Elusive Quest for Peace in Sudan

January 8, 2004 • Commentary
This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on February 8, 2004.

Rebel leaders from south Sudan and the government negotiators from the north have been meeting in the Kenyan city of Naivasha, attempting to put an end to Africa’s longest civil war. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who attended the peace talks last year, has telephoned to urge negotiators toward a final agreement. Despite the State Department’s “optimism,” however, the sad truth is the accord will, at best, result in a prolonged, but ultimately doomed, cease‐​fire.

It is reported the rebels and the government in Khartoum have agreed to share revenue from Sudan’s southern oil fields. But there will be two legal systems — restricting the harsh Islamic Sharia law to the Muslim north — and two separate banking systems, allowing southern banks to charge interest on loans to individuals and businesses. Further, there remain unanswered questions concerning a legal system to govern the capital city and the fate of three provinces in central Sudan, which will adhere either to the north or the south. After an “interim” six years, the south will be allowed to hold a referendum on remaining part of Sudan or becoming independent.

Similar agreements have been reached before. In 1962, the south first rebelled against the north. After a 10‐​year long civil war, the north was forced to give the south its autonomy. In 1983, however, the Khartoum government attempted to impose Sharia law on the whole of Sudan, and the predominantly Christian south rebelled again. In 1989, the two sides almost came to agreement, but the leadership in Khartoum was overthrown in a military coup led by Gen. Omar Hassan Bashir, who has headed Sudan since.

Mr. Bashir’s deputy then was a powerful Islamic ideologue, Hassan al‐​Turabi. The two soon fell out, and Mr. al‐​Turabi ended up in prison. However, Mr. al-Turabi’s faction formed an alliance with southern rebels, and the weakened Mr. Bashir was forced to release Mr. al‐​Turabi and negotiate peace with the rebels.

Of course, that peace may dissolve. Mr. Al‐​Turabi has more in common with Mr. Bashir than with the Christian rebels. Now that his power and freedom have been restored, Mr. al‐​Turabi may return to his Islamic agenda.

Also, Mr. Bashir is unlikely to preside over the breakup of Sudan. International borders in Africa are the same everywhere as they were when African countries became independent of their various colonial rulers, that is to say they are arbitrary and thoroughly destabilizing. Still, African leaders, who have complained about that legacy of colonialism for the last 40 years, are apparently unwilling to change it. In 1963, they got the Organization of African Unity to declare the colonial divisions sacrosanct. Importantly, the Sudan peace plan does not address the long‐​term fate of the southern oil fields. Most of the country’s 600 million barrels of oil reserves are in the south. Under the Naivasha agreement, the money from the sale of oil must be shared equally between the north and the south.

So what will happen to that agreement after the six‐​year interim? There’s every likelihood the south will declare independence. The south had fought for independence for three decades, and the interim period will not stifle the separatist sentiment.

In addition, the prospect of benefiting from oil revenues without having to share them with the north no doubt will strengthen the appeal of southern independence. Similar discontent can, for example, be observed among Nigeria’s Yoruba and Ogoni peoples, who believe they are not getting their share of oil revenues.

On the other hand, the likelihood is minimal the north will permanently part with southern oil revenue. The best that can be expected from the Naivasha plan is a temporary halt to fighting. In a conflict that already has killed 2 million people, that is welcome news. The cease‐​fire also is likely to raise oil output. But the oil money is unlikely to solve Sudan’s problems.

Historically, proceeds from oil extraction have bypassed the poor. In Cameroon and Chad, for example, oil revenues fueled government corruption, and in Sudan they may finance rearmament by both the government and the southern rebels.

The obvious alternative would deprive the warring factions of funds by privatizing the oil fields. Unfortunately, nobody is seriously contemplating that idea. After all, in a similar vein, the U.S. government, which helped negotiate the Sudan peace deal, seems determined to keep Iraq’s oil production firmly in the hands of the Iraqi government.

About the Author