The recent death of John Garang is a shocking setback to Sudan’s peace process, but not a fatal one. The Bush administration deserves much of the credit for the peace deal signed in January, and if it keeps its nerve, can help preserve the peace with Garang’s successor
For decades, “Sudan is never news” was the Africa correspondent’s rule of thumb. But Africa’s largest country has been consistently newsworthy. Sudan has been wracked by civil war since independence in 1956, as the southern third of the nation has resisted the depredations of the ruling military and commercial elite. The most intense war followed the June 1989 coup by Omer al Bashir, who overthrew an elected government and imprisoned all dissidents. His mentor and eminence grise, the Islamist theoretician Hassan al Turabi, declared his intent to create an Islamic state.
Sudan has also suffered repeated famine over the past 20 years. It needn’t. The country possesses the largest irrigated farm in the world, the Gezira scheme, initiated by Lord Kitchener at the behest of the Lancashire cotton industry 101 years ago. It is also the world’s largest producer of Gum Arabic, which we consume daily in fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. Southern Sudan has substantial oil reserves, now eagerly exploited by Petrochina and others. Despite this economic potential, the great majority of Sudanese live in abject poverty, several million of them drawn to the shanty towns around the capital, Khartoum, which stands as a gleaming Arab metropolis amid an expanse of sub-Saharan wretchedness.
Sudan’s unending suffering stayed out of the news because of the interminable process of getting a visa, press accreditation and a travel permit, and then the days or weeks spent travelling in pursuit of a story that was both heart-rending and extremely complicated. Nothing in this country is ever simple. The ruling elite calls itself “Arab” but looks no less African than Ethiopians do. The southern rebels fight themselves just as much as their northern enemy. The way that Khartoum’s military intelligence runs its counter-insurgency is to quietly indicate to militia leaders and army officers that a particular area is an ethics-free zone: they have licence to pursue whatever local agenda they may have – land, loot, smuggling – as long as they damage the rebels enough to contain the threat. By these means, the war has become a string of overlapping and hideously complex local feuds and land grabs. Meanwhile, the leaders of armies that are killing each other on the battlefield greet each other in foreign hotels like long-lost cousins, enquiring after one another’s children.
Sudan rarely registered on the foreign policy radar in London or Washington, despite Khartoum becoming the global centre for jihadism in 1991—Turabi made the mother of all miscalculations when he declared for Saddam Hussein in the first gulf war, and opened the country’s doors to sundry Islamist radicals and financiers, including Osama bin Laden. But in 1995, when Sudanese-backed terrorists tried to assassinate Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, President Clinton gave a green light to Sudan’s neighbours to retaliate against Khartoum’s destabilising activities and support the insurgent Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Alongside this unreported internationalisation of the civil war, Madeleine Albright met with the SPLA’s John Garang and other opposition leaders. She described them as the next government in Khartoum—a regime change policy that earned barely a column inch in the newspapers.
After al Qaeda blew up the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998, Clinton retaliated against Khartoum’s al Shifa pharmaceutical factory with cruise missiles, alleging it was producing chemical weapons. And by the turn of the millennium, Sudan was becoming news in the US. What raised its profile and kept it there was an unlikely coalition of interest groups. The most prominent of these were evangelical Christian groups, who fastened on to the cause of the southern Sudanese not only because they were a beleaguered Christian minority, but because they were conspicuous victims of an Arab-Muslim government. Moreover, government militia had been abducting and enslaving southern children, and buying the freedom of these slaves became a cause celebre, uniting church groups and the Black Congressional Caucus. Mobilising around charges of slavery, genocide and terrorism, the Washington activists gave Sudan a profile that surpassed any African country save South Africa.
These days, the line is, “Sudan is never good news.” Columnists portray a country plagued by massacre, starvation and international indifference. As protracted peace negotiations have finally brought the civil war in the south to an end, attention has shifted to the emergent conflict in Darfur and its horrendous atrocities. There is certainly enough bad news. The Darfur peace talks are stumbling and 2m people remain in displaced camps after exceptionally violent counter-offensives by the Janjaweed militia, the air force and military intelligence last year. And there is now the real threat of a similar explosion in eastern Sudan, among the Beja people of the Red sea littoral. Meanwhile, the helicopter crash that killed John Garang on 31 July sparked not just riots in Khartoum and other cities, but speculation that the country would again descend into war.
But this year, despite Garang’s death, bad news is less than half of Sudan’s story. The country hasn’t looked as hopeful for a generation. The main reason is that Sudan’s leaders are exhausted by war and have hammered out a new power-sharing deal. But the British and American governments can also take much of the credit.
Two Sudanese leaders made peace possible. One is the late Garang, veteran leader of the SPLA. In May 1983, Garang, who had a PhD from Iowa State University, was serving in the military’s economics department. He was on the way to Bor, his home town, on leave, but before he arrived, the garrison mutinied. They were southern Sudanese soldiers, absorbed into the national army when the previous civil war ended 11 years earlier, who had heard they were to be rotated to the north. Instead of following orders to suppress the rebellion, Garang joined the mutineers. A few weeks later, he issued a manifesto calling for a united, secular and socialist Sudan.
