Guerrillas from the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army are fighting two wars: one to keep from starving to death, the other against the North’s Islamic government in a 16-year civil war that has left around 2 million dead. President Clinton signed a proposal last Monday designed to eliminate one of those wars by providing direct food aid to the rebel group. But the administration can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants to take sides in this war or remain neutral.
Julia Taft, the top State official on humanitarian programs, told the New York Times the U.S. aid would serve as a weapon in the war and would compromise the U.S. policy of neutrality in providing food aid in foreign conflicts. Unfortunately, that was after Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was charmed by SPLA leader John Garang in Kenya in October and pledged U.S. support for the rebel-backed regional peace talks. It was the North that was using the starvation campaign against its people as a war tactic, she said.
The controversial proposal, which was tacked onto the Omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Clinton on Monday, does not require the aid to be given. But it requires the administration to decide by Feb. 1 which U.S. agencies should be involved with the disbursement, and the policy implications and costs of the endeavor. This pushes the largest African country onto the administration’s agenda, but at this point the administration is taking a typical wait-and-see approach. This could cause the legislation to come to nothing at all.
Like so many other proposals put before the administration this year, the legislation provides the president with an all-too-easy way out if the language seems too offensive: “There is a provision in (the bill) that authorizes the use of funds to provide food aid to Sudanese rebels,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. “That doesn’t mean it requires it and the process for making a decision on whether we would do that has really not begun.”
Indeed, there are few concrete proposals on the table as to who would actually be responsible for coordinating the effort. The U.N.-backed civilian food aid effort, Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), and current NGOs involved in the region would not be used. Rebels are already diverting food from those sources, and the legislation aims to prevent the continuation of such activity. One proposed plan would place a government agency in charge of transporting the food to Uganda, from which Ugandan truck drivers could deliver the aid to the Sudan.
Until now, the Sudan has languished in a half-hearted conflict resolution process called Inter-Governmental Authority for Development (IGAD), a regionally created forum for peace negotiations which started in 1993. Though the United States still officially supports the stalled process, it has already committed itself to a partisan war. It has placed sanctions on the Sudanese government’s National Islamic Front (NIF). It has provided around $20 million in surplus military aid to Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia aid which was intended to help them defend themselves against the NIF, according to the Congressional Research Service. In the last decade, it has provided almost $800 million in humanitarian aid to the OLS. And the Clinton administration has called the Sudan a supporter of international terrorism and said its government’s policies “constitute unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Now it has two months to decide what those words mean. Hiding behind vague language and conflicting policies does nothing to further the peace in Sudan.