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Exhaustion concentrates the mind.

THERE IS JUST A glimmer of hope that Sudan's endemic civil war could be in sight of a settlement. After so much bloodshed and so many failures to reach agreement, it would be foolish to overstate the case. The only reason for optimism is that both the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are exhausted by the conflict.

Peace talks between the two sides at Abuja in Nigeria reached a significant agreement (on paper, that is) about separating the legal systems of the Muslim north and the largely Christian south. The leader of the avowedly Islamic fundamentalist government team, Ali el Hag Mohammed, declared that "the issue of state and religion has not been finally resolved, but we have agreed that Islamic law will only be applicable to the north while the south is exempt."

That is a major concession to the SPLA which has been fighting since 1983 against what it sees as the domination of the black Christian and animist south by the Arabised and Muslim north. It is not yet enough, apparently, because the SPLA wants to see non-Muslim southerners (the majority of them refugees from the war) in and around Khartoum also exempted from Islamic law. Similar talks in Abuja last year led to nothing (The Middle East, July 1992). But it is significant progress all the same.

The government is anxious for a settlement because it is friendless abroad and bankrupt, Militarily, it has been getting the better of the SPLA, but the cost of superiority has reportedly escalated from $50m in 1991 to $150m last year.

For its part, the SPLA is beset with internal divisions. The mainstream group, headed by Colonel John Garang, is prepared to settle for autonomy within Sudan. Breakaway factions, which have organised themselves as the self-styled SPLA United, are holding out for independence.

The rivalry is more tribal than ideological, however. Garang derives his support from the Dinka people; his chief opponent, Riak Machar, is a Nuer. The two tribes have a history of fighting between themselves, limited in the past largely to cattle-raiding. Today, with food scarce and Kalashnikovs in abundance, they are engaged in total war.

In March, Garang told the government he was ordering a unilateral ceasefire to prepare the way for the Abuja talks. He also has his hands full fighting the SPLA United factions. Khartoum seems to have seized the opportunity since, insecure itself, it is always aimed at talking to a weakened SPLA.

The tentative agreement reached at Abuja could therefore be the first step towards a settlement along the line of Garang's proposal for a Sudanese confederacy in place of the fragmented unitary state. But at the very least, the government and the SPLA have arrived at an agenda of topics to discuss.

Both sides are still manoeuvring, however. The government has held separate talks with Garang's rivals. Last month, it claimed that the SPLA was behind an attempted military coup in Khartoum. At the same time, Garang has met representatives of Sudan's opposition Umma party, whose leader, Sadiq al Mahdi, has recently been placed under house arrest in Khartoum.

The initiative is now up to the government. It must decide whether it really wants to settle matters with the south through a federal agreement as proposed by Garang -- or whether it would prefer to be rid of the south altogether.

Allowing secession to take its course is an option which many observers have long considered Khartoum's ultimate goal if it can make no more satisfactory arrangements. The government's biggest problem is how to justify the huge cost of the war in material and human terms if the solution is simply to give up the struggle.

Letting the south go its own way would allow the embattled Khartoum regime to concentrate on building a Muslim country in the north. The price would be giving up access to the vital -- as yet unexploited -- oil reserves the south. Is the government up to making a decision?
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Title Annotation:possible peaceful settlement of the civil war in Sudan
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Previous Article:Atrocity becomes a way of life.
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