The withdrawal of the SPLA forces from East Sudan has been completed. This is a success of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between North and South Sudan. According to that agreement the forces should have been withdrawn already on 9 January this year, one year after the signing of the CPA. That turned out to be impossible, because of logistical difficulties. When Khartoum understood that the delay was not due to reluctance on the part of Juba and that the SPLM was still committed to the peace agreement, the Southern forces were granted more time. The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) even assisted them with trucks to facilitate the redeployment.
I had not expected otherwise. The SPLA troops had stayed very long in the East. Quite a few of them had established families over there. However, most of them wanted to go to home. I don't think that the Southern government would have been able to keep these soldiers much longer in the East. Moreover, they are needed in the South. The Government of Southern Sudan has claimed huge numbers of combatants to be disarmed and demobilized after peace, but they hardly how many. The SPLA has always functioned as a guerilla army. All veterans of decades ago are still considered as potential fighters, if needed. However, the real core of SPLA, reliable, staunch and well trained, is not so big. Part of it is needed to to form the Joint Integrated Units, on a fifty-fifty basis with the SAF (about two thousand each). Another part is necessary as a buffer for protection against other armed groups that are still roaming around, or in case the Comprehensive Peace Agreement would not hold. No wonder that president Kiir wanted his troops to return from the East, back to their own territory in the South.
The departure of the SPLA forces from East Sudan took place with grace. People in Kassala were jubilant, not because they were glad that they were leaving, but because of respect for SPLA. It was opposite to what many had expected: no signs of relief that an enemy was leaving, but a demonstration of confidence that the newly won peace would last.
Photo's: Jasbir Lidder (c)
Will it last? The East has not only been affected by the war between North and South Sudan, but also by internal conflicts and in particular by the insurgence launched by the Beja and the Rashaida, who together had formed an Eastern Front. I wrote about this earlier. In 2005 we had been quite successful in our efforts to contain the violence. Both the Government and the Front had responded positively to our suggestions to start 'talks about talks'. However, gradually the UN were sidelined by some countries with specific interests. This finally led to the decision to choose Libya as the facilitator of the peace talks. In my weblog of 6 January I had written that I did not expect much of this initiative: Libya does not have a good record as an impartial broker. As a matter of fact,the talks never took off.
After a visit of Vice President Kiir to Eritrea in February, followed by the resumption of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Sudan, matters took a different ourse. In April Vice President Taha was present during the fifteenth anniversary ceremonies of the Eritrean independence. This was unique. Since the end of the war with Ethiopia Eritrea is quite isolated. It demands a full implementation of the findings of the international arbitration commission on the demarcation of the border with Ethiopia. Both countries had promised, when the arbitration procedure started, to accept its findings as legal and binding. However, when the commission decided more in favor of the position of Eritrea - which several years earlier had started the war by launching an attack in the disputed area - Ethiopia refused to follow through. Ethiopia is not being criticized for this position by the international community. It still enjoys good relations with many other countries. This has angered President Isaias Afeworki, who reminds other countries that several years ago he had fully accepted the conclusions of a similar arbitration in a conflict between Eritrea and Yemen. That arbitration had brought an end to a brief war about some disputed strategic islands in the Red Sea. The arbitration had produced a verdict in favor of Yemen and consequently Afeworki had withdrawn his troops. Ethiopia has not done so at the border with its neighbor. Afeworki has threatened with retaliation, which could result in the resumption of war. He has made life very difficult for UNMEE, the UN peace force in the border area. UMEE has a Security Council mandate to monitor the peace between the countries. However, the Security Council is criticized by Eritrea for not taking action against Ethiopia and President Afeworki has ordered UNMEE observers with nationalities of countries which he holds responsible to leave the country. . Afeworki's reactions have contributed to the isolation of his country, though many observers admit that his position is legally correct. However, in the reality of international politics other factors are often more important.
