Sudan leaders scuffle as time runs out for peace deal

It started with a small scuffle over a confiscated bag of protest banners outside Sudan’s parliament. And it ended in confrontations between baton-wielding police and protesters on the dusty streets of Omdurman.

At the finish, once the tear gas and protests leaflets had settled, just one victor emerged — in the propaganda stakes at least — the protesters from a loose alliance between south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and mostly northern opposition parties.

The SPLM and opposition groups called Monday’s protest to urge north Sudan’s dominant National Congress Party (NCP) to push through a raft of reforms they see as essential to elections, now just months away in April.

The Khartoum authorities played their part perfectly, first by banning the rally, then by starting the day detaining two prominent SPLM leaders.

Tear gas was fired, protesters beaten and at least one reporter detained. Opposition supporters sent round text messages saying Yasir Arman, the SPLM’s deputy Secretary General, had been hospitalised after rough treatment in a police cell.

International groups from the United Nations to Amnesty International released statements of outrage and criticism.

A couple of hours later Arman, apparently none the worse for wear, was being carried on his supporters’ shoulders into a packed, back-slapping victory rally at an SPLM base in Khartoum.

All the hustle and bustle in Omdurman masked a worrying lack of activity in other corners of the political arena.

Sudan’s current parliamentary term only has two weeks left to run before it is supposed to clear the decks for the April poll.

The elections — and an even more contentious referendum on southern independence due in January 2011 — were promised five years ago in a peace deal that ended two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. But a huge backlog of legislation remains to be passed before either votes can take place.

Preparations for Sudan’s first multi-party ballot in 24 years have so far been low key. Leaders from both sides acknowledged last month they had not begun to discuss how they would manage a ‘yes’ vote for secession from the south.

Any final breakdown of relations would have ramifications far beyond the boundaries of Sudan. Any return to civil war in a country which borders nine other often unstable nations could pull the whole region down with it.

The United States has already said it wants to make sure Sudan, which once played host to Osama Bin Laden, never again becomes a haven for extremism.

Monday’s arrests left little hope of quick progress on the lagging legislation — the SPLM and opposition parties, for all their calls for the laws to be voted through, are also boycotting parliamentary sessions.

Some observers say Sudan’s scuffling political forces could still surprise everyone by pulling off a last minute deal. If only because the alternative is too disturbing to countenance.

© Reuters

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