Africa`s dilemmas in the Sudan

Sudan’s civil war is being fought on a ‘fault line’ between Arabic and Islamic states to the north and black Africa - with greater Christian influence - to the south. Now that superpower rivalries are out of the way, regional influences are reasserting themselves. African solutions are being promoted as the best alternatives to more destruction and disintegration of the state.

The World Today
6 minute READ

The post-Cold War international environment has had a discernable impact on Africa. The determining factor has been the strategic disengagement of the super powers from the continent. This has had both negative and positive implications.

The negative aspect is that it has resulted in the marginalisation of Africa. Except for compelling humanitarian causes, the continent is considered of little or no concern to the major powers of the industrialised world. The positive aspect is that African problems are being approached in their proper national and regional contexts, and not as elements in global confrontation.

This also means that responsibility for addressing the problems is being reapportioned accordingly with Africans assuming the primary role and the international community extending a helping hand only as needed and appropriate.

States are increasingly prepared to act unilaterally or collaboratively in response to regional threats emanating from crises in neighbouring countries. Intervention may be motivated by national security interest or by concern over the plight of kindred groups and political allies across state borders. Ethnic groups which have suffered discrimination under the old regimes, and are therefore strongly motivated toward changing the system, become effective tools for bringing about the desired transformation.

Although colonial borders have for the most part maintained peace and stability among states, they have provided breeding grounds for internal conflicts that are spreading through regions and challenging the inviolability of state boundaries.

Nowhere is the challenge more acute than in the Sudan, a country torn apart by the very factors that make it a microcosm of Africa and a strategic bridge between the continent and the Middle East. The civil war that has raged intermittently for over four decades has largely been between successive governments in the Arab-Muslim north and liberation movements in the southern part of the country, which is more indigenously African, with a modern leadership that is predominantly Christian.

The pervasive impact the war and its ideological dimensions are having over the region, and the manner in which the neighbouring countries are becoming involved, make the case of the Sudan refle ctive of the emerging trend toward Africans assuming responsibility for Africa’s problems.

Genesis of the conflict

Sudan’s civil war first broke out in 1955, a few months before independence on January 1, 1956. It was halted in 1972 by a peace agreement that granted the south regional autonomy, but resumed in 1983 as a result of the unilateral abrogation of the agreement by the government.

During the first phase of the war, the declared objective of the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement was secession from the north, although it settled in 1972 for regional autonomy. With the resumption of hostilities in 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and its military wing, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLM/SPLA), postulated the liberation of the whole country from Arab-Islamic domination. The declared goal is to create a ‘New Sudan’ that is free from any discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, culture or gender. This has provoked a reaction from the north that has resulted in a radical Arab-Islamic fundamentalist agenda.

On June 30, 1989, the Islamic revivalists, as the fundamentalists prefer to be known, in alliance with elements in the army seized power through a military coup in the name of the Revolution for National Salvation that has since ruled the country with an iron hand. This has in turn provoked a broad-based opposition that has now extended the war into the north.

Masses of mediators

Throughout the civil war, there have been mediation attempts by states, inter-Governmental agencies, non-Governmental organisations, and international personalities. The 1955 mutiny was ended by the intervention of the outgoing British Governor General, whom the southern rebels trusted more than their national rulers.

The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement was the outcome of a sustained process of mediation that involved Emperor Haile Sellasie of Ethiopia, the World Council of Churches, and the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), with humanitarian and development support from the international community – the United Nations and donors.

The second phase of the war also elicited efforts by such prominent personalities as General Olusegun Obasanjo, former Head of State of Nigeria, former President Jimmy Carter of the United States, General Ibrahim Babangida, Head of State of Nigeria and Chairman of the OAU, church leaders and statesmen from several countries.

The general tendency has been for the parties to welcome mediated talks more as a public relations exercise than a genuine means to a settlement. No-one wants to be perceived as not interested in peace and so, whenever a third party suggests mediation, the initial response has nearly always been positive. But whenever talks start, it soon becomes obvious that not only are the positions far apart, but, even more significantly, that there is no basis for compromise. The parties remain firmly committed to positions that are extremely difficult to bridge.

A correlative tendency is that the mediators’ objective has largely been to bring the parties together to talk without getting deeply involved in the issues dividing them. The general assumption seems to be that once they begin to talk, they will identify the issues, clarify their positions, and eventually compromise. In reality, the mediators soon discover that much of the effort goes into talks about talks. Once the key issues are raised, the commitments on both sides emerge as irreconcilable.

New perspective

In September 1993, the member states of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Desertification (IGADD) – an organisation that includes Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda and subsequently renamed the InterGovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) – undertook to mediate an end to Sudan’s civil war.

The premise of the IGAD Mediation Committee, which is chaired by Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi, was that the conflict was not merely internal, since its repercussions affected neighbouring countries. Rather than be satisfied with bringing the parties together, they sought to dig deeper into the problem, its root causes, and ways in which it might substantively and procedurally be addressed.

The Declaration of Principles (DOP), which the mediators developed and presented in May 1994, tried to reconcile the competing perspectives in the conflict. Without prejudging the ultimate outcome, the DOP upheld the right of self-determination for the south, but advocated giving national unity priority and recommended an interim period during which conditions for unity would be created and tested.

Among these conditions would be separation of religion and the state, a system of Government based on multi-party democracy, respect for fundamental rights, and a considerable measure of decentralisation through a loose federation or a confederacy. After the interim period, the south would be asked to decide by referendum whether to continue the unity framework or opt for secession.

Islamic mission

The SPLM/SPLA accepted the DOP while the Government initially resisted it, but was eventually persuaded to accept the principles as a basis for discussions. The most divisive issues turned out to be the proposed separation between religion and the state and the right of self-determination.

