Sudan regime takes first steps toward defusing civil war
Within days of toppling President Jafaar Nimeiry, the new military leadership in Sudan has outlined its intent to come to grips with the civil war in the south and appears to be moving cautiously toward a transition to civilian rule. At his first news conference Wednesday, Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swareddahab, head of Sudan's new 15-man military council, expressed his desire for talks with Col. John Garang, leader of the rebellious Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The military council, which holds legislative and veto powers, is negotiating with representatives of half a dozen political parties and some 40 trade unions on an acceptable strategy for transition to democracy.
The two years of fighting between the Sudanese Army and the SPLA, which is estimated to have 10,000 to 12,000 well armed men and is backed by Ethiopia and Libya, has virtually isolated the Christian and animist south from the Muslim north of Sudan.
Land and river links have been severed, and major economic enterprises ranging from oil exploration to the digging of the Jonglei Canal, a controversial irrigation project, have been abandoned.
Senior military officers have acknowledged that only a political settlement can solve the friction. ``In many respects, this is our Vietnam,'' noted one retired Army officer. ``Not only is it an unpopular war that has been draining our resources, but it cannot be won on the battlefield.''
Earlier this week, Colonel Garang criticized the military rulers for having usurped the people's power. Garang questioned whether the new government was not Nimeiry's regime without Nimeiry.
Garang, a former officer in the Sudanese Army who led a mutiny against Nimeiry in 1983, has demanded that the ``gang of four'' (referring to the four top military commanders) hand power to the people in seven days. Otherwise, he said, his forces would launch a new offensive.
As the largest southern-based political movement, the SPLA is not seeking secession from the north but rather advocates democracy for the whole country. It remains questionable whether Garang is indeed as radical as his speeches often sound, or whether he is being pragmatic about his Ethiopian and Libyan backers. In any case, most observers do not consider Garang fully representative of regional sentiments, particularly in Equatoria Province in the south where ethnic divisions also come into play.
Nevertheless, it is certain that Garang commands a certain respect as an assertive guerrilla leader. One West European diplomat described General Swareddahab as a professional soldier, not a political animal. The diplomat said that while Swareddahab was taking the SPLA seriously, Garang's ultimatum for immediate transfer of power was not possible.
However, Swareddahab claimed that one of the military council's top priorities is to hand over rule to a civilian government as soon as conditions permit.
For the outside observer, the Sudanese people appear genuinely excited by the concept of democracy, a mood which has come to the fore after nearly 16 years under Nimiery.