Torturous Path to Peace in East Africa

With Ethiopia's Mengistu and Sudan's Bashir, negotiation may no longer be the best approach

WARS in Sudan and Ethiopia, when combined with drought and the use of food as a weapon of war, have caused famines claiming nearly 2 million lives in the last five years in these two countries. Another 10 million will be at risk of starvation over the coming year. Live Aid and ``We are the World'' made Americans feel good about reaching out to the hungry and homeless in northeast Africa. But persistent conflicts have impoverished the people of the region even further. With attention refocusing on the suffering and destruction, it is time again not only to dig in our pockets, but to encourage policies leading to the most direct path to peace.

Former President Jimmy Carter has taken up the role of mediator between the Ethiopian government and the insurgent Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF), and has attempted to bring the Sudanese government and the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) closer together. But he is finding out what countless other eminent diplomats have learned before him in Beirut, Managua, Pretoria, San Salvador, and dozens of other locales where extended dialogue with intransigent governments often leads to broken promises and increased violence.

For the third-party negotiator, it is perpetually a fine line between continuing to encourage communication or stepping back and letting the world know that one side or the other is really not interested in peace on terms other than its own.

This dilemma looms large both in Ethiopia and Sudan. The two governments are similar in a number of ways.

In addition to major armed insurgencies, they both face broad-based, nonviolent opposition from nearly all segments of their societies. They both took power by military coup and rule with callous disregard for basic human rights. They overtly discriminate against nearly everyone not associated with or loyal to their ruling clique (members of the National Islamic Front in Sudan and a ruthless, Soviet-supported faction of the military in Ethiopia). They both use food as a weapon and aerial bombardment against civilian targets as primary tactics of war.

At any negotiating table, a government must to some degree represent, and have the support of, its citizenry. Without these essential preconditions, which precede even the willingness of two parties to talk, any dialogue is doomed to certain failure because it perpetuates the very lack of broad representation and participation which is at the heart of the numerous conflicts and divisions throughout Ethiopia and Sudan.

It is clear that neither government has such a popular mandate legitimizing their position at the negotiating table.

The Ethiopian government is currently facing six major armed liberation movements and over a dozen other smaller opposition groups throughout the country.

Two of the groups have allied to form the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, which has fought its way to within 200 miles of the capital city.

Besieged from all sides, the regime has resorted to press-ganging teenagers as young as 13 into military service and sending them to the front lines. President Mengistu's Soviet lifeline will not last forever. Recently defected Major General Kumlachew Dejene said in November, ``It's time for the United States to think of Ethiopia without Mr. Mengistu. That should be the basis of US action and policy now.''

In Sudan, various sectarian groups, trade unions, organized non-SPLA southerners, and militia groups operating in the West all are actively opposed to the present government. The banned unions, driven underground because of mass internments and recent death sentences and executions, are organizing strikes sector by sector.

The junta has desperately revoked permission for relief supplies to travel to civilians in SPLA-held areas, putting hundreds of thousands of southerners in immediate risk of starvation.

Because of the willingness of the fundamentalist Muslims to use violent repression to maintain control in Khartoum, a traditionally peaceful north may soon see its cherished nonviolence degenerate into a bloody struggle for power.

Aside from the issue of lack of representativeness, two other factors doom current negotiations to certain failure.

First, governments in both countries, from their point of view, have too much to lose from the compromises inherent in any potential agreement. Losing or relaxing exclusive control over the military and bureaucracy will occur in response to results from the battlefield, not the negotiating table.

Second, both governments are firmly committed to the very policies against which the EPLF and SPLA are fighting. Eritrea's desire for a referendum to decide its future democratically has been answered by consistent proclamations by Mengistu that, ``Ethiopia's unity is not negotiable.'' And in Sudan, albeit anathema to non-Muslims and many segments of the Muslim population, Sudanese leader Omer Bashir and his fundamentalist backers will not compromise on the issue of implementing Islamic laws in majority Muslim regions, resulting in a sort of selective religious apartheid.

Endless negotiations over the safe transit of relief supplies in the region are similarly ill-fated. Thousands died in Sudan in 1988 and tens of thousands in Ethiopia in 1984 while donor governments and organizations hid behind the mantles of the Red Cross and the United Nations in their time-consuming efforts to secure safe passage agreements.

In both cases, alternative cross-border channels existed to get food immediately to those most in need, the vulnerable rural populations in rebel-held territories. The same prospects for renewed famine exist in both places. The majority of resources and efforts are still going into government-held territories and yet another round of safe passage negotiations.

Yet a silver lining - albeit small - does exist.

Many of the opposition groups in both countries are urging somewhat similar steps for the reunification of their divided lands. After cutting through the rhetoric, three principles cut across most of the various movements:

First, all are attempting in one way or another to overthrow not only the present governments, but the methods of exclusion and power-concentration by which they rule.

Second, the most significant groups have urged the immediate formation of interim governments which would represent the various factions (excluding, but with the support of, the referendum-seeking EPLF) within the two countries.

Finally, interim governments would convene broadly representative consultations which would create new frameworks for governing that reflect the diversity inherent in the many different ethnic and religious groups in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Eritreans would then be able to determine their future by referendum and be more confident that the results at the ballot box would be respected by government armed forces and the EPLF.

Although it seems paradoxical, as long as General Bashir and Colonel Mengistu remain in power in Sudan and Ethiopia, negotiations are not the most direct path to peace. Further well-intentioned efforts like Carter's, combined with the US government's temptation to improve relations with the Ethiopian regime and to provide economic aid and spare parts to the Sudanese junta, will serve only to support and legitimize increasingly unpopular and unstable governments.

The most effective approach to creating the external conditions necessary for the initiation of meaningful peace processes in this region is a threefold one:

First, isolate these oligarchs both politically and economically by cutting off all bi- and multilateral sources of aid and trade that fuel their war machines.

Second, aggressively make food, medicine, seeds, and tools available no matter where victims of the conflicts reside.

Finally, support the organized movements and forces which advocate more broad-based and inclusive consultations about the futures of the two countries.

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