Home > Archives > 01/02 - 2005 > Sudan between war and peace
from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

Sudan between war and peace

After more than twenty years of conflict the North and the South have signed a peace agreement. An important step forward that is in danger of proving futile because of the conflict in Darfur

by Davide Malacaria

Above and on page 26, refugees from Darfur in Chad

Above and on page 26, refugees from Darfur in Chad

One long conflict coming to an end, another spreading: these are crucial months for Sudan, months in which the largest African state, tormented by more than twenty years of civil war betwen North and South, is caught between the possibility of maybe finding peace or of plummeting deeper into barbarism. In short: on 9 January in Nairobi, Kenya, the leader of the SPLA rebels (Sudan Peoples Liberation Army), John Garang, and the vice-minister from Khartoum, Ali Osman Taha, signed an agreement putting an end to a conflict that between 1983 and today has resulted in around two million dead and six million refugees. An agreement long time pursued by the international community, in particular by the UN and the African Union which, after years of pressure, have forced the warring parties to sit down at the table and come to a compromise. In substance the Nairobi agreement sanctions the division of Sudan into two different geopolitical areas, North and South, that are to have two different governments, two different armies, while remaining part of the same nation. This agreement is to last for a transitional period of six years after which the South is to decide whether or not to separate from the North. But the crucial point over which there was real infighting were the revenues from oil, in which the South is rich, that have now been shared fifty/fifty between North and South. A small gleam of hope but nothing yet to cheer about. The peace still has to set root in the country both because the agreement must stand up to the spin-offs from the fragile African geopolitical situation, and because in the west of the country, in the area of Darfur, a more recent but not less bloody conflict than that between North and South has broken out, in a spiral of tension that makes the compromise achieved in Nairobi more precarious. A precariousness quite visible to those who have seen the horrors of this war close to and who, for that very reason, look at the rapprochement between North and South with a mixture of relief and caution.
«The North and the South have begun negotiations, reached agreement on other occasions… but this time it looks different», explains Father Fernando Colombo, a Combonian, 25 years in Africa and for the last three seconded to the diocese of Rumbek, in the heart of the South Sudan, as auxiliary to the local bishop: «People have greeted the agreement between North and South with great joy and hope. Of course one will have to see whether it is respected. But the new fact is that the international community seems seriously intent on pushing the peace process: a novelty that allows one to hope and gives a certain guarantee». Father Renato Kizito Sesana also welcomed the signing of the peace agreement with relief. Father Kizito, another Combonian, is deeply acquainted with Sudan: for years, during the war, he slipped into the country to reach the local people, at times in adventurous manner, since he is persona non grata both to the government of the North and to the leader of the rebels of the South. He has written a fine book (see box) about his journeys and unexpected meetings with the Sudanese people. Over the telephone he didn’t hide his doubts: «Unfortunately this agreement has various unclear aspects: it’s ponderous, loaded with a series of terms that make it hazy and difficult to apply. Nor can one well see how the international community will be able to check on the keeping of all the terms. In short the structure of the agreement reveals that the peace was imposed from the outside, rather than desired by those who signed it. Certainly freedom of worship has been accorded but no process of internal democratization, either in the North or South, is sketched out. In fact if in the North an authoritarian regime is in power, it’s also true that in the South John Garang has crushed all internal dissent and the other liberation movements irrelevant to his plans have been sidelined». In short, the Nairobi agreement is more a starting point than an end result, but in any case it is a beginning. A good beginning.

A war going on for more than twenty years
Political analysts, international observers and the media have swapped between them an image whereby the conflict between North and South Sudan is a war between the Arab and Moslem North and the Animist and Christian South. An image that fails to catch a much more complex and multifaceted situation. Father Kizito explains: «In Sudan there has been no war of religion: enough to remember that at the start of the conflict, twenty-two years ago, the liberation movements in the South were Marxist-Leninism in inspiration. Things began to change toward the mid ’nineties when the American right discovered the existence of Sudan and the guerrillas were ready to exploit the occasion, managing to pass themselves off as a Christian movement and so get political and economic help. An error into which, in good faith, some churchmen in the South also fell. The confusion has led at times to a reluctance to speak out about the abuses of the guerrillas towards the people of the South, but above all it has made it easier for the guerrillas to pass themselves off as a Christian movement. Certain documents of the SPLA even suggest defining the Church as the “spiritual wing” of the movement… all things that were better avoided. Of course, religious differences have had their part in the conflict, but it’s misleading to speak of a war of religion. In reality the war has been about the rights of the people of the South».
And for that matter, all one has to do to see that it was not a war of religion is to look at what happened in the Nuba mountains, where the military repression was particularly savage towards the civilian population and the armed resistance in a holy war that put Christian and Moslems on the same level. Stefano Squarcina, European Union assistant secretary for relations with the Third world, recently in Sudan on behalf of the EU, offers a very interesting geopolitical sketch: «In reality many international observers agree that there is a plan to put the Sudanese government under pressure. It’s certainly undeniable that the government is authoritarian. As it’s undeniable that international terrorism found backing in Sudan; enough to remember that Osama Bin Laden found shelter here for years. A situation that could not be ignored. And, as happened with Iraq, there are two opposing lines of thought about Sudan: the diplomatic one and the tough one, for simplicity’s sake let’s say the one of discussion favored by the European Union and that of the American hawks. Among the latter the idea seems to be to dismember the present state into three more homogeneous and hence more controllable areas: the North, the South and the East. Which also throws light on the support given by some American circles to the guerrilla movements in the South and East, where there are other liberation movements (the Free lion movement and the Beja congress), in particular in the states of Kassala and Gedaref. But one has to be careful: destabilizing Sudan is very dangerous, there’s the risk the whole area will blow up. Nor can dialogue with the Sudanese regime be excluded a priori since, like all regimes, it’s a mixture of different elements and, along with the toughies, there are reasonable people with whom one can establish dialogue». A view, this latter, that has its confirmation in what took place in Nairobi.
In actual fact all this international pressure on the African state might have other aims. Sudan is rich in oil, chiefly located in the southern regions, the battleground between guerrillas and government. In the past the black gold was mainly the prerogative of American companies. From some years now, since Sudan became one of the oil-exporting countries, Sudanese production is mostly administered by a Chinese-Indonesian consortium. As Squarcina explains: «There are those who see a competition-clash between the US and China beginning in the world, one that is going to sharpen in coming years; thus support for the guerrillas in Sudan could be put down to action by certain American circles to keep Chinese oil supplies under control… but aside from the possible interpretations, one thing is certain: the guerrillas of the South could not have resisted for more than twenty years without international support».
The signing of the peace agreement between North

