January 22, 2004
Highly authoritative sources have confirmed that Khartoum’s chief negotiator in critical peace talks with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army has decided to leave the talks and thereby force a suspension of the negotiations. First Vice President Ali Osman Taha—widely regarded as the real political power in the National Islamic Front regime—will be departing Naivasha (Kenya) this Saturday (January 24, 2004), ostensibly for the Islamic Haj pilgrimage. Depending on the nature and duration of Taha’s pilgrimage, peace talks could easily be delayed until later February.
What does this sudden access of devotion by Taha represent in defining the recent history of Khartoum’s declarations concerning completion of the peace process? It represents nothing less than a clear, calculated attempt to deny the process a meaningful deadline. And this is the key step in collapsing the talks. For without facing a deadline that will truly hold, Khartoum knows that it can extend the talks indefinitely—always coming “close” to final resolution, but never quite making the last commitment. This is the real meaning of the factitious “impasse” on the contested area of Abyei.
Until the international community catches on to this duplicitous stratagem and demands unequivocally that an agreement be completed within a clear time-frame, Khartoum is afforded both the opportunity to prosecute its genocidal war in Darfur and to gain further strategic military advantage vis–vis the south. Ominous and again highly authoritative reports indicate the Khartoum is now sending tens of thousands of tents to the Abyei area, is engaged in bridge construction with clear military potential, and is substantially strengthening the hand of its Missereiya (Arab) allies in the region. Similarly ominous developments are unfolding in the Bentiu area of Western Upper Nile. Both Abyei and Bentiu are of key strategic importance in any resumed oil war in southern Sudan.
Some very recent history. First there was a missed December 31, 2003 deadline for concluding an agreement—a deadline demanded by the US, and to which both Khartoum and the SPLM/A committed themselves. Even as the deadline was passing, however, President Omer Beshir was reported as declaring emphatically that:
“a definitive peace deal with the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army [would be reached] next week, the official daily Al-Anbaa reported Tuesday. ‘Next week could see the signing of a final agreement on the questions of sharing of power, sharing of resources and the three contested areas,’ Beshir was quoted as saying.” (Agence France-Presse, December 30, 2003 [Khartoum])
Though Khartoum did nothing to see this prediction into reality, the same general, if troublingly extended, time-frame was promulgated by NIF foreign minister Mustafa Ismail the week following the completion of a wealth-sharing agreement between the two sides on January 6, 2004. Speaking in Cairo, Ismail declared,
“‘I am optimistic that in a short while we will manage to sign the peace accord,’ he said, adding the time-frame proposed up until now was the end of January. ‘We are continuing to hope (to be able to respect the deadline), but in my opinion, even if we exceed this date, it will not take much time’ to conclude a settlement, the minister said. ‘I’m not speaking of months, but perhaps weeks.'” (Agence France-Presse, January 13, 2004 [Cairo])
But of course the day after Ismail’s pronouncement President Beshir precipitously declared that the last major issue outstanding—the status of the three contested areas of Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and Southern Blue Nile—was not within the purview of the Naivasha negotiations, despite the fact that such status was precisely what Khartoum’s negotiators acknowledged they were then discussing, and despite Beshir’s own earlier (December 30, 2003) reference to negotiations on this very subject (see above). But Beshir’s disingenuous and peremptory comments again retarded the diplomatic process and commandeered what news attention was being garnered by the peace talks.
Now, following this pattern of clear delay, misdirection, and obfuscation, the key negotiator has decided out of the blue that he will depart on January 24, 2004 for Mecca. Taha no doubt counts on the fact that the Haj is an act of Islamic religious devotion, and will thus insulate him from criticism that this is an inappropriate time for religious observance, given the extraordinary urgency of peace for Sudan. But there is good reason for skepticism about the genuineness of Taha’s religious urges. This pilgrimage on his part was not announced in any fashion, or even known of, prior to its becoming expediently useful. Indeed, as the comments above on peace agreement deadlines by Beshir and Ismail make clear, there was nothing on the horizon as represented by the NIF even ten days ago.
