Washington, Asharq Al-Awsat- From the time US President Barack Obama appointed Scott Gration the special envoy to Sudan in March 2009, the retired American general has been spending his days between the US State Department, the White House, and over 20 visits to Sudan and its neighboring countries whose agendas were crammed with Gration’s work as the date for the referendum to determine the fate of south Sudan this coming January got closer. Gration worked to ensure the referendum is held on time in line with the comprehensive peace in Sudan agreement following fears it would be postponed for political and technical reasons. Gration is coordinating with a team of American diplomats in cooperation with the African Union [AU], Norway, and the United Kingdom to ensure the success of the referendum process and prepare for the secession of southern Sudan which is now almost certain.
In a rare interview, Asharq Al-Awsat met Gration before making his 23rd visit to Sudan since his appointment. He underlined the “long-term” US commitment to Sudan saying it falls within the wider US interest in Africa. Gration talked at his office on the fifth floor of the US State Department about his strong feelings about the importance of protecting the African continent from new conflicts that threaten international peace and clarified Washington’s view of Sudan.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How confident are you that it is possible to hold the referendum on time and without the outbreak of incidents of violence that threaten the people of Sudan and the region?
[Gration] We are all hoping that the referendum will be held on time and in a peaceful way, will reflect the people’s wish, and that its result is respected by all, internally and externally. This is a difficult question from several angles and depends on the parties themselves, how they prepare their people, and how they reach agreements among themselves. Our worry now is that while the process of registering the voters is proceeding smoothly and nothing will prevent the referendum from being held on 9 January, issues might still happen and disrupt this process. But this will happen only if the concerned parties want it. In other words, if they do not reach agreement on some issues and want to disrupt the process for the sake of gaining more influence. They can do that. The registration process was extended another week until 8 December. There is a new timetable which allows, for a period of time, the registration of complaints and a chance for arbitration, even through the courts, and having the final list so that the people can vote on 9 January. The fact is that the referendum can be held on time.
As to peace, we hope that the people will understand that this is an important opportunity and that they do this in a peaceful way. Yet there are incidents of violence in the background. The Justice and Equality Movement’s [JEM] forces (the rebels in Darfur) are moving at the borders and the Sudanese forces are pursuing them. Positions were bombarded several times. Bombs are falling either north or south of the border or south, depending on where are these borders? Some of these borders have not been demarcated yet. This is one of the issues that could disrupt the referendum. Feelings about Abyei are strong. The Abyei issue has not been resolved yet and the time has passed for holding the referendum simultaneously with the one in south Sudan. We are therefore hoping that the parties will reach a solution through a presidential decision. President Omar al-Bashir and First Vice President Silva Kiir can resolve this issue at the presidential level. But it appears that achieving this is getting more difficult. The two sides are emotional and extremist in this issue. We will see to what degree are they willing to make concessions and be flexible and the nature of the agreement that might be reached. But I think that in case they do not reach an agreement over Abyei, then this will threaten other issues. If we can reach an agreement over Abyei soon, then this might solve everything. It might include the borders, citizenship, and some debt issues and certainly the possibility of holding the referendum on time, a peaceful one, and achieving the people’s wish.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you consider the Abyei issue the key for solving the problem we see now?
[Gration] It is the main key. I do not say it is a barrier. If the Abyei issue is solved, then many of the other issues will be removed from the table.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the possibility of reaching a solution about the Abyei region’s future. Will it be at the EU level or through your intervention during negotiations? How long is it feasible to wait for a solution to this problem?
[Gration] According to the comprehensive peace agreement, it should be solved by 9 January through a referendum that allows the people of Abyei to choose between remaining part of the north or the south. If the southerners choose independence after this date then that would be a violation of the comprehensive peace. We are therefore hoping to reach before 9 January an agreement for solving this problem so that there will be no need for a second referendum that breaches the dates stipulated in the peace agreement. The comprehensive peace agreement specified the importance of solving this problem six months before the end of the transitional period. We are hoping that it is that will happen.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] And how can a solution be reached?
[Gration] We tried every effort through the Addis Ababa talks, the tripartite ones, other attempts, President Thabo Mbeki, and the Higher Application Committee. The presidency met twice so far and was unable to resolve it. The information we are receiving tells us that the two sides are adhering to their stands. The south wants Abyei to be part of it and not willing to make many concessions. They are willing only to concede some oil and some things, such as herd grazing and getting water, but do not want to concede any rights or authority that is translated into a lessening of the overall governance by the nine Dinka Ngok tribes and their overall authority over the lands in the region. As to the north, they are saying this has been part of our lands for a very long time and the northern Al-Masiriyah tribes have interests and the right to decide whether Abyei should be part of the north or the south. They grazed their herds in the region for hundreds of years. The thing is that both sides signed the comprehensive peace agreement but are pushing the decision to the tribal elements. The north is saying we do not care what happens as long as Al-Masiriyah tribes are happy and the south is saying this is the Dinka Ngok’s decision. But there is no mechanism for expressing their opinion. There was one through which they could vote but the issue was referred to the presidency. There are efforts now to push it to the people again but there is no voting mechanism for the tribal chiefs and people because they are incapable of reaching a solution on the eligibility (who has the right to vote) unless they determine the eligibility criteria. The Dinka Ngok believe they alone have the right to vote but not Al-Masiriyah since they are not permanent residents. So it becomes a matter of who has the right to vote? What is the length of residence that a person must have so as to vote in the referendum? Is it according to the period you spend there running your affairs? Should it be 365 days of the year as the south is saying? It is the majority of time as the north is saying. They are differing over the criteria and it is difficult to determine it now.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you do not see a specific formula for solving the Abyei problem?
