Splinter Movements Slows Peace Hopes: Only a Few Months Ago, It Seemed Certain That Sudan Would at Long Last Find Peace. but No Sooner Had the North and South Signed Agreements Than a Host of Other Splinter Movements Emerged. James Badcock Reports

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The halt of progress in the peace talks between the Sudanese government and the southern rebels, and a growing humanitarian crisis due to fighting in the western Darfur region make the prospects for Sudan in 2004 grimmer than many had hoped last year.

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It seems that the progress that was made towards a power-sharing agreement between North and South has spurred on other regional groups to make a push forward in their struggles.

That optimism culminated in the signing this January of a wealth-sharing accord to last the duration of the six-and-a-half-year transitional period to follow the conclusion of an eventual peace deal.

The signatories, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) led by John Garang, and the Sudanese Government headed by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, have failed to make the expected progress since then at the ongoing Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) talks in Kenya.

Worse still, fierce fighting between other rebels and government-backed militias in the western province of Darfur has created an alarming humanitarian crisis as an estimated 600,000 civilians have left their homes, over a hundred thousand fleeing into neighbouring Chad.

The two main separatist groups, the Justice and Equity Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), have upped their campaign in an attempt to gain a place at talks on a federal Sudan. They are opposed by both an Islamist militia and government forces themselves, who have carried out bombing raids over what they consider rebel-held areas.

Despite the government's claims that it has quashed the insurgency and has control over Darfur, aid agencies say that large sections of the area, and of the displaced population they wish to attend to, are out of bounds. Richard Howitt, a British member of the European Union delegation that recently toured Darfur, told the media that only 15% of the victims of the war have access to humanitarian aid in the region. "There is direct evidence that military confrontation is continuing," Howitt said.

Since the outbreak of heavy fighting in Darfur over a year ago, the UN has denounced atrocities against civilians, including "burning and looting of villages, large-scale killings, and abductions".

As for those who flee across the border into eastern Chad, they are met with one of the continent's most inhospitable zones. Aid agencies are struggling to follow the movements of people in an area which totally lacks the infrastructure necessary to guarantee the delivery of aid consignments.

In mid-February, the World Food Programme (WFP) was given the go-ahead to initiate a campaign of airlifting food for the refugees in Chad. WFP says it will now pre-position stores of food for over 110,000 people before overland transport becomes impossible with the start of the rainy season in June.

PEACE TALKS STALL OVER TERRITORY

Meanwhile, the peace talks over a north-south split of governance between Khartoum and the SPLM/A have stalled, not only due to the events in Darfur, but over the extent to which three disputed areas, the Nuba mountains, Southern Blue Nile and Abyei, should be included in any eventual deal. (See African Business February 2004 Editorial).

While SPLM/A leaders insist that the three areas are essential components of a solution to the decades-old conflict, President Bashir recently said that there was "no mandate to resolve this issue in the current talks". The government's line is that they had only ever agreed to talk about the disputed territories "out of respect for the other side", and not with a view to redrawing the effective border between North and South Sudan.

President Bashir continued by saying that only "one issue in the peace talks on southern Sudan remains, that is participation in power".

The Nuba mountains and Southern Blue Nile could end up with a kind of autonomy called 'special status' encompassing local services with Khartoum still in nominal control of security and strategic national issues. …