The agreement concluded between Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir and opposition-leader and Ummah Party chief Sadeq al-Mahdi in Jibouti on November 25 sets out the principles on which these men think that any political settlement of the Sudanese conflict should be based. Among them is the proposal that a referendum be held in the south, after a transitional period of four years, on whether it wants to secede or stay in a federal and pluralistic union.
The Jibouti accord may have the advantage of dividing the opposition, but it may also sow the seeds of discord among government-supporters: self-determination will be seen by many, with strong justification, as playing into the hands of the enemies of Islam, such as American and Christian organisations, bent on breaking up the country.
The proposal comes at a time when the US-funded regional adversaries of Sudan have fallen out with eachother, Khartoum and Egypt have ended their confrontation, and European countries are showing strong interest in the country’s fledgling oil-industry, in which China and Canada are already leading partners. It also comes after US and Christian groups - alarmed by the growing prospects of an end to Khartoum’s isolation and of its capacity to use oil-revenues to boost its war-effort - have escalated their assistance to secessionist guerrillas.
A commitment by Khartoum to hold a referendum on self-determination in four years’ time will only serve to encourage them to evolve long-term plans to make secession a reality, as it will discourage US administration officials’ and humanitarian groups’ opposition to Washington’s intervention in the conflict. Four days after the announcement of the Jibouti accord, president Bill Clinton signed legislation giving food-aid directly to John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation army (SPLA) to strengthen its military operations.
The legislation also enables the administration to pursue its anti-Islamic strategy against Khartoum. The new law enjoys the backing of congressional, Christian and pro-Israel groups and administration officials allied to them. But it is opposed by humanitarian groups and officials who argue that food-assistance should not be used to prolong civil wars.
According to Julia Toft, US assistant secretary of state for refugees and humanitarian assistance, providing such aid to the SPLA contravenes the longstanding principle of neutrality of food-assistance in conflict situations. “This is a departure from the way we should be using food-aid,” she says. Moreover, the legislation signed by Clinton overrides an existing law that prohibits the supply of American food-assistance to combatants before they demobilise as some congressmen have been quick to point out.
Attempts by the US administration to support the SPLA and to tar Khartoum with the brush of terrorism are hypocritical, to say the least of them. According to the current human rights report by the state department, southern rebels were “responsible for extrajudicial killings, beatings, arbitrary detention, forced conscription, slavery and occasional arrests of foreign relief-workers without charge.”
Washington is not only supporting the southern rebels, but is also trying to block mediation efforts - such as the joint Egyptian-Libyan plan - which aim to bring all the sides to the negotiating-table. Instead it supports a move by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African organisation, which concentrates on the war in the south and excludes northern opposition-groups. The IGAD effort has been described as a “narrow and moribund peace-process”, and is opposed by major US humanitarian groups on the grounds that it prolongs the war.
The referendum-proposal may even be designed to encourage critics of US anti-terrorism policy to be more vocal and to back its peace-plan. It has, however, the potential for doing just the opposite and for giving the wrong impression: that it is ready to be bounced into concessions that will give independence to the south even earlier than the four-year transitional period prescribed for the referendum. Khartoum may find itself snatching defeat from the jaws of probable victory.
Luckily Egypt is adamantly opposed to any plans for the division of Sudan into north and south, and will have nothing to do with the proposal for a referendum on self-determination. The Egyptian foreign minister, Amr Musa, who says that he cannot understand how Bashir and Mahdi can come up with such a proposal, believes that any “solution for the Sudanese crisis must rest on preserving its [Sudan’s] unity”.
He also believes that any referendum on self-determination for the South must not be confined to the region but should cover the whole country. He has expressed his views strongly on several occasions, the latest during a recent press-conference.
One auspicious sign is that the Sudanese government is not publicly taking issue with Cairo’s position, saying merely that there is no conflict between the two neighbours’ stances. Cairo, which in the past tried its utmost to destabilise Sudan, is now clearly committed to preserving its southern neighbour’s unity - if only to protect its strategic interest in the Nile river.
Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1999