[Gration] I believe there are several formulas. The south wants it to be part of it and the north wants it to remain with it. They are the two opposites. But there is middle of the way several issues over which they can make concessions, among them a special status wherein an international group like the United Nations [UN] administers it or have it administered by a joint management from the National Congress and the People’s Movement which is ruling in the south until the tension is removed or the situations stabilized. This is a temporary stage in a special case. There is another proposal to partition the region in accordance with the comprehensive peace agreement, whereas a part is with the north and a part with the south because Al-Masiriyah in fact use only the northern part to the river and the southerners are mostly present to the south. But the south is rejecting this. There is another temporary opportunity to partition the region for seven years only until Al-Masiriyah’s lands have been developed and this will be almost like a lease under which Al-Masiriyah can work on the land for a short period of time after which it will revert to the south. In line with this, there can be a very strong development program north of Abyei that opens the rivers, digs more wells, offers veterinary services, develops the infrastructure, makes grazing more productive economically, develops the butchers’ services so as to send meat to the Middle East, and develops the leather, butter, and cheese industries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who will finance the project?
[Gration] The international community can help in this. The US International Development Agency and “GTR” (the German International Development Agency) and other organizations can contribute. In case there are parties interested in herds, this could be in the form of loans to the butchers and the development of transport, the leather and other industries so as to make the grazing of herds a very profitable business. Of course, achieving this takes some time. There will be land ready for cultivation. There is also a need to build schools and there must be a strong development program [to prevent] the total desertion of the region. To ensure its success so that Al-Masiriyah will not need to move south, we will need a period of time. Hence the idea is to implement a very strong development program so that they will not need to go south for water but remain in Al-Masiriyah’s lands. This is the idea behind the possibility of the temporary leasing or granting of the lands to Al-Masiriyah. But the south is so far rejecting any proposal, apart from getting the lands in accordance with the court of appeal’s ruling. But they might agree to legislations about the use of the lands and water. Vice President Silva Kiir has agreed to this. There is also talk about the possibility of granting dual citizenship to Al-Masiriyah who move around Abyei. This will secure their right. All these are options.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the United States have a preferred option?
[Gration] No. We do not support any specific option. We prefer to protect the process, such as that of the constitution. We do not care if they choose to be united or (the south) chooses independence. Our interest is that the process is held in a way that allows the people to vote without intimidation and on the basis of awareness and ensuring they all have the chance to vote. If they opt for the unity option, then we will make it successful as much as possible and if they choose independence we will help them make it peaceful and successful. As far as we are concerned, the matter is about determining the fate of a people. We hope that the process will be good to the point that it does not raise queries, the people accept it and make it successful.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Many are questioning America’s interest in this process and whether it is the one pushing for the independence of the south. Why all the US interest in this referendum and what is its importance?
[Gration] It is important for the entire international community. Several countries signed the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 when the process began. Yes, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States are most preoccupied with the process but yet other countries like Italy signed as witnesses. That was an international instruction that allowed this course and six years to make unity attractive after which the referendum would be held. Unfortunately, we became preoccupied with Darfur during the temporary period and missed following up some matters. The fact is that the development efforts were not enough and there were not enough incentives to make unity attractive. Now it is likely that the south will choose independence, not because we have chosen or planned this or even wanted it but this is likely. Therefore there should be planning for this possibility. It will be relatively easy if they choose unity and we continue the development efforts but if they choose independence then the international community must prepare for this because we will be having an additional state at the UN and AU. Regional stability depends on making this transition as smooth as possible. The United States is worried because we lost 2 million people during 40 years of conflict between north and south. There are between 175,00 and 300,000 victims in Darfur and we do not want to see a situation where the refugees and killings increase and more instability. The people have suffered too much so far. Development recedes whenever stability is undermined. We have now between 12 and 17 percent who are literate and the rest are suffering from illiteracy. As to agriculture, the situation now is just to live. The markets or infrastructure have not been developed because of the fighting. They missed many opportunities and therefore the United States and international community want to see this state in peace because there would be repercussions from Cairo to Cape Town and from Djibouti to Dakar if the situations did not stabilize and the conflict started again. We want to work to save lives and give children an opportunity for a better future than their parents. Sudan has been in a state of conflict since 1956.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are fears in Sudan, and elsewhere in the wider region, of the possible disintegration of Sudan if the south became independent. Do you have similar fears?
