After almost 20 years of civil war in the Sudan - with about 2 million dead during the last 13 years from fighting or starvation - on-again, off-again peace negotiations are again under way.
President Bush and especially his special envoy to the Sudan, retired Sen. John C. Danforth of Missouri, have made important contributions to this process. The momentum is such that even the capture by southern rebels of the Sudanese city of Torit on Sept. 1 - which caused the northern-based government to walk out of the talks - may only be a momentary setback. Peace might actually be coming to this war-wracked land.
The civil war began in 1983 when the Southern Peoples Liberation Army/Southern Peoples Liberation Movement headed by the Dinka general John Garang initiated hostilities. After an abortive peace effort in 1987 and 1988, the war entered a new phase of fighting, pitting an Islamist central government in the North based in Khartoum against the SPLA/SPLM in the South.
On July 20 this year in the Kenyan city of Machakos, during the initial peace negotiations, North and South agreed on the parameters of a permanent settlement. The agreement was sealed by a public handshake in Uganda between Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Beshir and Garang. If the Machakos agreement can now be transformed into actual political arrangements, Africa's longest-running conflict may finally be consigned to the history books.
At Machakos, agreement was reached on the core issues - most important, the central government agreeing to make no further effort to impose Islamic law on Christians and other non-Muslims in the South as it does in the North. Further, the government and the rebels have agreed on an equitable distribution of political authority and a sharing of economic resources.
Finally, the northern Islamist regime - much to the consternation of Egypt - has agreed to a referendum in 2008 to enable southerners to vote on whether to secede from the Sudan and establish their own independent state. The scope of this breakthrough surprised both the United States and major Middle Eastern countries.
Territorially, the Sudan is the largest country in Africa and has a population of 32 million. Indigenous history and British and French colonialism have interacted to shape a nation of 580 tribes and more than 100 languages, with Arabic the sole language of perhaps 65 percent of the population. Approximately 70 percent of the Sudanese are Muslim, 20 percent animist, and between 5 percent and 10 percent Christian. The largest non-Arab group is the southern Dinka tribe, which makes up 12 percent of the national population and 40 percent of the South's.
Arabs (native Sudanese Arabs are black and physically indistinguishable from other Sudanese) live almost exclusively in the North, an area that also has Muslim but non-Arab communities. The spectacular heterogeneity of the population and the mix of religions suggest why peace has proven so difficult and yet so imperative to achieve.
The Sudan is a geo-strategically important country and a potentially wealthy one. It is well positioned to project influence westward across sub-Saharan Africa, eastward through the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and southward through Kenya, Uganda and the Congo. The Sudan is amply endowed with natural gas and high-quality, low-sulfur oil that was discovered in 1978 but only began to flow in 1998, since then in ever-increasing amounts. The country has fertile agricultural land, and deposits of gold and chrome.
Successful consummation of the peace process may provide the United States with an opportunity to acquire a new supplier of oil as well as an additional source of intelligence useful in the war against terrorism.
Some outside the Sudan have come to view the primary plot of the civil war there as a struggle of Christians in the South against enslavement by the Islamist regime in Khartoum.
This perception is not supported by objective analysis. There is no evidence that the Khartoum regime has mounted any sustained, centrally organized and government-directed campaign to enslave Christians or other southerners. However, tribal raiding and kidnapping - which has led to slave-like labor conditions - have been aplenty from time immemorial there.
Danforth established a commission to look into allegations against the Sudanese government, which concluded that the regime, while not itself directly involved in such activities, nevertheless has condoned them. The Arab-ized Baqqarah tribe, along with the Christian and animist Dinka and Nuer, have all been active in hostage-taking and kidnapping in the South. Such raiding has only been exacerbated by the dislocation caused by the civil war. It may be hoped that peace, combined with economic development, will gradually bring this ancient tribal sport to an end.