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To the bitter end.

Another round of peace talks between the Khartoum government and the southern Sudanese rebels has come and gone. After nine years of civil war, peace is still not in sight. Anver Versi reports that the southerners' dream of securing an equal place with the Muslin north is fading fast.

THE FAILURE of the latest round of talks (held in Abuja, Nigeria) between the Sudanese government and southern rebel movements has surprised no-one. Over the nine years, peace talks between the two warring sides have become something of a ritual interlude during which nothing of real substance is ever decided.

The Abuja talks, however, acquired a greater significance because the stakes have become higher. The authoritarian military regime of Brigadier General Omar Hassan Bashir is seen as increasingly out of step with the trend towards democratisation now gathering pace throughout the rest of Africa. On the other side, Colonel John Garang's rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has suffered a series a military setbacks and a damaging split within its ranks in August 1991.

The rebels' aims have become even more blurred than before. Garang has always claimed that he is fighting for the freedom of all Sudanese, but this ambition is now well beyond his means. His southern rivals, Lam Akol and Riek Machar, who head the breakaway "Nassir" faction, want complete independence for the south.

The division is also ethnic in nature Garang's supporters (now known as the "Torit" faction) are chiefly Dinka, while Akol and Machar draw their backing from the Nuer tribesmen. Each side has taken to killing civilians of the rival group.

It was remarkable, therefore, that the two rebel groups managed to present a common front at Abuja, and even more remarkable that for the first time negotiations ended with a joint communique signed by both the Sudanese government and the SPLA calling for a peaceful settlement.

Since the fall of the Ethiopian dictator Haile Mengistu Mariam in May 1991, Garang's supply of Russian weapons has dried up and he has lost safe havens across the frontier. Support from neighbouring countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya is at best marginal.

On the ground, the was is going inexorably in the government's favour. Since March, government forces have moved southwards in a four-pronged offensive which has resulted in relieving Juba from several years of siege. The SPLA has lost many of its towns, been cut off from its last supply route through Lokichoggio in northern Kenya and abandonned its headquarters at Torit.

Add to this a severe famine affecting large tracts of southern Sudan and an increasingly unfriendly population, and a degree of compromise by both the exhausted warring parties in Abuja might be possible. Instead, after the usual polite discussion, it was back to the business of fighting as usual. Perhaps the most significant outcome of the talks was the government's success in excluding any mention of self-determination for the south from the final communique. Khartoum is still playing tough.

A much more dramatic event occurred several thousand miles away in Canada. Dr Hassan Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF) was at Ottawa airport on his way to deliver a lecture in Montreal when a bungled attempt was made on his life.

Extraordinary for a seemingly reasonable exponent of his fundamentalist views, Turabi excites passionate hostility and support in equal measures. His official functions are almost non-existent but there is no denying that he is the principal ideologue, even the eminence grise, of the regime.

Turabi was educated at the Sorbonne and over the years has gained a reputation as a formidable intellectual with an incisive legal mind. He brought all these qualities to bear when he delivered a lecture on nationhood in London a few weeks before he was attacked.

However, his thesis, even with all its academic annotations, was bound to send shivers of apprehension through all those opposed to the imposition of Islamic sharia law throughout Sudan. These include many northerners who feel that Turabi and his NIF have hijacked government from its more traditional practitioners.

The north, if Turabi's lecture is anything to go by, would like to see nothing more than a complete severance of the troublesome south so that the north could "take its rightful place" within the Islamic Umma. The lecture brought into sharp focus the fact that the civil war is principally a religious war waged against both the southerners and their supporters, including Western church organisations which are determined to prevent the encroachment of Islam further south.

The north, with its ancient connections to Egypt and the Islamic world beyond, its sophisticated social and political orgnisation and its highly developed commerce was always in a better position to benefit from colonisation.

The south, largely inaccessible except via waterways, was the "missionary territory". The missions were so determined to guard against Islamic influence that they banned all Arab traders, teachers or settlers from setting foot in "their territory".

One result was that while the north prospered, the south languished. At independence in 1956, it was the traditional northern parties which dominated both politics and the economy. This resulted almost inevitably in the first civil war, the Anya Nya rebellion, which for 16 years devastated the south and drained the northern economy.

President Gaafar Nimeiri brought the war to an end in 1972 by establishing a federal system of government and recognising the south's distinct cultural identity. But as the economy deteriorated in the 1980s and Muslim fundamentalists grew in strength, Nimeiri sought to secure the friendship of the oil-rich Gulf states and appease the Islamicists by introducing Islamic sharia law (the so-called "September laws" of 1983) at the instigation of Turabi and the NIF.

This provoked a fresh outbreak of rebellion in the south. Colonel John Garang was dispatched by Nimeiri to quell an army mutiny in the south. Instead, the US-trained Garang took to the bush and initiated his own guerrilla campaign, forming the SPLA as the armed wing of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement.

Weakened by economic unrest, endemic corruption and an extravagantly costly was, the Nimeiri regime was overthrown in 1985. Elections the following year brought Sadiq el Mahdi to power, but Garang refused to have anything to do with elections or the new government. His attitude was determined by the momentum of the war and the apparent success of his forces. Garang saw himself fighting not only for southern interests but for Sudan as a whole.

Garang's tactics centred on laying seige to southern towns occupied by government garrisons and then bombarding them. The aim was to demonstrate that the north had only limited authority. While the strategy brought considerable success, it also wrought widespread devastation and a total disruption of the economic cycle. Famine, largely caused by the war, gripped the south, and hundreds of thousands of southerners were displaced and fled either to Uganda or to refugee camps around Khartoum.

In the growing chaos SPLA troops, made up largely of Dinka tribesmen, were accused of looting, raping and massacring other southern tribes. Several tribal delegations appealed to Khartoum for arms to defend themselves against the SPLA. This in turn set up a cyle of inter-ethnic conflict in the south, a civil war within the civil war. The most recent manifestation of this is the split in the SPLA's own ranks along tribal lines.

El Mahdi, however, was reluctant to use the full fore of the Sudanese army and believed that a peaceful solution could be found. This offended the sensibilities of hardliners and Islamic fundamentalists in the north who suspected El Mahdi was prepared to sell out to the south.

Turabi's NIF refused to endorse an agreement which called for the suspension of sharia law in Sudan as a prelude to negotiations for an overall peace settlement. In June 1989, a group of army officers, led by Omar Bashir, overthrew the government and placed El Mahdi in detention. The coup was widely regarded as being masterminded by Turabi.

In 1991, the government felt strong enough to abolish sharia law in the south (where it hardly applied anyway) and set up a federal system of government. Now without Ethiopian support, losing ground militarily and faced with growing indiscipline in his own ranks, Garang is in no position to drive a hard bargain.

The pressures on Garang, the growing hostility of the southern population to the rebel army and the assertion by the "Nassir" camp breakaway faction that "Garang is no more than an agent for vested interest" have further weakened the SPLA. Garang's objective of an open Sudanese society, tolerating the rights and religious beliefs of the southerners, is practically unattainable.

Even if Garang were able to secure religious autonomy, the inhabitants of the south would have to reconcile themselves to being disadvantaged citizens of an Islamic state, excluded from influence or important jobs in the north. The only alternative is complete independence, and if that is the option decided upon by Khartoum or the secessionist rebels he is unlikely to survive as southern leader.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; the civil war in Sudan
Author:Versi, Anver
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Autonomy, federation, independence.
Next Article:You can't beat the price.

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