“Khartoum’s Renewed Talk of War All Too Revealing”
Both Reuters and the Associated Press today report on dismayingly bellicose language by Omer Beshir, president of that National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum. In a public address in the eastern city of Kassala, Beshir declared, “Peace will come by the gun, if it cannot come by dialogue.” At another point Beshir threatened renewed “jihad,” or holy war, directed against the mainly non-Muslim people of the south. For Beshir and other members of the NIF, the “peace that comes by the gun” will be a war of annihilation against Southern Sudan, continuing in particular the immensely destructive campaigns in the oil regions of Southern Sudan. “Peace” in this sense means the utter destruction of all capacity to resist Khartoum’s tyranny. The “dialogue” Beshir refers to is, of course, the peace process at Machakos, Sudan’s best chance for peace in almost two decades. The threat of “jihad” is, then, clearly a threat directed at the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army: “don’t press too hard at Machakos for reasonable resolution of the difficult outstanding issues of geography, wealth-sharing, interim arrangements, and military disengagement.” But of course no peace that is truly just can avoid these key issues; and a peace that is not just cannot last. Some will dismiss Beshir’s language as rhetoric for “domestic consumption only.” But the negotiating pattern of the NIF, both very recently and since seizing power by military coup in 1989, suggests there should be considerable cause for concern.
Eric Reeves [December 29, 2002]
Northampton, MA 01063
Recent events in Khartoum cannot be encouraging to those who have preferred to see a different regime from the one that has revealed itself all too clearly over the last thirteen years. This “preferred” regime is one that can be accommodated because it has moderated politically and is less ideologically driven to control all state power. But this “new” regime hardly comports with what is all too evident in the actual actions and language of Khartoum.
First the National Islamic Front (NIF) declared that once again “emergency” powers will be renewed for another year. This now annual ritual in itself makes nonsense of expedient claims about the regime’s political moderation or change: under the terms of this “emergency” state, the NIF retains absolute power, concentrated in the hands of the president and his various executive extensions, including First Vice President Ali Osman Taha. Predictably, the declaration of renewed emergency powers was ratified unanimously by Sudan’s “parliament” (a comparison with the Iraqi national assembly is inevitable).
Those Khartoum newspapers that had the temerity to criticize the renewal of a state of “emergency” have been confiscated, intimidated into non-publication, and in one case quite literally occupied by NIF security forces. Agence France-Presse reports today that the regime “closed down the independent daily Al-Watan late Saturday hot on the heels of the non-appearance of two other leading titles” (AFP, Dec 29, 2002). AFP further reports that, “The ban was ordered by the director general of internal security ‘under the state of emergency law and for maintenance of security and public safety,’ an official statement said without elaborating” (two other independent dailies, Al-Sahafa and Al-Horriyah, “failed to appear on newsstands Saturday amid what staff said were government threats to confiscate their print-runs”).
But the viciously circular despotism here—promulgate an annually renewable and tyrannical “state of emergency,” then punish any with the courage to criticize such a move—isn’t really surprising to any who have watched Khartoum for any length of time. This, in turn, obliges the realization that the Machakos peace process has from the beginning been about a deal to be made with the devil. There has been no outbreak of benevolence or tolerance in Khartoum, simply a recalibration of survivalist strategies. Indeed, the greatest threat to consummation of a peace agreement at Machakos is—and will remain—the NIF fear that peace will set in motion the forces of democratization that will destroy its absolute hold on power.
The differences between factions in the NIF have been described as differences between the “moderates” (Beshir, and his primary peace advisor Ghazi Salah Eddin) and the “hardliners” (First Vice President Taha and his brutal cronies Nafie Ali Nafie, Quitbi al-Mahdi, and apparently Foreign Minister Mustafa Ismail). But this is misleading. The real difference between the factions is between two survivalist strategies. Beshir and Ghazi evidently feel that a peace can be negotiated that does not truly threaten NIF control of power, and yet ends the fighting—thereby opening up the opportunity for much greater oil exploration in the south, greater oil revenues, and ultimately the economic power to trim a Machakos accord to suit Khartoum’s fundamental interests. These interests do not include a self-determination referendum for Southern Sudan in six years; six years is rather the time Beshir and his faction have calculated that will be required to undermine the possibility of a meaningful self-determination referendum.
