The Obama administration is grappling with a volatile diplomatic crisis in Sudan this year. With two violent conflicts on the brink of escalation, a president indicted for war crimes, and an election next month, Sudan is set to explode. The country is also preparing for a January 2011 referendum on independence for the south that will determine the fate of the country.

A violent divorce would be a major embarrassment for Obama considering that former president George Bush managed to get Sudan to sign a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the north-south civil war in 2005.

In the western region of Darfur, the government of Sudan is engaged in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that led the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir on March 4 last year. Bashir is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, in a war that the International Criminal Court (ICC) and United Nations say killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced over 2 million people. The conflict escalated in 2003 after rebels from ethnic groups fed up with marginalization launched an insurgency campaign. The government responded with extreme force, bombing villages from the air and arming and inciting Arab militias to attack non-Arab civilians.

In the south, a horrific civil war ended in 2005 with a peace agreement that mandated a referendum on self-determination for southern Sudan. The referendum, scheduled for January 2011, is expected to result in the creation of an independent country in southern Sudan. Bashir has pledged to respect a vote for separation, but the break-up may well reignite the south-north war that lasted for over 20 years.

Faced with this nightmare scenario, the Obama team is scrambling to ensure that the divorce is as peaceful as possible. Chaos in the south is also likely to complicate hostilities in Darfur, where rebel groups might view the crisis as an opportunity. On March 4, Presidential Envoy Scott Gration said that the United States supports the Darfur peace process in Doha, Qatar, which led to a framework agreement and a “temporary ceasefire” announced on February 23 between the most powerful militia, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and the government of Sudan. Gration called the agreement “an opportunity to significantly reduce violence in Darfur.” At the same time, however, he called for an all-inclusive process and said that the United States was working with regional players to ensure the inclusion of other rebel groups.

Bashir agreed to release political prisoners and appoint JEM officials in government posts in exchange for the agreement. The initial breakthrough came with an announcement in Chad, where Bashir and Idriss Déby of Chad pledged to stop cross-border hostilities.

On 22 February, the U.S. State Department praised Déby for “facilitating” the agreement, calling it a “significant move toward formal negotiations.” The statement also praised the AU/UN Mediation team and the government of Qatar for their efforts. This movement in the peace process comes just three months after the Obama administration unveiled a new Sudan policy based on a series of sanctions and incentives. The policy provided some leeway for rolling back sanctions as an incentive for the Sudanese government to negotiate with Chad and rebels in Darfur.

Real Peace?

Despite the diplomatic posturing, however, the agreement seems like yet another politically expedient “temporary” ceasefire signed by the Sudanese government with rebel factions over the years. Another agreement signed with JEM last year broke down in days. Negotiations with one faction of a diverse group of rebel movements seem like a diversionary tactic designed to buy time. Meanwhile, just hours after the agreement was announced, the combined UN-AU peacekeeping force, UNAMID, confirmed that government forces had attacked positions held a faction of Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), which did not sign the agreement. Fighting has resumed between the rebel groups and government forces killing hundreds of civilians and displacing thousands. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who is known to prefer a hard-line policy toward Sudan, said on March 3 that the reports of government offensives in Darfur “do not suggest a new willingness on the part of Sudan to fully engage in the peace process.”

Furthermore, the agreement is part of the Doha peace talk process in Qatar supported by the Arab states. Qatar was the first country to condemn the International Criminal Court for issuing an arrest warrant for Bashir. Thus the agreement should be read in the context of the indictment and the looming April 2010 election in which Bashir is running for president in the first democratic poll in 24 years. A ceasefire will not only deliver JEM voters in Darfur, it casts Bashir as a peacemaker instead of a war criminal. At the same time, it seems that Bashir, with the help of Qatar and some Arab states, is interested in unifying the Islamist forces in Sudan in preparation for a possible violent break with the South in 2011. Many political forces in Sudan are suspicious of JEM because of its ties to Islamists in Bashir’s regime. A South Sudan government official, for instance, referred to the agreement as “a reunion between friends.”

Advocacy groups in the United States are furious with Obama’s team for supporting the Doha peace process. They argue that the United States shouldn’t negotiate with war criminals and that Bashir can’t be trusted. The bitterness from Darfur advocacy groups stems from the belief that the United States has abandoned Darfur in favor of implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in the south.

The United States seems so desperate for some sign of progress in Sudan that it set aside any reservations and welcomed the accord, however temporary it may be. The recent series of events signal White House support for Gration’s constructive engagement policy with the Sudanese government, instead of the hard-line position taken by Rice and others in the State Department. Gration, it seems, is focused on ensuring that current tensions, raised by the upcoming elections and the 2011 referendum on self-determination for South Sudan, don’t reignite the north-south civil war that ended with the U.S.-sponsored CPA of 2005. Sudan’s horrendous civil war lasted for over 20 years and cost an estimated two million lives. The concern is that the civil war might reignite as it did in 1983. The two sides agreed to a ceasefire in 1974 after a protracted regional peace process, but armed conflict reignited in 1983 after the Sudanese president Jaafar al-Nimeiri imposed Islamic law on the non-Muslim south.