In short, Taha’s Haj has come without any warning, without any explanation, even as he would certainly have known that his absenting himself from Naivasha would force a suspension of the peace negotiations (a fact baldly acknowledged on January 21, 2004 [Reuters] by Ahmed Dirdeiry, the NIF deputy ambassador in Nairobi who broke the news of Taha’s Haj). How likely is it that, knowing of the extremely consequential nature of his Haj, Khartoum’s key negotiator would have said nothing earlier to the man who is leading the IGAD talks, Kenya’s Lazarus Sumbeiywo?
Indeed, Sumbeiywo was incredulous when confronted by Reuters with the news of Taha’s Haj:
“The chief mediator of the talks, Kenyan Lazaro Sumbeiywo, said Taha had not mentioned any upcoming absences or a break in the talks and cast doubt on the comments [about the Haj] out of Khartoum. ‘He hasn’t told me of any break that is coming up,’ Sumbeiywo said. ‘I don’t think he would want to leave without an agreement. It would mean that he is not serious, and yet I know he is serious in these talks. There are two camps in Khartoum: those who want to get an agreement and those who don’t,’ Sumbeiywo said. ‘This claim that he is going for the Haj could be from those who are against.'” (Reuters, January 20, 2004)
Sumbeiywo has it exactly right: Taha’s leaving for his Haj “would mean that he is not serious” about the peace talks—that this is the action of someone who “doesn’t want” a peace agreement.
For those curious about a Muslim’s obligation to undertake the Haj, it should be borne in mind that according to the Koran, a Muslim is required to participate in a Haj once in a lifetime. But Taha has already participated in the Haj in the past, and could certainly do so again next year. There is simply nothing that demands this particular year be one in which he make a pilgrimage.
All these finally transparent realities should make inescapably clear to the international community, and to the US in particular, that either Khartoum is given a forceful, credible ultimatum—or the peace talks will collapse. If the Bush administration, which has been the central player in bringing credibility to the process, fails this most basic and obvious test of commitment to peace in Sudan, then Khartoum will draw the inevitable conclusion: there really will be no unacceptable price to pay for the slow, prolonged withering of the Naivasha talks. If there is no protest now, ultimately (Khartoum calculates) Washington will, in an election year, tire of what has been a wearingly long and frustrating process. Disturbingly, behind the scenes there is indeed evidence of drooping will and commitment by the State Department and White House.
Thus the need for clarity at this last moment of truth: it must be impossible to say at some future point that “we don’t quite know” how this most promising of chances for peace in Sudan was squandered. We do know. And the Bush administration must know if it only has the will to look honestly. Khartoum is attempting to abort the peace process, having squeezed virtually every military benefit possible from this very lengthy process, dating back at least to the signing of the Machakos Protocol in July 2002—a year and a half ago. In particular, Khartoum has enjoyed the immense military benefits of a cessation of hostilities agreement (October 2002).
We may extend this remorseless and inescapable logic one step further. If the regime pays no penalty for this climactic duplicity, if there are no consequences articulated that will force a change in Khartoum’s presently transparent diplomatic calculations and disingenuousness, then the regime will rightly draw a secondary conclusion: it can proceed, with impunity, in the continued massive human destruction in Darfur, and to threaten ever more potently to bring about renewed massive human destruction in southern Sudan.
President Bush, or Secretary of State Powell speaking directly for the President, must declare immediately that there is no reasonable excuse for suspending peace talks at the climactic moment. 20 years of unfathomable human destruction cannot be put in the balance with the claimed devotional needs of one man. The administration must make clear its understanding that a peace agreement is either completed in the very near term, or it will never be completed. And it must make equally clear that if the talks are not completed, Khartoum will be held responsible. And finally, the President must articulate the severest consequences for this terrible responsibility, with a clear commitment to seeing that these consequences bite deeply into this tyrannical and murderous regime’s ability to survive.
Americans who believe that the US must shoulder responsibility in this most consequential moral arena have very little time in which to declare their beliefs loudly and insistently to the Bush administration.
This is the moment of truth—there will be no other.
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