Sudan rebels put war before want
An offensive by southern Sudan’s secessionists will fuel famine, writes Peter Beaumont from Wun Rog
The wind was blowing dust devils in Bahr el Ghazal, southern Sudan’s arid plain of thorns. It promised to bring rain but in some areas few farmers will be ready if it comes.
There is little sign of any attempt at cultivation in Abyei and Twic, counties in the north of the region where people have been on the move for a week to escape fighting between secessionist rebels and the forces of the government in Khartoum.
The young men of the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) are on the move, too, carrying their knapsacks and weapons. Their objective, Western observers say, is the government garrison at Gogrial and then the strategic centre of Wau: epicentre of Bahr el Ghazal.
Last week the northern-based government made a small step towards resolving the 14- year conflict by offering a referendum on self-determination in the south. But in the south, observers fear, preparations are being made not for peace but for a violent push to seize the last few bits of the region still held by the government. If Wau is overrun, it is agreed, the Sudanese government garrisons will fall one after the other.
Wau has become a town suffering a sense of almost permanent siege. In the fighting of January, the government garrison there was overrun and held by the rebels for three hours. Sustaining this garrison and the other critical southern base at Juba has become difficult and costly for Khartoum.
The Wau garrison is reinforced and fed by a train that creeps down from the north, protected by the horseback militia forces of the Islamic northern government, a cavalry of Arabacised nomads whose lands are to the north of Ayei county. First the train comes down the line at walking pace, then the horsemen fan out on either side, destroying anything in their way.
If the south is preparing assaults to sweep away the last few government strongholds before the next peace talks, then the current international aid effort to save the starving of Bahr el Ghazal will be thrown into turmoil.
At the very least, an offensive would propel another vast group of people on to the dust tracks through this wilderness, without shelter or food, to avoid the fighting.
Extraordinary as it might seem to those watching television pictures of the malnourished people of Bahr el Ghazal at feeding centres, the SPLA and its supporters are prepared to continue the war even while the north appears to be ready to sue for peace.
It is a logic explained by Bol Majok, a follower of rebel leader John Garang, living in the town of Wun Rog, close to the fighting between the two sides: “If it was a matter of choice, no one would want the fighting to continue. But there is no choice. And the fighting must go on.”
A political observer in neighbouring Kenya said: “One of the questions you’ve got to ask is whether ... conflict has not actually become the status quo. People have adapted to it. The political leaders have done quite well.”
Which brings the question round to the intentions of Garang. Those watching his career have noted a shift from early idealism to pragmatism that looks suspiciously self-serving. For as the SPLA in the south has grown in confidence - creating structures of civic administration in areas it controls, and bringing a modicum of military discipline to fighters once accused of abuses - so too has Garang grown more ambitious.
Talk within the SPLA of the values of civil society and democratisation led to the organisation drafting a Constitution for the south. Garang gutted the document, writing out any democratic mechanisms that posed a threat to him. Some liberals in the movement now say privately that their new Constitution is less democratic than the new Constitution of the hated government of the north. “Garang has become one of the big questions,” said a Western analyst. “Where does he stand? It looks as though it is with the tradition of the African Big Man rather than with the younger generation.”
The politics of southern Sudan are inseparable from the conflict, and the conflict is inseparable from the current famine.
“We cannot mend the suffering that the people of southern Sudan are going through,” said Lindsey Davies of the World Food Programme, “but we believe we can avert a major famine in the autumn. We have the aircraft, we have the food and we have the access. But it is dependent on three things. Number one is rain. Number two is food. Number three is that there is no fighting.”