SUDAN: Can the northern elite allow peace to flourish?

8 March 2006

Norm Dixon

January 9 marked the first anniversary of the historic “comprehensive peace agreement” (CPA), which ended the devastating 21-year war in the south between the central government in Khartoum and the impoverished people of southern Sudan. Despite the enthusiasm of the anniversary celebrations in the ramshackle southern capital of Juba, there are growing concerns that Sudan’s powerful northern elite is not committed to peace and may again plunge the south into war.

The CPA came about after years of negotiations, which dragged on inconclusively for more than a decade until the administration of US President George Bush came to office in 2001. After 9/11, Bush dangled the carrot of lifting sanctions imposed by the previous US administration in return for Khartoum’s cooperation with Washington’s phoney “war on terror” and a negotiated settlement to the unwinnable southern war. Washington’s sudden interest in securing “stability” in the region was also in large part motivated by the desire for access to the extensive oil reserves discovered in the war-torn south.

Since 1983, the terrible conflict inflicted on the mainly non-Arab, non-Muslim south by Khartoum’s Arab-chauvinist, Islamist rulers caused the deaths of more than 2 million people, and more than 4 million were driven from their homes.

Autonomy promised

Under the CPA, the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum (renamed the National Congress Party — NCP), which seized power in a 1989 military coup, and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) agreed to form a government of national unity. It was also agreed that a newly created autonomous South Sudan province, in which sharia law would no longer apply, would share the revenue from southern Sudan’s lucrative oilfields with the central government on a 50-50 basis.

There was great optimism in the south when, on July 9, veteran SPLM leader John Garang officially became Sudan’s national vice-president and also president of the South Sudan province. The NIF/NCP’s Omar al Bashir, who has been Sudan’s ruler since the 1989 coup, retained the national presidency.

Garang’s swearing in opened the “interim period” under the CPA, which should culminate in 2011 with the people of the south voting in a referendum on independence or unity. National elections are to be held in 2009.

The peace deal faced its first test when Garang was killed suddenly on July 30 in a helicopter crash. The belief among many southerners and other marginalised and oppressed Sudanese was that Garang had been assassinated by the NIF/NCP in order to block the peace deal.

Riots erupted in the outlying suburbs of Khartoum — home to millions of people displaced during decades of government attacks and ethnic cleansing in the south, as well as in the east and west. Three days later more than 130 people were dead, thousands more injured, and hundreds of buildings associated with the ruling elite were smouldering ruins.

The crisis was defused when Bashir on August 4 appointed Garang’s SPLM deputy, Salva Kiir Mayardit, to the national first vice-presidency and the premiership of the southern province.

Serious breaches

Yet the initial optimism is beginning to wane. There is growing criticism by the SPLM of the NIF/NCP’s slow implementation of the peace agreement, and more recently, reports of serious breaches of the CPA by Khartoum.

It was not until September 22 that President Bashir finally formed the government of national unity’s cabinet. As a result, the creation of the key institutions of the autonomous south was delayed. Kiir only announced the cabinet of the South Sudan government on October 23. South Sudan’s constitution came into effect on December 5.

There are also growing doubts that the Bashir regime is prepared to genuinely share power. The NIF/NCP remains firmly in control of the key ministries of energy and mining, the interior, defence, finance and justice. The SPLM ministers, like new foreign minister Lam Akol, are surrounded by advisors and bureaucrats who are NIF/NCP operatives.

Until the 2009 national elections, the unelected NIF/NCP regime is guaranteed a 52% majority of seats in the national parliament (in the last free election, held in 1986, the NIF gained less than 10% of the vote). The SPLM has 28% of the seats, while most other opposition parties and marginalised ethnic groups remain unrepresented.

In early February, Bashir attempted to push several decrees, known as provisional orders, through the stacked parliament. Such orders cannot be amended by parliament and need a 50% majority to pass. The provisional orders would have given immunity from criminal prosecution to armed forces officers and allowed police to open fire on civilians at their own discretion. “Those provisional orders are violating the constitution and the peace agreement”, Yasir Arman, head of the SPLM’s parliamentary delegation, told Reuters on February 2.

However, the NIF/NCP relented on February 15 and withdrew the orders. Instead they will be presented to parliament as bills that can be amended.

