Global Policy Forum

Sudan Has Bigger Crisis Than Darfur:


By Dan Morrison

San Francisco Chronicle
August 12, 2007

The conflict in Sudan's Darfur region has distracted world attention from a greater potential disaster - the possible collapse of that country's historic north-south peace treaty, Sudanese officials, Western analysts and former diplomats agree. The failure of the 2005 peace pact would restart Sudan's 21-year civil war, which killed more than 2 million people and created 4 million refugees. Despite an accord that gives the south wide autonomy and the option to eventually declare independence, a growing chorus of experts says the two sides are likely to war again over oil.

"This doesn't seem like it's going to come to a peaceful solution," said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia. "I can't believe the northern government is going to relinquish the southern oil fields without a fight." Some southerners go even further. "The border will be established through the force of arms, this I am convinced," said a southern general who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media. "The politics have failed."

Sudan's Arab-dominated north and black African south have been in conflict almost continuously since the country gained independence in 1956. In the late 1990s the northern army drove tens of thousands from their ancestral lands in the Greater Upper Nile region to attain easy access to the oil fields. Today, in accordance with the peace treaty, that oil - 425,000 barrels daily in exports- has fueled a limited economic boom in the north and sustained a struggling government in the south. These oil fields would almost certainly end up in southern territory once borders are properly marked, most analysts say.

Even as political leaders declare their firm commitment to peace, the Sudanese Armed Forces of the north and the once rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army of the south are reinforcing positions along the contested border, where most oil reserves lie, diplomats, analysts and Sudanese officials say. The south, almost completely devoid of roads, sanitation, electricity and industry, depends totally on oil revenues that flow into its coffers from Khartoum, the capital. The north, despite its hydroelectric dams and mechanized farming, is almost equally reliant on oil exports. In 2005, a special commission mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement - commonly known here as the CPA - put the disputed area of Abyei squarely in the south - and the coveted Heglig oil fields inside Abyei.

While the peace treaty is supposed to be ironclad, the northern government has rejected the commission's ruling, claiming Abyei. Many analysts say this breach is a significant sign of what's to come. In the next two years, the treaty calls for the demarcation of the north-south border, a national census, free elections in 2009 and, in 2011, a referendum in which southerners will almost certainly vote to secede. "Chances for the unity of Sudan are nil," Pagan Amum, chairman of the south's ruling party, said recently. Each of these steps would bring the south closer to independence, and each would likely be stymied by Sudan's ruling National Congress Party, most analysts say. "Peace will be useless if we are only providing them a conducive atmosphere and environment to rob what is ours," said Sarah Nyanath Elijah, a legislator from the oil-rich Upper Nile state.

With such formidable challenges, "there is little reason for optimism," Sudan analyst John Young wrote last month in a report for Small Arms Survey, a Geneva research group. "The anticipated disputes over borders, national resources, and the census could assume violent proportions and set the stage for a descent into war." Such pessimism - or realism - has led to a military buildup in areas where the number of troops is supposed to be falling.

The Islamist national government in Khartoum, and the semi-autonomous southern government, based in the city of Juba, have traded accusations of improper troop deployments. According to the CPA, all northern forces should have left the south by July 9, but 3,600 remain in Upper Nile state, according to the United Nations. (Southern officials claim 16,600 soldiers remain in Upper Nile and neighboring Unity state.) Northern forces have left Malakal, the Upper Nile state capital, but 687 southerners who fought in the northern military remain. These fighters were demobilized earlier this year - then were ordered to remain in town on Khartoum's payroll. "They look like sleepers," said an African diplomat who is monitoring the situation. Observers tell of similar maneuvers in other oil centers. In Rubkona, public withdrawals of northern forces were followed by the slow return of the same soldiers, now wearing civilian clothes. "There's lots of movement, but the barracks are always full," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified.

Small Arms Survey reported that troops recruited from Khartoum's presidential guard have infiltrated the southern town of Bentiu, which sits among oil concessions controlled by the state oil companies of China, Malaysia and India. Meanwhile, the southern army is racing to turn an irregular rebel force, fissured by tribal factions, into a professional military. It, too, is increasing its forces along the border, according to two brigadier generals serving in separate southern units. (The U.S. military contractor Dyncorp has a $40 million contract to train fighters and build modern bases for the Sudan People's Liberation Army.)

At the same time, the northern government and the SPLA are beginning to cooperate on less divisive aspects of the peace treaty. Some politicians hope this nascent cooperation could lead to an electoral partnership between the former foes. "I know it is something the National Congress Party would like very much," said Fathi Khalil, a leading Islamist and chairman of the Sudan Bar Association. Such a move would guarantee that each side retained power in its own territory, even if the stated goal of the CPA - a truly democratic and unified Sudan - fell by the wayside.

The ailing treaty has provoked concern in neighboring Kenya, which mediated the difficult negotiations. Last month President Mwai Kibaki named his predecessor, Daniel arap Moi, as special envoy to help revive the accord. For the most part, however, the world's attention remains riveted on Darfur, where the U.N. Security Council recently approved a force of 26,000 peacekeepers in tandem with the African Union. More than 200,000 people have died there since fighting began in 2003. "The overwhelming international concentration on Darfur has come at the expense of the broader quest for peace in the country," said a July report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels conflict-resolution organization. The Darfur crisis "basically just sucks all the oxygen out of the air," said Shinn, the former U.S. ambassador who has spent decades working in the region. "In my view, the CPA is far more important. ... Darfur has been captured by the college campuses, by Hollywood."

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