Staying the Course in Sudan
Staying the Course in Sudan
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
New U.S. Envoy on Ending Sudan’s War
Op-Ed / Africa 4 minutes

Staying the Course in Sudan

The death of John Garang in a helicopter crash on the Sudan-Uganda border recently sent shock- waves throughout Sudan and the region. His passing occurred during a pivotal time in Sudan’s history. After signing a peace agreement in January to end Africa’s longest civil war, the longtime leader of the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement was sworn in as the first vice-president in the new government of national unity just three weeks before the crash.

His death came as his movement was beginning to undertake a dramatic restructuring and while implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement is in its delicate opening stage.

The loss of Garang creates an opening for spoilers on all sides who will seek to exploit any signs of instability to undermine peace efforts. The key determinant of successful implementation of the agreement is the ability of Garang’s movement to maintain its fragile unity in the absence of the only leader it has known in its 21-year history.

The signing of the agreement at the beginning of this year was a triumph for the regional body for the Horn of Africa, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Through three years of gruelling negotiations, chief mediator Lt-Gen Lazaro K Sumbeiywo kept the parties on track and the endgame in focus. Other external actors were crucial. The troika of the US, Britain, and Norway engaged directly with the negotiating parties and maintained constant pressure on Garang’s movement and the ruling National Congress Party to reach a deal.

Seven months after the formal signing, prospects for peace remain shaky. The primary obstacles to implementation are: a lack of political will in the north and a lack of capacity in the south.

In the north, hardline elements in the ruling clique in Khartoum remain opposed to the National Congress Party for political, ideological, and economic reasons. In the eyes of many Islamists, Garang and his calls for a secular “new Sudan” represented the largest threat to sharia law in Sudan. The recently ratified interim constitution and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement’s pending entrance into the government of national unity confirmed their fears that the application of sharia law would be severely diluted in the north, and completely revoked in the south.

Further, power and wealth-sharing arrangements pose a threat to elites in Khartoum, who have reaped huge profits from decades of hoarding Sudan’s assets, including its oil reserves.

Yet the National Congress Party knows that elections would remove the regime from power. Taken at face value, Khartoum’s decision to sit at the negotiating table and ultimately to sign the peace agreement was a strategic move: it consolidated its power through political partnership with Garang’s movement while deflecting mounting international pressure over Khartoum’s murderous policies in Darfur. As in Darfur, the government used ethnically based proxy militias to wreak havoc during its war with Garang’s movement. These militias poked gaping holes in Garang’s vision of a south united against the north. The negotiations called for demobilisation of the militias, but this has not begun. The National Congress Party is simply not ready to abandon military options in the south, and the continued use of militias is the most immediate threat to peace.

In the south, the lack of capacity in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to form an effective and inclusive administrative body that can meet the targets set forth by the agreement has always posed a challenge. Garang’s death leaves the movement in a temporary limbo; he left the movement with few strong civilian structures, and it must move forward on implementation of the agreement in an uncertain environment.

Regardless, the former rebels must make fundamental changes in the way they operate as they prepare to take up the lion’s share of positions in the government of southern Sudan. The lack of trained administrators sticks out, and the movement’s ability to fulfil the multitude of tasks it faces under the agreement will be severely tested.

Despite the challenges from both sides, increased international commitment to the process and a commitment by the movement’s leadership to vigorously pursue Garang’s legacy can keep the process on track. Initial signs from the movement are encouraging. The decision to name Salva Kiir Mayardit to replace Garang and Dr Riek Machar to serve as his deputy sent an immediate message that the process would stay on track. Further, Riek is a member of the Nuer, the largest tribe in the south after the Dinka, and elevating him to the number two position in the Dinka-dominated movement is an olive branch to armed Nuer militia who remain suspicious of the movement following violent internecine clashes in the mid-1990s.

The movement’s first steps without its leader have been in the right direction, and the international community needs to keep pushing both sides to meet its commitments.

The violence that broke out in Khartoum and some towns in the south following the announcement of Garang’s death could easily have spiralled out of control, and some evidence points to political manipulation by hardliners in Khartoum to incite northerners to attack southerners living among them. Key external actors must make it clear to Khartoum that any manipulation of the situation to promote the continuation of violence, including through support to the renegade southern militias, will be strongly opposed.

Security in southern Sudan remains a priority, and the United Nations mission to Sudan must accelerate the deployment of peacekeepers to meet their deadlines. These forces should immediately focus on possible sources of violence and ensure that they are not being exploited by the spoilers in Khartoum.

Donors must increase their presence in southern Sudan, especially in Rumbek and Juba, to work closely with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to build the institutional capacity of the government of southern Sudan. The primary focus should be on the establishment of transparent budgetary mechanisms for the management and disbursal of oil revenues, and on efforts to demobilise the oilfield militias. Additionally, donor nations must ensure that all promised reconstruction assistance is disbursed in a rapid and transparent way to begin to demonstrate the tangible benefits of a peace dividend in the south.

Sudan has been one of Africa’s great tragedies since the independence movements of the 1960s, and with the continuing horror story of Darfur, the problems continue. Garang’s legacy, the peace agreement, represents a vision of the future for millions of destitute Sudanese. Garang’s death is undoubtedly a blow, and increased international engagement and vigilance is vital to keeping his dream of a just peace alive.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
Former Research and Advocacy Manager

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