U.S. policy misguided in war-ravaged Sudan

Africa: The Clinton administration had decided to back the main group of Sudanese rebels. But the rebels are making it difficult for humanitarian groups.

March 19, 2000|By Adam Choppin

THE CLINTON administration is learning how hard it is to make friends among warriors in Africa. After spending the Christmas season debating whether to support the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA), the main rebel group in southern Sudan, by arming it with food, the administration must now decide what to do about the SPLA's expulsion of 11 humanitarian agencies from its areas of control.

The SPLA has long enjoyed the support of the Clinton administration for a number of reasons, including the old dictum that it is the "the enemy of my enemy" -- namely, the government in Khartoum.

The Clinton administration perceives the 10-year-old regime as among the most heinous in the world. Washington accuses Khartoum of sponsoring terrorist groups in at least a dozen countries, housing would-be assassins, violating human rights, denying food aid to starving people and complying with an active slave trade within its borders.

Moreover, Khartoum has imposed strict Islamic laws over the people of the non-Muslim south.

Complex factors

The complex factors that divide the people of Sudan, north and south, have given rise to two prolonged wars during most of the second half of the 20th century. The first war (1955-1972) ended in a negotiated settlement.

The current phase of the war, which started in 1983, is primarily between the radical Arab-Islamic northern government in Khartoum and the SPLA, which consists primarily of Christian and animist Africans from the south.

In November, the Clinton administration approved a policy of direct food aid to the rebels, which would support their positions on the battlefield. After a heated debate led by dissenting officials inthe State Department and aid agencies threatened by the risk of retaliation from Khartoum, the Clinton administration decided against the policy.

Now the SPLA has announced that it will not allow aid agencies to function in SPLA-controlled areas of the south without signing a controversial memorandum of understanding.

In situations of war such as the one in Sudan, humanitarian agencies generally enter into an agreement with whatever group is on the ground for reasons of security. Aid workers have described the SPLA's offer as "imposing too many restrictions" and "offering too little in the way of security guarantees." They worry that the provisions in the agreement would violate their neutrality and make them legitimate targets for government attacks, severely jeopardizing their operations and the lives of their aid workers.

This sort of intransigence is not the type of behavior the State Department was hoping for from its prospective new allies. Indeed, it has "deplored" the decision by the SPLA leadership to expel aid agencies that did not sign the memorandum by March 1. However, diplomatic mumbles won't change the situation, let alone readmit the aid agencies whose impact is felt by more than 1 million southern Sudanese.

Problem for U.S.

This presents a problem for U.S. officials who are increasingly impatient with the situation in Sudan. Negotiations sponsored by a group of seven East African states under the auspices of IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development) have dragged on with little or no progress for nearly six years. Meanwhile, the government in Khartoum has been free to exploit export revenues from newly active oil fields in the south.

The problems faced by the Clinton administration would be a major headache for any administration in Washington. Choosing sides in a war as complicated and intransigent as this one makes issues such as Iraqi sanctions seem straightforward. Maybe the lesson to be learned here is that choosing sides isn't always the best option. It is easy to point to a number of cases in which "tactical neutrality" might have been better in the long run for the United States and the people of countries such as Angola, Somalia and Nicaragua.

Moreover, the Clinton administration's influence is limited. Or so it claims. The reality is that it has been the SPLA's best friend, at least among Western nations. Clinton and his advisers have openly courted the SPLA for a number of years, and the administration has an ongoing $6 million aid program to help the SPLA learn "good governance."

Millions more in American arms have been funneled to the SPLA by its neighbors, with Washington's de facto approval.

These policies have largely been hidden from the public eye, while the proposed policy of food aid received considerable attention from the print media because of its impact on many aid agencies and government officials. This is why the SPLA's expulsion of 11 humanitarian agencies was such a diplomatic slap in the face. The Clinton administration has done more for the SPLA than most nations, and this is hardly the way to send a thank-you card.

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