Attack on Khartoum: The Ramifications for Sudan
Last Saturday’s attack on Omdurman represented a serious development in Sudanese politics, with significant ramifications that may impact the entire country. Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has been submerged in a number of civil wars. Wars with the South spanned more than 40 years, with only nine years of peace in between. More than two million people lost their lives as a result. The most recent civil war, still raging in the western region of Darfur, began in 2003; so far around 250,000 people have died.
Yet throughout these many years of war, people in the northern and central areas of the country did not feel the direct effects of war, except for its impact on the economy; because of media censorship, news of the war was available only on satellite televisions and international radio – luxuries that only a few owned. And so, despite these wars, the successive governments in Khartoum have managed to hang on to power. As one journalist put it, “you can fight for a hundred years but without reaching Khartoum, it is impossible to change the government”. Since 1956 there have only been two means of securing regime change in Sudan: either by military coup (1958, 1969 and 1989); or by popular uprising (1964 and 1985), and the political elites in the centre of country (riverine elites) has, until now, taken this for granted. But on Saturday the battleground shifted when the rebel group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) attacked Omdurman, twin city of the country’s capital, just a few meters from the presidential palace, forcing many of the regime elites to go into hiding for the first time. Tragically, many poor and innocent civilians were caught in the crossfire.
Many questions have been raised by the attacks. Does what happened on Saturday represent a turning point in Sudanese politics that will lead to all parties focussing and working honestly to achieve a real peace in the country? Or will war be ignited as the NCP (the ruling party currently in power) tries to take its revenge on the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Chadian government? Only time will answer that question.
What happened on Saturday cannot be isolated from the myriad of problems before the Sudanese state; it is a by-product of successive Sudanese governments’ failures to address the core issues facing the country. The current crisis is closely connected to regional events over the last 20 years. Problems like the ones in Darfur are similar to those in other marginalized regions in Sudan. People living in the peripheries of Sudan, have, as a general rule, been neglected by the government, and have huge grievances. Darfur and Kordofan in particular, are regions which have been used by political elites to produce agricultural and animal products; their people were recruited by the army and as low ranking soldiers they have fought in wars between the north and the south; in addition Darfurians/Kordofanians were used as a bridge to bring elites in the north to power during the democratic periods (especially for the rise to power of the Umma Party). All this without any significant role in the country’s governance.
Sudanese intellectuals and activists must seriously engage in an open and honest debate about why, after more than 50 years of independence from British rule, we are still unable reach a consensus on a way to govern the country that will allow all Sudanese to contribute to its social and economic development. Sudan is a massive country rich in natural resources – more than enough to accommodate all Sudanese people ten times over.
Saturday’s attack is a clear exposition of the weakness of security in Khartoum, and the vulnerability of the regime. The government has consistently portrayed itself as a security and military might. Yet forces travelled for four days across the country to arrive at the outskirts of the capital without facing any resistance! Khartoum’s credibility and image as a mighty military/security force has been dramatically shaken in the minds of the Sudanese people. The government security forces are well-oiled machine when it comes to managing ghost houses where civilians are tortured; organising plots to change neighbouring countries’ governments; or assassinating their presidents. How security chiefs allowed attacks to reach Khartoum requires much explanation. The attack also sent a clear message to political elites, that the battleground for war would no longer remain in distant places; it has moved into their own backyard. For decades they have made policies which affect millions in the peripheries without bearing direct consequences, but no longer.
An important issue raised by these events, and little discussed, is that of race relations in Sudan, which successive governments have systematically ignored, and which Sudanese are reluctant to openly discuss. The debate on this issue began with the publication of the Black Book, which exposed the variance in political representation and population size in Sudan, according to region. Current events show that Darfurians are (and have been) on the receiving end of deep-rooted racism. Government security forces at the moment are rounding up Darfurians (indeed anyone looking like a Darfurian) and verbally abusing and humiliating them in public. Words like gharaba (from western Sudan) and sometimes abid (slave) are used, and there is a lot talk of killings. The Interior Minister, in his statement to the National Assembly, clearly stated that there is to be a rounding up of elements of JEM who are fleeing after the failed attempt to take power in the capital, based on physical features. This is a highly dangerous policy as well as an innovation in the science of criminology, where physical features can determine guilt or innocence. This attitude is not new. The Sudanese elite believe they are a super race and that other Sudanese tribes are merely second-class. Sudanese governments have ruthlessly killed countless Sudanese on the basis of race: the Sudan government is one of the only governments to have no prisoners of war – all were killed in cold blood. The most recent images of the body of Jamali Hassan, shown on Sudanese television and in most newspapers, show he had been tortured. Such a cavalier attitude towards human rights from the regime, which allows them to parade such evidence unblinkingly, is a great threat to peace and will harden the resolve of armed movements to focus on regime change as an objective.
