Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Report 102 / Africa 4 minutes

Sudan: Saving Peace in the East

The low-intensity conflict between the government and the Eastern Front risks becoming a major new war with disastrous humanitarian consequences if the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) proceeds with its scheduled withdrawal from eastern Sudan this month.

Executive Summary

The low-intensity conflict between the government and the Eastern Front risks becoming a major new war with disastrous humanitarian consequences if the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) proceeds with its scheduled withdrawal from eastern Sudan this month. Competition to fill the security vacuum could spark urban unrest, reprisals and worse. Yet, there is also a peace opportunity. As a partner in the new Government of National Unity and with troops in the East, the SPLM is in a position to broker a deal. Like Darfur and the South, the East suffers from marginalisation and underdevelopment: legitimate claims for more power and wealth sharing in a federal arrangement should be addressed within the framework of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) the government and SPLM signed in 2005. But the SPLM needs to push for a provisional ceasefire and use its influence in Khartoum to get serious negotiations. International partners, under UN leadership, should facilitate the process.

The CPA has brought no peace dividend to either eastern Sudan or the Darfur region of western Sudan. It dealt with the political and economic marginalisation of the South but ignored the similar structural imbalance in the rest of the country. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the international community are now bearing the consequences of excluding other participants from the long negotiations that were conducted at Naivasha in Kenya. After hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions in Darfur, the international community is trying to salvage a peace in negotiations conducted under African Union sponsorship at Abuja. At the same time, however, it may be in the process of repeating its mistake by largely ignoring another powder keg.

Under the terms of the CPA, the SPLM is obliged to withdraw from eastern Sudan by 9 January 2006, though fortuitously it is months behind schedule. Its former partner, the Eastern Front, will seek to take over but the NCP is unlikely to permit it to exercise uncontested control. Its efforts to recover territory along the Eritrean border will be all the more dangerous because Eritrea and Ethiopia are on the verge of renewing hostilities. Asmara wants to ensure at least Sudanese neutrality and could be willing to trade away its support for the Eastern Front. If fighting does break out again between the two large neighbours, eastern Sudan, whose humanitarian situation is in some ways worse than Darfur’s, would face a disastrous flood of refugees.

Credible negotiations are needed immediately to address the simmering conflict in eastern Sudan but these are being delayed because the Government of National Unity, with its SPLM contingent, and the international community are concentrating almost exclusively on Darfur. The urgent requirement is to put an end to the piecemeal approach to peacemaking. The East needs to be incorporated into a national process that builds on the CPA and includes Darfur. One forum may not be practical to resolve Sudan’s regional wars but a common framework is needed to give continuity and consistency to disparate negotiations which have been strung out over the last four years.

The CPA provides the conceptual and substantive framework to solve Sudan’s regional wars, in the East as well as Darfur. It is based on the premise that the South’s long marginalisation by the centre (Khartoum) and its underdevelopment led to the civil war that lasted 21 years. To rectify those underlying causes, the NCP and the SPLM agreed to power sharing commensurate with the South’s population as well as significant wealth sharing between the central government and the government of South Sudan. Since Khartoum and the Eastern Front alike say they recognise that the same underlying causes have contributed to conflict in the East (as well as Darfur and elsewhere in the North), the same elements of a solution should be applied.

If this is to happen, the SPLM will need to use its leverage as a member of the Government of National Unity and play a robust role. Though this means diverting some time and energy from its major preoccupations in the South, its new responsibilities in Khartoum make it uniquely competent to advance the policy. It has fought side by side with the people in the East and knows the similarities of their situation with that of the South. Moreover, it has a duty to ensure that its withdrawal from eastern Sudan does not create a security vacuum that could invite escalation. It must insist on having strong and senior representation on the government delegation and then press for an early start to credible negotiations with the Eastern Front.

To prevent war in the East, the international community needs to work with the key regional actors, particularly Eritrea, to underwrite comprehensive negotiations between the Government of National Unity and the Eastern Front that can produce a sustainable peace based on the CPA framework. Western governments should make it clear that they also want to take a major part in those negotiations, not unlike what they did with the CPA and what they are now attempting with Darfur at Abuja.

Thus far, the UN, the U.S., the European Union and its member states (including the UK, which has taken an interest), have all failed to apply themselves sufficiently to generate a serious peace process for the East. A Libyan mediation initiative collapsed in late December 2005. If Sudan’s vicious cycle of violence is not to spread again, a major effort is needed now to construct a forum for credible negotiations that can defuse the situation.

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 January 2006

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