The complex interplay of interconnected conflicts in Sudan and its neighbourhood retains the capacity to surprise. A case in point is the moment on 10 May 2008 when the war in the country’s western province of Darfur suddenly arrived in the capital, with an attack on Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman by one of the leading Darfuri rebel movements, the Justice & Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim.
This assault has been variously interpreted: as a thoughtless, reckless adventure whose results were likely to be catastrophic; as an attempt to spark a revolution through commando-style violence, a sort of "jihadist adaptation of Che Guevara’s foco theory"; and as a proxy effort by Chad’s president Idriss Déby to overthrow the Khartoum regime, in retaliation for a similar Sudan-sponsored foray against Ndjamena on 1 February 2008.
In reality the enterprise combined some elements of all these things - and yet was as a whole none of them. It was indeed a madly adventurous commando-like operation with Chadian support; but it was also an attempt to exploit the deep tensions inside the Khartoum regime through the promised revolt of a number of army units in support of Khalil’s (thus not-so-mad) dash across the terrain of central Sudan towards his target.
The fact that the regime’s various security systems managed to stop the conspiracy at the last moment saved Sudan’s political masters from humiliation. But only just: things had moved so far that the Sudan armed forces (SAF) did not try to halt Khalil or even engage in fighting him (armed resistance was led by the regime’s dreaded political shock-troops, the People’s Defence Forces [PDF], and by the special security forces), and that Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir thought it prudent to take refuge in PDF barracks for twenty-four hours.
The regime’s critics have claimed that there was terrible repression of Darfuris living in Khartoum after the assault. In fact, only 700 were arrested and none killed - a very different response from the massacres which followed a similar attempt (already by Darfuris) in 1975, when 3,000 were slaughtered. But the reason for such "generosity" is revealing: for this was not a Darfuri conspiracy, it was something much worse - a systemic dysfunction of national proportions.
Hassan al-Turabi, that malicious observer (and manipulator) of Sudanese politics - himself briefly arrested in the aftermath - sarcastically remarked that it was a beginning which would have an encore. He is likely to be proved right; it is significant here that the Sudan Liberation Movement’s Unity faction (SLM-Unity) - the second largest guerrilla group in Darfur after the JEM - criticised Khalil Ibrahim not for what he had done, but for having done it so poorly. Its spokesman Mahgoub Hussein added that peace talks with Khartoum were now out of the question, and that regime change was also its agenda.
A few days after Khalil’s attack on Khartoum and Omdurman, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) staged its second convention, in Juba. The first had taken place in 1994; the movement’s founder and sole leader John Garang had died on 31 July 2005, six months after he signed the epoch-making but controversial peace agreement with Khartoum in 2005. Both these facts might have suggested that the movement needed to take stock and debate its way forward. This did not happen, for the SPLM is - rather like Unita in Angola - one of those African guerrilla movements with an oversized military body and an underdeveloped political head.
The convention of 10-16 May 2008 might have addressed three questions in depth:
* has the implementation of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) since it was reached in January 2005 been a success or a failure, and in either case to what degree?
* what is happening and should happen in the internal reconstruction effort in south Sudan?
* should the SPLM go for a "one united Sudan" policy or for secession?
A working answer to these questions might, respectively, be: relative failure, almost complete failure, and as-yet-unknowable. But the opportunity to explore them was missed, as the convention became a quasi-Stalinist spectacle of triumphalist unity where the movement congratulated itself on its past successes, glossed over its present failures, celebrated its solidarity and confirmed all its top leaders in their current positions.
On the issue of the country’s statehood, the convention endorsed support for a united Sudan (even though that is inimical to most of the SPLM’s constituency) and decided to plunge headlong into trying to achieve electoral victory in the national elections scheduled for September 2009. This apparently suicidal course of action was chosen to a great extent because the convention’s organising committee was controlled by two groups:
* former communists such as Yasser Arman and James Wani Igga, the only ones with organisational experience and bureaucratic know-how who also support the idea of a united Sudan
* people originating from what the SPLM calls "the marginalised areas" (i.e. those not in the north or the south, but which are solidly dominated by northern Arabs), who geographically belong to "the north" but are not themselves Arabs; they are desperate to avoid a southern secession, for this would leave them as the impotent prisoners of the northern, riverine Arab elite.
