Love Thy Neighbor: Regional Intervention in Sudan’s Civil War
Love Thy Neighbor: Regional Intervention in Sudan’s Civil War
Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Op-Ed / Africa 9 minutes

Love Thy Neighbor: Regional Intervention in Sudan’s Civil War

The historic peace agreement currently being completed between the government of Sudan and the country's main rebel group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), will mark the end of a long and bloody chapter of Sudanese history. Negotiated by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the resolution of the conflict under regional supervision should bring a fitting conclusion to a war that was consistently supported and fuelled by the interventions of the same neighboring states that are today pushing for peace.

The SPLA's revolt against the central government of President Gaafar Nimeiri began in 1983. Those leading the revolt opposed the government's abandonment of the 1972 Addis Ababa peace agreement, which ended the first civil war, the government's attempt to move forward on oil and water projects with little southern Sudanese input and benefit, Nimeiri's manipulation of the South and southern interests for political gain, and Nimeiri's decision to implement Islamic shari'a laws throughout Sudan in September 1983. The SPLA, led by Colonel John Garang, initially espoused a Socialist ideology and was embraced by Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who shared the same beliefs. Ethiopia housed numerous SPLA training camps, which Mengistu funded and supported with Soviet assistance, encouraging the SPLA to set up their base of operations in Addis Ababa.

Despite Nimeiri's 1985 overthrow and the 1986 election of a democratic government in Khartoum, the civil war continued in Sudan. Several attempts at negotiating a settlement took place under the democratic government of Sadiq al Mahdi without success. In the spring of 1989, a significant build-up of internal pressure to resolve the war prompted al Mahdi to agree to a peace plan predicated on the freezing of the Islamic shari'd laws. On june 30, 1989, the day before the bill that would have frozen the shari'a laws was to be passed, the National Islamic Front (NIF) led a bloodless coup, stealing power from al Mahdi and postponing any hope for a peace agreement.

Still supported by the interventions of Mengistu's regime, the SPLA embarked on a string of successful military campaigns in the South, capturing larger tracts of territory from the government, and threatening to expel Khartoum altogether from southern Sudan. In 1991, two events changed the direction of the war. The first was the overthrow of Mengistu in Addis Ababa, which ended any further interventions on behalf of the SPLA and triggered an SPLA exodus from Ethiopia across the border the southern Sudan and Kenya. The second was a major split in the SPLA along broadly ethnic lines that halved the rebel forces. Khartoum capitalized on the split, eventually negotiating separate peace agreements with the key leaders of the breakaway factions, the Nuer leader Dr. Riak Machar, and the Shilluk leader Dr. Lam Akol.

The string of SPLA military victories in the South was slowly reversed, after SPLA lost Mengista as its main benefactor. The SPLA was now also fighting against its breakaway factions, which were increasingly being supplied by Khartoum. By 1994, Garang's SPLA had nearly been pushed out of the South altogether, holding on to a scattering of small garrisons throughout the South and a few key outposts along the Ugandan and Kenyan borders, thanks largely to the support of the Ugandan President and Garang's former classmate, Ybweri Museveni.

IGADD Intervenes

As Ugandan support for the SPlA grew, so did regional opposition to the Islamist government in Khartoum, fuelled by the regime's support for opposition elements in countries throughout the region. The government of Sudan, the SPLA, and Akol's SPLA-United faction engaged in a series of peace talks in Abuja, Nigeria, under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity (UAU) during 1992 and 1993. After failing to reach an agreement in Abuja, the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) stepped in to broker a new round of peace talks between the government and the SPLA at the annual IGADD summit in late 1993. Originally formed in the mid-1980's, IGADD was a regional body made up of Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, designed to focus on drought emergency issues throughout the region. After incorporating Eritrea into the fold following its independence in 1993, IGADD reinvented itself as a body for regional security and development and formed a subcommittee made up of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Kenya to broker to Sudanese peace talks. In 1996, IGADD officially shortened its name to the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and signaled a shift in its mandate towards conflict prevention and resolution. Opposite: Soldiers of the Sudan People's Liberation Army guard the front lines of the "liberated zone" of East Sudan, an inhospitable desert area, in 1999. Above: Sudanese children stand by a tent in a refugee camp near Khartoum in 1998.

The diplomatic efforts of the IGAD neighbors to end the war in Sudan were clearly displayed with the submission of the 1994 Declaration of Principles (DoP). Following the second round of IGAD talks in May 1994, the IGAD mediators put forward the DoP, outlining what they felt was the basis for a sustainable resolution of the civil war. The DoP states that democracy, secularism, and fair and equal development throughout the country are prerequisites for an end to the civil war. The DoP also recognizes and endorses the right of the South to self-determination, and seems to indicate, in somewhat ambiguous and unclear language, that the South should be granted a referendum on self-determination should the government fail to fulfill certain conditions, including secularization and democratization. The SPLA embraced the DoP, while the government rejected it, refusing to continue negotiations on the basis of the DoP. After two more failed rounds in 1994, the process stalled until 1997.

The government's return to the IGAD process and its eventual acceptance of the DoP stemmed from a marked regional shift away from Khartoum in favor of the SPIA and other northern opposition groups. Continued Ugandan and growing Ethiopian military support and interventions for the SPLA allowed the rebels to once again reverse the military situation in the South and parts of the center of the country, leaving Khartoum more vulnerable. Eritrean and Egyptian interventions on behalf of the northern umbrella opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), of which the SPLA is a member, also saw a new military front open against the government in the Red Sea Hills of Eastern Sudan, along the Eritrean border. Against a growing tide of regional hostility, Khartoum accepted the DoP as a basis for negotiations, and returned to the IGAD table to once again discuss with the SPLA. Yet regional meddling in the Horn is a two-way street, and Khartoum increased its support for opponents of its IGAD neighbors, supporting the northern Uganda rebel movement, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), since the mid-1990's, as well as various Ethiopian and Eritrean opposition groups, when convenient. The boldest of these efforts was Khartoum's direct support for an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995.

