The peace deal signed in Doha, Qatar, by Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir and his Eritrean counterpart Issaias Afwerki on May 2 has left Sudanese opposition groups in disarray, with some, like former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, simultaneously holding secret and separate talks with other Sudanese officials. The accord, brokered by the Qatari amir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Athani, has also thrown into a spin the US strategy of urging war against the Islamically oriented Bashir regime through neighbouring countries.
The main provisions of the deal call for the restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries, cut since 1994; the implementation of ‘international laws regulating peaceful co-existence’ between states and ‘respect for the requirements of good neighbourliness’; refusal to engage in any activities targeting the stability of the two countries and of neighbouring states; and the establishment of joint committees for the implementation the provisions of the deal and for the resolution of other issues, particularly those relating to security.
President al-Bashir described the Doha agreement as a ‘step forward’, saying on Sudanese television that both parties had demonstrated their ‘determination to end their disputes in the interests of their countries and peoples.’ He added that ‘we felt a clear desire on the part of president Afwerki to make peace.’
Interestingly, and for good measure, Bashir vowed to mediate between Eritrea and Ethiopia - which are locked in a bloody and seemingly intractable war - as soon as diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Asmara are restored. Only a year ago, Eritrea and Ethiopia formed part of a US-led and US-funded regional alliance using Sudanese armed groups based on their territories to topple the al-Bashir regime.
That alliance, which also included Uganda, Sudan’s southern neighbour, was scuttled by the eruption of hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and their exploitation by Khartoum to improve relations with Addis Ababa. But for that war - for which bellicose Afwerki must take the main responsibility by escalating an obscure border dispute and by resisting all mediation efforts - Asmara would not have deigned to sign the Doha deal.
But Asmara has signed the accord, and if Bashir’s assessment of Afwerki’s genuine desire to make peace is right, the Sudanese opposition groups hosted by Eritrea are justified in their ill-concealed alarm at the turn of events. Some, like former prime minister and Umma Party leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi, have already taken evasive action.
While al-Bashir and Afwerki were discussing their deal in Doha, al-Mahdi was locked in secret talks in Geneva, Switzerland, with Dr Hasan al-Turabi, head of Sudan’s National Islamic Front and speaker of the national assembly. The two chose to keep the outcome of their meeting secret but made it clear that they had reached an understanding designed to secure national reconciliation. Both Khartoum and Umma Party supporters in Sudan publicly hailed the talks as auspicious.
The talks, concluded and announced on May 3, angered other opposition leaders, who accused al-Mahdi of breaking ranks. Their suspicions of al-Mahdi’s motives were no doubt increased by the fact that al-Mahdi’s sister is married to Turabi, and the two men are therefore related. Interestingly, Turabi took his wife with him to Geneva, and her brother was no doubt happy to see her - and her husband. Politics in Sudan, as in other Muslim countries are highly personalised.
The Doha and Geneva meetings would be enough in themselves to discourage opposition groups. But unluckily for them, they face further setbacks in their relations with Uganda, a staunch supporter of their cause. President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for the past 13 years with the strong approval and backing of the west, appears suddenly to be floundering, exhausted by his involvement in the Congo conflict and faced with the collapse of the previously promising economy and a growing internal insurgency.
Only a year ago, the economy was going from strength to strength and the army appeared to be in control, keeping rebel groups at bay in far northern and western regions of the country. But with more than 10,000 Ugandan troops tied up in the Congo, and the economy near to collapse, the rebels are closing in and the capital, Kampala, has become the scene of bomb explosions.
The belligerent and proud Museveni, like the bellicose and haughty Afwerki before him, is signalling his willingness to discuss a political settlement with Khartoum, as recent media reports would appear to indicate. Dr Turabi was quoted in a radio report on May 5 as saying that former US president Jimmy Carter would undertake mediation between Uganda and Sudan.
Even US congressmen and editorial writers are now urging a diplomatic intervention by Washington to settle the Sudanese civil war. An editorial in the Washington Post argued: ‘Diplomacy has been attempted, but with insufficient attention and minimal success. Now would be a good time for the US to redouble its efforts. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia, who has visited Sudan several times, this week asked president Bill Clinton to name a special envoy.’
The idea is ridiculous for two reasons. First, Washington has been part of the war it is now urged to settle - even setting aside $20 million to finance it - and it has not apologised for bombing the pharmaceuticals factory last August which it claimed was producing nerve-gas. It is now beyond doubt that the factory never produced gas, despite Washington’s claim that it had incontrovertible evidence to this effect, but no apology has been forthcoming. More important, perhaps, is Washing-ton’s well-known enmity to Islam and Muslims; even if the US apologises for this wrong, and others, and compensates Sudan fully, it cannot be trusted as an honest broker in a dispute in which Islam figures so prominently.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1999