WESTERN nations may have a rare opportunity to help end a 12-year civil war in Sudan, where about 2 million southern Sudanese need emergency food relief due mostly to recent fighting.
In an apparent bid to emerge from being a political and economic pariah, Sudan's top leadership has opened the door to Western help in peace negotiations and in examining the touchy issue of alleged government human rights abuses.
Sudanese Foreign Minister Hussein Suleiman Abu Saleh, in an exclusive Monitor interview here on May 13, invited American and other Western experts to ``give their technical know-how'' on federalism to help Sudan draft a power-sharing plan for consideration by the government and rebels.
The foreign minister's comments came just days after President Omar Hassan al-Bashir told a press conference here on May 13 that he would allow Western investigators to work with the Sudan government on allegations of human rights abuses.
When told of Dr. Saleh's remarks to this newspaper, Donald Petterson, US Ambassador to Sudan, said the opening should be followed up. ``There is a need for someone to help out on the negotiating process,'' he said in an interview here last week.
Sudan's Islamic military regime, which overthrew an elected government in July 1989, has been branded a ``terrorist'' nation by the United States, accused of massive human rights violations, and cut off from most foreign aid.
On May 20, President Clinton named the former US ambassador to Zaire and Mozambique, Melissa Wells, special envoy for Sudan on peace and humanitarian affairs, following pressure for such a post by some members of Congress and private lobby groups. She is likely to ``look into the need for US expertise on federalism [power-sharing] and military withdrawals after a cease-fire,'' Ambassador Petterson says.
In Washington, John Prendergast, a longtime Sudan analyst, called Sudan's bid for Western help in formulating a power-sharing peace plan ``a very big opening. I think we should take them up on it immediately,'' working with both sides in the drafting process, he says. Mr. Prendergast heads the Coalition for Peace in the Horn of Africa, which is composed of dozens of private groups in the US.
Sudan's civil war is being fought over power-sharing between the mostly non-Muslim, southern-based rebels and the mostly Muslim, Arab northern government. The rebels object to the imposition of Sharia or Islamic law. Both sides have endorsed the concept of some kind of federalism, but so far details have not been written down. Several days of peace talks got under way here Friday with more scheduled for June. The two sides are still far apart and deeply distrust each other.
Stephan Wondu, a spokesman for the main faction of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, says ``we would be delighted'' if the US or another Western nation helped draft a power-sharing formula, as well as ``political guidelines'' to help bring peace.
On the human rights front, General Bashir, who seized power in a coup in July 1989 and overturned a democratic government, says outside Western investigators could work with the Sudanese government to examine human rights abuses against the government.
``We in Sudan welcome any effort from a neutral and serious party to know the facts about human rights, or any other matter,'' Bashir told reporters here. ``We are ready to support it.''
Asked about this, Petterson responded: ``It would behoove Western countries to follow up'' on this invitation. He called the remarks ``encouraging,'' but added: ``Let's see it happen.''
After Gaspar Biro, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Sudan, visited Sudan last year, he complained that some Sudanese who came to see him were later detained by government security agents. And a group of Sudanese women who protested against the government were beaten in front of the UN offices in Sudan's capital Khartoum, Petterson says.
Petterson adds that the US has ``ample'' evidence that human rights abuses by the government continue. Human Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have also been highly critical of alleged abuses by rebel forces.
Sudan's government is divided between hard-line Islamic extremists who want to win the war, make Sudan an Islamic state, and see Sudan as a base for an Islamic revival in the region, Prendergast says. Others in government, concerned about the war-devastated economy, appear to be more willing to seek a negotiated settlement to the war, he adds.
Appeal for food aid
Rebel forces are also divided, which makes it hard to negotiate with them, Bashir complained. And those forces are unlikely to quickly agree to peace terms while divided, says a Kenyan who has helped with periodic rebel and government negotiations.
Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme says only 11 percent of their January appeal for $60 million in emergency food relief had been met as of May 18. Most of the money is for airlifting already-available food to remote villages and towns where local food stocks have been exhausted and to displaced Sudanese who have fled fighting in recent months. Malnutrition rates among children in parts of the south ranging from 25 to 50 percent, WFP reports.
More money is needed quickly to avoid a ``large-scale humanitarian tragedy,'' says Brenda Barton, regional WFP information officer. The crisis in Sudan has been overshadowed by the recent massacres in Rwanda, she says.