Little progress was achieved in the IGAD talks from 1997 to 2002, in part because regional politics were constantly shifting. Although the SPLA's original vision was focused around the concept of a "New Sudan," based on democracy, secularism, and equal rights for all, the bloody civil war had led to a strong movement for an independent South, and a Southern self-determination referendum had become a core demand of the SPLA by the 1997 talks. Egypt had reacted negatively to the call for an independent South, as it would create a new state along the White Nile, threaten Egypt's water supply, and potentially lead to the Balkanization of the region. In 1999, Egypt and Libya intervened and sponsored an alternative peace initiative, which made up for the lack of inclusiveness in the IGAD process by calling for the NDA's participation, but made no mention of the South's right to self-determination as a principle for a resolution of the conflict.

Intervention Reborn

In the latter stages of the administration of US President Bill Clinton, an effort began between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway to resuscitate the IGAD peace initiative. The intention was to build a strong negotiating partnership between IGAD and these external actors. The administration of US President George W. Bush has maintained this policy course. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a new opportunity presented itself for external actors to push for a negotiated settlement. This was due to Khartoum's desire not to be targeted in the global war on terror, given the regime's history of support to Islamic terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Regionally, IGAD furthered negotiations for peace with the appointment of a new Kenyan Special Envoy, General Lazaro Sumbeiywo, in November 2001. Under General Sumbeiywo's chairmanship, the Ambassadors of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda to Kenya formed a new team of regional mediators that brought IGAD its first diplomatic victory in Sudan since taking over the process in 1994. On July 20, 2002, one month into the new round of talks, the parties signed the Machakos Protocol, a breakthrough framework agreement that has provided the basis for subsequent talks. The Machakos Protocol gave each party a critical victory: it gave the SPLA a self-determination referendum for the South following a six-and-a-half-year interim period, while allowing the government to maintain Islamic shari'a law in the North. The Protocol states that the unity of the country shall be the prioritized outcome, and that arrangements for the interim period consequently should be designed to make voluntary unity attractive to southerners.

The process has continued successfully, with a final peace deal seemingly around the corner, despite the continued intervention of Sudan's neighbors and Khartoum in each other's business. An agreement signed between the Sudanese and Ugandan governments in 2003 allowed the Ugandan military to pursue the LRA inside southern Sudan for the first time, despite continued evidence of Khartoum's support to the LRA rebels. An NDA/SPLA military offensive in Eastern Sudan in early October 2002 was clandestinely supported by Eritrea, leading directly to the formation of a coalition between Khartoum, Ethiopia, and deinen to isolate Eritrea in the region. A conflict in the western part of the country exploded in early 2003, with allegations by Khartoum of Eritrean support. Although less interventionist than during the 1990s, the region remains divided and neighbors remain willing to undermine each other's stability. However, the peace process has moved inexorably forward, pushed by the competent leadership of Kenyan General Lazaro Sumbeiywo and the pressure and incentives of the external parties.

A peace agreement in Sudan would go a long way towards normalizing the relations between Sudan and its neighbors. The September 2003 agreement calls for the bulk of the government force to withdraw from the South within two and a half years after an agreement is signed, with the remaining force forming joint or integrated units with the SPLA. A peace agreement would eventually sever Khartoum's supply corridors to the LRA and the porous connections between various Ethiopian opposition groups based in the South. Although the SPLA has been the recipient of regional support, they do not have a history of supporting neighboring rebel groups.

Ironically, just as one Sudanese civil war is set to end, another is beginning in Western Sudan with regional intervention. The new conflict in the Darfur region of Western Sudan began in February 2003 with the formation of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and was followed quickly by the justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Both movements are fighting against the government for reasons similar to the SPLA-underdevelopment, under-representation, and political and economic marginalisation. Although an entirely Muslim region, the war in Darfur has clear ethnie undertones. The SLA and JEM are largely comprised of "African" communities, while the opposing government and regional militias, which are armed by the government, are "Arab" and are undertaking a scorched-earth campaign against communities perceived to support the rebels. Chad has become increasingly entwined in the Darfur conflict, with Libya and Eritrea rumored to be involved as well. The Zaghawa ethnic group, an "African" group that makes up much of the leadership and rank and file of the both SLA and JEM, is also the tribe of Chadian President Idriss Deby. Chad's role in Darfur's current conflict remains uncertain. Having negotiated a ceasefire between the government and the SLA in September 2003, subsequent talks have collapsed, with the SLA accusing the Chadian government of being biased in favor of Khartoum.

In conclusion, the various conflicts in Sudan are intimately connected to the interventions of its neighbors, for better or for worse. Regional interventionism fuelled the 20-year civil war between Khartoum and the SPLA. However, despite continuing differences, the IGAD countries, with the support of the international community, have finally succeeded in crafting and supporting what looks to be at the time of writing a successful peace process. The continued overlapping interests and conflicts between the neighbors will prove a challenge for years to come. But a Sudan at peace with itself will provide a first step to resolving some of the broader regional differences. Despite this trend, the new conflict in Darfur is already dragging a new section of the county into civil war, with Sudan's western neighbors at risk of repeating the experience of the IGAD countries over the past 20 years.


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

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