A REPORTED coup attempt, the withdrawal from government of a major coalition partner, paralyzing strikes, and mass demonstrations in recent weeks appear to leave Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi weaker than ever, and no closer to ending Sudan's 5-year-old civil war. The costly civil conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and has ravaged the southern half of the country, whose Christian and animist population provides the bulk of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Led by Col. John Garang, the SPLA has been fighting to make Sudan a secular state and to free it from traditional domination by the Arab and Muslim majority in the north.
``This is a country that is spending about a million US dollars a day on killing each other - Sudanese fighting Sudanese,'' political scientist Taisier Ali comments. ``The insanity of the situation becomes, I think, very glaring.''
The latest peace plan, signed last November, called for a freeze on the controversial enforcement of the Islamic legal code, or sharia. This was to be followed by a constitutional conference to be attended by all Sudanese political groups - including the rebels. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a member of the three-party ruling coalition, negotiated the plan with the rebels - with the prime minister's blessing.
But the plan has run aground. The fundamentalist National Islamic Front (NIF), a powerful member of the coalition, opposes suspending the sharia. The prime minister has refused to submit the plan to his Cabinet, apparently fearing a walkout by NIF members.
Just before year end, the parliament also rejected the plan - prompting the DUP to withdraw instead. The DUP quit the coalition in the heat of the mass demonstrations late last month over tax increases and a five-fold increase of basic commodities prices (quickly rescinded) that in turn ignited protest over the government's failure to end the civil war. A high-level committee of Mr. Mahdi's Hizb al-Umma party has reportedly been formed to lure the DUP back.
In rejecting the DUP-SPLA plan, Parliament authorized Mahdi to negotiate directly with the rebels to set up a constitutional conference. But SPLA leaders warn that the government will be ``wasting time and public funds'' by planning a conference without first endorsing the November plan. One rebel official stressed that there is ``no chance'' they will back down on their opposition to sharia, not even to bring Mahdi's fundamentalist allies into the peace process.
``The position of the NIF should not be an obstacle to peace,'' argued an SPLA official. ``If Sadiq al-Mahdi is more interested in pleasing the NIF than in peace, then it's for his own political survival, not for the good of the country,'' he said.
With peace efforts apparently stalled in Khartoum, SPLA leader Garang has recently urged the Sudanese Army to open a direct dialogue with the SPLA commanders in the field.
Garang's comments came in his year-end speech over the rebels' clandestine radio, monitored by Reuters in Nairobi. ``For us in the SPLA,'' he said, ``we fight because those who have ruled the Sudan from Khartoum have looted and ruined the country, and brought [it] to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse.''
The rebel leader called on the government forces ``in the trenches of Torit, Nasir, Juba, Wau, Malakal, to ask themselves why they fight the SPLA.''
But the prime minister, in his own New Year message that exemplified the perpetual fluidity of Sudanese politics, again held out the prospect of a constitutional conference, which had originally been slated for Dec. 31.
Asked to comment on the likelihood of such a meeting, a rebel leader shrugged. ``Sadiq must be talking about his constitutional conference, where he'll be the only one who attends.''