Four months after the overthrow of President Jaafar Nimeiry, the situation in Sudan remains highly uncertain. The consensus in the capital is that the interim government has at best six months more in which to achieve a momentum toward restoring the country's blighted economy and laying the basis for a new democratic, parliamentary constitution.
Many analysts fear that failure to move in this direction could plunge Sudan into a new conflict that would radically transform the nation's traditional political contours. Sudan forms a bridge between the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa and serves as the balancing force against Marxist-ruled Ethiopia in the troubled Horn of Africa.
However, the core problem is the new leadership's failure to persuade Col. John Garang, leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, to return from his exile base in Ethiopia and participate in the political process in Khartoum.
The gloomiest view one hears in Khartoum is that Sudan is being ``Lebanized'' -- i.e., that the rival Muslim sects and non-Muslim southerners are being driven into defending various sectors of the capital and regions of the hinterland. Such fears may be exaggerated, but they reflect the level of concern felt among leaders.
Many efforts have been made by both the generals and the government ministers to open a dialogue with Colonel Garang and to assure him of a prominent role in planning Sudan's future. But these overtures have not persuaded Garang to drop his four objections:
He will have nothing to do with a military regime.
He is interested only in talks with the leaders of political parties. He does not view those ministers, who in line with current dictates are without party affiliation, as being representative of political opinion.
He does not want to be treated as simply a southern leader, but as the leader of a national party.
He does not want talks concerned exclusively with relations between the south and the north. He insists that the first task is to begin talking about a new democratic constitution for a unified Sudan, within which the country's many regional problems can all be resolved.
Since the military is not prepared to consider returning power to the political parties before the end of the one-year interim period they have decreed (which will end April 1986), it is difficult to see how the first of Garang's objections can be overcome.
Therefore, until some mechanism can be found to engage Garang in the political process, there is no way to break the deadlock. It leaves Sudan floundering in a malaise of economic discontent with life intolerably hard for the mass of urban people and with famine conditions -- almost as grave as those in Ethiopia -- ravaging Darfur Province and parts of the southern region.
Until Garang can be persuaded to return to Khartoum, it will not be possible to halt the civil war in the south. As long as the war continues (even though it is not being waged with any serious show of activity by the government's Army), it will not be possible to resume oil production at Bentiu in the Upper Nile Province.
Nor will it be possible to resume work on the Jonglei Canal, a vital concern of Egypt, which wants very much to increase its supply of water from the Nile. Finally, it will not be possible to hold elections in the southern provinces for the constituent assembly which is intended to usher in a new civilian government.
Another ominous sign is the market gossip, especially in Omdurman, near Khartoum. Because there has been no lessening of economic hardship since the coup, the gossip goes, Nimeiry should be brought back.
This idea finds little favor among the more articulate Sudanese, but they don't ignore the Nimeiry factor. Some believe that Nimeiry, even now, is engaged in hatching plots. Some influential forces in the country owed him much and would probably like to see him return. There is also a section in the Muslim community that would rather see Nimeiry back than accept any serious changes in the Islamization program he introduced, changes now being debated by the interim government.
Nimeiry still enjoys political asylum in Egypt, where the administration of President Hosni Mubarak can be depended on not to allow him to engage in plots against Sudan. The risk, if there is one, is not that Nimeiry will do the plotting, but that his colleagues in Khartoum will.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians firmly reject Khartoum's petition to extradite Nimeiry. Egypt has a longstanding policy of granting asylum to Arab leaders driven from office and is not likely to abandon it. Sudan's interim government has decided to try Nimeiry in absentia, charging him with crimes ranging from corruption to complicity in arranging the exodus of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
While no serious tensions exist between the Military Council and the Council of Ministers -- the two components of the interim government -- they have a strong difference of opinion about division of responsibilities. The ministers feel the generals tend to take initiatives (as in foreign affairs) that belong to the civilian caretakers. The risk of a widening gulf between the two arms of government must be taken seriously, analysts say.
There is also the risk of discontent within the Army itself and of rivalries growing up among the leading military figures. But few doubt that the generals are committed to returning to the barracks at the end of the year they have given themselves to produce an elected constituent assembly.
Among junior officers, there is some evidence of discontent. Eleven of them were recently dismissed on grounds that have not been publicly disclosed. More are said to face dismissal in the immediate future.
Information about what is happening in the Army is, as usual, hard to come by. So the public has only gossip to go by. But there seems to be ground for believing that some of the younger officers feel the generals have been too slow and lacking in imagination to address the larger economic and political problems.