The Machakos negotiators and the international community simply must understand this fundamental calculation by Khartoum. Even as Khartoum must be held to the historic breakthrough of July 20, which formalized a commitment to a self-determination referendum, so the Machakos negotiators and the international community must see to it that there are fully adequate international guarantees and guarantors for this agreement. Machakos will have been pointless without such robustly supported guarantees.
Taha, Quitbi, Nafie, and Ismail have calculated rather differently; they evidently believe that a peace agreement at Machakos would set in motion a process of reform and democratization that will result in the ultimate dismantling of NIF power—and for that reason are insisting that Khartoum’s delegation at Machakos not make the necessary compromises, or accommodate the legitimate interests of the south and other marginalized areas of Sudan. They would be happy to see Machakos collapse, so long as Khartoum is not blamed for the failure by the international community.
Beshir’s bellicose language in Kassala is a way of positioning himself so as to ward off the threat of a “palace coup” by Taha and his followers. Since neither Beshir nor Taha can be confident of the loyalties of the army should there be an internal NIF power struggle, Beshir wants shore up his internal political position by making clear his willingness to deal forcefully with the southern opposition (it is likely that army generals would support Beshir, but the ranks of colonel and below have been filled largely with men of Taha’s appointing).
The language of “jihad” also serves to keep Beshir’s Islamicist credentials well burnished in the eyes of those for whom the Islamic project is central. Such language also plays extremely well to several neighboring Arab countries with large Islamicist followings or governments purposefully tolerant of Islamicism. It is no accident that Agence France-Presse also reports today on Saudi Arabia’s growing commitment to Khartoum:
[Dateline: Khartoum] “Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal arrived here Sunday promising to promote economic and political cooperation with Sudan. ‘This visit of ours will focus on the domain of cooperation in the political, economic and investment fields,’ Prince Saud said after he was
greeted at the airport by his Sudanese counterpart Mustafa Osman Ismail”
[AFP, Dec 29, 2002]
Beshir’s bellicose comments in Kassala, and all they represent of what Khartoum brings to the Machakos peace talks, yet again give urgency to the need for the international community to offer full, prominent, and unstinting support to chief IGAD peace mediator Lazaro Sumbeiywo. If the threat of being blamed for the collapse of the Machakos talks is now central in NIF calculations about how much to concede, then that threat must be increased as much as possible—and nothing does so as much as enhanced authority for Sumbeiywo’s “post-mortem” on Machakos, if such tragically becomes necessary.
Exceedingly hard negotiating and diplomatic work remains to be done if the resumption of the Machakos process on January 6, 2003 is to be truly an occasion for fashioning a just peace. There has been a good deal too much optimism in commentary on what has been achieved in the wake of the historic breakthrough of July 20 (the “Machakos Protocol,” which provides for a southern self-determination referendum six years after the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement). When the talks broke off in mid-November, the two sides were far apart on all the key issues outstanding. Certainly this is the clear view of the SPLM/A; and given their concessions on various key issues (including most consequentially the agreement to a military cessation of offensive hostilities before a peace agreement is reached), the evidence would support them. Here it should be noted that the Machakos mediators feel largely as the SPLM/A does on the matter of which side has been more flexible, more willing to reach reasonable compromise, make the breakthrough offers.
What we have from Khartoum, by contrast, is all too aptly encapsulated in NIF President Omer Beshir’s language of “jihad,” his declaration that he will not “betray the blood of the martyrs”—and his grim warning that “if peace will not come through negotiations in Machakos, we will bring it through the barrel of the gun” (Reuters and Associated Press, December 29, 2002).
The ready recourse to military threats, the guiding conception of a military victory over the south by means of oil-revenues and the purchase of advanced weaponry these revenues have enabled—this does not augur well for peace that must be achieved through true and fair negotiations. And perhaps there can be no “deal with the devil” that produces something as extraordinarily important and humanly valuable as a just peace for Sudan. But if this is so, then all the world must watch Machakos intently—and listen even more intently to the words of Lazaro Sumbeiywo should the Machakos process collapse.