Sudan's rebel leader signals flexibility in pursuit of peace talks

``I don't come out of the bush very often,'' said the leader of the rebel movement in Africa's largest democracy, Sudan. Col. John Garang, educated in the US, smiled as he said this in a hotel suite here. Only a single bodyguard and one aide sat in the suite with him. But two more men were just outside in the hallway.

Recently, Colonel Garang has, however, been out of the bush quite a bit - in pursuit of peace talks with the government to end Sudan's four-year-old war.

So far, Garang and the central government have been unable to agree on terms for beginning peace talks. But in interviews with the Monitor, both Garang and a ranking Sudanese diplomat showed what appears to be new flexibility on conditions for peace talks.

This new flexibility may be the result of the war's cumulative effect on the Sudanese: hunger and displacement in the south, and political turmoil in the capital, Khartoum. Demands on the government to end the war from union members, professionals, and other civilians are intensifying. If the war is not settled, the economy will continue its decline, and democracy could be replaced by a military dictatorship, according to Garang, Sudanese officials, and analysts.

In recent meetings in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, Garang negotiated an agreement between his southern-based Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and six southern Sudanese parties, including a joint call for peace talks. Garang says he is fighting for greater autonomy for all regions of Sudan and for an end to national Islamic laws. Most of the south is non-Muslim. ``We are fighting a cultural, political, and economic war.''

Garang says he wants to put an end to dominance of the central government by two religion-based parties, which in turn are dominated by two families, one of them the family of Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi.

In a subsequent interview, Sudan's acting ambassador to Kenya, Ali Yousif Ahmed, indicated there might be new government flexibility on at least one key stumbling block to peace talks: a cease-fire. ``The government does not have any preconditions for peace talks except a cease-fire,'' said Mr. Yousif. But, he added: ``The negotiations can actually start without a cease-fire.''

Garang spoke of similar flexibility. ``We can offer one of two ways [to enter peace talks],'' he said. First, he says he is willing to participate without preconditions in preliminary peace talks. In such preliminary talks, the participants could ``agree on some format'' for proceeding with a national constitutional conference. (Mr. Mahdi has also called for such a conference.)

Second, if preliminary talks are skipped in favor of entering directly into a national constitutional conference, then Garang says he has these preconditions: ending the state of emergency, dropping foreign military pacts with Egypt and Libya, and ending nationwide Islamic law.

State of emergency. Until now, the lifting of the state of emergency has been tied to an end to the fighting. That spells deadlock in light of Garang's provision that there be a lifting of the emergency before a cease-fire. But, ``there is a possibility the state of emergency can go without a cease-fire,'' says Yousif, adding that many civilians complain about it, and the constituent assembly is studying how to modify it.

Foreign military pacts. Mahdi, who heads the ruling Hizb al-`Umma (Umma) party, already has announced abrogation of the military pact with Egypt. But the other two largest powers, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the National Islamic Front (NIF), both of which favor the pact, say he lacks the power to nullify it himself. Libya has provided Sudan with military assistance. A Libyan delegation went to Khartoum late last month, reportedly to discuss war issues. But Yousif says: ``If there is mutual trust and aspiration for peace, these treaties should not be a block'' to peace talks.

Ending Sharia (Islamic law.) This is probably the major stumbling block. But even here, there appears to be some room for initial compromise. Both Garang and Mahdi want to abolish the current so-called ``September laws,'' a mix of civilian and Islamic laws imposed by deposed dictator Gen. Jaafar Nimeiry. Lifting these laws might be enough to meet one of Garang's preconditions for full peace talks. Then the issue of what to replace these laws with could be debated at a national constitutional conference, say Sudanese officials and analysts.

The problem is that Mahdi wants to replace the September laws with a new formula, under which Islamic law would apply to Muslims only. Non-Muslims, would be governed by civil law. Garang says that is unacceptable. He wants abolition of Sharia.

By insisting ahead of time on ending Islamic law, Garang is ``not helping us,'' says Yousif. The NIF would never agree to that ahead of time. But at a national constitutional conference a formula acceptable to the majority of the delegates might be agreed upon, he said.

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