Sudan: Khartoum escalates civil war offensive

The Sudanese government has escalated its offensive against the western provinces of the country. In what the Khartoum regime has described as “a local security problem”, militias, backed by government troops and warplanes, have been bombing and terrorising villages in Darfur and driving the population off the land.

Thousands of people are dead and up to a million have become internally displaced by the fighting. Over 120,000 have fled across the border into neighbouring Chad—which has linguistic and cultural ties to the Darfur region—to escape the fighting. Refugee camps there are overflowing and aid agencies fear that a serious crisis is developing.

The United Nations has begun moving the refugees away from the border areas, for security. An estimated 40 percent of the refugees are children and 75 percent of the adults are women. World Food Program spokesperson Christiane Benthiaume believes, “All the ingredients for a humanitarian crisis are there—difficult access, not enough food or water, and nightmare logistics.”

The Darfur region of Sudan straddles the divide between Arabic and black Africa. There have long been disputes over scarce land and resources, as both sections of society are traditionally herders in constant need of fresh pastureland. An Arabic militia, known as janjaweed, have increasingly been used by the government to prosecute its battle against the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which were formed in response to janjaweed attacks against the Darfur population.

Whilst ostensibly fighting against the SLA and the JEM, there are numerous reports of the Khartoum government deliberately targeting civilians with their bombing campaigns. Fifteen to 25 villages a day are being attacked, as the bombing raids have escalated from two a week to daily. The janjaweed are paid largely in booty, and have been stealing land and livestock and burning villages to the ground. Amnesty International is concerned that the offensive looks like ethnic cleansing.

Government forces have chased those fleeing up to and over the border. There are a number of reports of the Sudanese air force continuing to attack those who have crossed the border, and of bombs “straying” into Chad, particularly when the Sudanese army recently captured the town of Tine which straddles the border. Chad’s president Idriss Deby has played down the bombings by his giant neighbour, and wants to revive his role as mediator to resolve the crisis.

When announcing the capture of the Sudanese part of Tine from the rebel forces, state radio described the victory as a gift to the Sudanese people for the religious festival of Eid al-Adha.

Negotiations are currently underway in the south of Sudan, under the auspices of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to finalise details of a peace treaty and a wealth sharing agreement between the government and the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). Talks were suspended from January 26 until February 17 ostensibly so that the government’s top negotiator could make the pilgrimage to Mecca.

The talks have come about largely under influence from the United States and European governments; themselves under pressure from corporations who wish to exploit Sudan’s enormous oil wealth.

The negotiations have been put slightly in jeopardy by renewed skirmishes in the southern border region of Upper Nile, and reports of around 50 dead. Outstanding issues in the negotiations include the question of whether Sharia law will continue to prevail in Khartoum, the allocation of ministerial posts, and the destiny of three border regions including Upper Nile. A substantial UN peacekeeping force would be stationed in Sudan after the peace agreement is concluded, maintaining the peace and protecting the interests of the oil companies.

The current fighting in the west of Sudan is in part a response to the nearly completed southern negotiations. The SLA and the JEM both wish to be involved in a similar deal to the SPLA—discussing wealth sharing and autonomy issues with Khartoum—and both want to renew ceasefire negotiations with international mediation. The government is refusing, especially on the question of autonomy.

There are estimated 35 militia groups in southern Sudan, many of whom want their own piece of the action, or would otherwise tend to see peace as an undesirable end to their favoured positions. JEM’s Abubaker Hamid Nour has warned, “No peace will come if we leave the marginalised areas in Sudan and make peace with the south.”

International Crisis Group spokesperson David Mozersky has warned, “Darfur is likely to plunge further into the horror of open ethnic warfare,” unless this is arrested by the international community. He pointed to the timing of Khartoum’s offensive against western Sudan. With the southern peace deal offering immunity to the government, it wishes to take advantage of the situation by crushing the resistance in the west before signing an agreement with the SPLA in the south.

“The government is trying to crush the rebellion in Darfur,” said Mozersky. “They want to crush it before IGAD resumes, ideally, or at least before IGAD is resolved. The main actors in the international community—US, UK, etc.—are worried about pushing the government too far on Darfur for fear of overturning the apple cart, so to speak.”

The US has encouraged the SLA, suggesting that the southern peace deal is “transferable onto this western problem.” But Sudan’s Foreign Minister has dismissed this.

Sudan is emerging as a foreign policy priority for the US. The Bush administration has been slating its man, SPLA leader John Garang, as vice president in the new Sudan. DEBKAfile explains that “designating Garang as vice president is part of the arrangement governing the disposition of Sudan’s oil.”

A secret rider is also believed to exist between the US and Sudanese presidents, which is known to Garang, that undertakes to remove the Sharia from the constitutional basis of government in Sudan. DEBKAfile sees this being trumpeted as the first time that a radical Muslim country has been converted into a secular democracy—a vote-winner for the religious right in the US. The Bush administration also sees its apparent interest in the affairs of Africa as a winner for African-American voters.

As the Bush administration’s foreign policy unravels over Iraq, it wishes to demonstrate and promote overseas success stories in the run up to the Presidential elections in November. Bush had hoped to announce the finalisation of the Sudanese peace deal in his State of the Union speech, stressing his achievement in ending a twenty-year-old civil war, but was unable to do so.

DEBKAfile reports that there are plans for a gala reception of the Sudanese leaders, the first of a series showcasing the US presidency’s breakthroughs in Africa. This will culminate in a signing ceremony in the spring.

“It has to be a ceremony even more impressive than the 1993 White House signing of declarations of principles by Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat.... It will be an ‘African Camp David,’” said a senior US official, “but one that will not fail.”

For added crassness, the agenda also has a White House ritual in which Sudan’s President Bashir “will solemnly forswear his country’s dark past as recruiter of slaves for America and the Arab caravans carrying African slaves around the world.”

As well as Sudan, Bush also intends to use Libya for his electoral purposes. A planned presidential trip to Khartoum and Tripoli has been brought forward to June. The trip is arranged around the dramatic highpoints of political and military changes which his administration’s actions have set off, and is expected to also include visits to Turkey and Morocco.

The US and British governments are currently in negotiations with Tripoli concerning its oil industry, which they would like to rebuild. Reports suggest that the US may lift its oil investment ban against Libya by the spring.