Brinksmanship in the Sudan Peace Process
Brinksmanship in the Sudan Peace Process
After Six Months of War, Sudan is Disintegrating
After Six Months of War, Sudan is Disintegrating
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Brinksmanship in the Sudan Peace Process

Sudan's peace talks are back from the brink after facing the biggest threat since the revitalised peace process began in June 2002. The danger came from renewed fighting initiated by government of Sudan forces and government-allied Nuer militias, against the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in the oilfields of southern Sudan. These attacks were in total violation of an October 2002 cessation of hostilities agreement and critically threatened all the progress made so far. But, through the able leadership of the Kenyan-led mediation team, and diligent work by the international observer countries (US, UK, Norway, Italy), the process seems to have moved away from the edge of a very shaky cliff. What this entire episode highlights is the critical importance of the international observer countries and the East African mediation to the success or failure of the process.

Two agreements marked the end of the fighting. The first was signed on 4 February to strengthen the obviously ineffective October cessation of hostilities agreement. The new agreement calls for a verification and monitoring team to oversee the cease fire; the return of all territory captured since October; and pledges by both sides to report all troop positions and troop movements. As well, the government has agreed not to extend any road construction deeper into the oilfields, which was one of the main objectives of its latest offensive.

A second important step forward came on 6 February, with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the government and SPLA on a number of outstanding points on power and wealth sharing. Each side made substantial compromises, thanks to technical advice and expertise provided by the World Bank and IMF, although many of the most difficult questions remain unresolved.

But this should not be where the issues are laid to rest. These latest battles in the oilfield areas of Western Upper Nile were a continuation of what has been a long-term strategy of the Khartoum regime - to clear the population out of the oil areas to facilitate oil industry development. The government has not hesitated to use ground forces, sometimes supported by helicopter gunships. The government has also formed alliances with local Nuer militias, which, for the right price, have helped the government - and its foreign oil company partners - to displace their own kin, while also protecting oil infrastructure. The use of militias provides the government with a blanket of plausible deniability and helps to keep the south divided, and beaten. Oil revenues have also been vital to expanding and modernising the government's military arsenal against the SPLA.

That the government would choose to employ these tactics again, in direct contradiction of the October 2002 cessation of hostilities agreement is distressing. Equally distressing is the damage that the recent fighting may have done to efforts to reconcile the SPLA with the Nuer militias. Although the militias are fighting the government's battle, they are in part motivated by their exclusion from the peace process and long-standing differences with the SPLA. Their concerns must be given greater priority by the mediation team and the international observers. And without serious efforts by the SPLA leadership to reconcile with the disaffected southern groups that have embraced Khartoum, the long-term prospects for a peaceful Sudan are slim.

Despite these setbacks, the Sudan peace process may have in fact emerged stronger as a result of its recent ordeal. A tougher cessation of hostilities agreement, with a viable monitoring and verification mechanism based on the current US-led Civilian Monitoring Protection Team (CPMT), is a reason for optimism. Whereas the parties, specifically the SPLA, avoided a strong monitoring mechanism in the October discussions, both sides have now accepted it. What's left is beginning to look more like a real cease-fire agreement. Tangible progress on the wealth sharing agenda, and the resolution of some of the less contentious issues of power sharing, put the peace process in good shape for the resumption of talks at the beginning of March.

The international community was initially slow to act when fighting broke out in December but eventually coordinated and condemned the government offensive. Maintaining this coordinated pressure on both parties is the best way to ensure that a resolution will be found soon to the longest running war in Africa.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
Former Program Director, Horn of Africa

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