Tuesday, October 21, US secretary of state Colin Powell threw his weight behind the Nairobi peace talks taking place between Sudan’s warring factions. He extracted from them a January 1, 2004, deadline for their conclusion. The termination of Sudan’s twenty-year civil between the Muslim majority ruling the country from Khartoum and the Christian-animist rebels of the south would be perceived by the Bush administration as the key to stability in the turbulent countries of the Horn and East Africa and its teeming displaced masses.
US global strategists hope a series of similar peace accords fostered by American diplomats will lead ultimately to the formation of an East African federation embracing Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda, home to a total of 136 million people, among them the most impoverished populations in the world. The effective exploitation of the region’s natural resources should rescue these countries from their distressed state. The region is blessed with an abundance of water from the Nile and its tributaries, as well as unexplored and untapped reserves of oil, diamonds, gold and other metals.
The region’s mounting strategic importance for America’s global war against terrorism is self- evident. Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia are separated from the Arabian Peninsula only by the strategic Gulf of Aden, the 900-km long western arm of the Arabian Sea. It is 500km wide between Somalia and Yemen. Along with Kenya, these three countries are located near the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Persian Gulf. They also stand as a buffer between Africa and the Arab states of the Middle East.
Because of its geographical location and lawless state, this region developed into a stamping ground for terrorists and natural back passage between the Middle East and Africa for terrorists on the move, such as al Qaeda and the Hizballah. The Bush administration has accordingly marked out this part of Africa for the establishment of a limited US military presence, including naval and air forces, who will eventually operate in harness with local intelligence and security authorities to block this highway to terrorists and root them out.
However, that is a long-term vision.
For now, most of the potential members of a Horn-East African federation are sunk in war and turmoil. Ethiopia and Eritrea are on the brink of renewed hostilities, while Somalia and Ethiopia have never settled their feud any more than Uganda and Kenya. Sudan has been torn for decades by a civil war between the northern Muslims, who represent 65 percent of the population, and the Christian-animist rebels of the south.
Sudan and Somalia lack functioning central governments and large areas are ruled by warlords. Even near-stable governments, such as the Kampala and Addis Ababa regimes, are not in control of large sections of their lands.
In the past year, a team of US diplomats has been working very quietly in the Horn of Africa to sort out regional feuds, pacify the region and get rehabilitation programs started. At the same time, the US military has negotiated the leasing of bases in Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya.
An end to the Sudanese civil war would be the success most coveted by the American diplomats.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Nairobi, real progress has recently been chalked up in the negotiations between Sudanese vice president Ali Othman Mohammad Taha and John Garang, chairman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. They have come close to terms for halting the bloodshed and establishing a new power-sharing government in Khartoum.
After he left the Sudan peace talks on Wednesday, October 22, Powell spoke of a commitment by Garang and Taha to end the civil war by the New Year.
Most of the clauses of a Sudan peace accord are in place, including the shape of a government in Khartoum and cooperation between government forces and the Christian rebels. But the distribution of oil revenues remains a key sticking point. Sudan’s largest oil fields are located in areas under Garang’s control. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Nairobi learn he is holding out for a 60 percent cut. Taha wants 75 percent, with only 25 percent going to the Christians.
Powell left Nairobi without a breakthrough, but he urged Garang and Taha to press on with their talks on the basis of an offer by Washington to provide most economic aid to the party most flexible on the oil revenue share-out issue.
Despite Powell’s optimism about a Sudan deal by January, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in the Kenyan capital report that he failed to achieve the two additional goals he set for his visit.
Shortly before he arrived, the US regional diplomatic mission managed to persuade most of Somali’s factional chiefs to assemble in Nairobi for preliminary talks on the establishment of a new central government in Mogadishu. The talks began and broke down hours before Powell flew in. The warlords scattered and returned home without settling a single issue.
Powell also tried to defuse the tensions rising of late on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. He met representatives from both sides in a bid to stop the reciprocal military buildup on their frontier. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s in Addis Ababa and Asmara, the buildup continues apace.
The American administration is therefore banking heavily on a Sudan accord for achieving three great changes both in the country and across this part of Africa.
Sudan would be converted into a Muslim-Christian federation and no longer counted an Arab country.
US oil companies operating in Sudan will be able to step up production quickly and begin exporting large quantities of oil. Production has been kept down till now by frequent strikes by the warring parties on each other’s oil facilities and pipelines.
A political agreement and economic stabilization in Sudan will create stepping stones for Washington’s advance toward stabilizing all of the Horn and East Africa and establishing a pro-American bloc in the region.
The main obstacles to this master-plan are Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources in Cairo and the Gulf report that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak are steaming over the US footprint put down in East Africa. They see the rise of a pro-American bloc in the region as the last link in a chain of US influence imposing a chokehold on the surrounding Arab world that is already weakened by American occupation of Iraq.
Add Iraqi and Sudanese oil to the equation and the Arab states in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia face a drastic diminution of their strength.
Our sources described as particularly tense the conversation Mubarak held with Powell, when he stopped off in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh en route to an Iraq international donors’ conference in Spain.