Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sudan's reversal ... or election ruse?

The campaign swing last week through South Sudan by Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir was remarkable in many ways and signals a dramatic change in the policies of Khartoum government.

That al-Bashir would set foot in the region and campaign for his and his party's election to the Sudan's top office can be seen as an acknowledgement that the south is a legitimate partner in the country's future.

The national elections, which are expected to take place next month, will help set the tone for the government in the coming year, but also for the future of the country.

One would have expected that al-Bashir and company would have preferred to send in troops or better yet, use their favorite tactic: arm and employ proxy militias under the guise of quelling a rebellion.

This is how al-Bashir and the National Congress Party have tragically dealt with Darfur, and more recently, the heavily contested and oil-rich Abyei region that straddles the border between South Kordofan state and South Sudan.

One can't forget that the Khartoum government and South Sudan fought a bloody civil war for 23 years that killed an estimated 2 million people and displaced about twice that number. The war ended in 2005 with the signing of a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The South is far from recovery.

Also in the past month, the Sudan government has negotiated a ceasefire with Darfur rebels, also signaling an end to a war that has displaced 2 million people and killed an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people.

Now al-Bashir is in the south campaigning for a position he took by force in a coup in 1989 when he led a group of officers who ousted Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi.

Yet, there is al-Bashir, the only sitting president in the world who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, campaigning in the backyard of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, which he once sought to destroy.

Among the statements al-Bashir made while speaking in Maridi, a place I have stayed when in Western Equitoria state, was to end the attacks in the region by the brutal Lord's Resistance Army.

The LRA, as most know, was attacked in December 2008 by the Ugandan army in its camps in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has been on the run ever since.

But that hasn't stopped the army's brutality. Though broken into smaller groups, the LRA units continue to attack remote villages throughout the region, including western South Sudan and eastern Central African Republic, killing, raping, abducting and plundering.

Al-Bashir's vow to break the LRA is ironic in that his government and elements with in the NCP have long been accused of supporting, supplying, and equipping this now-aimless militia.

A story in the on-line Sudan Tribune ( of last week seems to contain an admission by al-Bashir of this support. Written by Richard Ruati, the story quotes al-Bashir as saying, "the National Congress Party is to work towards ending insurgent attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the south."

The quote hints at an on-going relationship with the LRA, a relationship that would allow the government "to work towards" ending the attacks. However, it could also be little more than a campaign promise that addresses the innocent victims in the region who continue to suffer from LRA attacks.

Al-Bashir's comments also cast doubt on the frequent assertions that that al-Bashir and the NCP plan to covertly use leader Joseph Kony and his LRA to disrupt the April national elections.

That disruptive use of the LRA is still a possibility, however, given the history of al-Bashir and the NCP, especially if they see the coming election as a threat to their rule.

We can only hope that al-Bashir will keep his word.