Both president Hassan al-Bashir and colonel John Garang, the leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), believe that they will be able to conclude a final peace agreement by the end of June, as statements from the offices of the newly elected Kenyan president and the regional mediators show. The two statements follow the agreement reached by Bashir and Garang in Nairobi on April 2 to speed up the peace. And as any final accord concluded in June will be based on the peace deal signed by both sides in July last year, which secures for the rebels the right to secede, it will mean that the relentless efforts of the US government and Christian groups to breakup Sudan into a Christian South and Muslim North have borne fruit. Last year’s peace accord – which gives the south the right to secede after a six-year transition period – gives the parties the opportunity to negotiate a ceasefire and to share out power, including oil resources, before the transition period begins to run. Any final agreement reached in early June will mean that these issues have been resolved and that the stage is set for the transition to start ticking.
Bashir and Garang, who met for the second time in Nairobi on April 2, following an official invitation by president Kibaki, agreed also to improve the atmosphere for the maintenance of the fragile ceasefire, for the protection of civilians and for achieving final peace. And a statement from the Kenyan presidency said that the two "discussed the peace process which aims at ending the war and expressed their hopes to reach a final agreement at the end of June". The IGAD negotiator also confirmed this at a news conference after the Bashir-Garang meeting, saying that the meeting was "crucial" as it was the two men who "hold the key to any final settlement". According to a newspaper report on April 3 quoting a senior advisor to president Bashir, the two sides agreed to be in "close touch" to prevent any obstacles to peace from cropping up during the negotiations.
Ironically, Khartoum – which has been fighting the SPLA for the last 20 years – is more optimistic of reaching peace with its bitter enemy than with neighbouring Eritrea (a former ally of Ethiopia), which now hosts a coalition of Sudanese opposition groups. Dr Mustapha Osman Ismail, the Sudanese foreign minister, said on April 1 that, contrary to press reports, his country had not asked the US to mediate between Khartoum and Asmara. All it had requested Washington to do was to use its close ties with Asmara to persuade it to cease its incursions into Sudanese regions. Dr Ismail, however, hailed the "strategic relations" Khartoum had established with two of its other neighbours, "particularly Ethiopia".
Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea were until recently members of an anti-Khartoum and pro-SPLA coalition organised by the US, but Kampala and Addis Ababa have since improved relations with the Bashir government, distancing themselves from the southern rebels. Both Uganda and Ethiopia have SPLA bases on their territories and have helped to transfer US supplies and funds there. Both had good reasons to end these arrangements and improve relations with Khartoum. Addis Ababa needs cheap oil from its neighbour, while Kampala needs Khartoum’s cooperation to defeat the Lord’s Army, a rebel group which until recently maintained bases on Sudanese territory.
Uganda tried to mediate between Bashir and Garang, inviting them to Kampala last July. But the meeting – the first between the two men – and the conclusion of the peace-deal in the same month did not persuade the SPLA to suspend, or even reduce, its operations. The following month, for instance, it captured the town of Torrit from government forces and continued to attack oil-installations. And in December the SPLA announced a plan for a new currency in the south, and had already printed 60 tonnes of new notes.
The SPLA’s recalcitrance reflects the enormous financial, military and political support it has been receiving from the US government and "born-again" Christian and Western Church groups that also used their propaganda-machines to accuse Khartoum of bombing Christian civilians, of allowing northerners to sell southerners as slaves, and of being responsible for the famine that has allegedly killed millions in the south. The US government and Christian bodies that fund and arm the SPLA will not allow colonel Garang to make any concessions to Khartoum that might compromise the South’s right to secession, which was guaranteed under the July peace accord.
Christians and Conservative Republicans – who include businessmen and academics with strong influence in the Bush administration – have in fact already begun to compare president Bashir to president Saddam Hussain, demanding that the "Sudanese Tyrant" should be prevented from getting away with murder under cover of the war against Iraq. Eric Reeves, the American academic who is preparing a book on Sudan, for instance, published an article in the International Herald Tribune on April 2, accusing the Sudanese government of killing considerably more people than the Saddam regime has done. He also accused EU countries, particularly France, of being friendly to Khartoum because of their interest in Sudanese oil.
"Saddam has been responsible of the deaths of a great many people of his own countrymen especially non-Arab Kurds", wrote Reeves. "But whatever the number may be, it is dwarfed by the numbers in Sudan." And while there are many displaced people in Iraq, Sudan has "by far the world’s greatest population of internally displaced persons, estimated at 4 million," he added. He argued that Sudan used its "peculiar weapons of mass destruction" more devastatingly than Saddam has deployed his own brand. "The regime has regularly denied humanitarian assistance to southern civilians so as to ensure the deaths of hundreds of thousands," he wrote. "Though more crude than VX nerve gas and other weapons of modern fighting, Khartoum’s weapon of mass destruction is considerably more potent," he concluded.
Reeves regretted that while Iraq is under attack, the government of Sudan is about to be "quietly rewarded at the UN’s annual Human Rights Convention in Geneva with a human rights upgrade." He is anxious that Sudan’s status as a country with a human-rights problem is not replaced by a more favourable classification. This will not only make Khartoum eligible for UN aid, but the UN will also end its surveillance of human-rights violations in Sudan. This will be a considerable blow to the propaganda-machine of western church groups and Republican conservatives, which seek to classify Sudan as a ‘terrorist state’. Supporters of the SPLA will regard any improvement in Sudan’s image as a setback.
But with Washington having apparently established its right to intervene in other countries’ affairs, and with the members of the Arab League failing to come to Iraq’s rescue, Khartoum might conclude that deferring to Washington is wiser than challenging it by standing up for Sudan’s territorial integrity. That is why the optimism at the Nairobi meeting may mean that Bashir has accepted Garang’s demands for a separate state.