A clear-cut victory by Sadiq al-Mahdi in the coming elections would bring a sigh of relief to American policy-makers. But even Umma Party officials say this is unlikely. The spoilers include the political parties associated with the rival Khatmiyah sect, and the National Islamic Front of Hassan Turabi, a sort of Park Avenue ayatollah who speaks impeccable English, dresses in well-tailored, expensive suits, and advocates Sharia law applied much the way Nimeiri applied it. Complicating the situation are the Libyans and the junior and middle-level officers who are thought to be increasingly fed up with the Sudanese army's dismal performance against the southern rebels. The nightmare of foreign diplomats and many local politicians is that somewhere there lurks a Sudanese version of Ethiopian Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam or Liberian Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, poised to fill the power vacuum and lock Khartoum away in a totalitarian straitjacket for the next decade or so.
This almost happened last September, when a group of officers and soldiers from the non-Arab Nuba and Fur tribes, which are aligned with the African southerners, mutinied in their barracks, near Khartoum, in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow the government. "Democracy in Sudan is a lone bird surrounded by vultures interested in its flesh," Sadiq has said.
The present threat from the south is the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), led by Colonel John Garang, an American-educated Dinka, who is attacking ever closer to Khartoum. (The size of the SPLA has never been firmly established, but estimates range as high as 20,000.) While the West manages the famine and worries about the Libyans, the Sudanese are obsessed with the southern problem--the issue that presents the most immediate threat to their national integrity. The threat is not new. The black south revolted against the Arab north upon independence. From 1956 to 1972, when Nimeiri concluded a settlement with the rebels, the struggle cost well over half a million lives--many more than all the Arab-Israeli wars put together. Attempts by Nimeiri in his last years to exert more control over the southern region led to a new outbreak of fighting. After the coup everyone expected Garang to adopt a more conciliatory line. Instead he dismissed the new regime as "the hyena with new clothes," and intensified the war.
The Transitional Military Council responded by marching a 4,000-man unit of the 55,000-man Sudanese Peoples Army northward from Juba, the capital of Equatoria Province, in order to capture the SPLA stronghold of Bor. The operation was a "total, utter failure," according to one Western diplomat. Garang's forces attacked the column, and those government soldiers who weren't killed refused to march any farther. Sudan Airways no longer flies to Juba, and the only way in and out of the city is by chartered plane. By successfully attacking the town of Renk, barely 250 miles south of Khartoum on the White Nile, the SPLA has come closer than ever to the capital. Garang now appears capable of cutting off Khartoum's power supply by blowing up transmission lines connecting the city with the Roseires Dam, to the southeast. The Sudanese Peoples Army can do little: it has virtually no air force and is so short of fuel that it has had to requisition diesel fuel from famine-relief organizations to run patrols. So the army is now falling back on the old British-colonial method of arming local tribes. These are hostile to the SPLA because it has been stealing their cattle at an ever-increasing rate.
The SPLA has been financed by Libya and is headquartered at Itang, just inside the Ethiopian border. Herein lies the incentive for the Sudanese to accept the Libyans in their midst. Colonel Qaddafi, and the pro-Soviet Lieutenant Colonel Mengistu, hold the key to Sudan's main problemdisposing of Garang. The West, once the food situation significantly improves, may eventually prove expendable, if that is what Libya and Ethiopia demand in order to get Garang off Khartoum's back.