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  "Going to hell?"
Comment by by John Prendergast and David Mozersky in The Observer

Sudan's peace process is in trouble. The latest in our regular online series on under-reported conflicts, in association with the International Crisis Group, sets out a new agenda to end Africa's longest-running war.

Until recently there was hope across Sudan that a peace deal could be reached to end one of the world's longest and most brutal wars - the conflict between the Muslim-dominated government in Khartoum and rebel forces of the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM). But last month President Omar al-Beshir told the Kenyan-based mediation team to "go to hell", refusing to accept their draft peace settlement. If the mediators didn't come up with a "reasonable alternative", he said, "they will have to dissolve the document in water and drink it." SPLM leader John Garang has since warned that if the government doesn't accept the peace proposals, there would be a return to war. Hopes for a peace deal are not lost altogether, but they are diminishing.

President al-Beshir's truculent comments - and Garang's response - may simply be negotiating strategies. But the divergence of the parties on the draft document, which was presented to them at Nakuru in early July, is a significant obstacle. Neither party appears willing to give. When talks resumed a fortnight ago, they quickly became deadlocked over the way forward. The Nakuru document is at the core of the disagreement.

Both parties are guilty of the current impasse. The SPLA have been rigidly insisting that the negotiations continue with a line by line review of the document, while the government continues to refuse it as the sole basis for discussions. Both sides need to be pressured to give by the countries supporting their efforts to reach agreement.

The peace process, underway for fourteen months, is chaired by Kenya under the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) body, in close partnership with the U.S., UK, Norway and Italy. It has followed a careful and, in ICG's analysis, correct formula of regional and international involvement to cajole the parties into accepting significant compromises. A key breakthrough came with the Machakos Protocol of July 2002, which provided for a self-determination referendum for south Sudan after a six year interim period, in exchange for the continuation of sharia law in the north.

Since the Machakos Protocol, the mediators have overseen further incremental successes on power sharing, wealth sharing, security arrangements, and the administrative status of the three contested areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile.

Then in mid-May, the mediators shifted their strategy from issue-specific negotiations to a broader "holistic" approach that aimed to balance trade-offs in one thematic area with trade-offs in another. In early July, the parties were presented with a comprehensive draft proposal laying out broad compromises on most issues - the Nakuru document. The mediation team and observers argued that the document was the best way to achieve a just and lasting peace agreement.

Unfortunately, the proposal was flatly rejected by the government, even as a basis for negotiation. Khartoum issued a number of strong condemnations, including the President's "go to hell" speech. Equally distressing were the government's attempts to move the talks away from IGAD to either the African Union or to the Arab League, and to have General Sumbeiywo replaced as the Kenyan Special Envoy and head of the process.

The government's objections stem from the way the agreement provides for the country to be governed, arguing that the proposal caters to the demands of the SPLM, at the expense of government positions. The national capital district, for example, was proposed by the mediation team to be a place where all citizens should enjoy equal status. The government rejected the effect of this proposal, in part because they interpret it as limiting the implementation of sharia law in Khartoum and in part because they see it as a violation of the Machakos Protocol's provision to allow sharia law to remain in the north.

The mediators' recommendations on Abyei, the Nuba Mountains and Southern Blue Nile also threaten the government hegemony over the north, as they call for special administrative arrangements, more autonomous than those of other northern or southern states. In the heat of the disagreement, less contentious issues, on which there was thought to be informal agreement, were rejected outright by the government, along with the rest of the draft.

By contrast, the SPLM saw many of its demands satisfied with the Nakuru document. Although unhappy with some of the provisions in the draft, the SPLM has accepted it as a basis for discussion, and is willing to enter into negotiations with the government once more. Yet to reach an agreement, they must show more flexibility on the parameters of the negotiations. A line by line review of the document is a non-starter for the government. The SPLM must meet them halfway if an acceptable solution is to be found.

The government must also show more flexibility. Regional countries, the international community and Sudanese opposition parties must work together to persuade the government and the SPLM that the IGAD peace process is the best way to proceed. The message must be clear and consistent from all corners: maintain the provisions in the existing draft on the key issues, with room for manoeuvre over some of the detail. The international community must stand together, increasing pressure on both parties to get back to meaningful negotiating. More significant incentives and pressures must be prepared, and involvement should be ratcheted up to the level of Foreign Ministers and Secretaries of State The U.S., which has already worked hard to push the process forward, has special leverage through the Sudan Peace Act and its influence in international financial institutions to block aid to Sudan. If Khartoum fails to respond, it should be made clear that it will be a return to the isolation of the early 90s when Sudan was terrorist haven, giving shelter to, among others, Osama bin Laden.

Progress made so far is significant. A cessation of hostilities agreement was made in October 2002 and although fighting has continued in some areas the situation in much of Sudan is as calm is it has been at any time in the last ten years. Humanitarian access has improved dramatically and civilians throughout the country are anxious for the signing of a peace agreement. But if the peace talks break down there is no doubt that war would resume. Both sides are well armed and would quickly make up for lost time.

Giving up at this point is unacceptable to everyone: For IGAD and the international community, who have invested so much time, effort, commitment and resources to get to this point; for the government and SPLM who have broken so many taboos at the negotiating table; and most importantly for the people of Sudan, who have suffered civil war for 36 out of 47 years of independence. Popular opinion in the north and the south strongly supports a peace agreement. It is up to the Government of Sudan and the SPLM, with the support of the region and the broader international community, to close the chapter on the longest running war in Africa. Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003 24 August 2003


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