NAIROBI, Kenya — President Barack Obama on Wednesday extended sanctions against Sudan for another year as part of a new U.S. policy that offers the prospect of greater dialogue while promising to continue to press for change.
Sudan is one country — however divided. That's the gist of the new policy announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month.
With the Darfur conflict rumbling on in the west and a peace deal threatening to unravel in the south, the new U.S. policy is to link these things, realizing that one cannot be solved without the other.
"In the past, the United States's approach too often has focused narrowly on emerging crises," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announcing the new policy in Washington on Oct. 19. "[We] are approaching two key issues — Darfur and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement — simultaneously and in tandem."
The U.S. played a pivotal role in bringing an end to a decades-long civil war that pitted Sudan's Muslim Arabs from the north against Christian and animist Africans from the south. By the time the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, bringing an end to the shooting, bombing, raping and killing, an estimated 2 million people had died.
Having done its bit for southern Sudan, U.S. attention shifted to the killing fields of Darfur in the west. Colin Powell described as "genocide" the government-sponsored raids and aerial bombardments of rebels and civilians alike.
Darfur has been in the headlines ever since and, with overwhelming world attention focused there, Sudan's north-south peace agreement was forgotten and has been left to fall apart.
Sudan is Africa's largest country and threatens to become its biggest mess. Swaths of its vast territory are ungoverned and the legacy of decades of fighting is an astonishing number of weapons, up to 3.2 million according to some estimates.
The clock is ticking said retired general Scott Gration, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan: "We're acutely aware of the urgency of our task and the shortness of our timeline ... Success requires frank dialogue."
An ill-prepared national election looms in April next year which, if it is not widely regarded as free and fair, will add fuel to the separatist fires. And in 2011 a referendum will be held — in accordance with 2005's CPA — on whether southern Sudanese should be able to secede.
The new U.S. policy has three objectives: to end the fighting in Darfur and so the suffering of people there; to shore up and fully implement the north/south peace deal; and to ensure that Sudan does not become a terrorist haven as it was in the 1990s when Khartoum hosted Osama bin Laden.
"We will employ calibrated incentives as appropriate and exert real pressure as needed on any party that fails to act to improve the lives of the people of Sudan," Clinton said. "There will be no rewards for the status quo, no incentives without concrete and tangible progress. There will be significant consequences for parties that backslide or simply stand still."
Exactly what form those consequences might take — or what kind of incentives might be offered — was not revealed, but the respected newsletter Africa Confidential reports that the pressure will "include military intervention ... the one external threat the NCP really fears."
Sudan is a difficult but necessary state to deal with. It is run by a militant Islamist government headed by Omar al Bashir, an iron-fisted president who took power in a coup 20 years ago and is in no hurry to relinquish control. Bashir is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and U.S. diplomats openly accuse him of orchestrating genocide in Darfur.
Announcing the new Sudan policy, Clinton used the word "genocide" five times, something sure to anger the touchy apparatchiks in Khartoum, and stated that while talking to the regime, U.S. diplomats would not be talking directly to Bashir.
But for all the outside pressure that the U.S. might bring to bear, the real stumbling blocks are likely to be found within Sudan's domestic political, ethnic and religious make-up.
The power-sharing Government of National Unity does not live up to its name and is increasingly fractious. This week southern ministers walked out of parliament to protest Bashir's refusal to reform the intelligence services upon which he relies so heavily.
In discussions with the U.S., Sudan's point man is a northern doctor-cum-tank commander, not the foreign minister, who is a southerner. Even the recent case of a female journalist arrested in Khartoum for wearing trousers deemed indecent by the regime's morality police was an excuse for southern politicians to score political points against its enemy in government.
Meanwhile in Darfur the basic level of trust needed for any peace talks to succeed is sorely lacking, both among the fragmented rebels themselves and between them and Khartoum.
With this new policy Obama has signaled his intent to talk to Sudan's government in the hope of bringing about peace and stability in one of the continent's anchor-states. The Bush administration proved that refusing to deal with the likes of Bashir does not bring about
results, but Obama might find opening discussions with the Sudanese regime, hated by many U.S. activists, may not play well with his supporters.