The signing of the peace agreement between North

After the South, Darfur
Leaving aside geopolitical analysis, the clash between army and guerrillas in the South is, for now, a thing of the past. Good news for the martyred local populations, forced daily for years to dodge the government bombing and the oppressions of the rebels (among other things, the SPLA press-ganged boy-soldiers). And, as Father Colombo says, embryonic commercial activity is slowly returning to Rumbek, which is to be the future capital of the South. And the re-entry of the refugees is expected with a certain anxiety, millions of people whom the war has scattered over the rest of the country and of Africa. Father Colombo says he is worried: many of them, he explains, have lived for years in areas where the AIDS’ virus is very widespread and he is afraid that a real AIDS emergency will soon occur in South Sudan. In the short term, he explains, the problem will be that of transforming a ruling class accustomed to fighting into a true and proper political class. And, above all, of averting clashes among the various factions in the pacified South. Monsignor Antonio Menegazzo, apostolic administrator of El Obeid, also has this worry: «The peace has been signed by the leaders, but among the civilian population there are still hatreds, grudges, divisions. We are afraid that disorder may break out. The Church is working to bring calm, to reconcile, but the danger is there». Among other things, this is the moment to decide who is to govern in South Sudan. John Garang, on the basis of the agreement, will fly to Khartoum in a year’s time, where he will become vice-president of the country. Many fear that conflict may break out in the South for control of the local government.
But the real danger comes from the West. In Darfur, a region as large as France and bordering with Chad, a bloody conflict burst out two years ago that has spiralled day after day, making every attempt at easing the situation more complicated. For years gangs of marauders known as the Janjaweed have been oppressing the local population, which is Moslem, clashing with the guerrillas of the SLAM (“Sudan liberation movement-army”, linked to the SPLA) who accuse the Khartoum government of supporting the Janjaweed marauders. An accusation always rejected by the government. In early 2003 this low-intensity conflict exploded and the SLAM was flanked by other rebel movement, the JEM (“Justice and equality movement”). The latter is linked to Hassan al Turabi, the ideologue of the Sudanese brand of Islamic fundamentalism, the strong man of the regime, who in recent years has been wrestling with the Khartoum authorities, to the point of being arrested for conspiracy. It’s a strange conflict in Darfur: on the one hand the governments forces, accused of indiscriminately bombing villages and of supporting gangs of bloodthirsty marauders, on the other an odd alliance among rebels linked to one of the mentors of Islamic fundamentalism and guerrillas who enjoy the support of US hawks… The victims of the conflict are the local people: so far the dead number 70,000, killed in the clashes or dead of privation, and the refugees are around two million. It was hoped that the agreement between North and South might have some fall-out in Darfur. At the signing of the agreement, Colin Powell, who has worked so hard for the peace, exhorted the government and the leader of the SPLA to stem the violence in the region. But, at the moment, that has not happened. Indeed, there are those who fear that, disengaged on its southern front, the Khartoum government will increase pressure in the West. Monsignor Menegazzo expresses this preoccupation: Darfur, he says, belongs to the immense diocese entrusted to him. In the first half of December Monsignor Menegazzo spent twenty days in the tormented region, going all over. His account is dramatic: «Travelling is hazardous, there’s always the danger of being ambushed. The government continues to pursue a hard line and, in spite of the cease-fire agreement, repression continues. However now at least the international organizations can supply the refugees camps, but the situation of these people, forced to live in groups of eight, ten persons in tents in a zone where at night the temperature can go below zero, remains very dour. Not to mention the evacuees not lodged in the refugee camps but in areas where the government doesn’t authorize humanitarian aid... We as Church are trying to help these poor people also, doubly stricken by the tragedy».
The situation in Darfur is now being monitored by the UN. In early January a commission completed its enquiry. Out of it came a document that gives an account of the many atrocities committed during the conflict. A charge sheet that went round the world even before being made public. There were people who expected the commission to show that genocide is being committed in Darfur by the Khartoum government, an accusation that would have involved immediate action against the regime. But the UN envoys indicated those responsible for the ascertained atrocity without involving the government as a whole. Now the document is being assessed by the United Nations, where other ways of bringing pressure and of intervening are being looked at. In the meantime people will continue to die in Darfur. Unless that mood of reason and realism that led to the Nairobi agreement manages, in the end, to impose itself over the clamor of weapons.

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