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Khartoum looks to Cairo.

War has returned to Southern sudan with the venom of an abandoned lover. The downing of a government aircraft carrying high-level government negotiators during the first week of September, appears to have finally shredded whatever was left of a frayed, seven-month old ceasefire. Conflict between Khartoum and John Garang's SPLA has recommenced in earnest.

All the signs indicate that this time around, unless there is strong intervention, the world's longest ongoing conflict could easily also turn into one of the ugliest civil conflicts of modern times.

This phase of the conflict, (the north-south civil war first started with Sudan's independence in 1956) has lasted ten years. It has been a brutal but blunt war, characterised by long sieges and a sprinkling of spectacular offensives. It has also been largely an invisible war; manifesting itself mainly through the devastation of the southern countryside and the massive displacement of people.

A new twist was added two years ago when two of the rebel army's top commanders, Riak Machar and Lam Akol broke away from the SPLA to form their own movement, the SPLA United based in the Upper Nile area. The most vicious fighting of recent times has been between the rival rebel movements. A pitched battle in April left hundreds dead and thousands displaced from the town of Ayod in the so-called "triangle of hunger."

UNICEF estimates that before the April battle, the population of Ayod was around 20,000 with another 25,000 in the surrounding bush. "Today," the UNICEF report continues, "only 4,500 remain in the town. Aid workers say many more of them are now streaming out to other areas where relief is more accessible, meanwhile foraging for edible wild berries and grasses in the bush".

Since August, Khartoum has mounted a series of bludgeoning bombing raids on "SPLA controlled areas" adding even more refugees to the hundreds of thousands already crowding the border with Uganda.

With agriculture virtually impossible in the war-devasted areas, a famine on the Ethiopian scale is looming ever closer.

The stakes have risen to a dangerously high level for all the combatants: the Khartoum-based government of General Omar el Bashir, the SPLA led by John Garang, and the breakaway rebel force, SPLA United, led by Riak Machar and Lam Akol.

Bashir's cash-strapped regime is coming under increasing international political pressure. The Americans, prompted in all likelihood by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, have declared Sudan a "Terrorist State" for allegedly supporting militant Muslim Fundamentalists.

Loans from the IMF have already been suspended and Sudan is looking down the barrel of punitive international sanctions.

With inflation rising steadily in northern Sudan, the government has been bracing itself against public backlash by clamping down on political and religious organisations and severely censoring the press.

The effect of international sanctions on the beleaguered economy are almost certain to produce the type of public demonstrations that ousted Sudan's last military dictator, Gaafar Nimeiri in 1985.

Ironically, Khartoum has turned to Egypt to lobby the US on its behalf and try and persuade it to drop the "terrorist" tag. The Syrians and Yasser Arafat have been involved in a series of discussions between the Egyptians and the Sudanese and it is very possible that Mubarak might want to extend his peace negotiator role to bring some settlement with Khartoum.

Before this can happen however, the prickly issue of the Halaib Triangle, on the Egyptian-Sudanese border will have to be settled. Both countries claim the town and the surrounding area. Halaib has become important since geological surveys indicated that the area has rich oil-producing potential.

The prospect of oil, this time in Benitiu in the south, continues to exercise a significant influence on the conduct of the war. It has made Khartoum reluctant to wash its hands of the south, encouraged the rebels to continue the war and has attracted the very unwelcome attentions of multinationals who expect to make a killing if they can back the right side to come out on top.

Even after 24 years, the war is still at the heart of all Sudan's problems. The split within the SPLA had altered the character of the conflict considerably and had led, initially to the Abuja 1 and Abuja II conferences and the short-lived ceasefire. fire. Now it appears that the split has given the war a new lease of life by encouraging the government to think that a military victory over John Garang may be possible.

Riak Machar and Lam Akol broke away from the SPLA claiming Garang had become dictatorial and that he had lost his sense of direction. They also implied the SPLA had become mainly a Dinka movement and that their tribe, the Nuer, was being victimed.