Implications for the Peace Process
Saturday’s events in Omdurman will seriously affect the peace process in Darfur, as well as the peace process ongoing in Sudan as a whole. The last week attack has shown that prospects for peace in the region are gloomy. Dr Nafie, the, Assistant to the President has stated that the government will not negotiate with JEM, and President Bashir used same rhetoric on Wednesday morning when he addressed the so-called “˜Victory Rally’ in Khartoum. If these hardliners manage to dictate the policies of the NCP, then we are heading for very bad times indeed.
The NCP now has only a few options. The first and best option is for them to strategically pursue peace rather than dealing with issues tactically. By this I mean the established protocol, which has been for the government to tactically deal with issues in order to buy some time and prolong their grip on power. The second is war. Although Khartoum is talking tough, I believe this is merely empty rhetoric, and if pressure intensifies on them, they will cave to buy time. The speech of the Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Hussain revealed that they do not have the ability to fight: American sanctions are crippling Sudan whilst military equipment is archaic with Sudanese fighter planes dating from the Second World War! It is also clear that the Sudanese army is not able to fight in the desert; their morale is at its lowest as the majority of soldiers do not believe in the cause they are fighting for. A large constituency of the army are from Darfur or Kordofan themselves and they are reluctant to continue to engage in fighting with people who are often related to them. The last option for the government is to use the Arab militia (Janjawiid) and Chadian rebels to fight a proxy war, but it seems that Darfurian Arabs are no longer willing to do so, any of them believed the government has sold them out by signing and agreement which stated the historical rights of land ownership in Darfur, and the presence of EU forces at the border will make difficult for the Chadian opposition to operate freely.
But peace has never been the goal for the NCP, because peace means sharing power and wealth. The regime will fight for survival whatever the cost, massive civilian casualties (as in the South and now in Darfur) and ready to violate all international standards of human rights. They can no longer claim the moral high ground, they have abandoned their Civilisation Project (Al Mashru Al Hadari), and opted to enrich themselves and impoverish millions of Sudanese people by controlling the country’s economy. The NCP will never win a free and fair election if they lose power, they will lose everything. Many of its leader might end up in The Hague (International Criminal Court) for the crimes committed in Darfur. For them, ruthless rule is the only way to ensure their survival.
History also shows that the NCP will never honour their commitments in any peace agreement they signed. They have signed many peace agreements, which include the following:
“¢ Khartoum Agreement with SPLM (Nasir group – Riak Machar & Lam Akol), 1997
“¢ Sudan Call Agreement with Al Sadiq Al Mahdi
“¢ Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) with SPLM, 2005
“¢ Cairo Agreement with the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), 2005
“¢ Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), 2006
Dr. Luka Biong Deng, the Minister for Presidential Affairs in the Government of South Sudan, in his address to the donors’ conference in Oslo on 6 May 2008, reported that so far only 35% of the CPA agreements are in place and two third of the decrees and directives have not been implemented.
The Armed Movements
Saturday’s events have encouraged the various Darfurian splinter groups to unite, not to engage in peace negotiations, but to fight. Some groups now think that with the road to Khartoum open, their path is clear: regroup and march on Khartoum for regime change and a permanent resolution to the Darfur crisis. Moving the war to Khartoum, however, will create many other problems; in particular for the SPLM in term of the implementation of CPA. Some elements within the SPLM believe that if JEM took power in Khartoum, they would not agree to the South’s demand for self-determination, which has become the ultimate goal. For the South, secession is almost a guaranteed outcome of the 2011 referendum, and so they are prepared to wait for two years under the current government.
Peace in Darfur: Closer or Further?
So what is needed to ensure the success of any future peace negotiations? I strongly believe this is a political problem, which needs a political solution. The first and most important step is for all SLA/M splinter groups to unite under a clear peace negotiation strategy. The government of Sudan must also come to the table and make peace a strategic goal. They also need to restore their credibility and fully implement agreements which they are party to.
The Darfur conflict has now morphed into an ugly creature. The ramifications of the attacks on Saturday, if not handled correctly, will mean further polarization between the government and Darfurians, seriously harm race relations, may even slide the country into civil war all over again and end in the disintegration of the state currently known as Sudan. Infantile reactions from Northern politicians and the growing racist sentiments in the capital are a recipe for that very situation. I sincerely hope political elites realise, before it is too late, that a status quo is unacceptable and that the current formula for governing must change for the country to remain intact. I genuine democratic system with fair and free election, which recognise the ethnic, culture, and regional diversity, is the only guarantee.