The peace deal signed on July 21 by the Sudanese government and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the predominantly Christian rebel group that has been fighting Khartoum for 20 years, is being hailed as an unprecedented breakthrough by both parties, their supporters and the international media. Even American officials, who have been ‘mediating’ between the two sides, claim that the unexpected development has taken them by surprise.
The accord secures for the rebels the right to secede after a six-year transitional period, and freedom from the application of Islamic law in southern Sudan. It is clearly the result of relentless pressure by Washington and two of its western allies, Britain and Norway, recruited for the purpose. The result of five weeks of talks in Machakos, Kenya, the deal is so one-sided that it does not even provide for a ceasefire because the SPLA, the main beneficiary, has rejected one, despite the resolution in the accord of the two most important issues in the conflict. The SPLA insist that they will cease fighting only when a permanent peace agreement is signed.
But the negotiators are scheduled to meet again this month to attempt to reach agreement on a ceasefire. The Americans, who know that the new deal is in the interests of the southern Christians and a disaster for Sudanese Muslims and, indeed, Egyptians, are certain to lean on Colonel John Garang, the SPLA leader, to sign a ‘temporary’ ceasefire. Once a ceasefire is agreed, the south has the right to secede after a six-year transitional period. During this time a joint administration of government and rebel leaders will rule from Khartoum, with the south enjoying “religious freedoms” and a degree of autonomy whose extent has not yet been determined. Other matters still to be decided include power-sharing structures and the distribution of oil-revenues: difficult issues but not as contentious as those already settled.
Negotiators on both sides certainly appear to believe not only that they have reached agreement on the conflict’s two main issues — the right to self-determination and the separation of state and religion — but also that they have also set the stage for the resolution of other issues. Both Ghazi Salah al-Din, the government’s main negotiator, and Samson Kwaje, the SPLA’s spokesman, have expressed this belief in public.
“We agreed on a structure which resolves the basic question of state versus religion and self-determination,” said Salah al-Din. He added that in particular the two sides had agreed that “in the north, the basis of legality shall be the Shari’ah and consensus,” while “in the south this is not applicable.” Kwaje, on the other hand, began with the reservation that there would be no ceasefire without an agreement on all outstanding issues, but he had no doubt that Khartoum would oblige, as it had done over the more important issues of secession and religion, and a comprehensive peace deal would be clinched at the next meeting. “The interim period will begin as soon as we have a complete peace agreement, which will be soon,” he said.
Kwaje’s obvious conviction that the government of president Hassan Omar al-Bashir will capitulate over the outstanding issues is not misplaced, as it is based on his inside knowledge of the pressure — some would say blackmail — that the Americans are piling on Khartoum. Nor is the description of the concession made by the government over the two main issues an exaggeration. The establishment of a hostile independent state in southern Sudan will have disastrous consequences not only for northern Sudan and Egypt, but also for Muslims in the south and for Islamic causes in the region.
As soon as the transitional period begins— in October, Kwaje seems to expect— Muslims will be barred from conducting religious activities such as da’wah and charity work in Southern Sudan, while Christian Aid and evangelical groups will pour in to convert the animist southerners who constitute the overwhelming majority. The sizeable Muslim population, which media reports in ‘Christian’ countries pretend does not exist, will become the target of evangelical groups: convert or emigrate, they will be told in effect.
All this will in a way be repeating history: when the British ruled Sudan (until 1956) they used southern Sudan as a bulwark against the spread of Islam to central and southern Africa. And considering the propaganda campaign, by western Church groups and conservative politicians, that the Sudanese conflict is a war between Muslims and Christians, it is not unreasonable to expect that the emerging southern state will be used not only for evangelical purposes but also to polarise the entire region into Christian and Muslim antagonists. That it will also become a junior partner in the US-led war against Islam cannot be doubted.
This explains the delight with which Church and political leaders in the west have greeted the accord. Dan Ewiffe — a Catholic priest now engaged in aid work and propaganda for the rebels — has hailed it as “a major breakthrough”, which has led him to “believe that the war will be over in months”.
Jack Straw, British foreign secretary, has also welcomed it. “Agreement on...state and religion...is a significant breakthrough,” he said soon after the conclusion of the deal. American officials are so delighted at the extent of Khartoum’s concessions and the speed with which they have been elicited that they are pretending to be shocked by the results of the ‘peace talks’ they have initiated and controlled.
“We were as shocked as anybody,” a senior US official said on July 23; “I am surprised they managed to get as far as they did.” Trying to reassure Egypt that Washington is against the breakup of Sudan, he said that the “massive aid infusions” that the US is planning to use to build up the south will tend to discourage the southerners from choosing secession. In his interview with the London-based Financial Times, he added that it is not the policy of the US to divide Sudan, and that “Egypt and others” have been informed accordingly.
But by referring to massive US aid for the south, which will certainly also include military assistance, he was giving away the US’s game in the region. Such aid can only increase the rebels’ capacity and readiness to defy Khartoum and try for final separation, perhaps even before the end of the transitional period. The Church groups and other organisations pouring aid into southern Sudan will certainly support such a move. Given that Church groups and conservative politicians already exercise considerable influence over US policy in Sudan, it is easy to see which party Washington will decide to lean on.
Egypt, which knows that an independent state in southern Sudan will demand a share in the waters of the River Nile, is apparently the only government opposing the new deal. Uganda and Ethiopia, which are already making noises about the need to revise water agreements, will encourage southern Sudan’s demand a share. This in turn could lead to war engulfing the whole region. The new deal is a recipe not for peace but for war.