The recent thaw in the relation with Sudan makes Eritrea less isolated. Both countries have decided that peace talks between Sudan and the Eastern front should take place in Asmara. The Eastern Front has accepted Asmara as the venue. The Front hardly has a choice. For many years it has been supported by Eritrea. In fact it has been controlled by the Government in Asmara. Many countries in the region (Eritrea, Chad, Uganda, Ethiopia, Libya and also Sudan) consider support to rebels in neighbor countries as effective means to guard their borders and to weaken potential rivals. Delivering weapons, providing refuge to rebel leaders and harboring rebel forces is a common feature in the region.
The talks in Asmara are due to start in the second half of July. The Eastern Front in Sudan has organized meetings just across the border with Eritrea to prepare itself. They have declared to stay united at all cost, and to invest in good communication with their constituency on the ground, in order not to become alienated from the reality in the field. They declared that they would not repeat the mistakes by the Darfur rebel movements who have negotiated peace with the Sudanese Government in N'Djamena and Abuja, These movements ended utterly divided between themselves and have lost support from the people in Darfur, even from those for whom they claimed to fight. The Eastern Front, as many others, has realized, that this had contributed led to the present failure in the implementation of Darfur Peace Agreement.
Will the Eastern Front succeed? It remains to be seen whether the peace negotiations actually will take place between Sudan and the rebels or between Sudan and Eritrea. Eritrea may be an effective facilitator in the short run, because of its influence on the Eastern Front, but in the longer run that is its weakness. Eritrea is by definition not impartial. It may prefer a result that is more in its own interests than in that of the two parties. It needs oil. It needs Sudanese support or at least neutrality in its dispute with the common neighbor Ethiopia. It will want a guarantee that Khartoum no longer supports Eritrean opposition on Sudanese soil. Will the Eastern Front have confidence enough in the impartiality of the facilitator to accept the outcome of the talks? If not, the hostilities might resume. That could easily result in civil war and in human rights violations.
SPLA has left the East. Its function as a possible countervailing force checking the balance in the region no longer exists. The UN cannot function as a monitor of events either. We will have to leave the East soon. The mandate of our peace keeping troops has been limited to the monitoring of the withdrawal of the SPLA from the East. That has been completed and we have to go. Last week I went to Kassala and announced that we consider our task as completed and that we will redeploy our peace keeping force soon.
In December last year I had suggested in informal meetings of the Security Council that the UN peace keeping force could stay longer, to monitor the aftermath of the withdrawal of the SPLA, in particular because of the unrest in the East itself. We could stay until peace talks between the Government and the Eastern Front would have produced a result. The Security Council did not respond to this suggestion, nor to similar proposals laid down in regular reports to the Council this year. Maybe that a few months ago it would have been possible to take such a decision in consultation with the Government and the SPLA, the parties that had invited us to come. The SPLA was still on the ground; the political climate around a possible extension of our force into Darfur had not yet deteriorated and it was uncertain whether peace talks with the Eastern Front would actually start. That opportunity does not exist anymore. On several occasions the Government has already made clear that it expects the UNMIS to leave the East as soon as possible. In itself that is right. When seen in the light of our mandate we have completed our job in the East. Presently, suggestions to stay longer would feed the Sudanese suspicion that the presence of the UN serves the hidden agenda of some of the member states. Of course this is not the case. However, as I argued in my weblog last week, it is important to prove this time and again.
So, everything will depend on the talks themselves. The United Nations have not been invited to participate as observers. Nor have others been invited. All of us received an invitation for the official opening ceremony earlier this month, but the negotiating parties and the facilitator have not considered it necessary to extend the invitations to the talks themselves. The presence of international partners will be restricted to the corridors.
I have mixed feelings about this. The presence of international observers guarantees transparency and can help checking manipulation of weak parties by the strong ones. However, the presence of many international observers, all of them with their own interests, can also complicate matters. The Darfur talks in N'Djamena and Abuja are an example in this respect. So, let us give the parties a chance to reach peace in East Sudan fully by themselves.