The SPLM/SPLA insisted on secularism and the right of self-determination. The Government’s position was that secularism was out of the question. For them, commitment to Shari’a was a religious and moral obligation to an Islamic mission in Africa, which colonialism had interrupted. They also saw self-determination as a ploy for partitioning the country and therefore unacceptable.

At the time of the talks, the Government had a clear advantage in the battlefield, having recaptured most of the towns and garrisons previously under the control of the SPLM/SPLA. Their unwillingness to compromise was therefore attributable to overconfidence in the probability of military victory.

In the aftermath of that dramatic display of intransigence, President Moi convened a meeting of the Heads of State of the Mediation Committee, together with the Sudanese President and the leader of the SPLM/SPLA on January 4, 1995, in the hope of rescuing the talks. President al-Bashir of the Sudan reaffirmed the position of his government and Dr John Garang, the leader of the SPLM/SPLA, also restated the movement’s position. The IGAD initiative came to a dead end.

However, considering that the conflict had major implications for the region as a whole, especially as the regime seemed ideologically committed to the promotion of political Islam in neighbouring countries, the mediators decided to remain engaged and develop a strategy appropriate to the circumstances.

Their approach appeared to be two-fold: to support the military position of the SPLM/SPLA and the northern opposition groups to impress upon the government that it was incapable of winning the war; and to develop a policy framework for resolving the conflict and establishing a system more in tune with the region. Naturally, the strategy had to be carried out with great discretion and diplomatic finesse.

Terror charges

It was also important to win international support for the sub-regional approach. This was made considerably easier by the Sudan Government’s alleged involvement with international terrorism, in particular the June 1995 assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt while attending an OAU Summit in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopian investigation linked the Government with the plot. Three of the would-be assassins were alleged to have returned to Sudan from which they had entered Ethiopia. When Sudan failed to extradite them to Ethiopia to stand trial, the matter was brought to the attention of the OAU and later to the UN Security Council, both of which adopted resolutions demanding that Sudan hand them over. Sudan’s failure to do so exacerbated the crisis with the international community in general and the countries of the Horn in particular.

The efforts of the ‘Front Line Countries’ soon began to pay off in unifying the opposition and enhancing its military capacity. In June 1994, northern opposition parties and the SPLM/SPLA formed an umbrella association known as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) whose goal was the overthrow of the National Islamic Front (NIF) military regime by any means, including armed struggle.

Dr Garang was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all NDA forces. In June 1995 NDA parties agreed on a plan to end the war in the south, once the Khartoum regime had been overthrown.

The plan grants the south the right of self-determination after an interim period, during which all efforts would be exerted toward making unity appeal to the south. This would include separating religion from politics, decentralising power, and providing the disadvantaged regions with remedial development.

The weakness of this argument is that it is predicated on the overthrow of the Government, by no means a certainty, at least in the short run. However, the opposition is reversing the military situation. By last year, the joint NDA forces had captured a chain of towns and garrisons along the Ethiopian-Eritrean borders. Accusing Ethiopia and Eritrea of involvement in the war on the side of the SPLA, Sudan declared a holy war – jihad – against Ethiopia (though not Eritrea), made an unsuccessful attempt to involve the UN Security Council, and, in desperation, called on Arab and Muslim countries to help in repelling what it characterised as a conspiracy against an ArabMuslim country by an African-Christian alliance.

A few Arab countries pledged support, but the overwhelming majority reacted cautiously. Egypt dismissed the allegations of foreign involvement as unfounded.

In an attempt to undercut the NDA peace package for the south and undermine the SPLM/SPLA, the Government entered into an agreement on April 21, 1997 with splinter factions of the movement which had paradoxically called for southern secession from the north, an objective the Government vehemently opposed.

While the agreement concedes the right of self-determination through a referendum after an interim period, it is predicated on terms that are likely to consolidate the Islamic agenda within the unity framework.

The futility of the agreement is that it is between parties that had already entered into a military alliance against the SPLM/SPLA. It is therefore more of a war pact than a peace agreement.

Although Sudan’s domestic scene remains immensely complex and the future difficult to predict, the involvement of a new regional leadership, committed to the principles of racial and ethnic equality means that the equations of power in the Sudan can no longer continue to be dominated by the Arab-Islamic north. Black Africa is fully on the side of the south on this issue. From this premise, several questions pose themselves.

Given the Islamic orientation of the current regime and the contrasting vision from the south, can the government of the National Islamic Front be expected to concede enough of its religious agenda to satisfy the southern demands without undermining its own integrity among its Muslim followers? The answer is clearly negative. Similarly, is it possible for the Government and the SPLM/SPLA to reach an agreement on a framework of national unity? Again, the answer is predictably negative.

Time for change

What this means is that a radical change is called for in Khartoum. Of course, the opposition wants such a change to be the overthrow of the regime. Whether it can achieve that militarily is an open question. The balance of power in the war has alternated considerably over the years and the capture of towns and garrisons, however many, is not necessarily a decisive factor.

On the other hand, the regime cannot sustain its present policies in the long run. A more viable option would be for the Government to negotiate with the parties on the basis of the combined DOP/NDA frameworks. This means that the system would be fundamentally altered, but the NIF would participate as a political party on an equal footing with the other parties.

Although the Sudanese will need to work out a solution for their country, they will continue to need the support of the region and the international community. The unequivocal message must be that the scenarios of the present regime are neither working nor workable.

While nation-building efforts aimed at making constructive use of religious and cultural values of a people are commendable, imposing one religion and one culture on a heterogeneous society of multiple religions, cultures, ethnicities and races is not only morally unacceptable, but also impractical. Prudence dictates that the Sudanese and all those that wish them well must look for alternatives. Otherwise, the Sudan is headed for more destruction and possible disintegration as a country.