To the chagrin of Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir, there is growing evidence to suggest that it makes little difference (perhaps none) in Washington whether Khartoum stands with or against the US-led “war on terrorism.” As Khartoum goes out of its way to demonstrate its support for America’s global rampage, Washington seems increasingly reluctant to reciprocate by reducing its support to Sudan’s armed rebels. Another indication of this occurred in late December, when the Sudanese government urged the Bush administration not to approve financial assistance to Sudanese opposition groups, saying that such a move could jeopardize Washington’s neutrality as a mediator in the country’s civil war.
The appeal referred to the allocation of $10 million by the US House of Representatives to fund the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), a medley of opposition groups. The $10-million tranche is separate from the $3 million for the NDA that the US state department approved last May. At the time the US government said that the funding would be used for office space, radios, staff and clerical training.
The financial packages represent an effort to tighten the screws further on the Sudanese government. Since 1993 Sudan has been on a US state department list of states that “sponsor or harbour terrorists”. On November 1 US president George W Bush extended the US’s sanctions against Sudan. The sanctions, imposed by the Clinton administration in November 1997, embargo all goods and services of Sudanese origin from entering the US, unless a presidential waiver is granted. They also prohibit financial dealings between the Sudanese government and American citizens.
The mounting US pressure comes despite Khartoum’s cooperation with the US-led campaign against “terrorism.” In the immediate aftermath of September 11, the Sudanese government arrested about 30 people suspected of being members of al-Qa’ida. In December the government also distributed a list of 20 people to all Sudan’s airports, seaports and frontier posts, ordering the authorities there to prevent their entry into Sudan. The list includes names of people suspected of involvement in the planning of September 11 and that of attacks on American interests abroad. Sudanese authorities have handed over hundreds of files on Islamic militants to American investigators. They have also moved to confiscate Sudanese travel documents that had been granted earlier to Islamic activists who had taken refuge in the country in the 1990s. Many others have been expelled from Sudan.
Usama bin Ladin was in Sudan from 1992 to 1996, when he was deported to Afghanistan under heavy American and Saudi pressure. Usama arrived there from his native Saudi Arabia, where he was no longer welcome because of his outspoken criticism of the Saudi government.
A Sudanese paper has quoted Ghazi Salah al-Din al-’Atabani, a presidential peace advisor, as saying that the US’s financial support for the opposition “would possibly increase the factors of war and confrontation” in the country. He added: “This financial assistance casts doubts on the neutrality of the US administration towards the parties in dispute in Sudan” (al-Ra’y al-’Aam, December 31, 2001). The Sudanese interior minister ‘Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein echoed ‘Atabani’s remarks in a newspaper-interview, in which he criticised the financial assistance as an example of the ubiquitous double standards in American foreign policy. He pointed out that the decision to offer financial assistance to groups in Sudan with records of terrorist activities is at odds with Bush’s efforts to rally international support for the “war on terrorism” (al-Sahafi al-Dawli, December 31, 2001).
The emphasis on the US’s role in finding a ‘solution’ to the Sudanese civil war, a sporadic but lethal conflict that has cost an estimated 2 million lives and displaced twice as many since 1983, is not entirely unexpected. The remarks came ahead of the return to Sudan this month of former US senator John C. Danforth, who was in September made Bush’s special envoy for peace in Sudan. During his visit Danforth will seek to gauge progress on the commitment of the government and the SPLA to a four-point peace plan that he proposed during his visit to Sudan in November of last year. Danforth had given both sides a deadline of mid-January for positive action on all four points.
The proposals demand far more of Sudan’s government than of the SPLA. They cover humanitarian access to the Nuba Mountains, an isolated rebel-held territory in south-central Sudan surrounded by government forces; a cessation of aerial and artillery bombardment of civilian targets; the creation of zones and times of tranquillity to expedite the provision of humanitarian relief, especially immunization campaigns; and an end to the alleged practice of abducting people as slaves.
Early last month a US “technical team” visited Sudan and held a week of talks with Sudanese officials and rebel leaders on these four “good will” proposals. At a meeting of UN officials and donors in Geneva on December 14, Roger Winter, director of the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, said that the Sudanese government and rebels have agreed to extend a truce in a key guerrilla stronghold, expressing hope that the move will eventually lead to the extension of the ceasefire to other areas.
The two sides have also agreed to a relief and rehabilitation programme for all civilians in the Nuba Mountains, where the UN says that recent fighting has forced some 158,000 people out of their homes and towns. Last month rebel-controlled sectors in the area received around 2,000 tonnes of food aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP). The initial four-week period of tranquillity, during which the WFP secured access to airdrop the food, ended on December 9. The Sudanese government and rebels have agreed to extend the truce to allow for additional food deliveries that will be needed by April.
Khartoum had earlier expressed reservations that the internationally monitored ceasefire covers only the Nuba Mountains, where the rebels hold only 5 percent of the territory, and not southern Sudan, where the SPLA holds and administers large swathes of territory. It called for the partial ceasefire to be extended to the oil-extraction area in al-Wahdah province in the south of the country.
But while Khartoum talks about the biased spirit and letter of the US initiative, rebel groups are busy taking measures to improve their negotiating position. A Khartoum-based newspaper quoted sources close to the NDA leadership as saying that the coalition is planning to send a high-level delegation to Washington. The idea is to hold talks with the US administration on a number of issues, including the US funding of the NDA and Washington’s role in bringing about “democratic change” and “peace” in the Sudan (al-Khartoum, January 5, 2002).
On January 7, the SPLA signed an agreement with a rival militia group, Riek Macher’s Sudan People’s Defence Force (SPDF), to merge the two groups. The agreement, signed after two days of talks in Nairobi, Kenya, effectively combines two of the largest tribal groups in southern Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer. The SPDF split from the SPLA in 1991 and fighting between the two factions led to widespread killing in southern Sudan. The agreement establishes a collective leadership and calls for the election of a leader at a convention to be held later this year.
The agreement allows the rebels to pool their resources and step up their war against the government in Khartoum. Macher extolled the virtues of unity in a recent press interview, saying: “We will make our case more strongly because we are now united.”
By contrast, the government in Khartoum is apparently still oblivious of the importance and advantages of unity. A recent amnesty issued by the government did not include Hassan al-Turabi, former parliamentary speaker and Islamic leader, who helped to bring about the coup in 1989 that brought Bashir to power, and then fell into disfavour in a power struggle with Bashir. He is now under house arrest, where he is likely to stay for the time being.