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peace process survived a major challenge in the first weeks of the new year.
Indeed, signature by the parties of a strengthened cessation of hostilities
agreement on 4 February and a memorandum of understanding codifying points of
agreement on outstanding issues of power and wealth sharing two days later
indicates that the momentum to end the twenty-year old conflict is strong.
However, the crisis produced by a government-sponsored offensive in the Western
Upper Nile oilfields at the end of 2002 and through January raised questions
about the Khartoum government’s
commitment to peace and showed that much more attention needs to be paid to
pro-government southern militias and the commercial and political agendas for
which they are being used.
The fighting, the brunt of which was borne by those
militias, with regular government troops in support and backup roles, highlighted
three major obstacles in the path of a final peace deal:
the spoiler role that the government-supported militias can
play in the peace process, including following conclusion of a formal peace
agreement, if greater efforts are not made to encourage their reconciliation
with the SPLA insurgents; and
Strong international engagement remains the key to
buttressing a still fragile peace process and seeing it through to success in
the next several months. In the first instance that means insisting on full
implementation of the newly agreed ceasefire provisions including an active
role for the authorised verification team and the withdrawal of troops to the
positions they occupied before the offensive. Holding the parties publicly
accountable for violations will be key in ensuring their seriousness at the
The offensive from late December until the beginning of
February was an extension of the government’s long-time strategy of
depopulating oil-rich areas through indiscriminate attacks on civilians in
order to clear the way for further development of infrastructure. Eyewitness
accounts confirm that the tactics included the abduction of women and children,
gang rapes, ground assaults supported by helicopter gunships, destruction of
humanitarian relief sites, and burning of villages. A senior Sudanese civil
society member concluded: "The Nuer militias are the most potent threat to
human security and stability in the South, regardless of whether peace is
concluded or not".
authorities deny it, but their responsibility for the latest round of
hostilities is clear. They and the other participants in the fragile peace
process now face crucial decisions.
The government must choose between continued reliance on
military brinkmanship, which would bring it renewed international condemnation
and isolation, or the benefits of a peace that is within reach. The latest
fighting reflected a calculated decision to violate the cessation of
hostilities agreement signed on 15 October 2002.
The signing of new agreements, therefore, does not guarantee their implementation.
The SPLA, which was forced onto the defensive by the
attacks, must decide not only whether to keep its emphasis on the negotiating
track but also whether to intensify its efforts to achieve reconciliation with
the Nuer militia leaders who did most of the recent fighting for Khartoum.
Despite the new agreements, many in the SPLA feel increasingly pessimistic
about the intentions of the government, as well as about the commitment and
ability of the international community to hold Khartoum to its word.
The next several months will be decisive for the peace
process. A looming crossroads date may be 21 April, when President Bush is
required to report to the U.S. Congress on the state of progress in the
negotiations. If Khartoum is
assessed to be obstructing the process, that report could trigger new U.S.
action under its recent legislation (the "Sudan Peace Act"). Because of the
State Department’s policy of engagement, "Khartoum is underestimating our
response. That would be a mistake", said one well-placed U.S. official,
citing Congressional and constituency pressure as unknown variables. "The whole
thing could blow up", a Western official close to the talks said in January
2003 out of concern for the consequences if the offensive continued.
The peace process held together – narrowly – this time but
the situation remains volatile.
Nairobi/Brussels, 10 February 2003