An unprecedented Darfur rebel attack on Khartoum is a turning point that could persuade Sudan’s rulers to negotiate seriously with their foes or push Africa’s biggest country towards disintegration.
Sudan-watchers believe the key is international involvement and say much more pressure is needed on both rebels and the government to end the vicious war in Darfur and prevent it threatening the very survival of the state.
”The government of Khartoum may be under more pressure now to take negotiations seriously … but that will depend on the pressure on the government from the international community,” said Jan Pronk, former United Nations envoy to Sudan.
”The international community dropped the ball,” he said, suggesting more effort to get the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels to join Darfur peace talks could have prevented the attack.
For the first time in decades of conflict between Arab-dominated Khartoum and rebels from Sudan’s distant corners, the fight has come to the government’s back yard.
Residents of Khartoum got a small taste of daily life in Sudan’s regional conflict zones, hiding in their homes dodging heavy mortar and rifle fire. The rebels were pushed back late on Saturday but have vowed to attack again.
Observers say it is still early to tell whether the attack will prompt hardliners in the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to try for an all-out military solution, paid for with surging oil revenues.
Some believe that by exposing the vulnerability of the stronghold of Khartoum, the assault could actually make peace negotiations seem a better option and encourage the party to reconcile with political rivals.
”This does show a little bit of a wake-up call and opens space to debate that was previously closed because the NCP in Khartoum appeared untouchable,” said Dave Mozersky from the International Crisis Group think tank.
Other political parties have had somewhat surly relations with the NCP, accusing it of dragging its feet on democratic transformation.
A 2005 north-south peace deal, which did not cover Darfur, envisaged Sudan’s first democratic elections in 23 years due in 2009 and gave the largely Christian and animist southerners a chance to secede in 2011.
But the ruling party has stalled on key parts of the deal that would directly affect its control over security and vital oil revenues from the about half-a-million barrels per day Sudan produces.
South Sudan’s military force of former rebels is far more potent than the Darfuri fighters, as it tellingly made clear at the weekend with its offer to send soldiers to help Khartoum.
Whatever the possibility that the rebel attack could eventually strengthen the chances of dialogue, analysts said the immediate reaction from Sudan’s rulers was likely to be a security crackdown to save face.
”This is very significant and it’s a profound embarrassment that they could get to the city and right in Omdurman using these military tactics,” United States-based Sudan expert Alex De Waal said.
”If the government wants a pretext for a huge crackdown this is it.”
The army could step up an assault on the JEM rebels in Darfur, as it had been doing before the attack.
But the fighting in Khartoum has itself shown up the army’s failure to bring a military end to the conflict that international experts reckon has left 200 000 people dead since largely Muslim, but non-Arab Darfuris took up arms in 2003.
Chad might also be a target. Khartoum has cut diplomatic ties, accusing its neighbour of backing the rebels. Chad denies that and in turn says Sudan was behind a Chadian rebel attempt to oust President Idriss Déby Itno in February.
Vital for calming those regional tensions as well as holding Sudan together is bringing peace to Darfur.
But the process has barely moved in the two years since a flawed deal signed by only one of three negotiating rebel factions.
Many observers blame the United Nations and African Union team who are leading the mediation between the government and increasingly fractured rebel factions.
The arrival of peacekeepers has also been at a snail’s pace. While Western countries accuse Sudan of foot-dragging on terms for deployment, the necessary troops, equipment and funds have not been forthcoming. — Reuters