Losing patience with Khartoum

15/3/04 (MEI)

As Sudan's peace talks face another final deadline there is growing concern that the process could well be derailed by escalating fighting in both
Darfur and Upper Nile. Khartoum has also reacted angrily to US attempts to impose a time limit on the negotiations.

In his report to Congress following a visit to the region in February, Acting US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Charles Snyder suggested
that the major outstanding issues could be resolved by March 16, followed by a short break to work out security arrangements and logistics for
implementing a peace accord.

Snyder said the United States has urged the two sides to move forward quickly on an agreement. "Should they prove unable to do so, it may
become necessary - as a last resort - for the United States, in concert with the Troika and IGAD, to table ideas to break the impasse."

Kamal Hassan Bakheet, editor-in-chief of Al-Adhwa daily, said the two sides should reject the US deadline, calling it "flagrant and open intervention in Sudanese affairs". "When and if peace is achieved as a result of pressure and on American conditions, it will not be a fair and just peace, it will be a result of using the stick, it will not be a lasting or fair peace deal."

Sudan's foreign minister Mustafa Osman Ismail warned the government would not rush peace negotiations to meet a US deadline as a hurried deal
could harm the country's interests. "Sudan will not accept an unfair deal," Ismail told the official Sudan Media Centre. "The government will not accept any peace deal that will not be lasting."

He also claimed that: "The government is getting ready for any eventuality", perhaps finally sensing that Washington is losing patience. On March 11, US Congress Africa Subcommittee chairman Ed Royce told a Congressional hearing on Sudan's peace talks:
"The extent of human suffering in Sudan cannot be said enough. The figures are staggering: over two million dead Sudanese in twenty years. Millions more have been displaced. Who knows how many victims of slavery, persecution and atrocities? There is no doubt where the responsibility for this calamity lies. This Congress is on record condemning the National Islamic Front Government of Sudan for genocide. It does not get clearer, or starker, than that."

He went on to say "There is no doubt about who is responsible for the carnage in the western region of Darfur. The Government has been rightly condemned for its attacks on the people of this isolated region, which we'll hear about today. Darfur is an ominous cloud over the peace process. It jeopardizes the negotiations, while underscoring the great complexities of moving ahead."

Roger Winter, assistant administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), described the war in Darfur as "today's most
serious humanitarian crisis on the African continent".

In testimony before Congress, Winter accused the Sudanese government of mounting a "scorched-earth policy" to crush rebellion in Darfur with
large-scale human rights abuses against civilians and the obstruction of humanitarian access to the region. "The extent of the violence and terror
being inflicted on the population is frightening," Winter told the hearing.

"Humanitarian workers have witnessed the looting and burning of villages by the Janjawid militia and have seen that the government police and
military forces in the area do nothing to stop the violence." said Winter, who led a delegation to Darfur in February.

Despite Khartoum's denials that fighting continues in Darfur, aid officials along the border between Chad and Sudan say that tens of thousands of
refugees remain on the move.

"The violence is not over; it's continuing," Ruud Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said during a recent visit to a refugee camp in
Chad. "This is not peace; this is atrocities." He insisted that ongoing peace negotiations between Khartoum and southern rebels should be expanded to include Darfur.

The UN also said that newly displaced people in Darfur reported that aid given by relief agencies had been seized by the Janjawid. Residents of
one village had asked UN staff not to distribute aid to them lest they become a target for attack. The World Food Programme has decided to make more frequent distributions of smaller amounts of food as a means of protecting displaced people from attacks, said WFP spokeswoman, Laura Melo. "Hopefully, with less food in the house, people will be less attractive to looting".

One problem for the mediators is that virtually no one in south Sudan really cares about what happens in Darfur. Stephen Tut, editor of South Sudan Post told MEI: "Southerners are only interested in an independent South, and nothing short of this, They're not interested in the fate of Abyei, Nuba or Darfur. The question of Darfur and the marginalized areas is a political issue that simply doesn't concern public opinion in the South."

He also insists that: "Nobody trusts Khartoum. Everybody believes that the Government is going to try to disrupt the security arrangements in the
run up to the referendum." He says that the continuing "militia" attacks in Upper Nile - now expanded from the oil-producing areas around Bentiu to the Shilluk Kingdom around Malakal (headquarters of former Transport Minister Lam Akol, who finally returned to the SPLA in October.)

"The Government of Sudan is using the militias to undermine the agreements," says Tut. "Khartoum sends them to attack in the South and then says that this is merely southerners fighting each other. It is actually a deliberate policy . They're using the same tactics in Darfur. It's nothing new."

The interesting question is why the SPLA have made such little fuss about this, and there is growing speculation that the southern insurgents are
keeping quiet for the reason that they believe Khartoum incapable of keeping its promises and want to have a deal signed before they claim that the government has broken it. This way they hope to have international support when fighting resumes, which most people appear to think is a near

Vice President Ali Osman Taha returned to the talks from consultations in Khartoum on March 14 without any new suggestions for the deadlocked issue of Abyei, despite mediators' suggestions that the impasse could be resolved by the government recieving 75 percent of the area's future oil revenues.

Khartoum regards attempts to attach Abyei to the South as evidence that the SPLA is not really serious about maintaining the country's unity (which it clearly isn't). Similarly, it refuses to internationalise the problems in the west.

"Darfur has really shaken up this regime," says Ted Dagne, Africa specialist at the US Congressional Research Service. "Where do they stop this
train? If you give in to the political demands of the Darfur rebels, why not to the Beja, why not to the Nuba and a bunch of the other marginalized areas."

It appears that even if a deal is eventually pushed through, it is unlikely to hold. Meanwhile Washington is getting increasingly anxious that it isn't
linked to a failed process. Yet, even if a deal for the south is miraculously achieved, it is going to be difficult for the Bush's administration to explain what it is doing honouring a regime that it accuses of genocide if the fighting continues in Darfur.