Ending civil war hasn't worked out like Sudan had hoped

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 29, 2011 

JUBA, South Sudan — Nearly a month after its breakup with South Sudan, the government of Sudan has seen none of the benefits that it thought would flow from its agreement to end decades of civil war. Instead, the breakup has thrown President Omar al Bashir's regime into disarray.

Far from reaping peace and development for overseeing the partition of his country, Bashir now controls a smaller, weaker version of Sudan besieged by a uniting rebel front and a collapsing economy.

The U.S. government hasn't lifted sanctions imposed on Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism, one of the promises that allowed both the Bush and Obama administrations to broker and then shepherd the peace agreement that led to South Sudan's independence.

Making matters worse, Sudan's finance minister estimates that the country faces a 36 percent future drop in revenues because of the loss of South Sudan's oilfields.

With the walls seemingly crumbling around them, the Sudanese military is taking an increasingly prominent role in decision-making, shunting aside civilian politicians that it blames for the country's slide.

Bashir, who took power in a military coup in 1989, is still in power, and there has been no official change in his regime makeup. But his diverse governing coalition — composed of Islamists, the military, politicians and businessmen — is severely strained.

Increasingly, whether by force or volition, Bashir seems to be marching to the military's tune.

Western and African diplomats — one of whom described recent developments as a "military coup" — fear such a power bid will only lead to more chaos and instability in the troubled north African nation.

One African official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said that military leaders now sit in on his meetings with Bashir and even brief the participants beforehand on what the president will say — as if dictating Bashir's talking points.

A Western diplomat, who wasn't authorized to be quoted on the subject, said that military leaders now are supervising discussions that used to be held only with civilian political officials. The military also is accompanying ruling party officials in ongoing negotiations with South Sudan over disputed borders and other issues.

"I don't see that there is an internal coup per se at the moment, but there is absolutely no doubt that the army is disenfranchised and they are not happy," said Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a research agency.

"The situation is very tense. Very tense," Hikmat said.

The internal troubles intensified about a month before South Sudan formally seceded on July 9. Bashir miscalculated in attempting to forcibly disarm a rebel group in Sudan's South Kordofan state that was aligned with South Sudan's guerrilla movement-turned-ruling party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM.

Bashir underestimated the rebels' strength and the campaign in the Nuba Mountains quickly disintegrated into a bloodbath. As the SPLM-aligned rebels resisted and eventually gained ground, Sudanese forces and pro-government Arab militias expanded their campaign and began attacking and bombing Nuba civilians, who are ethnically African.

Reeling from the unexpected losses, and facing Western denunciations for atrocities against the Nuba, Bashir's National Congress Party signed a deal in late June to recognize the northern chapter of the SPLM — which is now structurally separate from its sister party that governs South Sudan — as a legitimate political party.

The deal angered the military and Islamist hardliners in Sudan's capital, Khartoum, who criticized it as capitulation. Bashir soon denounced the agreement himself, a turn of events that many observers found especially confounding since the accord was negotiated by the regime's resident hardliner, Nafie Ali Nafie, Bashir's party deputy.

Ever since, it has been unclear who is really in charge.

Andrew Natsios, a Georgetown University professor, says a soft military coup wouldn't surprise him — since the same thing almost happened when he served as special envoy to Sudan under President George W. Bush in the late 2000s.

In early 2007, Natsios said, Bashir's party was facing growing international pressure over the humanitarian crisis in the western Darfur region. A group of senior generals urged Bashir to stage an internal coup of sorts, purging the party's leadership and putting the generals in charge of the government.

"While Bashir rejected the advice then, he may have taken it now," Natsios said.

A military takeover in Sudan would likely take a different route than the revolutions this year in nearby Egypt and Tunisia, which were prompted by popular uprisings rather than ruling party disintegration.

Analysts say that the Sudanese military and civilian leadership has two options: agree to political reforms and share political power, or hunker down in siege mode and try to contain the armed threats.

So far, the latter approach seems ascendant.

As the regime falters, the nation's many far-flung rebel groups are moving to consolidate.

The strongest rebel group in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement, has begun fighting alongside the SPLM rebels in the Nuba Mountains in what opposition forces hope could be the beginning of a wider rebel alliance. That could bind anti-government forces stretching from Sudan's western border with Chad, through the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, all the way to the eastern border with Eritrea.

Talks are already under way over a "grand coalition" that would encompass the armed rebels and Khartoum's weak political opposition. One source involved in the talks, who didn't want to be named because of the confidential nature of the discussions, said that the various groups are already dividing up leadership positions in a potential new alliance.

It's unclear how durable such an alliance would prove, given the vast geographical distance and the diverse set of ideologies and egos involved. But it's clear that anti-Bashir forces all are smelling blood.

Malik Agar, chair of the SPLM's northern wing and governor of Blue Nile state, said that it was "quite natural" for the various movements to coordinate their efforts. But he said that Bashir could still avert more war.

"We are still at the (negotiating) table," Agar said. "When they come back to the table, they will find us there."

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting from Sudan is supported in part by Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues.)

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