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Welcoming Sudan's rapprochement with neighbors, USSR

By Sally Ann Baynard / May 16, 1985

IN the last few weeks the new Sudanese leader, Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swaraddahab, has sought normalized relations with neighboring Ethiopia and Libya and their superpower ally, the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration has much to gain and little to lose from this process and should resist a knee-jerk reaction to oppose the Sudanese initiatives. An end to the hostility fostered between the Sudan and these three nations by former President Jaafar Nimeiry will help stabilize the current regime in Khartoum and enhance the security of the Sudanese nation, will facilitate the relief of starving Ethiopians and Sudanese, and will serve long-term American interests in the region. The new regime in Khartoum should be a great relief to the Reagan administration, which could have seen violent clashes in Khartoum between demonstrators and the American-trained and -equipped security forces of the unpopular and oppressive President Nimeiry. General Swaraddahab is a well-regarded, devout, but not fanatic officer whose family has long historical ties to Egypt, through its attachment to the Khatmiyya sect, which has fostered links with Egypt since the 19th century. It is clearly in the interest of the United States -- and of the Sudanese people as well, at least in the short term -- to see Swaraddahab's regime settle into stable rule in Khartoum. There are strong pressures on the new regime to establish a civilian -- and ultimately a democratic -- government. This may not take place, and it certainly will not occur if the generals continue to worry that younger, more doctrinaire officers might take advantage of political instability.

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Rapprochement with Ethiopia, Libya, and the Soviet Union will enhance the security and stability of the new government for several reasons. First, hostile relations with each of these three states have occurred from time to time in Sudanese history, but such discord is not the norm. Regimes before Nimeiry -- both democratic and authoritarian -- had sought normal relations with neighboring states (especially Ethiopia) and with the Soviet Union. Diplomats in all areas of the Foreign Ministry and virtually all former officials of Nimeiry's and prior regimes were uncomfortable with the strong, personal hostility expressed by Nimeiry for Muammar Qaddafi, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, and the Soviet leadership. Second, there is simply no reason for the Sudan not to have good relations with the two neighboring states and, hence, the Soviet Union as well. Although Nimeiry and Colonel Qaddafi took opposing sides on the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of 1979, they did permit a thaw in relations in the summer of that year, and there is no other issue that need divide the new Sudanese government and Qaddafi's regime. Disagreements over Chad, the Western Sahara, and other regional problems are longstanding issues over which Sudanese-Libyan relations have no major effect.

If there are no reasons for the Sudan to avoid normalizing relations with Libya, Ethiopia, and the USSR, there are pressing reasons for the new leadership to improve ties. While Libya presents no intrinsic threat to the Sudan, it can fund subversion against a regime in Khartoum, as it has in the past, and appears to be doing now with the potent southern rebel group, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. Ethiopia is, after Egypt, the Sudan's most important neighbor. Although it is not in a position to halt the flood of the Blue Nile as it rushes from the Ethiopian highlands into eastern Sudan, Ethiopia's position upstream on the Blue Nile is a potent psychological factor in relations between the two. More significant, the Sudan's vulnerable hydroelectric installations (such as the Roseires Dam) are quite near the Ethiopian border. A third strategic reason the Sudan should normalize relations with Ethiopia is the latter's ability to provide camps and facilities for southern rebels. Governments in Addis Ababa and Khartoum have held each other in mutual hostage situations for almost 30 years as each regime battled civil violence. Each has the capacity either to hurt the other seriously or to help the other achieve national reconciliation. Emperor Haile Selassie played a major role in the negotiations which led to the 1972 accord that halted the civil war in the Sudan for more than 11 years.