U.S.-brokered truce in southern Sudan is collapsing

As the world focuses attention on Darfur, Sudan's other conflict, between the northern government and southern rebels, is worsening.
As the world focuses attention on Darfur, Sudan's other conflict, between the northern government and southern rebels, is worsening. Shashank Bengali / MCT

NAIROBI, Kenya — One of the Bush administration’s key foreign policy successes — brokering an end to a 21-year war between northern and southern Sudan — is coming apart even as U.N. and African diplomats step up peace efforts in Sudan’s other crisis, the conflict in the western Darfur region.

Signers of the 2005 truce ending Africa’s longest civil war have missed every major deadline, and tensions in the south have increased amid reports of a military build-up by both sides. Last week, former southern rebels took the dramatic step of withdrawing from a national unity government, accusing northern officials of blocking the peace agreement and failing to remove thousands of its troops from southern oil fields.

As Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir met Tuesday with leaders of the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement to discuss the crisis, both sides insisted that they didn’t want to go back to war. Analysts fear that renewed hostilities could trigger a humanitarian disaster even worse than in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people are believed to have died over the past four years.

“I don’t think this means an immediate return to war. But it is a serious call for more attention and more robust political support for the process, because war is certainly a possibility,” said Sara Pantuliano, a Sudan expert with the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank.

During the two-decade civil war, which pitted the Arab-dominated northern government against rebels from the mostly Christian and animist south, some 2 million people died, mostly from hunger and illness. The southerners’ plight won support from American activists, particularly evangelical Christians.

U.S. diplomats, including then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., played a pivotal role in the drafting and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which promised southerners large shares of political power and proceeds from the south’s oil fields. At the time, Powell said the north-south accord could serve as a model for resolving the Darfur conflict.

But key measures of the CPA — such as a national census, formation of a unified army and demarcation of a north-south border — remain to be implemented. Experts say the central government maintains a stranglehold on oil extraction, while the SPLM is riven by disputes, largely on ethnic lines.

Meanwhile, the inequities that spawned the conflict haven’t changed. The north, including the capital Khartoum, is experiencing an oil-fueled economic boom, while the south remains a vast forest lacking roads, reliable water and power, and even school buildings.

As Darfur has degenerated into the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, with some 2.5 million people forced from their homes, the north-south accord has been neglected. Analysts say that the U.N. mission in Sudan, established primarily to monitor the south, now devotes much of its energies to Darfur.

“It was clear that faithful implementation of the CPA would require a great deal of international stewardship,” said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar with the Social Science Research Council in New York. “That has not been forthcoming because of the preoccupation with Darfur.”

Much like the southern conflict, the war in Darfur began as an uprising by rebels who accused the central government of neglect. Bashir’s government armed Arab militias known as janjaweed to quell the uprising by Darfur’s ethnic African tribes, a campaign that the Bush administration labeled genocide.

And like their southern counterparts, the Darfur rebels’ basic demands are for more political power, a bigger piece of the national wealth and a chance at self-determination. Experts say the south’s experience is making some Darfur rebels question the wisdom of negotiating with the central government.

“Because of this, our friends in Darfur are saying that they are not going to deal with (the central government) under any circumstances,” said Eltyeb Hag Ateya, a political scientist at the University of Khartoum.

This week, Sharif Harir, leader of a Darfur rebel group known as the Sudan Liberation Army-Unity, threatened to boycott a critical round of Darfur peace talks scheduled for later this month in Libya, saying he wouldn’t negotiate with a government that didn’t include the southern rebels.

The absence of his group could critically weaken the talks. Two weeks ago, a splinter faction from his group took credit for staging a devastating raid on an African Union peacekeeping base, killing 10 soldiers and perhaps complicating the deployment of a larger, U.N.-led force that’s been authorized by the U.N. Security Council.

Sudanese experts believe that Western diplomats erred in pushing a two-track peace process, one for the south and one for Darfur.

“We need to look at peace and security in the whole of the country,” Ateya said. “We are not to say, ‘Let us finish with the south first.’ Let us deal with the global crisis of Sudan.”

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