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Sudan: Stumbling towards Peace

Stumbling towards Peace By all indications, the recent peace deal on Darfur, albeit incomplete, constitutes a welcome development in Sudan


Stumbling towards Peace

y all indications, the recent peace deal on Darfur, albeit incomplete, constitutes a welcome development in Sudan’s conflict-ridden political history. The deal in early May worked out between the Sudanese government and the leading rebel group of Darfur, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), seeks to end a bitter three-year civil war but still leaves out of its ambit the other splinter SLA group as well as the Islamic Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). The pact, brokered under the aegis of the African Union (AU), with the active involvement of the UN, US and the EU, ensures a large degree of autonomy, power as well as resource sharing between the two regions – Darfur in the west and the Omar al-Bashiri government in Khartoum. A far more welcome move is the promised disarmament of the dreaded Arab militia, the Janjaweed, largely responsible for the displacement of millions of citizens from Darfur, for inflicting unprecedented savagery on women and children and for the killing of at least 1,80,000 people, as estimated by the UN.

Despite the pessimism that shrouds the agreement, prospects for peace could not have been better timed. Sudan, one of the largest and most richly endowed of African nations, has been long plagued by crises, both man-made and natural. It was only last January that a peace agreement was signed between the al-Bashiri government and the south, dominated by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), ending a nearly twodecade old conflict. While the task of rebuilding and rehabilitating an estimated six million refugees, the largest movement of people in recent history, took on critical proportions, the UN and the World Food Programme (WFP), facing an unprecedented shortage of funds, announced a recent drastic cutting down of food rations, in a region ravaged by war and famine.

The conflict in Sudan, which has pitted one region against another, has been too easily read as an ethnic and religious one. The conflict in the south, whose population includes Christians and those adhering to traditional belief systems, is seen as having religious ramifications, as the government in Khartoum in the early 1990s tried to impose the Islamic sharia across the country, but the SPLM’s grievances were first voiced in 1989 and related to its perceived political marginalisation in matters of government. Grievances were further compounded by the drought conditions that gripped large parts of Sudan all through this period. The story was repeated in the west as well, but with more complexities. Darfur, to Sudan’s west, is largely Muslim populated, but the conflict here has been a tale of political and ethnic discrimination as groups such as the Fur, Massalit and the Zagawa accused the centre of neglecting and marginalising the region. The political fallout at the end of the 1990s, between al-Bashiri and his former ally in the National Islamic Front (NIF), Hussan al-Turabi, has also had its impact in Darfur, as the JEM group, still holding out against the government, is believed to be allied to al-Turabi.

The complexities of conflict that have frustrated attempts to bring about peace have tended to overwhelm the human misery that has unfolded in its wake and which desperately awaits succour. The international community, conscious of its own hand-wringing over Rwanda in 1994, and too graphically aware of the stories of devastation and destruction wreaked on innocent Sudanese civilians by the Janjaweed, was long caught up in an indecisive argument over the semantics of the word “genocide”. It was only in end 2004 that the UN labelled Darfur, the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis”. Yet, there were myriad other “conflicts”, primarily, Iraq and Palestine, that attracted the west’s attention and Darfur, on most occasions, slipped off the radar. Nevertheless, and despite this, “resolving” Darfur requires the sustained and committed involvement of the west and international bodies; in fact, it was the involvement of bodies such as the WFP that largely ensured the alleviation of misery of large numbers of Sudan’s displaced.

The task of bringing in the other recalcitrant rebel groups into the peace process still remains.Thereisstill reluctance on the part of the Khartoum government to agree to a UN peacekeeping force to replace the AU contingent that has been found ineffectual in ensuring peace. For all the opprobrium that has come its way in recent times, the UN has been consistently working towards peace in Sudan; it is at this critical juncture in Sudan’s history that its intervention becomes all the more necessary.

Economic and Political Weekly May 20, 2006

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