[Gration] I hate to see more disintegration and this is why we are working with the north to make unity more attractive to the Pija and the people in the east. There is a conference in Kuwait at present to bring more development to eastern Sudan where there is a fragile peace. We are trying very hard to work with the Sudanese Government, the UN mission in Sudan, and civilian society organizations to bring peace and stability to Darfur. We have stayed in a state of emergency over seven years wherein the unnatural has become natural. We must reverse this, see stability, and lay down the infrastructure like schools and food programs so that the people will have the opportunity to return voluntarily while protecting their rights and the ability to live and ensure success of the agricultural season. We must start to think about how we move from the state of emergency to a process of stability and permanence and after that development and the development opportunities so that their herds become a source of prosperity and they can grow and so that we can be able to reverse the ecological damage caused by the felling of trees. We have to plant trees and build dams. There is hope and a process for peace and stability in Darfur because the rapprochement between Chad and Sudan has helped very much. We can overcome the next stage, which is reaching a ceasefire and a solution between the JEM and Sudan Liberation Army so that they revert to being political movements instead of armies and represent their peoples politically. Then we will have an opportunity. Therefore power and wells sharing, reform of land ownership laws, accountability, justice, and compensation are important issues. We are coming to the end of a stage in Doha and must now not allow a gap to happen or stop being preoccupied with this issue and must take what has been achieved in Doha and apply it reasonably. In my opinion, this means making civil society part of the solution and not just the rebels and for women to have a leading role because when I talk to women groups they are the ones who understand the future and are asking for help, computers and a better life for their children, and a return to cultivation of the land. I hate to say about men (laughing) that they are interested in taking more while the women say give us the mechanisms for changing the situation. Enabling the women is very important. Woman is going to be essential for taking Darfur away from the situation it is at present but, of course we have to work with the men too.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does this mean that you reject the reports that the Obama administration has abandoned Darfur in return for focusing on the independence of the south? There are circles saying that Washington is turning a blind eye to what is happening in Darfur in order to reach a solution with President Al-Bashir over the south.
[Gration] There is nothing further from the truth. Look at my itinerary. I will be in Darfur for three days during my next visit. I have focused on Darfur. The number of meetings and emails about Darfur and the south is equal. There are times when we focus more on Darfur and there are issues concerning Darfur that we are working on. Of course, we are interested in seeing the Sudanese Government implement its new strategy for Darfur and we are working with the humanitarian groups to make them reach these areas and also with the security forces and the UN to ensure more security and stability. We see a turning point and Darfur might revert to a worse situation. It is in a bad situation now. I am sad because we cannot change the people’s lives in the camps of the displaced. Their lives did not improve during the past 18 months. Some areas have improved but the reality is that they are still living on aid and in humiliating and unhealthy conditions. We are trying very hard to solve the security situation but we must act and force the government and the UN to solve the situation so that the people are not subjected to attacks from the rebels and more than that the thefts and crimes. There are many thefts of vehicles and properties, violence against women, kidnappings, and much fear. We have to change this scenario. In addition to what we are doing to confront the rebels, there is a need for personal security and accountability. If a person is raped, then the responsible one must be arrested and brought to justice. Crimes cannot continue without accountability, this must change and there should be justice and respect for the law. There must be people ready to stand up and reject the evasion of punishment. This means important internal changes and drawing up a security mechanism for protecting the people.
I think that we have not done enough for several reasons. But the international community must do more. The fact is that while Abdul-Wahid (Sudan Liberation Movement leader Muhammad Nur) is living in Paris and Khalil Ibrahim (JEM leader) is living in a five-star hotel in Tripoli and other rebels in hotels enjoying their time in Doha the people in Darfur are suffering. I do not think that the international community can tolerate this after now. The rebels are fighting to reach the negotiating table and we have kept a place at the negotiating table for two years and now the international community must force these people to sit at this table and reach an agreement that ends the war, imposes a ceasefire, and stops the fighting so that the displaced can return and have a better life. We cannot tolerate this after now. The fact that we are tolerating this is bereft of conscience and I blame myself.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Regarding accountability, do you think the international warrant against President Omar al-Bashir should be acted upon and he should be brought before the international tribunal? It also appears from your remarks that the United States has a long-term interest in Sudan or will this lessen after the 9 January referendum?
[Gration] We are in Sudan long term, in the same way that we are interested in Africa long term. We understand that Africa is a very important continent. When you look at Africa’s issue, Sudan is just the beginning if we and the international community do not take another look. There are 900 million persons, 450 million of them under the age of 18. These will be looking for jobs and we must forestall events in an effective way. In Sudan, we respond to events in many ways after they occur. We can learn from this and not forget to stop other incidents before they become crises. I am worried about the Niger delta and other areas where there are growing problems and rebel movements still in their cradle. We worry about them when it is too late. We all know that justice and accountability are necessary for peace and, of course, we are looking for ways to make these a priority. But we also understand that we need a government in Khartoum for protecting lives. We can negotiate with it and it can implement the comprehensive peace agreement and also implement what is has pledged for Darfur. We are therefore taking the government to account for its behavior as it pledged and signed in the comprehensive peace agreement and the Darfur strategy. Our focus at present is on saving lives and on overcoming this very difficult stage.