On January 28, Kiir warned that the regime’s “extremely slow” implementation of the CPA would result in the people of southern Sudan voting for separation in the referendum. Kiir also implied that he had little power. He told Reuters: “I believe I am part of the government [but] whether I have influence or not, that is another thing.”

Kiir also accused Khartoum of shortchanging the south of the oil revenues it is entitled to under the CPA by understating oil production. The NIF/NCP oil minister claims production is running at 330,000 barrels per day, whereas the SPLM calculates it to be up to 450,000. The Sudan Tribune reported on February 1 that the South Sudan government received US$702 million in oil revenues in 2005, far short of the $1.5 billion that the SPLM claims it is entitled to.

The southern government desperately needs funds to begin rehabilitating shattered roads, sanitation, schools, health clinics, telecommunications and government buildings in Juba. There are virtually no functioning basic services outside the towns. Rebecca Dale of the International Rescue Committee aid agency told the BBC on January 9 that 25% of children in the south die before they reach the age of five, and there is only one doctor for every 100,000 people.

The region must also be readied to accommodate the return of refugees. According to David Greasley, the UN deputy humanitarian coordinator for southern Sudan, about 500,000 people returned in 2005 and some 700,000 are expected to return in 2006.

This massive challenge is not helped by the fact that much of the $4.5 billion pledged last April by Western governments to help rebuild the south is yet to materialise.

The most serious breaches of the CPA by the NIF/NCP regime relate to its failure to reduce its military presence as required. It has yet to fully withdraw its military from the south and it has not disarmed state-sponsored “militia” in the key oil-rich southern province of Upper Nile.

In eastern Sudan, Khartoum has deployed a large army force complete with tanks and warplanes in the lands of the brutally oppressed non-Arab Beja peoples, whose Beja Congress liberation movement is supported by a contingent of 1500 SPLM fighters. The SPLM is refusing to withdraw its forces there until the regime does likewise. There are growing fears that Khartoum is preparing to launch another “Darfur” in the east.

Khartoum’s vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region — which has led to the deaths of more than 400,000 people and displaced 2 million others since 2003 — continues unabated. Despite its gravity, the Darfur crisis is not addressed in the “comprehensive” peace agreement.

On February 21, Kiir accused Khartoum of continuing to support the Uganda-based bandits of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which is notorious for its appalling atrocities against villagers in southern Sudan and northern Uganda. During the civil war, Khartoum utilised the LRA as a proxy to destabilise the south and disrupt support from neighbouring Uganda.

How the northern elite rules

If peace is ever to be achieved in southern Sudan (not to mention in Darfur, in eastern Sudan and other parts of the country) it will require Sudan’s northern ruling class to give up its monopoly on economic, political and military power. Its record does not inspire optimism.

Since independence in 1956, a small ruling class dominated by the groups near the confluence of the two Niles (the awlad al bahar — people of the river) have steadfastly maintained a stranglehold over Sudan. Under the British, economic development, education and health services were concentrated in Khartoum and this rich agricultural region. The colonial power groomed the more educated and literate awlad al bahar elite for power. The regions to the south, west and east — populated by mainly non-Arab and/or non-Muslim peoples — were starved of economic and social development and brutally kept in check by the British military.

After independence, the awlad al bahar-dominated ruling class entrenched this neglect and justified it by ethnic and cultural discrimination against the mostly non-Arab outlying regions. Educated northerners took over the local administrative posts in the garrison towns in these areas; Arabic became the official language, which excluded from power the few literate locals. Resources and taxes were violently extracted from these regions to fuel the northern economy.

Under the guise of imposing an ideologically defined “Arab culture” on non-Arabs and enforcing strict interpretation of Islam upon Muslim and non-Muslim alike, every move by the peoples of the oppressed outlying regions for political and civil rights and a fair share of national wealth has been brutally crushed by the Sudanese military and armed state-sponsored gangs.

The “scorched earth” military tactics, mass rape and ethnic cleansing that has so terribly ravaged Darfur in recent years is a more public repetition of Khartoum’s war methods that have been perfected against the people of the south between 1983 and 2004, and in Bahr el Ghazal in 1986-88, in the Nuba Mountains in 1992-95 and in the Upper Nile in 1998-2003.

From Green Left Weekly, March 8, 2006.
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From: International News, Green Left Weekly issue #659 8 March 2006.