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Driving Sudan towards paradise

November 22, 2010

Back in1978, Sudanese statesman Abel Alier decided he had had enough of negotiating with troublesome locals over a controversial development project. Exasperated at the endless obstacles, he vowed to force it through without an agreement.

“If we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks we will do so for their own good and the good of those who come after us,” he infamously said.

Something similar must have been going through the minds of mediators in recent weeks as they tried to push for an agreement between Sudan’s intractable northern and southern politicians.

Sudan is now just 48 days away from the scheduled start of two referendums — the first on whether the oil-producing south should declare independence, the second on whether the disputed central Abyei region should join north or south.

Time is running out but both sides remain at loggerheads on a list of basic issues. To date, they haven’t even been able to agree on the membership of a commission to organise the Abyei vote — most privately agree it will have to be postponed or canceled.

There were signs of some progress a week ago, on the eve of the Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday, when African Union mediators said both sides reached a framework deal, at least agreeing the form of future negotiations. But politicians returned from their break this weekend, refreshed and ready to restart their war of words.

The “framework agreement” was unsigned and only in principle, they said. Both sides called press conferences accusing each other of breaking peace deals, and intimidating voters. One step forward and several steps back.

Some sort of settlement would certainly be for their own good and the good of those that come after them.

Both referendums were promised in a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of north-south civil war. Any permanent collapse in that settlement could easily plunge both regions back to conflict. For many Sudanese already tired of years of fighting, paradise would simply be peace.

Mediators have already tried to use sticks to get them moving — Washington has repeatedly reminded Khartoum it can step up crippling trade sanctions still further in the absence of progress. They have also tried carrots — Washington, again, has promised to take Sudan off its list of state sponsors of terrorism and to ease sanctions if progress is made. So far, neither approach has produced any significant concessions.

Seasoned Sudan watchers say both sides are simply engaged in a classic bit of brinkmanship and will rush through an agreement in the days before the votes.

That has happened before on other issues but not all the precedents are promising.

Work did eventually start on Abel Alier’s development project — a canal to divert the flow of river Nile water away from the south’s vast Sudd swamp. Work stopped again when southern rebels, returning to war against the north in the 1980s, attacked the Jonglei canal’s vast digging machine leaving it stuck in its tracks.


Once again praying and hoping for peace in Sudan after 25 years and more of conflict. Foreign powers involved may need to speak with one voice and help with the driving in one direction. AU and other bodies may need to have good monitoring capability of any military actions whether direct or in proxy. Thanks for the good reporting.

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