The Sudanese mediation game is beginning to look more like the Middle East ‘peace process’, now that president George W. Bush has appointed a ‘peace envoy’ to bring “sanity and compassion” to a land ravaged by decades of civil war; there is even talk of the US being the only country that can bring ‘peace’ to southern Sudan. Another aspect of the similarity is that Washington is firmly on the side of the non-Muslim party in each conflict, appointing in each case ‘peace envoys’ openly allied to the camp it prefers. But one important difference is that president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, who in the Middle East conflict is openly acting as Washington’s agent, is committed to Sudan’s territorial integrity because of his country’s interest in the River Nile.
Bush named former senator John Danforth as his peace envoy to Sudan on September 6. The mission of the 65-year-old former senator of Missouri (who also happens to be an ordained Episcopalian minister) is to help make a peace between the ‘Arab and Muslim’ north and the ‘African and Christian’ south. And, as if appointing a senior Churchman as the US’s ‘peace envoy’ were not enough to show his own commitment, Bush puts responsibility for the war entirely on the ‘Muslim northern government’ as a justification for his decision.
“It is important to America, important to the world to bring some sanity to the Sudan”, he said. “For nearly two decades, the government of Sudan has waged a brutal and shameful war against its own people, and this isn’t right. This must stop.” But in order to redress some balance and to boast of his own commitment to humanitarian causes, Bush added: “We are committed to bringing stability to Sudan so that American non-governmental organizations will be able to perform their duties of love and compassion in that country without fear of reprisal.”
Bush’s boast was not lost on the new envoy. In explaining his appointment as special envoy, he said: “In appointing me special envoy, the president asked me to determine if there is anything useful the US can do to help end the suffering in Sudan. Even to ask that question is a powerful statement by the president of the values of our country.”
Danforth, however, will take his time to accomplish his apparently humanitarian mission. He is expected to visit Sudan in November and to decide within six months whether detailed peace-talks are required. In the meantime, colonel John Garang — the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a southern militia which enjoys both US material and diplomatic support — will continue to attack government positions and oil installations, and boast about it in public. The SPLA, which represents the Dinka tribe, the largest in the south, will also continue to terrorise other smaller tribes, many of whose leaders support the government in Khartoum.
Bush has allocated $20 million, half of which will be applied as ‘humanitarian aid’ to the north, while the other half will be used to fund development programmes in the south. The money is an obvious bribe to entice the parties to the conflict to accept Bush’s ‘peace project’. That its real objective is related to oil and religion is, however, too obvious to be in doubt, and even the western media have interpreted it so.
The Times of London, for instance, commented on September 7 that “one explanation is the belief among oil companies that large oil reserves may lie untapped in the south of the country”. Another explanation, according to the Times, is that Bush has come under “strong pressure from the Christian Right of the Republican Party” to intervene in the war on the side of the ‘Christian south’. The International Herald Tribune has also made similar comments, saying that members of Christian groups “have been pressing the Bush administration to pay Sudan more attention”. Sudan has been exporting oil since 1999, but at present no American companies are involved in oil exploration or production there.
The International Herald Tribune sees the oil issue as part of a bigger picture. Explaining the oil corporations’ pressure on Bush to intervene in Sudan, it says that his administration, which includes “many senior officials with links to the oil industry”, has shown a strong interest in trying to resolve “conflicts that could disrupt suppliers, from the Sudan to the Caucasus”. But in the Caucasus religion is also a powerful influence for Washington to intervene. In the case of the Caspian Sea oil, Bush has sided with Azerbaijan against Iran, although oil companies have been urging him to improve relations with Tehran. Iran has one-fifth of the world’s known oil reserves, but it is ruled by an Islamic Revolution, while Azerbaijan, though a Muslim country, is controlled by a pro-Western secular elite. Tehran and Baku are locked in dispute over the allocation of offshore resources in the Caspian.
Initial Sudanese reactions to the Bush administration’s initiative indicate that Khartoum is cautiously ready to accept Danforth’s mission, and calls on him to be “impartial”. Colonel Garang is naturally ecstatic and hails it as “a step in the right direction”. Sadiq al-Mahdi, former prime minister and leader of the Ummah Party, backs the peace mission strongly. Al-Mahdi, a US surrogate throughout his political career, is even prepared to concede self-determination to the south, although he claims that he is opposed to the break-up of the country.
The guarded acceptance of Khartoum and Garang’s enthusiastic endorsement suggest that other mediation efforts may be superseded. The joint Egyptian-Libyan effort is based on the assumption that Sudan is indivisible and that there is no reason to grant the south self-determination. Even Colonel Qaddafi, who has cultivated non-Muslim African leaders to get a role, has now publicly attacked the demand for southern self-determination, saying that the implementation of such a ‘right’ would split up all African countries.
But whether the Egyptian-Libyan peace initiative is buried or not will depend not only on Khartoum’s attitude but on the strength of Cairo’s determination to resist the Danforth ‘peace mission’.