When Khartoum and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) signed the Machakos peace deal on July 20, American officials said that they would exert pressure to make the deal stick. But now that the Sudanese government has temporarily pulled out of the talks, in protest against the SPLA’s capture of Torit on August 30, the Americans’ threat is not so veiled.
US officials warned on September 16 that the Sudanese government’s action in the rebel-controlled South was threatening Washington’s recent rapprochement with Sudan, adding that they hoped Sudan would return to negotiations within two weeks, regardless of Torit’s fate. The officials, backing the SPLA in disregard of the facts, even admitted that the fall of Torit had serious implications for the government.
A US official in Khartoum said that since July 20 government forces had continued to bomb civilians and interfere in the delivery of food aid, so that US involvement in the peace process was threatened. “It poisons the atmosphere against them in Washington, which is a shame because there has been change here,” the official said. “For the US the bombing is a litmus test of the intentions of the Sudanese government and for many in Washington they are failing that test.”
Torit is certainly of both strategic and symbolical importance. The capital of Eastern Equatorial State, it was the scene of the mutiny that led to the first civil war. For much of the current conflict Torit was the headquarters of the SPLA, until its recapture by Khartoum in 1992. The town’s fall also threatens government control of Juba, the capital of the South. The UN’s evacuation of its staff from Juba shows the seriousness of the threat. Khartoum’s decision to withdraw from the peace talks two days after Torit’s fall was, therefore, not unreasonable.
The peace deal provides for the separation of state and religion and grants the South the right to hold a referendum on whether to secede or to stay in a reconstructed Union of Sudan. The right to referendum will be exercised after a six-year transitional period, during which the South will enjoy autonomy, with the application of Islamic law confined to the Muslim north. The failure to agree a ceasefire for the duration of the talks was caused by resistance from colonel John Garang, the SPLA leader, who argued that a ceasefire should be signed only after the peace process. The US, Britain and Norway, who had observers at the talks, were unwilling to put pressure on the SPLA to agree to a temporary ceasefire. So the rebels seized Torit and forced Khartoum to withdraw from the talks.
The government of president Omar Bashir was already under the displeasure of the Sudanese public for trading away the south and for agreeing to limit the application of shari’ah law. The army is also angry with Bashir, and reports in the Sudanese press hinted at a planned coup attempt. Egypt is furious with Khartoum for conceding the right to secede: the secession of the South would endanger Egypt’s access to the Nile’s water. Khartoum was also constrained to withdraw from the talks by the realisation that the SPLA was exploiting the lack of a ceasefire to improve its military position.
The SPLA has objected to every ceasefire proposal ever, except during the period 1992-95, when it reeled from government attacks and internal divisions, and from losing its bases in Ethiopia. But in 1995 Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda sided with the SPLA. Smaller tribes in the South have always been suspicious of the Dinka, the largest tribe in the region, whom they accuse of planning to dominate the rest of the population, and their leaders have often sided with the government against the SPLA. With Washington determined to bring about the secession of the South, they are afraid that their tribes will be even more disadvantaged in an independent South if they continue to side with the government. In these circumstances, the rebels are confident that they need not wait six years, and that they can ‘liberate’ the region now. The capture of Torit has increased their confidence, and if they capture Juba they are virtually certain to dispense with the Machakos deal and declare independence immediately.
Khartoum refuses to return to the peace talks before either securing a ceasefire agreement or recovering Torit. But there is little it can do, because the rainy season prevents it from moving heavy military equipment to the war fronts. The US government and media support the rebels’ refusal to agree to a ceasefire for precisely this reason. A Washington Post editorial has argued that the north was being unreasonable for demanding such a ceasefire: “the current rainy season is traditionally the time when the rebels have the upper hand, but by January the ground will be dry enough to permit the government to deploy its heavy equipment. A ceasefire now, which the government might disregard when the seasons shift, is too risky for the rebels.” The editorial went on to argue that the US should use its power to force Sudan to implement the Machakos deal, saying that a lawless Sudan would threaten the US directly. It also warned that al-Qa’ida was about to re-establish bases in Sudan.
The US government’s warning that Sudan should return to negotiations follows reports by intelligence organisations that al-Qa’ida has moved the focus of its activities to Sudan. It also coincides with the announcement of Washington’s new ‘doctrine’ of pre-emptive action against countries that harbour ‘terrorists’. American troops are being stationed at a base in Djibouti in preparation for attacks against “suspected terrorists” in the Horn. Washington’s threat must be resisted, as Sudan’s break-up would be of enormous benefit to the US. An ‘independent’ southern Sudan will in reality be dependent on Washington for its survival; most of Sudan’s oil deposits are in the South and will come to be exploited by American oil-companies.