As for the national election of September 2009, it is most unlikely that the SPLM can win it - even if it was free and fair, which it will not be (Sudan’s botched population census is not a good precedent here). So the southern movement is now headed for a probable defeat at the polls, which would have a tremendous impact on its disappointed supporters.
When things happen in Sudan, they really happen. In the middle of the convention, intense fighting erupted in the disputed north-south border territory of Abyei between SPLA troops and the SAF (helped by Misseriya Arab tribal militias).
Abyei has always - even in pre-independence days - been a bone of contention between north and south; the area had initially been part of the south, was transferred to the north under British colonial rule in 1905, and then left in suspension after Khartoum refused to hold as planned referendum in 1966). The CPA said that Abyei’s status would be decided by a commission of experts, the Abyei border commission (ABC), but when the conclusion of its report (originally completed in July 2005) that the area belonged to the south was made known the response of Omar Hassan al-Bashir was emphatic: in a public speech in November 2007 the Sudanese president said - using an Arabic expression of spite for a written document you consider to be of no account - that he would "drink it" (see "Khartoum’s calculated fever", 5 December 2007).
The Abyei commission’s report may have had legal status under the comprehensive peace agreement, but Sudan’s army decided to settle the matter with machine-guns and mortars. The town of Abyei was torched by the northerners, the SPLA was kicked out - before Khartoum signed a new agreement to deal with the consequences of having violated the previous one. In such circumstances, the future of that new agreement - and indeed of the whole north-south peace deal - is, to say the least, uncertain.
Sudan’s CPA has over the past two-and-a-half years been much invoked and deferred to, implemented to some degree, but more broadly neglected or violated. In October 2007 the SPLM withdrew its ministers from Khartoum’s "government of national unity" for three months in the (as it transpired, vain) hope of getting it fully implemented.
The cause of this stagnation is threefold:
* the Islamists in power in Khartoum never conceived of the CPA as anything other than a tactical tool to get peacefully what they had failed to achieve militarily - that is, continued control of the administration and of the oil resources at a reasonable cost (the oil-revenue transfers to the south which stand at about $220 million a month are cheaper than would be fighting a war)
* the SPLM, which had alienated a good part of the educated southern diaspora, never had enough qualified personnel to fill all the positions available for it specified by the CPA
* the SPLM personnel, whether operating in Khartoum as part of the government of national unity (GoNU) or in Juba as part of the government of southern Sudan (GoSS), has shown a strong proclivity to accept the financial blandishments these proffer. As a result southern reconstruction is stagnating, the old northern regime has retained full political control in spite of the GoNU fiction, and the SPLM has embarked on a gilt-edged policy of national unity.
Where is all this taking Sudan? In all probability, not very far. The likelihood of peace in Darfur is close to zero; the likelihood of an SPLM electoral victory that would lead to national peace in 2009 is very low; and the likelihood of the CPA being fully and fairly implemented is not much better. That leaves the Sudanese in the position of either accepting the indefinite continuation of the present regime with all its faults, or of returning to war at some point between 2009 and 2012. Neither is an attractive choice.
There are three possible ways forward beyond the current impasse:
* deploying the United Nations/African Union hybrid force (Unamid) in Darfur - though in light of how little its predecessor force the United Nations [Advance] Mission in Sudan (Unmis) has done in the rest of the Sudan (at the cost of $1 billion per year), there is little hope that Unamid can do more than simply waste another $1.39 billion per year
* enforcing the CPA - though it is not clear how this can be done
* ensure that Sudan’s elections in 2009 mark real political progress - though there is no clear route here either.
Sudan is in a fix, and there is no exit.