The yet to be convened first meeting between the government and the rebel group, SPLM-N-Al-Hilu, could make a difference in the 6-year old stalled conflict provided that some outstanding issues are resolved.
According to IGAD ambassador to Sudan Lissane Yohannes the two parties are slated to meet in the first week of February to discuss first the cessation of hostilities in the first round, then to be followed by political talks.
It was significant that IGAD’s Yohannes, in his statement, did not refer to the AHUIP roadmap signed by the Sudan government and rebel groups back in 2016. After all IGAD has nothing to do with the initiative, which is the brain child of the AUHIP.
That is why it was not clear whether these talks will be carried out along the roadmap plan or not. For one Al-Hilu have not recommitted himself yet to that roadmap, which has been signed by his predecessor Malik Agar. More important his rebellion against the former SPLM-N leadership seems to focus more on issues related to Nuba Mountains to a large extent. Though he claims to cover the Blue Nile as well, but he has to prove that since his control is disputed by his former colleagues, Agar and Yasser Arman. After all the Blue Nile area is the power base of Agar.
However, the expected talks will raise another more serious issue: to go forward with the holistic approach adopted by the AUHIP roadmap to settle Sudan’s problems together, or go back to building peace block by block, the approach that had been exercised during the CPA and failed to put the foundation base for a sustainable peace in Sudan.
Regardless of intentions the scheduled February meeting does not refer so far to Darfur rebel groups, namely the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) or Sudan Liberation Movement led by Mini Minawi, or the Umma Party, who though does not carry arms, but was a signatory to the roadmap.
In fact the AUHIP failed even to kick start serious talks for its initiative. It took six months for the rebel groups that include those of Darfur, SPLM-N as well as Umma Party to commit themselves to the roadmap, then another 18 months have been wasted without engaging in any talks. Part of the problem of course relates to the schism that hit the SPLM-N early last year and exhausted quite time to settle in two competing SPLM-N groups each claiming that it represents the two areas of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
Fingers crossed, the procedural issues could be overcome somehow, but one major sticking problem needs to be faced heads on. And that is the call by Al-Hilu for the right of self-determination. It was the slogan that Al-Hilu used to undermine the leadership of Agar/Arman. The call in a way fits the government who wants the talks to be restricted to the two areas only and not relate to national issues.
But the government is not expected to give in to the idea of including self-determination in the talks. Even the AUHIP will not be that enthusiastic in accommodating this new item. And most likely it will be supported by the African Union and its different bodies, who seem to be more than happy to go back to the old dictum of respecting borders inherited from the colonial era. The failed experience of South Sudan provide a vivid reminder that such approach should not be tried once more. And that whatever problems plague the member countries, they should be faced within the existing borders.
Moreover, a new factor may be getting into the equation and that is the regional element. Over the past several weeks the rivalry in the Horn of Africa intensified for variety of reasons pitting Sudan and Ethiopia against Egypt, which is trying to persuade Eritrea to join it. Sudan feeling the heat and as a precautionary measure closed its borders with Eritrea and deployed additional forces.
This tense situation may help in pushing for some sort of a deal with Al-Hilu, at least to settle the dispute with the group that has a significant military power. Ethiopia, given its weighty influence within IGAD and the African Union is expected to help in this endeavor. And the issue may take a more unwelcomed regional turn.
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