Sudan apparently heading towards partition as US puts weight behind Garang

Colonel John Garang, leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which has been fighting Khartoum for almost two decades to establish a separate state in the south of the country, has apparently secured US backing for his programme, if the high-level reception and the funding he received during his recent visit to Washington is anything to go by. And although Garang was officially in Washington in connection with the US-chaired peace talks, he was allowed ample opportunity to air a propaganda war against the very regime he was supposed to be negotiating with.

He called it the “Taliban of Africa”, and was able to boast, without official contradiction, that he had the administration’s green light to attack oil-installations in the Sudan. This claim came soon after Garang’s meeting with secretary of state Colin Powell on March 15, and also seemed to back his other contention that oil-installations were military targets and not among the civilian targets required to be protected under the four-point peace plan brokered by John C. Danworth, president George W. Bush’s peace envoy to Sudan. Later he attacked such installations and claimed to have killed 300 government soldiers, warning oil companies to leave the area “as the SPLA does not take prisoners”, showing that he could get away with murder despite the ‘peace plan’.

The announcement of the attack came on March 31 and was confirmed the following day by Sudan’s government, which claimed to have repulsed it and to have inflicted heavy casualties on rebel forces. The Bush administration made no public statements on the issue, confining itself instead to making private assurances to Khartoum that Garang had indeed signed the four-point peace plan and was committed to negotiating a “just peace”. And when Mustapha Osman Ismail, the Sudanese foreign minister, was asked to comment on Garang’s claim that he had received the green light from Washington for his assault on the oil-installations, he seemed to be more concerned to cover up for the Americans than to challenge them for their obvious failure to be impartial. “Our ministry in Washington is in touch with the Americans to obtain an explanation for the statements,” he said. “And the information we’ve received from our embassy confirms that the statements are not true.”

Only four days earlier a Sudanese junior minister had been publicly able to hold the Bush administration responsible for any damage to oil-installations resulting from attacks carried out by the SPLA in an erroneous misrepresentation of the peace plan. Dio Maduk conceded that the plan did not specifically mention oil-installations, but he argued that since they had no connection with the armed forces and were plainly civilian in nature they were covered and therefore entitled to protection. Garang was claiming otherwise, so he called on the Americans to carry out their duty to interpret the relevant clause with strict impartiality. This was not a serious challenge, particularly when made by a junior minister, but the fact that the foreign minister was so anxious to avoid any action even remotely comparable to this was consistent with the Bashir regime’s practice of leaving serious anti-US complaints to be made by “government spokesmen” or “unnamed sources” in media interviews.

Khartoum’s obvious agitation at the high-level reception given to Garang during his visit to Washington, and the economic and military assistance he received as a result, was widely expressed by unnamed sources in Sudanese newspaper interviews. Garang was received not only by Colin Powell, but also by the assistant secretary of defence, national security officials, the two chairmen of the congressional foreign affairs and financial committees, and by officials of the Organisation for Foreign Aid. He also met the heads of American research organisations specialising in Africa, and of US pressure groups. Garang was also able to secure US$40 million in US government aid with which to finance agricultural and educational projects in southern Sudan during the next five years. An SPLA spokesman also said that his movement would establish a central bank and national currency.

The mysterious Sudanese government sources complained that the SPLA leader had been received as a head of state of Southern Sudan, and was accorded treatment that had been denied to foreign minister Ismail and other northern Sudanese opposition leaders such as former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, a staunchly pro-US politician, during their US visit at the beginning of March. But any Sudanese official named in the media reports was conspicuous in his avoidance of any direct criticism of Washington’s lack of impartiality. One of those named, for instance, was Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Atbani, a presidential peace advisor, who was quoted in a newspaper report on April 4 as saying that “the US position, though not aimed at changing the balance in favour of John Garang either politically or militarily, was nevertheless bound to give the wrong message to him.”

Khartoum certainly does not need to defend the US against so obviously well-founded charges of partiality, when it is so worried about Washington’s attitude towards a “peace plan” that is tailored in favour of the southerners from the outset. Two recent developments parallel to Garang’s triumphant US visit should have given the Bashir regime greater grounds for concern and forced it to challenge the Bush administration more strongly and openly. The regime should know that subservience on its part will only encourage Washington to be more partial to Garang. After all, its abjectly unlimited cooperation with the US-led “war on terrorism” has earned it very little in return.

The first of the two developments came to light on March 25, when Washington informed the Sudanese opposition groups of its new plan for hijacking the Sudanese peace process by uniting the various peace initiatives into a single one, which will finally be under its control. The Libyan-Egyptian plan, which is the only one capable of guaranteeing Sudanese unity, and the Nairobi-based peace effort by Eastern African countries, which is restricted to negotiations between the SPLA and Khartoum, will cease to exist as separate plans. Egypt, which does not want to see new states appearing along the Nile, is bound.

The other development was revealed in London on March 28 when ambassador Alan Gault, Britain’s peace envoy to Sudan, said at an Anglo-Arab gathering that there was a clear tendency towards the establishment of “provisional constitutional arrangements”, after which the southerners would decide whether to stay put or secede. The former ambassador to Sudan, appointed by prime minister Tony Blair as a special peace envoy to Sudan, said that his main mission was to encourage the Sudanese to make peace.