After almost 20 years of civil war in the Sudan - with about 2 million dead during the last 13 years from fighting or starvation - on-again, off-again peace negotiations are again under way.
President Bush and especially his special envoy to the Sudan, retired Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, have made important contributions to this process. The momentum is such that even the capture by southern rebels of the Sudanese city of Torit on Sept. 1 - which caused the northern-based government to walk out of the talks - may only be a momentary setback. Peace might actually be coming to this war-wracked land.
The civil war began in 1983 when the Southern Peoples Liberation Army/Southern Peoples Liberation Movement headed by the Dinka general John Garang initiated hostilities. After an abortive peace effort in 1987 and 1988, the war entered a new phase of fighting, pitting an Islamist central government in the North based in Khartoum against the SPLA/SPLM in the South.
On July 20 this year in the Kenyan city of Machakos, during the initial peace negotiations, North and South agreed on the parameters of a permanent settlement. The agreement was sealed by a public handshake in Uganda between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Beshir and Garang. If the Machakos agreement can now be transformed into actual political arrangements, Africa's longest-running conflict may finally be consigned to the history books.
At Machakos, agreement was reached on the core issues - most important, the central government agreeing to make no further effort to impose Islamic law on Christians and other non-Muslims in the South as it does in the North. Further, the government and the rebels have agreed on an equitable distribution of political authority and a sharing of economic resources.
Finally, the northern Islamist regime - much to the consternation of Egypt - has agreed to a referendum in 2008 to enable southerners to vote on whether to secede from the Sudan and establish their own independent state. The scope of this breakthrough surprised both the United States and major Middle Eastern countries.
Territorially, the Sudan is the largest country in Africa and has a population of 32 million. Indigenous history and British and French colonialism have interacted to shape a nation of 580 tribes and more than 100 languages, with Arabic the sole language of perhaps 65 percent of the population. Approximately 70 percent of the Sudanese are Muslim, 20 percent animist, and between 5 percent and 10 percent Christian. The largest non-Arab group is the southern Dinka tribe, which makes up 12 percent of the national population and 40 percent of the South's.
Arabs (native Sudanese Arabs are black and physically indistinguishable from other Sudanese) live almost exclusively in the North, an area that also has Muslim but non-Arab communities. The spectacular heterogeneity of the population and the mix of religions suggest why peace has proven so difficult and yet so imperative to achieve.
The Sudan is a geo-strategically important country and a potentially wealthy one. It is well positioned to project influence westward across sub-Saharan Africa, eastward through the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and southward through Kenya, Uganda and the Congo. The Sudan is amply endowed with natural gas and high-quality, low-sulfur oil that was discovered in 1978 but only began to flow in 1998, since then in ever-increasing amounts. The country has fertile agricultural land, and deposits of gold and chrome.
Successful consummation of the peace process may provide the United States with an opportunity to acquire a new supplier of oil as well as an additional source of intelligence useful in the war against terrorism.
Some outside the Sudan have come to view the primary plot of the civil war there as a struggle of Christians in the South against enslavement by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.
This perception is not supported by objective analysis. There is no evidence that the Khartoum regime has mounted any sustained, centrally organized and government-directed campaign to enslave Christians or other southerners. However, tribal raiding and kidnapping - which has led to slave-like labor conditions - have been aplenty from time immemorial there.
Danforth established a commission to look into allegations against the Sudanese government, which concluded that the regime, while not itself directly involved in such activities, nevertheless has condoned them. The Arab-ized Baqqarah tribe, along with the Christian and animist Dinka and Nuer, have all been active in hostage-taking and kidnapping in the South. Such raiding has only been exacerbated by the dislocation caused by the civil war. It may be hoped that peace, combined with economic development, will gradually bring this ancient tribal sport to an end.
While the Islamist regime in the Sudan may have been engaged in some humanitarian offenses, most incidents have been carried out by its southern allies according to traditional practices of conflict. In addition, allegations that Sudan is a terrorist government or supports terrorism have for the most part not been supported by the facts.
Such allegations include the use of the Sudan by the terrorists who in 1995 attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. At most, those extremists may have been assisted by a government minister who was subsequently fired. Indeed, in 1996 the Sudanese unsuccessfully offered Osama bin Laden - who had been a resident in the Sudan under the cover of being a businessman and the country's benefactor - to the United States. Separately, bin Laden was offered to Saudi Arabia, which like the United States refused to accept him.
In 1998, the United States destroyed the Sudan's only pharmaceutical factory because of faulty intelligence indicating that the factory was manufacturing biological and chemical weapons. The latest version of what may again prove to be only an allegation is a recent press report that the Sudan has been the destination of large amounts of al-Qaida gold
Given the heavy legacy of both history and policy, what has happened in the talks is remarkable. In particular, the ability of the warring sides to agree on an equitable sharing of oil wealth is striking. Oil production is concentrated in the region dividing the North and South, and its defense or disruption has been the focus of heavy recent fighting.
While Danforth's achievement last year of establishing a peace demonstration zone with a cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains essentially began the peace process, realization by all of the warring parties that the conflict is unwinnable militarily, combined with a profound weariness, has pushed negotiations forward.
One hopes that the current fighting around Torit is a sign that all sides regard peace as inevitable and are only trying to obtain for themselves the most favorable positions possible before a final agreement is signed. Indeed, fighting has continued in many regions even as the peace talks progressed. No prior agreement on any comprehensive cease-fire was a prerequisite to the Machakos negotiations.
One possible complication is that peace negotiations have been conducted only between the narrowly-based Islamist National Congress Party (NCP) in Khartoum and the Dinka-dominated SPLM. Other political parties and groups, north and south, that are loosely grouped in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have been excluded from the talks. However, latest reports indicate that the NCP will open official talks with the NDA in Eritrea this month. Surely, true peace will be achieved only when all political tendencies are represented in the negotiations.
Obstacles to peace
Such comprehensive political participation may be difficult to achieve. The NCP wishes to get credit for establishing peace, and such northern Muslim opposition parties as Sadeq al-Mahdi's Umma Party and the National Unionist Party of Mirghani want to deprive the NCP of any such singular political victory. Thus, even if and when they are included in the negotiations, they may be tempted to oppose a successful outcome.
The situation is similar in the South. The SPLM considers itself the rightful ruler there because of the Dinkas' demographic plurality. Like the NCP, it wishes to utilize the peace process to consolidate its rule.
Little incentive exists for the SPLM to welcome into the negotiations smaller southern tribes. This is especially true because some of those tribes, opposed to Dinka rule, have aligned themselves with the opposition parties in Khartoum, and some southern militias have fought against the SPLA on behalf of the central government.
What is clear is that the popular Sudanese desire for peace is overwhelming. Recent fighting is likely to increase that sentiment. One interlocutor recently remarked that "anyone who stands in the way of peace will be crushed." What happens at Torit will test that assessment.
Danforth states that he is "optimistic" about peace. And he adds: "The Sudan is not the only place where differences of culture and religion have led God's children to kill each other. It may be that the world is looking for some sign of hope that people who are very different and have fought each other for years can live together in peace. Imagine one of the world's most tragic problems becoming, instead, the answer."
The Bush administration would do well to consolidate a major foreign policy success by extending Danforth's mission, ending economic sanctions on the Sudan, and removing the Sudan from the list of terrorist-sponsoring states.
Cantori is a member of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Sullivan is Senior Fellow at the Fund for American Studies in Washington, D.C. Both recently participated in a study mission to the Sudan organized by al-Mustaqilla Television in London that focused on U.S.-Sudanese relations.