Macher and Akol stated their primary task was to arrest the destruction of the south and to create conditions that would allow normal life to resume. They have had several high-level meetings with Khartoum and an important agreement was about to be concluded when the government helicopter came down early in September. Yet another breakaway group, this time from SPLA United, claimed to have shot down the craft. The leader of the group, Timothy Tot Choul has made a statement saying his forces targeted the craft. The government has denied that any firepower was involved and said the plane crashed as a result of technical problems.

The aircraft was carrying a team of high-level government negotiators to the Upper Nile headquarters of Machar and Akol. Their mission had been to conclude an agreement with SPLA United wherein the southern region would be granted a measure of autonomy.

Such an agreement is anathema to John Garang's SPLA. He has already lost considerable territory on the ground including the towns of Torit, Kapoeta, Bor, Yerul and Pibor, apart from Juba which fell to the government last year. His military strategy now is to try and regain the lost towns and defend areas in Western Equatoria where the SPLA is still dominant.

Of even greater importance to his standing as a leader is his political philosophy. The SPLA has long since given up its original aim of "liberating" the whole of Sudan and now, following the failure of the Abuja II talks, Garang is running out of options.

At Abuja, Garang demanded that Sudan become a confederation with southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains forming one state and the north and west forming another.

There would be two heads of state and the two army commanders would form a joint High Command and Chief of Staff.

There would be two ministries of finance and Sharia law would not apply to the south.

Khartoum in the north or Kosti in the south would be designated national capitals and would be administered under secular laws.

Garang wanted the SPLA to rule the southern confederate state for two years after which there would be a referendum on whether the south wanted to remain with the confederation or secede.

This proposal was rejected out of hand by Khartoum which insisted that the only formula acceptable to it was a federation in which the south would be broken into three states and receive a degree of autonomy.

The split within the SPLA had strengthened Khartoum's hand. The implication was that if Garang was not prepared to deal, then Khartoum would talk with Machar and Akol. One result of the warmer relationship between Khartoum and the SPLA United was that UNICEF was allowed to bring in large amounts of food aid to the "Famine Triangle" formed by the towns of Ayod, Kongor and Waat in the Upper Nile region.

In its latest report, UNICEF says that at least 700,000 southerners cannot survive without food aid and that some two million more have been trekking north towards the Uganda border.

Garang now finds himself in a comer. To make a deal with Khartoum now on Khartoum's terms will be seen as a defeat for the largely Dinka dominated SPLA. The SPLA would be severely handicapped in any future negotiations on the shape of the south.

Thus Garang has little choice but to continue fighting. In the meantime he has been trying to get the United Nations involved and has asked for intervention. He now spends a good deal of his time in Nairobi, Kenya. Over recent years, he has acquired the manners and language of the international diplomat. He recently lobbied the Americans and has been trying to use Church organisations to place Sudan on President Clinton's priority agenda.

However, the continuing debacle of the UN's intervention strategy in Somalia is unlikely to win him more than a sympathetic ear. He has also been running out of cash and firearms.

Garang's weakened position appears to have spurred Khartoum's latest heavy bombardment. The generals in the north probably believe that a sustained blitz will finally break Garang.

However, any reading of Sudan's history should warm the generals that the prospects of outright victory, no matter how weakened the rebel forces may have become, are virtually nil. Khartoum cannot sustain the military campaign on its present level for more than a year while Garang can hunker down and continue to plague the government for years to come.

The only practical solution will be a negotiated peace in which Garang has equal say.

Yet, for the southerners, nothing much has changed since John Garang first went to the bush in 1983 during the declining days of Gaafar Nimeiri's rule. He had stated then that his main objective was to liberate the whole of Sudan from Nimeiri's dictatorial grasp. He received generous support from Libya's Muammer Ghaddafi who had sworn to oust Nimeiri; and military and financial support from the former Ethiopian strongman, Col. Haile Mariam Mengistu who was happy to give the rebels safe haven and logistical support to counter Khartoum's support for Eritrea.

