Sudan: An Elusive Quest For Peace

February 23, 2004 • Commentary

Rebel leaders from the south of 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. The U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, who attended the peace talks last year, has telephoned the negotiators to urge them toward a final agreement. Despite the State Department’s “optimism,” however, the sad truth is that the accord will, at best, result in a prolonged, but ultimately doomed, ceasefire.

According to reports, 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 application of 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 are unanswered questions concerning a legal system that will govern the capital city and the fate of three provinces in central Sudan, which will either form a part of north or south. After an “interim” period of six years, the South will be allowed to hold a referendum on whether it wants to remain a part of Sudan or become independent.

Similar agreements have been reached before. In 1962, the south rebelled against the north for the fist time. 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 an agreement, but the leadership in Khartoum was overthrown in a military coup led by General Bashir, who has headed Sudan ever since.

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

Of course, that peace deal may dissolve. Al‐​Turabi has more in common with Bashir than with the Christian rebels. Now that his power and freedom have been restored, al‐​Turabi may return to his Islamic agenda. Also, Bashir is unlikely to preside over the break up of Sudan. International borders in Africa are the same everywhere as they were when African countries gained independence from their respective colonial rulers, which is to say that they are arbitrary and thoroughly destabilizing.

Still, African leaders, who have been complaining about that particular legacy of colonialism for the past 40 years, showed complete unwillingness to do anything about it. In 1963, they even got the Organization of African Unity to declare the colonial division of Africa 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 period? There’s every likelihood that 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 will no doubt strengthen the appeal of southern independence. Similar feelings can, for example, be observed among the Yoruba and Ogoni people in Nigeria, who believe that they are not getting their share of oil revenues.

On the other hand, the likelihood that the north will permanently part with southern oil revenue is minimal. The best that can be expected from the Naivasha plan is that the fighting will temporarily stop. In a conflict that has already killed 2 million people, that is welcome news. The ceasefire period is also likely to increase the oil production. 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 fuelled government corruption and in Sudan they may end up financing rearmament of both the government and the southern rebels. The obvious alternative would be to deprive the warring factions of access to 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 to negotiate the Sudan peace deal, seems determined to keep the oil production in Iraq firmly in the hands of the Iraqi government.

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