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The Sudan peace process: hoping for the best.

The ongoing Sudan peace talks offer the best opportunity to date to end the longest running war in Africa. Since it began in 1983, the civil war has led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, and the displacement of 4.5 million others. After the events of September 11, the international community showed a new commitment to finding an end to the Sudanese conflict, and increased the level of diplomatic involvement in the peace process.

The Sudanese peace process, which has been held under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD -- a regional body for the Horn of Africa) since 1994, has since June had international observers from the US, UK, Norway, and Italy sitting in on the negotiations for the first time. The presence of the international observers, in addition to a strong new Kenyan-led mediation team, and the perceived pressure on Khartoum due to their historic links to Osama bin Laden and AI-Qaeda have all combined to allow for significant progress to be made at the negotiating table.

In July 2002, the Machakos Protocol was signed between the government of Sudan and the main southern rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The Protocol provides a partial agreement on the issues of religion and state, and self-determination for the people of the south. The Protocol allows for Islamic Law (Sharia) to continue serving as a basis for legislation for the Muslim north, while the largely Christian and Animist south will be exempt from Sharia-based legislation. The Protocol also sets out a six-and-a-half-year interim period, following the signing of a final agreement, after which the people of the south will exercise their right to self-determination through a referendum, in which they will choose between maintaining unity with the north, or the creation of an independent country in the south.

The second phase of talks, which began in mid-August, ended abruptly in early September after the SPLA captured Torit, a key government-held garrison town in the south, The government delegation immediately withdrew from negotiations, and government troops undertook a massive mobilization to recapture Torit, finally succeeding on 8 October. This period was also marked by a nine-day blanket government flight ban over the Equatoria region (where Torit is found), that effectively cut off all external humanitarian assistance to the people of southern Sudan from the UN-administered relief centre in the northern Kenyan town of Lokichoggio. It is estimated that nearly 3 million civilians were affected by the flight ban.

Following the government recapture of Torit and the lifting of the flight ban, the parties resumed negotiations, and signed a limited cessation of hostilities agreement which has been extended through 31 March 2003, The parties resumed their discussions on the issues of power sharing and wealth sharing, which had begun during the August session but had been cut short by the withdrawal of the government delegation.

Although there are still areas of disagreement between the two parties, it is already possible to surmise what the structure of a peaceful Sudan will look like, at least for the duration of the interim period. The parties have agreed to a type of federal framework, in which there will be a shared national capital with an upper and lower legislature operating at the national level, and state-level legislatures throughout the country. In addition, a southern regional government will essentially act as an intermediary between the national government and the southern states. There is no equivalent northern entity that will encompass the northern states, so what emerges is a unique variation on the federal model, which SPLA politicians hope will provide protection from continued northern manipulation of southern politics and for the process of southern unification.

On 18 November 2002 the parties ended the latest round of talks with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding on the principles of power sharing that will apply during the interim period. Despite the progress made thus far and the commitment of the international community, many pitfalls remain. Several remaining issues have the potential to derail the process, specifically the status of the national capital with regard to Sharia law, the status of the other marginalized areas of the north, and final security arrangements. On the first, the SPLA are demanding that the national capital, if it remains in Khartoum, be exempt from Sharia law to allow the non-Muslim southerners living in Khartoum to feel at home in their newly united capital. However, the government, ruled by the National Islamic Front, has rejected the removal of Sharia law from Khartoum thus far.

The "other marginalized areas" of the north -- Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile -- represent areas within the traditional north that at different points since the war began in 1983 have taken up arms against the government and joined the SPLA. The SPLA is demanding that they be included in any comprehensive peace deal, and that the people of these areas be given the choice of joining either the north or the south. The government rejects this, arguing that IGAD's mandate does not extend beyond the traditional south, as defined at the time of independence in 1956, and that therefore these areas cannot be discussed within the current framework.

Perhaps the most difficult issue of all will be the final security arrangements and the establishment of a comprehensive ceasefire agreement. At the heart of the discussion will be the continued presence of government troops in the south. The SPLA sees their operational control of the south during the interim period as the ultimate guarantee that the government will implement their half of the agreement. Conversely, the government argues that if the country is to be unified, Sudanese national troops should be allowed to remain throughout the south, as it will be part of the unified Sudan.

Although these difficult issues pose challenges for the negotiations taking place in Machakos, Kenya, there is reason for optimism. Never before have the parties come this far, although they have been negotiating since the present government came to power in a 1989 coup. If the high level of international interest and involvement is maintained, we might soon see the end of one of the world's longest and bloodiest wars.

David Mozersky was a Ploughshares intern under the Canadian government's Youth International Internship Program, working with the Africa Peace Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. He is actively following the Sudan peace process.
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Author:Mozersky, David
Publication:Ploughshares Monitor
Date:Dec 22, 2002
Words:1067
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