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Sudan's Oilfields Burn Again: Brinkmanship Endangers The Peace Process

To access the Overview of this report in Arabic, please click here.

Sudan's 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 willingness of the government to disregard signed agreements;

  • 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

  • the ongoing danger that the dynamic of oil development represents for the peace process, at least so long as the government and a number of foreign oil companies with which it is in partnership are prepared to pursue that development by whatever means necessary.

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 negotiating table.

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".

The Khartoum 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


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