War Footing

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on November 27, 2007

(by Priya Abraham, WorldMag.com) – In 1990, as civil war flamed between Sudan’s North and South, Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir met with a UN official to discuss 400,000 Ethiopian refugees camped in Sudan. The UN official agreed that Bashir needed help caring for them but said an equal number of Bashir’s southern Sudanese, also refugees, were languishing in Ethiopia. “They’re not my people,” Bashir retorted.

It’s a conversation Roger Winter, U.S. former special representative to Sudan, remembers well. Bashir, a Sudanese Arab, apparently views his southern African countrymen with the same disdain today. On Nov. 17 the president re-activated his war-time militia during a rally south of Khartoum called to celebrate the 18th anniversary of his Popular Defense Force (PDF). In his speech Bashir referred to the PDF as his “mujahideen” and “the legitimate son of the people” and ordered it to “open its camps and mobilize troops and get prepared for any eventuality.”

Bashir has refused to implement key provisions establishing borders between northern and southern states and dividing oil wealth accordingly, despite a peace agreement reached five years ago that calls for sharing power with the South. In his belligerent remarks at the rally, Bashir criticized members of an international commission who recently concluded that his government bears “primary responsibility” for failing to uphold those provisions. “They should dilute and drink it,” he said of the report.

The growing stand-off between North and South over the the hard-won Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, has been stewing for months, prompting the South to withdraw its ministers in October in protest over the unity government’s failure to fulfill the agreement. The move prompted world leaders to remember that Sudan’s problems extend beyond Darfur, where Western advocacy has been focused almost exclusively. Without peace in the South, experts note, no peace will come to conflict-battered Darfur.

“The CPA is moving like a drunken person, struggling going forward,” said southern Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit on a November trip to Washington. “But it is still holding. It has not fallen and it will not fall.”

If the peace deal is to stay upright, however, it will need heavy U.S. involvement, the kind that brokered the peace to begin with. But the United States has not learned to “walk and chew gum at the same time” when it comes to Sudan, said Winter. Focus on Darfur, the site of the latest violence committed by Khartoum and its militias, has come at the expense of long-standing North-South problems.

“You need to be concerned about the CPA if you care about Darfur,” Winter told WORLD. “If all you’re trying to do is feed and protect people in Darfur, what you really do is leave the source of the problem intact.”

The source, Winter says unequivocally, is Bashir’s Arab-Islamist government, which in multiple incarnations has monopolized the country’s power in Khartoum in the North while for decades shutting out the South’s predominantly Christian population, along with Muslims to the west in Darfur and tribal areas to the east.

The United States has sent mixed signals leading up to the brewing crisis. In early October, Andrew Natsios, the special U.S. envoy for Sudan, offered a five-point proposal of “confidence-building measures” supposed to relieve the impasse over disputed territories. He distributed it to Kiir, Bashir, and some European countries.

In effect, the plan would have aborted the CPA. One provision was to include Saudi Arabia and China–Khartoum’s effective war accomplice—in talks to resolve the land disputes and border issues. Kiir categorically rejected it, reportedly writing “death of CPA” in the proposal’s margin.

The Bush administration ignored the proposal, and it fizzled, but it was a sign that Washington may not be engaged on Sudan as it was before the war in Iraq. “For the last two years, the assumption was things were going OK—not perfect, but OK,” said Ted Dagne, Africa specialist for the Congressional Research Service. “What [Kiir’s] visit underscored is that the CPA is on life support, and your legacy is at risk, and immediate intervention is necessary.”

Khartoum waged war against the oil-rich South for more than two decades, unleashing similar militia attacks, killings, and rape that are now employed in Darfur. The southern conflict killed 2.5 million people, making it at least as deadly as the conflict in Darfur. In January 2005, however, with steep pressure from the United States and other Western powers, Khartoum signed the CPA with the South. The agreement is effectively the South’s constitution—its sole working agreement after decades of war.

The South’s main rebel group, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has since held positions in the central government with Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). In 2011, the South will decide in a referendum if it wants to become independent from the North.

That looks increasingly likely as frustration mounts with Khartoum. Nationwide elections are due in mid-2009, but Bashir has delayed releasing funds to count voters and to prepare for the polls. “If there are free and fair elections, most people believe the NCP won’t win in Darfur, and certainly not in the South . . . in effect, it’s regime change,” Winter said.

Though southerners are now entitled to half the oil revenues produced in the South, they have no idea if the $800 million they receive is the full half—Khartoum does not divulge its total receipts. Some 15,000 northern troops who should have withdrawn are still stationed in the South, many around the oil fields.

The friction point that could spark war is Abyei, an oil-rich region that straddles both North and South. Peace negotiators left it to a U.S.-run boundary commission to draw Abyei’s borders, stipulating that its final report would be binding. When its findings favored the South, however, Bashir ignored the commission. At the same Nov. 17 rally, he said he would not budge “an inch” on Abyei.

Meanwhile, Kiir, the South’s leader, returned from the United States to cheering crowds in Juba, southern Sudan’s capital. He immediately responded to Bashir’s threats with his own line in the sand: Khartoum must resolve the last points of the CPA by Jan. 9, the three-year anniversary of its signing, he said. The SPLM “will not and will never ever take anybody to war again in the Sudan,” he said, but “we reserve the right to self-defense.” With Bashir still treating southerners as his enemies, they cannot afford to be caught off guard.

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, Dec. 1, 2007 issue.  Reprinted here November 29th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.