“Khartoum Suspends Its Participation in the Machakos Peace Talks”
In the immediate wake of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s (SPLA’s) capture of the key southern town of Torit (Eastern Equatoria), Khartoum’s Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail has declared that, “the Sudanese delegation will suspend the talks today because of the atmosphere created by the recent military operations and because the occupation of the town of Torit is unacceptable.” The spectacular hypocrisy of this statement—given Khartoum’s recent massive offensives in the oil regions of Western Upper Nile and the continual bombing of civilian targets—is cause for reflection. Is Khartoum seeking to walk away from the breakthrough agreement on self-determination in the Machakos Protocol (July 20)? Is this declaration for Egyptian consumption (Ismail is in Cairo)? Is this Khartoum’s effort to secure additional leverage with the negotiators in Machakos as the critical issue of disengagement of forces has become central? We can be sure only that the proffered explanation is not the real one.
Eric Reeves [September 2, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
It’s simply too early to know the full meaning of Khartoum’s announced decision to “suspend” its participation in peace talks at Machakos, Kenya. But the decision to make the announcement was clearly a coordinated one: BBC Monitoring today reports that, “Khartoum state radio said the
negotiations held since August 12 in Machakos will only resume when the SPLA stops its ‘hostilities,'” adding that with the SPLA capture of Torit the Machakos talks had become “futile and useless” (BBC Monitoring, Sept 2). And Foreign Minister Ismail’s comments in Egypt included the following: “The energies of the state and the Sudanese people will be directed towards military operations. This position will change when we are convinced the rebels are serious about continuing peace. The situation now is a war situation” (Reuters, Sept 2).
Last week President Omar Bashir declared that only the issues of a cease-fire and disengagement of forces remained to be resolved. Today Associated Press (AP) reports, “[Khartoum] government spokesman Zahawe Malik confirmed the decision to suspend the [Machakos] talks and state television showed footage of a meeting it said was held Monday morning between President Omar el-Bashir, in combat fatigues, and his top military officers” (AP, Sept 2).
And in a bid to outdo all in hypocrisy, Sudanese army spokesman General
Mohamed Basher Suliman was quoted as saying that in the wake of the capture of Torit, troops and supplies were being rushed to the south: “We will no longer be bound by the self-restraint policy,” Suliman ludicrously declared (AP, Sept 2).
And finally, BBC monitoring reports today that, “Government-controlled radio in Sudan reported on Monday that the rebels had ‘opted for military escalation’ and ‘this turn of events therefore makes it impossible for the government delegation to continue talks with it'” (BBC Monitoring, Sept 2).
This was no off-the-cuff remark or casual decision. It has been well orchestrated, indeed gives all the signs of having been in the works well before the fall of Torit yesterday (September 1). Many have wondered whether the National Islamic Front regime was capable of negotiating in good faith, and this suspension can only bolster the arguments of skeptics. For we know that a suspension of participation in the talks because of “offensive” military actions simply cannot be justified without breath-taking hypocrisy. Khartoum’s offensives over the last month a half in the more westerly parts of Western Upper Nile province have seen some of the most intense fighting of the war. In particular, the attacks in and around Tam (a village 40 miles southwest of Bentiu) have been devastating, both in human destruction and displacement.
Moreover, Khartoum has been engaged in continual aerial assaults on a variety of civilian sites in Eastern Equatoria. Especially hard-hit has been the town of Isoke, where one attack (August 27) destroyed the humanitarian facilities of Catholic Relief Services.
There is no cease-fire in force and Khartoum has behaved, militarily, accordingly. So for the regime then to withdraw from peace talks because the SPLA has not militarily acquiesced simply makes no sense on any coherent terms. There must be another explanation for the suspension.
The most likely is that Khartoum is seeking additional leverage from the IGAD mediators and negotiators at Machakos: Khartoum will try to extract some advantage for “relenting,” and “un-suspending” their participation in the talks. This must be resolutely resisted by those attempting to reach a successful outcome: any success by Khartoum in so cynically manipulating the negotiating process will only encourage more such efforts, and make it more difficult for the SPLA/M to trust the integrity of the process. If this is indeed the explanation for the “suspension,” we should expect to see Khartoum return relatively shortly.
More ominously, and a distinct possibility, Khartoum may be seeking to walk away from the self-determination agreement contained within the Machakos Protocol (the agreement of July 20). This may reflect the ascendancy of the views of First Vice President Ali Osman Taha, Nafie Ali Nafie (who recently arrived in Kenya), Qutbi al-Mahdi and others who felt that President Bashir and chief peace advisor Ghazi Salah al-Din gave away too much in the Machakos Protocol. Egypt—which is firmly opposed to the Machakos process—has most leverage with the powerful Taha, and may have been sufficiently threatening to force him to corral the political support needed to force a reneging on the Machakos agreement (Egypt’s state security apparatus has a powerful dossier exposing Taha’s role in the 1995 assassination attempt on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).
We can be sure, then, of two things only: that the explanation Khartoum has offered for its “suspension” of participation in the Machakos peace talks is a lie—and that extremely heavy fighting is in store. Indeed, the fighting in the oil regions has already reached extraordinary levels, with some describing it as the heaviest of the entire 19-year war. The fact that Khartoum has been able to mount offensives during the height of the rainy season (August is typically the rainiest month of the year in Western Upper Nile) marks a signal advance in its military abilities, largely because of oil-funded weapons acquisitions, especially helicopter gunships.
The denial and manipulation of humanitarian access—which, like Khartoum’s military efforts in the oil regions, has continued unabated—has had extraordinarily severe consequences for the newly displaced civilian populations in the concession areas of Talisman Energy and its Greater Nile partners (notably Concession Block 4). Altogether, we are witnessing one of the most destructive phases of Sudan’s civil war. It is in this context that Khartoum, with truly grotesque hypocrisy, has chosen to “suspend” participation in the Machakos talks because of the fall of Torit to the SPLA.
The international community must act with determination and decisiveness in refusing to accept Khartoum’s justification for blocking further progress in the Machakos peace process.