On 9 July 2005—after a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and left much of southern Sudan worse off than in the 19th century, and six months after the final signatures on a “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” —Garang was sworn in as first vice-president of Sudan, a post he held for just three weeks before his death. His commitment to national unity was modulated by a provision in the agreement that provides for southern Sudanese to vote on self-determination in six years; in the meantime, the country is to be run by a transitional government of national unity. Garang’s secularism was compromised by the retention of Islamic law in northern Sudan. And his socialism had vanished. But the southern Sudanese had achieved peace, and an astonishingly good deal that provides them with a guaranteed share of national wealth and posts in the central government, as well as formidable autonomous powers, including their own army for the six-year transitional period—and an opt-out clause, should they decide that independence is a better option after all.
Under Garang, the SPLA was as much a personal fiefdom as a political movement. Major compromises, including internal institutions, consultative processes and much of the peace settlement itself, were forced upon the leader by his lieutenants. Prominent among these was his second in command, Salva Kiir Mayardit. After Garang’s death, Salva Kiir was unanimously voted in as head of the SPLA and thus sole candidate for the first vice-presidency. (Kiir will be a more unifying figure in southern Sudan than Garang, but he doesn’t command the same national profile, and Khartoum’s leaders fear he harbours a separatist agenda.)
It took three years to hammer out the hundreds of pages of text in the peace agreement. The key intermediary on the government side is the man who now serves as second vice-president, Ali Osman Taha. He too is an intellectual and ideologue. In the 1990s, Taha served as deputy to Hassan al Turabi, engineering the sheikh’s dreams into reality, trying to replace the conventional architecture of a state with a new design of purely Islamist institutions, using Koranic principles for drafting legislation, raising taxes and running services. A decade into this experiment, Taha had to admit that it wasn’t working. Not only was the country poor and ostracised, but the regime was at the brink of losing the civil war.
So Taha began to argue that Sudan’s Islamists should now just consolidate their gains, keeping Islamic law but suspending further ambitions. This was the politics of exhaustion: ideals had been hammered down by the unforgiving realities of running a country and fighting an unwinnable war. And the Islamists were falling out among themselves. After an internal power struggle, Turabi was deposed and imprisoned and Taha became the power-broker. He gambled that if he signed a peace accord with Garang, he could deliver international acceptability, debt relief, investment and aid funds. This July, he pulled it off. But a vital part of the deal was Garang’s commitment to national unity. Now that the vice-president is dead, Ali Osman will struggle to hold in check the military intelligence officers who believe that their interests are best served by fomenting unrest and division in the south.
The peace process took a severe knock when Garang’s helicopter came down. But the procedures under the peace deal for replacing Garang and forming the government of national unity are clear. Omer al Bashir stays as president, and real power resides with the two vice-presidents, Kiir—who must now fly to Khartoum to be sworn in—and Taha. It can still work.
The successes thus far would not have happened without George W Bush’s most remarkable foreign policy initiative, and peace can be maintained if he sticks to that policy. In the early months of the Republican administration, a small state department team reviewed Sudan. They concluded that Clinton’s regime change policy wasn’t working, because the war was in a stalemate and American assistance to the SPLA, even if scaled up, wouldn’t deliver. The CIA reported that Sudan had ceased active support to international terrorism. The president decided to support peace in Sudan. The chances of success were vanishingly small but the administration saw no alternative. Bush has been utterly consistent since then, even in the face of extremely vocal congressional and Christian lobbies that have demanded the overthrow of the Khartoum government.
The president chose former senator Jack Danforth as his special envoy. Danforth had the political experience and clout to be unswayed by the moralising and bullying of the Washington interest groups—while his ecclesiastical credentials meant that he could keep the religious right at bay. His appointment was announced on 6 September 2001, a week before the UN security council was due to debate the renewal of sanctions imposed on Khartoum after the 1995 Mubarak assassination attempt. The US ambassador was instructed to abstain in the vote, allowing the sanctions to be lifted and Sudan to take its first step towards normalising relations. But the vote didn’t take place: America’s world changed in the intervening week. On 12 September, Bashir sent his condolences to the American people. Having hosted most of al Qaeda, he was afraid of another cruise missile attack—but he also had thick files on most of America’s most wanted, which he was ready to share with the FBI.
Danforth reported to the president in March 2002: peace in Sudan might just be achievable, as the two parties had shown modestly good faith in restraining attacks on civilians and had signed a ceasefire in one part of the war zone, the Nuba mountains. Norway agreed to send unarmed ceasefire monitors (this June, mission accomplished, they handed over to UN peacekeepers).
Danforth recommended that the US shouldn’t go it alone in trying to negotiate peace, but should support the efforts of neighbouring countries. Lazarus Sumbeiywo, the Kenyan chief of defence staff, was overseeing a halting dialogue between Khartoum and the SPLA. An informal troika consisting of the US, Britain and Norway coalesced in support of Sumbeiywo’s efforts, held in a series of Kenyan resort towns. Observers judged the chances of success at less than ten per cent. In Machakos in July 2002, the two sides signed their first protocol—and the glimmer of peace became a real light. In Karen, a political framework for the Nuba mountains was hammered out. In Naivasha, Taha and Garang initialed the final comprehensive framework, finally signed at a ceremony on 9 January this year in Nairobi.