Open-Hand Policy

The United States seems convinced that a smooth transition can be ensured implementing disputed CPA provisions, such as oil-wealth sharing, boundary agreements, and security arrangements. This means engaging with both sides. This open-hand policy, however, ran into resistance at the State Department where diplomats opposed engagement with Bashir. This lack of a coherent policy distorts the message and may embolden obstructionists on both sides.

In any case, the April 2010 elections are a farce. The CPA agreement stipulated that multiparty elections be held between July 2008 and July 2009. Logistical delays and disagreements, however, postponed the elections until April 2010. Even so, many disputes about the provisions of the CPA have yet to be settled, threatening the legitimacy of both the agreement and the elections.

The problem, however, is that the Sudanese government may not be interested in implementing the agreement. Given that 85 percent of the oil fields are currently located in southern Sudan, according to Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, the government isn’t interested in implementing an agreement that would mean the loss of most of its oil revenue. If the north-south boundary runs north of the disputed Abyei region, 95 percent of the fields will be in the south. Thus the government may not be interested in implementing the provisions of the peace agreement. Instead, its response has been to rearm and reactivate proxy militias that were created during the 20-year civil war.

Arms Race

The Jane’s Weekly report accuses the government of Sudan of being the main importer and conduit of arms to militias in the south. The UN Register of Conventional Arms shows that since 2000, China has been the biggest arms supplier to Sudanese government. Other major suppliers include Belarus, Iran, and Russia. These arms are then distributed to government-supported tribal militias in proxy wars in the south and Darfur. According to the report, “There are certain indications that the common denominator in the supply chain to armed groups and militias across Sudan is the SAF.”

Given the history of government sponsored proxy wars in the border regions, the increased strength of previously moribund militias is a cause for concern. Recent skirmishes may be designed to destabilize the south to suggest that the government of South Sudan is incapable of maintaining peace and security.

Meanwhile, the Small Arms Survey reported last month that an arms race is escalating between the governments of North and South Sudan. Satellite imagery shows that the tanks aboard a hijacked Ukrainian ship, ostensibly heading for Kenya’s military, actually ended up in Southern Sudan. Kenya has also been accused of delivering three other arms shipments. Asked about Kenya’s role, Rice said that it wasn’t clear where the arms were coming from and whether there was a deliberate effort to destabilize the region. Kenya’s government has vehemently denied the allegations. The fact is, however, that Kenya’s military continues to use NATO tanks. A conversion to Russian equipment from Ukraine would take extensive retraining that is not feasible at this time.

Political Front

On the political front, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the current ruling party in south Sudan, chose a junior official, Yasin Arman, instead of movement leader Salve Kiir, to represent it in the presidential election. This means that the leadership has decided to focus on the campaign for a “yes” vote in the referendum on independence for south Sudan. By staying out of the presidential election, Kiir will maintain his position as the leader of the movement’s army and still be free to organize for an independent South Sudan. Arman’s candidacy, however, is designed to siphon support from regions such as Darfur, where there is disaffection against president Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). The SPLM has made it clear that it’s committed to defending the provisions of the 2005 peace agreement, with violence if necessary.

The ability of the government of Sudan to organize a credible election in a country as diverse and fractured as Sudan is also questionable. The instability in Darfur, for instance, means that the population of internally displaced people cannot participate, which would result in the same politicians responsible for war crimes returning to power. Opposition groups also argue that the elections cannot be free and fair because the government controls the media and the electoral commission. Rebel groups are also boycotting the elections, as they are required by law to disarm before participating.

Obviously, the next few months are critical for Sudan, the region, and the world. With the South Sudanese widely expected to vote for independence next January, the international community should focus on making the break-up as peaceful as possible. The government of Sudan should be encouraged to implement provisions of the CPA with respect to borders, sharing of oil wealth, and ceasing military activities in the region. Russia and China should also contribute constructively to the process by putting pressure on the Sudanese government to implement the agreement. Both countries have extensive trade and diplomatic relations with Sudan, and have played negative roles in the past by arming and coddling Bashir. On March 3, Rice criticized the Security Council for “cavalier violations” of the sanctions regime imposed in 2005 that included an arms embargo with regard to Darfur.

International pressure for the implementation of the CAP and the ICC indictment seems to have pushed Bashir to loosen his grip on the south and support a “temporary” ceasefire with JEM. The recent movement in the mediation process suggests that the United States still has some leverage in Sudan. Constructive engagement, however, shouldn’t mean capitulation or appeasement. Bashir must still be held accountable for his actions. Considering the history of broken agreements, provisions for an international monitoring team must be a critical part of any credible accord. In the case of Darfur, the Sudanese government must ensure the participation of displaced people and others in the conflict zones. Without meaningful participation of refugees and displaced people in Darfur, the elections are likely to create a new set of grievances that will extend the conflict into the future.

For the moment, measures must be taken to make the looming 2011 divorce as peaceful as possible. This means putting pressure on the government of Sudan to implement the 2005 peace agreement and cease arming militias in the south and Darfur. Pressure should be applied on arms suppliers to urge Bashir to stop arming militias in the south and Darfur. In the long term, the United States must continue to use its leverage to ensure that the government of Sudan is held accountable for its actions in Darfur.

Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor who teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions: African Americans Against Apartheid, 1946-1994. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

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