By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007
A peace agreement that two years ago ended Africa's longest-running conflict -- and that the White House considers one of President Bush's signature achievements -- is in danger of unraveling because of inattention by top U.S. officials and growing tensions between Sudan's government and the former rebels who signed the deal, according to experts and congressional officials.
The two-decade civil war, which pitted the Islamic government in the north against rebels based in the mostly animist and Christian south, left 2 million people dead, primarily from famine and disease, and 4 million homeless. Christian evangelical groups -- a key part of Bush's political base -- had pressed hard for a resolution, and the administration made a peace agreement one of its top diplomatic priorities.
Last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cited the peace deal -- under which the southern part of the country would receive religious and political autonomy and a share of Sudan's oil riches -- when she was asked what Bush would be remembered for besides Iraq. "He should be known for having contributed vitally to stopping the civil war between southern and northern Sudan," Rice said.
But now experts warn that the Khartoum government's unwillingness to abide by the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) could lead to a new outbreak of war. "The CPA is eroding," said Roger Winter, a former State Department official who was involved in the negotiations. "It is not dead by any means, but it is eroding and Khartoum wants it to erode." He said he sees signs that the Sudanese government is no longer interested in the peace deal and has taken steps to prepare for another conflict.
Many experts said the administration, distracted by war in the Middle East and an unrelated conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, has failed to recognize the peril lurking in the south. (Similarly, many now believe that the administration let the Darfur conflict spiral out of control in 2003 because it was so focused on reaching a peace accord in the south.)
Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), a leading force in Congress on Sudan, said, "The bench over at the State Department is very shallow now" -- virtually all the experts on Sudan have left in the past year -- and the administration is "preoccupied with other issues."
Bush in September appointed a special envoy to Sudan, Andrew S. Natsios, but Natsios has mainly focused on Darfur, where as many as 450,000 people have died in what the administration labels a campaign of genocide by the Sudanese government.
"They have Natsios dealing with Darfur, but they have no one dealing with the south," said Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-N.J.), chairman of the Africa subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said the administration should appoint a special envoy specifically to make sure the north-south peace deal does not collapse.
A senior administration official involved in Africa affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said the administration has kept its focus on both Darfur and the situation in south Sudan. But he acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns. "There has been significant movement on the CPA, and you don't want to undersell that," he said. "But we have been disappointed with the pace of progress."
The conflict between the north and the south extends back half a century, since shortly after Sudan's independence in 1956. A 1972 accord helped usher in a decade of peace, but a civil war erupted in 1983 after the Sudanese government abrogated the pact and tried to impose Islamic law, or sharia. The discovery of vast oil reserves, mainly in the south, has exacerbated the struggle.
Under the peace agreement, which was signed in a joyous celebration in a Nairobi stadium two years ago, sharia will apply to the Arab north but not to the African south. The south is to have a six-year interim period of self-rule, after which it will vote in a referendum on whether to remain part of Sudan or secede.
But negotiators hoped that the deal would keep Sudan intact, with the prospect of secession by the south intended to put pressure on the government to uphold its end of the bargain. In a carefully negotiated compromise, an autonomous government is to emerge in the south while new national institutions are created.
But the rebel leader John Garang was killed in a helicopter crash shortly after he became first vice president of Sudan in July 2005. His successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, lashed out at the Khartoum government this month during a second-anniversary celebration of the accord, accusing it of continuing to bankroll militias in the south, refusing to share oil wealth and stalling on border agreements.
As a visibly angry President Omar Hassan al-Bashir sat on the dais, Kiir pleaded to "give peace a chance." Asking whether the leaders had worked toward making the unity of the government attractive, Kiir declared: "The answer is regrettably no! Problems, serious problems still remain to be resolved."
Bashir then fired back with his own accusations, saying that delays and problems are the fault of the rebels, not the government. The unusually public spat focused renewed attention on the sputtering accord.
Barnaba Benjamin, minister for regional development in the government of south Sudan, told a House Foreign Affairs panel last week that "the country can break up unless the CPA is implemented in spirit and in letter."
Winter said that an area known as Abyei, between the northern and southern parts of Sudan, is a particular source of tension. Under the peace agreement, Abyei, which has a huge oil field, can vote in 2011 on whether to be part of the north or the south. But Bashir has rejected the findings of a boundary commission and has refused to allow the creation of a local government, convincing the local population that war will break out again in the territory. Winter faulted the administration for failing to publicly pressure Khartoum on this critical issue.
Though Garang was long an advocate of Sudanese unity, his death and the Darfur disaster have made it increasingly likely that the south Sudanese will vote overwhelmingly for independence, according to focus group surveys conducted by the National Democratic Institute.
Winter said Khartoum appears ready to break the peace deal before the election takes place, so the administration needs to help the south prepare for independence.
The administration official acknowledged that south Sudan is moving toward independence. "We have to plan for that," he said. "The idea behind the CPA was that there would be a transformation of Sudan, that it would become a responsible player in the international community. Many south Sudanese would say they have not seen that."