Peace at hand

Al-Ahram Weekly
18 - 24 September 2003
Issue No. 656

Inching closer to an agreement, the high-powered Sudanese peace talks in Kenya still failed to end the deadlock, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Sudanese Vice President Ali Othman Taha and John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the country's largest armed opposition group, met behind closed doors in the central Kenyan town of Naivasha on Sunday. The talks are shrouded in secrecy. The media is shunned and precious little information is seeping out. After almost two weeks of wrangling several sticking points remain unresolved. By all accounts the SPLA is determined to drive a hard bargain with the Sudanese government over a wide range of issues that will determine the political future of Sudan. So far no significant concessions have yet been made by either side on key issues.

With no apparent radical change in the positions of the two sides, observers are still cautiously optimistic about a possible breakthrough. It is believed that more than 60 per cent of the disagreements between the protagonists have already been resolved, with security arrangements now constituting the major stumbling block.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir dispatched Sudan's Defence Minister Major General Bakri Hassan Saleh to Kenya to bolster the Sudanese government position at the Naivasha talks. The Sudanese civil war is Africa's longest running conflict, and has claimed the lives of more than two million Sudanese. If a peace deal is not brokered soon, Sudan's disarray will worsen.

The Sudanese peace talks in Naivasha, 80 kilometres northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, are taking place under the auspices of the Inter- Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regional organisation which groups seven East African countries, including Sudan. Kenya is the current IGAD ministerial sub- committee on Sudan and is urging the protagonists to compromise. "This is the end of the game," is how Lazaro Sumbeiywo, the Kenyan special envoy at the Sudanese peace talks and chief mediator, described the current round of talks.

The United States has taken a keen interest in the outcome of the Sudanese peace talks, not least because of the prospects of developing Sudan's vast untapped oil wealth. Jeff Millington, former US chargé d'affaires in Khartoum and currently US representative to IGAD, flew to Kenya for the Sudanese peace talks and met with both Taha and Garang. Rumour mills in Khartoum anticipate a signing ceremony in Washington on 15 October.

Representatives from three remote regions, which the SPLA says are politically marginalised and economically disadvantaged and underdeveloped -- the Nuba Mountains in southern Kordofan, the Abeyei region in western Kordofan, and the Ingassena region of southern Blue Nile -- are taking part in the Naivasha talks. The three regions are to be represented in a transitional government of national unity but, unlike southern Sudan, they would not have the right to secede. Under the Machakos Protocol, the Sudanese government agreed in principle to the southern Sudanese holding a referendum on secession after six years of power-sharing in a transitional government of national unity. Malik Agar SPLA governor of southern Blue Nile and Abdel- Aziz Adam Al-Helew SPLA governor of southern Kordofan are representing the disputed regions at the Naivasha. The SPLA wants the three disputed regions to enjoy self-rule during the interim period.

"The Sudanese regime is hard pressed to sign a peace deal with the SPLA. International pressure is mounting. And the signing would be its swan song," Dr Mansour Khaled, special political adviser of SPLA leader Dr John Garang, told Al- Ahram Weekly.

"The deciding factor is whether the government is ready to accept that the SPLA must have an independent armed force," Khaled added.

"The problem lies in the security arrangements and the separate army for southern Sudan in the interim period. We cannot give up the idea of our own independent army separate from Khartoum's. It is vital for us," Jurkouch Barach, the Cairo-based SPLA chief representative in Egypt and the Arab world, concurred. He told the Weekly that successive Sudanese governments had dishonoured similar agreements with southern Sudanese people and the SPLA did not want to make the same mistakes again. "Khartoum dishonoured the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement, the 1965 agreement, the 1952-53 agreements, the 1947 agreement. That is why we cannot give up a separate army in the interim period. The southern Sudanese have reason to worry that history may repeat itself."

In a separate development, the Sudanese government concluded a ceasefire agreement with the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the chief armed opposition group in the war-torn Darfur region in western Sudan. The fragile peace in Darfur holds, but the SLA has already accused the Sudanese authorities of breaking the truce.

The ceasefire deal signed two weeks ago heightened hopes of a peaceful resolution to the armed uprisings in Darfur, one of Sudan's poorest provinces. But tribal militias loyal to the government have stepped up attacks on civilians suspected of being sympathetic to the SLA. The Sudanese authorities have admitted to bombing civilians and say they are ready to pay blood money to the victims' families in accordance to Islamic Shari'a laws.

The SLA, not to be confused with the southern Sudanese-based SPLA, has been fighting government forces for the improvement of social and economic conditions in Darfur and for the right of the inhabitants of Darfur to have more of a say in the decision-making process. The SLA, which used to be known as the Darfur Liberation Movement and founded in August 2001, argues that Darfur has suffered for decades from the neglect of successive Sudanese governments and urges decision-makers in Khartoum to officially recognise the impoverished region's special needs.

The agreement between Khartoum and the SLA was signed in Abeche, Chad, and witnessed by Chadian President Idris Deby who spearheaded the peace process in Darfur. The SLA's main grievance was that the Sudanese central government ignored the pressing development needs of Darfur, relegating the region to a remote backwater. The Chadian president played a pivotal role in restoring peace to Darfur, and both the SLA and the Sudanese authorities paid tribute to the Chadian president's contribution to peace in the region. Darfur borders Chad and many of the ethnic groups that inhabit the region are also found across the border in Chad. In the past some of the armed opposition groups in Darfur found shelter in Chad.

Under the Abeche agreement, the Chadian government is held responsible for helping to settle any disputes which may arise in the process of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. A committee of 15 members -- five representing the Sudanese government, five the SLA and five the Chadian government -- was given official mandate on Sunday to oversee the truce.