The embattled government of general Omar Hasan al-Bashir cannot but heave a sigh of relief as the escalating border dispute between neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea throws into a spin US regional plans for the destabilization of Sudan, and as Uganda, a vital element in those plans, begins to see advantages in settling its quarrel with Khartoum.
The dispute seems to have taken every one by surprise. Eight years after they jointly won a civil war against Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former warlords now ruling Ethopia and Eritrea are on the brink of taking their countries into a full-scale war over rocky area along their common border. The two countries have disagreed about their border since Eritrea gained independence from Ethopia in 1993, two years after Mengistu’s defeat, but have hitherto to seemed to contain this disagreement as a result of their leaders past comradeship.
The issue erupted into violent confrontation on May 6, when forces from both sides clashed in the disputed area. Since then, they have massed thousands of troops along both sides of the border, exchanging threats and insults. What began as a mild quarrel between two seemingly friendly neighbours has now developed into a fully armed shouting match between egocentric and autocratic rulers.
The US which installed the Ethiopian and Eritrean warlords, Meles Zenawi and Isaias Aferworki in the first place is alarmed at the escalating quarrel between its valued proxies in the Horn of Africa. Both are central to Washington’s strategy to overthrow the Bashir regime and force the secession of southern Sudan. Eritrea provides bases for the forces of the Sudanese opposition, while Ethiopia acts a s a conduit for US money and arms to John Garang’s forces in southern sudan.
Washington acted quickly to contain the crisis despatching assistant secretary of state Susan Rice to shuttle between Addis Ababa and Asmara, the Ethopian and Eritrean capitals. A State department spokesman, James Rubin, admitted as much in a newspaper interview on May 20.
Both of these countries are close friends of the US, he said. ‘We have urged both governments to practise restraint.’ Initial US efforts only succeded in seeing the crisis worsen and Rice has returned to Washington. But Washington is determined not to give up its mission and has now sent a delegation consisting of state department and national security council officials to Addis Ababa and Asmara.
But the Americans are not the only ones alarmed at the dispute between two Horn of Africa surrogates. The Sudanese opposition are in dissary and have sent urgent appeals to both to settle their dispute amicably. The National Democratic coalition, an umbrella opposition organization expressed its deep disappointment at the quarrel in a memorandum published on May 23.
The NDC has cause to be alarmed because it stands to lose its funding and its bases and other facilities in the event of war between its benefactors. Their forces frequently attack Sudanese positions across common borders and receive logistical support while attacking.
But for reasons that cannot be explained in terms of national interests, Libya, Egypt and Yemen are exerting strong pressure on the Ethiopian and Eritrean leaders to settle the dispute peacefully. Eritrea is occupying a Yemeni island while Ethiopia is busy building dams on the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline, and Libya is subject to severe US sanctions. Egypt, Libya and Yemen have no interest in reviving peace between two Christian warlords who are tools of US imperialism in the Horn of Africa, and who have strategic designs of their own in the region: on the contrary, all three have strategic reasons, as well as military commitments, to stand by Sudan, a fellow Arab League and OIC member and victim of aggression by Addis Ababa and Asmara.
Khartoum can take comfort in the fact that Ethiopia is incensed by the affrontery of a small neighbour acting like a regional superpower. Zenawi has now accused his Eritrean counterpart of having territorial designs on all its neighbours, including Jibouti. The Ethiopian leader may be more tempted by the prospects of isolating his adversary than by the blandishment likely to be offered in the various mediation efforts.
Another source of relief for president Bashir is that Uganda has expressed interst in a peace plan which ends support by both sides to opposition groups. Economic and military support to Uganda by the US has so far failed to secure victory for Ugandan forces over Ugandan rebels or for southern Sudanese rebels over the Sudanese military.
Meanwhile, voting on the new Sudanese constitution is progressing satisfactorily and the results will be published in June. The constitution guarantees personal freedoms, including freedom of religion, and ought to have silenced critics of the regime. Khartoum has also agreed to allow the South the right to secede subject to a referendum.
But the US, its allies and proxies are determined to sabotage Khartoum’s peace and reform efforts focusing on a clause in the constitution which merely provides that the Shar’iah should be the source of the country’s legislation. They claim that the regime is merely playing for time to rebuild its forces and establish an Islamic rule.
But this is not the first time that a constitution in the region calls for Shar’iah to be the source of a country’s legislation. The 1960 constitution of the Somali Republic inspired by United Nations officials and based on that of Italy had a similar provision. No one objected and Somalia was hailed a ‘democracy.’ Let us hope that Sudan does not go Somalia’s way!
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1998