Less than a month after Sudan became an oil-exporting country, Sudanese opposition groups claimed responsibility for an attempt to destroy a section of the pipeline linking the Hegleig oilfield in the west of the country to the Bashair terminal on the Red Sea. This admission has embarrassed Egypt, Eritrea and the US, the opposition’s supporters and sponsors, who accuse Khartoum of ‘supporting terrorism’. The botched attempt to blow up the pipeline took place at Atbara, in the north-east of Sudan, on September 19, but had no effect on Sudan’s ability to export oil. Instead, Dr Hassan Al-Turabi quipped at the time, it has “blown up the pipeline of peace-talks between the government and the opposition”.
The joint mediation effort by Egypt and Libya ï which for the first time raised hopes of a political settlement of the conflict after the Sudanese government agreed to the terms of the mediation in late August ï is certainly a casualty of the attack on the pipeline. The terms of the effort stipulate that both sides must stop all media and military attacks on each other before coming to the negotiating table. The opposition’s bombing of the pipeline has put the mediation on hold, despite valiant attempts by Cairo and Tripoli to revive it.
Other mediation attempts, such as those of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and Egat, the East African regional development agency, were making little headway. The Egat effort was confined to the fighting in the south and involved only the Southern Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), led by colonel John Garang, and other southern movements, most of which are allied to Khartoum. Since the SPLA is also a member of the Eritrea-based coalition of opposition forces, the Libyan-Egyptian plan was more suitable as it covered all the sides to the conflict. The US, which has a plan of its own to bring about the secession of the south, opposes mediation by Muslim Egypt and Libya, and backs the Egat project.
But the opposition’s admission of responsibility for the September 19 attack on the pipeline, made in a statement issued from Cairo, was exacerbated by Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the Ummah Party (UP) and former prime minister, who defended the attack. The original (unpublished) opposition statement, prepared by opposition spokesman Abdurrahman Saeed, attributed the attack to the forces of the UP in eastern Sudan, but these references were removed from the final version after strong objections from al-Mahdi. However, he later said that any attack on oil installations was justified because it was “in the interests of the Sudanese people that oil stays in the ground until a freely elected government takes over so that it does not fall into the hand of a regime that will squander it as a result of its foolish and isolated policies.”
Al-Mahdi was clearly prepared to sacrifice the secret understanding he reached with Dr Turabi in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 3. Both men said at the time that they had reached “an understanding” designed to secure “national reconciliation”. The Khartoum government and UP supporters in Sudan publicly backed the secret talks and the understanding. Al-Mahdi must know by now that attacking national oil installations is not a reliable strategy for building national reconciliation.
The Sudanese government lost no time in exploiting the opposition groups’ attack action and al-Mahdi’s gaffe. President Hassan Omar al-Bashir accused the opposition leaders of working for “foreign interests” and of being “unclean”, vowing that he would not shake hands with them until they “washed”. He also promised to pursue them both outside and inside the country to punish them for the crimes they had committed against the Sudanese people.
The Bashir administration then proceeded to request Egypt to extradite Abdurrahman Saeed from Cairo under the Arab anti-terrorism pact, which came into force on May 7, after its ratification by seven Arab-League member-states. This must have struck many observers as ironic, for the pact is largely the work of Egypt and is directed against states that “harbour terrorists” ï Sudan, for example, which refuses to extradite or deport Islamic activists solely because of their Islamic work. Sudan also did not cooperate when Cairo demanded the extradition from Sudan of those suspected of an attempt on president Husni Mubarak’s life while on a visit to Ethiopia in 1995; then, Khartoum said that the suspects were not on its territory.
Although it does not expect Cairo to extradite them, the Bashir administration later expanded the list of people whom it wants from Egypt and other African countries in connection with the attack on the pipeline. The two major names on the expanded list are those of Abdul Aziz Khalid, commander of the coalition forces, and Abdurrahman Sadiq al-Mahdi, son of the UP leader, who is based in Asmara, Eritrea. The Sudanese government says that it has new evidence that proves their direct involvement in the terrorist action.
Abdurrahman Saeed, the coalition spokesman, and Abdul Aziz Khalid, the commander of the coalition forces, suddenly left Cairo on October 4, and also moved to Asmara. They were accompanied by a number of Khalid’s assistants. They deny that they were told to leave, but Cairo has clearly been embarrassed by the attack on the pipeline, which it condemned immediately. There could also be further embarrassment for the opposition and their hosts because Khartoum now claims that it has collected more incriminating evidence during security searches at the homes of absent opposition leaders, including al-Mahdi’s house in Omdurman.
Dispirited and divided, opposition leaders are set to meet in Cairo in mid-October to reconsider their strategies. According to newspaper reports on October 6, they plan to remove the “peace option” from their strategy, and to concentrate on military and “intifada” tactics. They claim that they can launch a public uprising in Sudan, but popular anger at the pipeline attack suggests otherwise. All they can do now is hope that the US will ‘aid’ them as it ‘aids’ the Iraqi opposition.
Muslimedia: October 16-31, 1999