which may link later on with the IGAD," argues Mohamed Dirdeiry, a senior official at the Sudanese Embassy in Nairobi.

"It is a matter of principle that once an organization is not mandated to do a thing, it cannot do that thing," he insists.

The Sudanese diplomat says the issues causing the war in the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and Abyei are completely different from those causing the war in southern Sudan.

"The nature of the conflict there is completely different and we have to address that conflict on its merits if we want peace to really be reached in that part of the country," he argues.

Dirdeiry says the three areas are Muslim, unlike southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian and followers of traditional African religions. He believes that the conflict in the three areas is about underdevelopment and a desire for greater autonomy, whereas southern Sudan's problem is a cultural and religious one.

Nor does he think the three areas have any interest in joining with southern Sudan. "We never heard any demand from those areas for the famous demand of self-determination of southern Sudan. They demand sort of autonomy, sort of expanded federalism and they never asked for self-determination," he says.

SPLA leader John Garang, in Nairobi Thursday on his way back from Nigeria, dismisses this argument about setting up a parallel process, saying that the only issue that matters is bringing peace to the whole of Sudan.

"There are no parallel processes. We are solving the problem of war in the Sudan and the problem of war in the Sudan is not parallel. It is the whole body that aches. If your arm is hurting your whole body hurts," he says.

Garang argues that the three areas are, politically and militarily, already part of the south. He says that, having fought alongside the rebels, the three areas should also be granted the same concessions being offered to the south.

"The Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and Abyei are part and parcel of the SPLM (Sudan People's Liberation Movement). We are not saying that we are transferring them to the south," he says.

Garang says it should be up to the people of the three disputes areas to decide their fate when a referendum on secession for the south is held after a six-year interim period -- which was agreed upon in the Machakos Protocol on July 20 last year.

"If the referendum comes, whether they partake in that referendum as part of the south or not depends on the people of these areas and that is their right," says Garang.

Dirdeiry disputes Garang's claim that the three areas are pro-SPLA. "It's absolutely not correct. Militarily, they are not part of the south. The Joint Military Commission (monitoring the cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains) knows that the Nuba Mountains is 95 percent under the control of the government," he says.

Whether Sumbeiywo succeeds in restarting the talks on Jan 22 will very much depend on the agenda he proposes.

The government of Sudan wants to return to the issues they were discussing when talks broke off in November - power and wealth sharing. But the SPLA will find it hard to let the three areas be written off the agenda.

Garang argues that the government is playing a game of brinkmanship to see how committed everyone else is to the peace process. "I believe what Khartoum is doing is testing the mediators, the observers, the international community, testing them both on the ground, militarily, and politically, by not coming to the IGAD talks, to see what the response of the international community would be," he charges.

Dirdeiry says Khartoum is also interested in peace and is doing its best to compromise.

"We want the guns to fall silent once and for all in every part of our country. This is why we accepted discussing these issues. But that does not mean we have to mix up the issues. It shouldn't mean that we can just apply a sort of blanket solution for the country," he says.

Last year, significant progress was made towards ending Sudan's 20-year civil war in Machakos, Kenya. But the tension and suspicion between the two sides makes progress extremely slow and painful.