The traditional northern political parties, Sadiq el Mahdi's Umma, the Mirghani family's Democratic Unionist Party and even Dr. Hassan Turabi's National Islamic Front supported him against Nimeiri.

Nimeiri was eventually overthrown by a popular uprising in 1985 and a democratically elected coalition government, led by Sadiq el Mahdi, put into place. El Mahdi had set up a special "ministry of peace and unity" and had offered Garang a place on the Council of Ministers. This offer had been rejected by Garang who wanted the controversial Sharia laws, introduced by Nimeiri, to be abrogated and the state of emergency in the south to be lifted first.

Although el Mahdi had promised to suspend the Sharia laws, he found himself in a dilemma. As the head of the Ansar sect, he could not be seen as the man who would reject Islamic law. In addition, he led a coalition government and found it impossible to get any difficult measures passed.

At the same time, the radical National Islamic Front (NIF) under Dr. Hassan el Turabi was gaining supporters from students and parts of the middle-class; any tampering with Sharia at that point would have delivered the government to the NIF.

In hindsight, Garang made two major tactical errors at this point. By rejecting el Mahdi's offer of peace, he confirmed northern suspicions that he wanted nothing short of total power over the whole country and he also weakened El Mahdi's bargaining power within the cabinet.

The continuation of the war not only siphoned away valuable resources from the battered economy, it kept the military at the centre of power.

The second error committed by Garang involved the shooting down of a civilian aircraft and threats to relief convoys bringing food to famine-stricken areas of southern Sudan.

These acts lost Garang a great deal of international sympathy and internally, gave the military the excuse it needed to stage a bloodless coup and seize power from the civilian government.

Since then, the SPLA's fortunes have gone into a marked decline. Ghaddafi stopped all support for the movement once Nimeiri was no longer in power and Mengistu was himself toppled.

The SPLA has recently launched a worldwide fund-raising campaign, asking for contributions to finance education and small-scale enterprises in the south. Many of the SPLA's representatives abroad are now well-educated and articulate. They represent a move away from the militaristic to the civilian. The movement is keen to show that it has sufficient skilled manpower to administer the south effectively.

In the north, Dr. Hassan Turabi's National Islamic Front recently made further gains within the government. Bashir reshuffled his ruling cabinet in July, the fifth time since taking power. By bringing in Ali Osman Mohammed Taha into the cabinet, he has increased the strength of NIF personalities to four.

Taha is widely regarded as Hassan Turabi's second in command. His presence in the cabinet implies that Dr. Turabi who has no official position but is recognised as the de facto leader of the regime intends to rule more directly.

Although all political parties are banned, the major party groupings remain intact. The former Democratic Unionist Party, led by the el Mirghani family, felt the wrath of the regime recently when large tracts of property belonging to the Mirghani family were confiscated.

However Bashir's government is probably now under greater internal and external pressure than ever before. Inflation, added to the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees outside Khartoum and the resumption of the fighting in the south is trying public pressure to the limit.

Neighbourhood Committees which were introduced by the regime to encourage people to spy on each other are intensely detested. The clamp down on the media, the muzzling of discussions among groups and the general air of fear and intimidation initiated by the regime are becoming intolerable. The northern Sudanese have always enjoyed a large measure of freedom of expression, even during Nimeiri's era, and are find the new repressions impossible to deal with.

Over the last three weeks, several religious occasions have been turned into political platforms, and Sadiq el Mahdi hardly bothered to veil his criticisms of the government during a recent Maulid celebration.

It appears that the old political parties are girding themselves for another tilt against the military regime. If the economic situation worsens, it seems likely that the parties will carry the public with them.

In the meanwhile, it is imperative that the Organisation of African Unity, at the very least, should begin an intensive mediation effort. Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni seems to be the ideal man to broker peace talks as both sides appear to have considerable confidence in him.

It will be in his own country's interest to bring the fresh spate of fighting to an end as the hundreds of thousands of refugees crowding the Ugandan border can only add to that country's own economic ills.
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Title Annotation:Sudan turns to Washington for help through Egypt
Author:Versi, Anver
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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