Thursday, September 2, 2004

Washington tightens the screws on Sudan

Sudan's rebel forces are on the offensive and are reported to have seized large areas in the eastern part of the country. Their success may be due in part to covert backing from the United States government, which has its own reasons for interfering.

After failing to get tough UN Security Council sanctions against the Islamic government in Khartoum, the US government has adopted the backdoor strategy of sending military aid to its adversaries.

Although a small slice of the budget cake, Washington's plan to send $20 million in military equipment to Uganda, Ethiopia and Eritrea - three neighbours who support Sudanese rebel forces - may tip the civil war balance against the Khartoum government.

Last October, a milestone unity conference of the National Democratic Alliance, Sudan's rebel coalition, announced the formation of a joint military command of its seven diverse components. Simultaneously, it was launching offensives around the country. When Ethiopia revealed evidence of Sudan's complicity in the botched assassination attempt on Mubarak in its capital, Addis Ababa, in 1995, regional relations plummeted. Sudan ignored calls from the Organisation of African Unity and the United Nations to extradite the suspects.

In April 1996 the US sought and obtained UN Security Council sanctions covering diplomatic and travel matters. What it did not get was an arms embargo. Egypt objected to an arms embargo, fearing the benefit it would bring to the southern rebels, who might jeopardise Egypt's use of the Nile. Russia and China, which have signed oil exploration agreements with Sudan, also objected to tougher sanctions.

Military aid

Now the US is hitting back below the UN belt. It has openly pledged military aid to three of Sudan's neighbours, cementing an anti-Khartoum coalition. According to US government officials, the $20 million in surplus military equipment earmarked for Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda is "non-lethal" and includes items such as radios, uniforms, boots and tents. But Pentagon officials have not ruled out extending this to include rifles and other weapons.

Although US officials have denied that the equipment is for Sudanese opposition groups, saying it is for the "defence" of the recipient countries, it is uncertain that the equipment - reported in the Washington Post to be basic items suitable for outfitting a guerilla force - will be kept from Sudan's rebel forces.

In 1995 Eritrean President Issayas Aferwerki stated in an interview with the Economist that his government would give arms to anyone committed to overthrowing the Khartoum government. Ethiopia and Eritrea do not need US rifles, nor are they incapable of defence. In the 17 years prior to 1991, the former Soviet-backed Ethiopian regime - then Africa's largest standing army - received an estimated $2 billion in Soviet arms. Ethiopian and Eritrean rebel forces captured and redeployed these arms to oust the government.

Relations turn sour

Five years ago, Sudan supported Ethiopia's rebels and Eritrea's secessionists. In turn, the former Ethiopian regime supported Sudan's rebels. When Ethiopian rebels toppled their government and Eritrea seceded, their respective new governments attempted a policy of non-interference toward Sudan.

But since the 1993 Eritrean independence referendum, relations between the secular but Christian-dominated Provisional Government of Eritrea and Khartoum's militant Islamic regime have grown sour over Sudan's push for Arabisation and Islamisation. Eritrea, like Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, charges Sudan with creating regional instability by funding Islamic militants. Although Sudan's National Islamic Front leader, Hassan al-Turabi, and military leader Lieutenant General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir praised Eritrea's newly won independence in April 1993, their push to attract lowland Muslim Eritreans ended with Eritrea's 1995 expulsion of the Sudanese embassy and Sudan Airways. Then in June 1995, Eritrea hosted a milestone conference to unite Sudan's rebel forces, giving them the former Sudanese embassy in Asmara to coordinate their efforts.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Sudan's rebel coalition, was formed, consisting of the Beja Congress, the Sudan Alliance Forces, the Umma Party, the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army/Movement, the Democratic Unionist Party, the Legitimate Command of the Sudanese Army and the Sudan Federal Democratic Alliance. All have agreed on the future process of development, democratisation and the restructuring of Sudan on the basis of social equality and justice.


Ethiopia is also playing its part. The Sudanese embassy, once the largest in the region and the most feared among political exiles, was downgraded to a skeleton staff, and around Christmas 1995 there were reports of SPLA units returning to their former Gambela base in Ethiopia.

In March 1966, Sudan claimed that the Ethiopian army had launched a series of offensives along the border of its upper Blue Nile states using tanks and heavy weaponry to capture territory it then handed over to the SPLA. In June the Khartoum government-controlled newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm denounced the World Bank for its support of Ethiopian plans to build dams on the Atbara and Blue Nile rivers, the latter delivering 70% of the Nile's water. Uganda has similar plans for the White Nile.

In response to mounting opposition and its growing isolation, the Sudanese government attempted to legitimise itself through snap elections in March. Of the 20% who went to the polls, 75% voted for National Islamic Front zealots. A large part of Sudan's new foreign relations offensive focuses on Egypt. Following a meeting of the two presidents on the sidelines of the Arab Summit, held in Cairo on June 21, Sudan showed its willingness to trade Islamic militants for better relations. Pressure from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also prompted Sudan to release former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, and officials have pledged they will release a further 200 prisoners on the 148 released in September.

On November 4 Sudan signed a draft peace agreement with Uganda, but a week later the US compromised any such deal by pledging military aid to Uganda. Khartoum in recent months has stepped up a campaign of aerial bombardment, employing cluster bombs to devastating effect.

Although ethnicity and religion play a key role in Sudan's civil war, it was generated by the will of a resource-starved northern elite to exploit the newly accessible oil, water and land resources of the south. Islamic law has been the tool of repression, and ethnic groups have been divided in order to be ruled or pitted ruthlessly against each another. Jihad (holy war) has been called to rally the poorer folk, who are often forcibly swept up into peasant militias.


Since 1970 the population has nearly doubled to 27 million, of which up to 6 million are internally displaced, and at least 1 million have become refugees. The subsistence economy has been largely destroyed by the compound effect of drought, desertification, deforestation and war in the south, west and east.The resultant city-bound migration is unwelcome. In 1995, the government bulldozed thousands of homes in the shanty towns on Khartoum's fringes. Some 300,000 Ethiopian and 400,000 Eritrean refugees, many having lived, intermarried and had children since waves of migration brought them to Sudan during the famine and war-torn years of the early '80s, have been caught up in the conflict. Refugees suffer the injustices of trumped-up racial hatred and petty economic jealousies. Imprisonment, deportation and confiscation of property have become common.

Although Eritrea has been notably compassionate in its treatment of Sudanese refugees, Ethiopia has not learned to distinguish between pro- and anti-Khartoum Sudanese people in Ethiopia. The few who have been granted political asylum are neglected by the United Nations, and many dissidents in Addis Ababa have been "repatriated" to the Khartoum government.

By James D. Thompson Green Left Weekly posted 2 September 04


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