The Wars of Sudan
In January UN special envoy Jan Eliasson promised to reconvene talks with the rebels. The plan as it stands today sounds suspiciously like the failed formula from last May: a deadline to sign on to a document the rebels don't want to accept. Bitter and fragmented but militarily confident, the rebels are no easier to negotiate with than Khartoum's wily leaders. For anything to work, the steps must be taken in the right order: cessation of hostilities, a rebel conference to choose new representatives, proper monitoring of a cease-fire and confidence-building steps, and then negotiations--with a credible mediator and sufficient time to hammer out the issues. Shortcuts will just bring more failure.
As Darfur's travails continue, Sudanese confidence in the North-South democratization process promised in Naivasha is ebbing. The spirit of peace and democracy that infused the accord is gone, and there's no strategic plan for how to revive it--or cope with its absence. The signs of possible collapse are worrying. At the end of November, a disagreement over who should take a senior army post in the Southern town of Malakal led to a fierce battle between the SPLA and a militia group that had been backed by Khartoum during the war and still retains its links with military intelligence. Peace was restored by the prompt action of both commands and the intervention of UN peacekeepers, but not before more than 300 people, many of them civilians, had been killed. The clash wasn't planned, but it showed the vulnerability of Southern Sudan to irruptions of violence.
Disputes over security arrangements are the most likely flash point, but there are others. The commission for demarcating the North-South boundary has not begun its work. The most contentious area is Abyei--an enclave of ethnic Southerners historically administered as part of the Northern region of Kordofan--where an independent commission has produced a border ruling that Khartoum categorically rejects. Lucrative oil concessions lie precisely in this disputed area. In addition, the key condition for a free and fair election, a credible national census, has yet to begin. Under these conditions, elections might themselves be the focus of violent conflict, and Khartoum's lawyers may dream up any number of reasons for rejecting the results of a referendum on self-determination that doesn't go their way.
Resolution of Sudan's crises must be guided by two realities. The first is that a popular vote for separation of the South is far more likely than a vote for unity. Most Southern Sudanese say they are waiting patiently for the 2011 referendum. If that vote is free and fair, most will vote for independence. The wishes of the Southern electorate must be respected and the outcome implemented smoothly and peacefully. But planning for the transition should begin now. The best option is to explore the possibilities for mutually advantageous coexistence by future new states of Southern and Northern Sudan. This requires a pre-referendum pact insuring Khartoum's legitimate economic and security interests in the South, along with the South's interests in the North. If this or something similar isn't done, the prospects for massive bloodshed and humanitarian crisis are dark.
The second reality is that Khartoum's security cabal and NCP operators are sufficiently powerful that they can thwart any plan if their core interests are not taken into account. The choice will be between a soft landing for Bashir and a new conflict that puts at risk the peace of Naivasha and deepens the crisis in Darfur. Opinion polling is not advanced in Sudan, but internal surveys by Northern political parties indicate that a coalition government will be needed. It would be reasonable to begin working on a pre-election pact insuring that the NCP will remain a part of any such coalition, and that there is consensus on the key policy questions facing the new government. If there's an agreed end-state that guarantees a role for Bashir, it will be possible to exert pressure on him to play by the rules. But no amount of sanctions and threats will push him down a road he believes will lead to his demise.
Bashir and his cabal have been pushed to the wall by economic and political sanctions before, and survived. They can do so again--their funds, now considerably swollen by increased oil revenues, are hidden away in Saudi and Swiss bank accounts. A no-fly zone in Darfur is a more realistic option. In the security arrangements chapter of last May's Darfur Peace Agreement, Khartoum already committed itself to ending hostile military flights and allowing intrusive monitoring of its air bases--provisions that add up to a no-fly zone and that could be implemented more simply than overflights by NATO fighters. On the other hand, last October's proposal by former Clinton Administration officials Anthony Lake and Susan Rice for a Kosovo-style bombing campaign would in reality be a declaration of war on Sudan, with incalculable consequences. It is much better to focus our energies on reconvening talks on Darfur, alongside new attention to salvaging the Naivasha Agreement. The core principles of power-sharing, democratization and self-determination for the South should be inviolable, but the means for realizing these goals must be re-examined.
After the ravages of Sudan's first civil war, it should have been unthinkable for Northern and Southern leaders to contemplate resolving their differences through force of arms. But war creates war. The military mentality had become so embedded among Sudan's politicians that fighting was not only thinkable, it was the default option. Today, despite the palpable disasters brought by a history of unremitting violence, there are still men ready to fight, or to order others to fight. Leaders on both sides know that a new war would be a catastrophe for all. It would begin with violence in the cities and lead to the disputed secession of the South. The certainty of such disaster has not prevented warmakers in the past and will not do so again. What can prevent it is a coordinated strategy for a stable, managed transition to democracy. That, we do not have.