For almost three years of on-off talks, Sumbeiywo held the ring. But he could not have done his job without teams of advisers from the troika of countries, plus experts on wealth-sharing and development from the World Bank. The British special envoy, Alan Goulty, convened side meetings focusing on security arrangements, and sponsored a team of former African guerrillas to work through the disarmament issues with apprehensive SPLA commanders. The US backed the talks, towards the end assigning one of its most experienced state department officials, Charlie Snyder, as special representative. Senior USAid officials took a close personal interest and made it clear that, when peace came, the rehabilitation of Sudan—especially the south—would be an American priority. Bush and Colin Powell phoned both principals at key moments.
Multilateral co-operation in a protracted diplomatic exercise has not been a hallmark of Bush foreign policy. Its involvement with the Sudan peace process has been an exception. And it is continuing: deputy secretary of state Bob Zoellick has visited Sudan twice. The US and other donors have pledged more than $4bn for reconstruction, but the real money will come from oil and the private sector. Zoellick’s next challenge is to dismantle the elaborate layers of US sanctions imposed on Sudan over the years: the best option is to simply cut the Gordian knot and abolish them in one go.
Many things could go wrong with this elaborate and incomplete peace. Important groups are not part of it, particularly the Beja in the east and non-SPLA armed groups in the south. Elections are due in four years, introducing a big element of uncertainty, especially as neither the government nor the SPLA has a democratic track record. Most southerners are likely to support secession, but the agreement is premised on national unity being the preferred option in six years—an assumption that may have gone up in flames along with Garang’s helicopter. The country’s weak political and administrative infrastructure is heavily burdened by multiple transitions: from war to peace, dictatorship to democracy, and emergency relief to development. There are potentially troublesome neighbours: the Eritrean dictatorship is against the Sudanese peace and there’s dangerous instability in Chad.
But the biggest problem, and an immense disaster in its own right, is the crisis in Darfur. With tragic ill-timing, this erupted in 2003 just as the north-south war was coming to an end, and in the space of 18 months reprised the main themes of that war. The organised killing has now virtually stopped, but several million people are displaced and angry, and law and order has collapsed. The African Union is trying to mediate, but its efforts are hampered by rebel disorganisation and the fact that many of the areas of Darfurian grievance are considered a closed book because they have already been dealt with in the north-south talks. Tribal elders have sought to make local peace agreements, with modest success. Interestingly, a number of Darfurian Arab chiefs are leading this process—most of the region’s Arabs are neutral in the conflict, and they are arm-twisting their Janjaweed cousins to compromise, blaming them for bringing their people into disrepute. But inter-tribal peace cannot prevail without a high-level political deal. Unless Darfur is settled, Sudan’s new government cannot move beyond crisis management.
But although one would not believe it from most press reports, there is good news on Darfur as well. Most of what the activists have called for is in place. The UN security council has authorised targeted sanctions against individuals who obstruct the peace process. The US bit its tongue and allowed Darfur’s war crimes to be referred to the international criminal court, where prosecution proceedings are beginning. Three thousand African Union troops are on the ground, monitoring a ceasefire and providing modest protection for civilians. In the last six months, aerial attacks on villages have ceased entirely. While several Janjaweed commanders are still attacking villages, most violence is now banditry and internecine conflict over local loot and territory.
Estimates for the numbers who have died in Darfur range from 63,000 to 400,000. As is common in such disasters, the higher figures tend to get most airtime and the lower figures tend to be more credible. Recent figures show that death rates are now below the threshold that counts as an “emergency.” The people of Darfur are a long way from an end to their tragedy, and their intractable conflicts will continue to create serious problems both for Khartoum’s new government and for Chad. But at least they are not dying in large numbers, and that is something. Let’s give credit where it is due: to the Sudanese relief professionals and volunteers who have struggled against formidable odds to make feeding and health programmes work in some of the world’s most difficult terrain, the international relief agencies, and the foreign donors.
As news of Garang’s death spread across Sudan, southerners and other sympathisers took to the streets in protests that rapidly turned violent. It is ironic that a man who had survived 20 years of war (not to mention his brief service in Sudan’s first civil war) should die within weeks of achieving peace and government office, and every Sudanese’s instinct was to blame the conspiracies of Khartoum’s ruthless security officers. Most likely that blame is misplaced, but the fear and distrust is tangible. Garang had, over the years, acquired the aura of the undaunted resistance hero, and his elevation to number two in the government was a guarantee and symbol of change.
Garang’s suspicions of Khartoum and his dogged insistence on negotiating every line in hundreds of pages of text now have their posthumous justification. Sudan’s peace deal provides for accidents such as his death. The agreement is codified between parties and included in the new constitution. Kiir will become vice-president, the new government will be formed and its posts filled. There’s simply no alternative. Bush and Blair should stick with their existing policy. It is slow and involves morally painful decisions. But its justification is that it works.