TOPICS : Sudan’s other war and Darfur

Forget Darfur for a moment. Think of Sudan’s other civil war, the conflict between north and south, which seemed, until recently, to be under control. If the highest credible death toll in the Darfur war is about 200,000, the north-south war is estimated to have taken seven times as many lives. A peace deal under international mediation was signed two years ago. A government of national unity was set up in which former rebel leaders from Christian and animist backgrounds joined ranks with Arab Muslim generals and politicians in Khartoum, pending national elections in 2009. If peace could be made after so much bloodshed and between people from such different traditions, how much less difficult ought it to be to get peace in Darfur?

Yet, earlier this month,the north-south peace deal suffered a massive blow. The southerners suspended their cooperation in the government of national unity and their ministers walked out. Arguments over boundary commissions and the final withdrawal of each side’s forces from the other’s territory had been rumbling , but no one expected them to break the government.

The crisis in the government of national unity sends a terrible signal. Are the southerners trying to warn the Darfur rebels — who also want greater autonomy for their region as well as a fairer share in Sudan’s growing oil wealth — that Khartoum’s Arab elite can never be trusted? That will certainly be the message that the Darfur rejectionists will convey and this is the only gleam of hope in the crisis — the southerners still seem to be in favour of a deal in Libya where peace talks are taking place. Last week, they hosted a meeting of rebels, urging them to go to Libya.

The Southerners have walked out. But presidential advisers and ministers in Khartoum say they will not be intimidated. The government will go on, with Arab junior ministers taking the place of absent southerners. “They will not know how much oil is being pumped and how much revenue is obtained,” as one put it. They also suggest the southerners’ move was a temporary spat, dictated by internal rivalries rather than matters of substance.

A first peace agreement on Darfur last year failed because one key rebel from the Fur tribe, Abdul Wahid al-Nur, refused at the final moment to sign. He was not even willing to attend the new talks. Khalil Ibrahim, another rejectionist, has wider national ambitions. His Justice and Equality Movement has pretensions to “liberate” the whole country, and his people have mounted attacks in Sudan beyond Darfur. The two men have lived abroad for years, one in Paris, the other for part of his time in London.

As a new wave of displacements rolls through south Darfur, caused largely by the resurgence of inter-African tensions as people grow desperate for the little help and shelter there still is, the Sudanese who deserve to stand in the dock are not in Khartoum. They flit between Paris, London and other foreign capitals, undermining the best chance for peace that wretched Darfur has. — The Guardian