Serious concerns are being raised about an arms buildup in Sudan that could jeopardize the durability of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).
Tensions that had been brewing over oil rights and territorial claims in the Abyei region were reduced somewhat by last week’s ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague (PCA). But peoples of the eastern Nuba Mountains, the Beja, and the Nubia region also want a stake in preventing the marginalization of their interests by the Khartoum government and the forces in southern Sudan.
Adjunct Professor of African Studies Richard Lobban of the U.S. Naval War College took part in a program this week at Washington’s U.S. Institute for Peace focusing on voices of the marginalized in Sudan. He says the peoples of the east enjoy relative isolation. But during periods of heightened conflict, particularly with the south, they face dangers similar to those being posed by escalating conflicts in other parts of the country.
“Nuba Mountains is more in a political vacuum where the conflicting parties, of which there are many, have been pushed aside. And the long history of Nuba mountains is one where people fled to that area to avoid Arab slavers and predations of that sort. So as long as it was a backwater, it was relatively peaceful. But when it was actively contested, particularly in the middle and late 1980’s, then it was a very horrible place with every known war crime and different atrocities on both sides,” he said.
Lobban says Sudan’s second civil war, which began in 1983 disrupted eastern tranquility and put the region’s population at risk in a conflict that wasn’t theirs.
“The Khartoum government didn’t really start the conflict in the Nuba Mountains, except to say that they gave plenty of grievances. But when the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army) under the command of (southern Sudan’s leader) John Garang thought it could capitalize on those grievances and use Nuba Mountains as an entryway into the underbelly of Khartoum, it didn’t work out,” he noted.
With the oil profits Sudan’s economy has been enjoying, an arms buildup by both Khartoum and the south, which is permitted by the CPA, is expected also to have a detrimental impact on the country’s marginalized regions. Professor Lobban suggests that the burden of dampening the prospects for another war falls on the national government and the country’s plentiful insurgent groups.
“Insurgents. with all their grievances, must think very seriously about taking up arms. And Khartoum on its side needs to be much more responsive and address the many grievances of political disenfranchisement, lack of development, and so forth in the periphery. Otherwise, it will have more revolts and resistance and problems,” he said.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has been in power for 20 years, longer than any previous military regime in Sudan’s post-independence history. But the proliferation of regional strains raises the question of how long the Khartoum government can juggle all the pressures.
Professor Lobban, who also serves as executive director of the Sudan Studies Association, notes that complications in preparing the country’s census have delayed the course of national elections, scheduled for next year. Consequently, he says, it raises questions about a critical 2011 referendum to determine the future sovereignty or independence of southern Sudan.
“Sudan is at a turning point. And I would imagine that whatever the results of those three speed bumps, let’s say, in Sudanese contemporary political history, they will have to change course or change speed or do something…So the Bashir administration is running out of time and options and speed. And it just has to do something to respond to the now multiple crises and the critical turning points that have been put in the way, not to mention, of course the ICC charges,” he pointed out, referring to the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudan’s leader for complicity in committing war crimes in the Darfur region.