Mindful of its promise made a year ago when President Jaafar Nimeiry was overthrown, Sudan's military regime says it is committed to holding elections on April 1 as a prelude to reestablishing a multiparty democratic system. But analysts doubt whether it will prove possible to arrange for free elections in Sudan's three provinces in the south, where the government faces rising opposition from Col. John Garang's rebel forces, the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).
Rebel forces in southern Sudan have been protesting domination by the Muslim north and fighting for autonomy since the country's independence in 1956.
This past weekend, talks between Colonel Garang and backers of Khartoum's military government collapsed and the government postponed elections in 37 of the 68 southern constituencies. Garang has ordered a boycott of the elections in the southern region, where his forces control sizable areas and the security situation has prevented many people from registering.
Two options remain open to the military regime: they can cancel the elections throughout the south or cancel them only in those regions where the SPLA is strong on the ground. In either event, it would be possible to proceed with the elections in the predominantly Muslim north of the country, and possibly agree to a method of nominating representatives from the largely Christian, animist south as an interim measure. This method was adopted the last time elections were held in the early 1970s.
In moves that further intensify the tense election atmosphere, both Libya and Ethiopia appear to have stepped up their involvement in the dispute between Khartoum and the SPLA. Libya, which until recently backed the SPLA, has reportedly loaned two Soviet Tupolev-22 bombers to the Sudanese government to support its fight against the SPLA.
In addition, Sudanese Defense Minister Osman Abdullah accused Ethiopia yesterday of direct intervention in the struggle between Khartoum and the SPLA. Ethiopia, according to Mr. Abdullah, has gone beyond merely supplying the rebel forces. He said the Ethiopian Air Force is using MIG-23 fighters and Antonov-12 transport planes to play a transport and reconnaissance role deep inside Sudan.
Ethiopia's involvement in the current situation in Sudan stems from its role in allowing Garang's SPLA to wage its military struggle from Ethiopian territory. Holding this card, the Ethiopians have suggested, in secret talks with the Sudanese, that they would be willing to withdraw their support for Garang in exchange for the Sudanese denying facilities to the Eritrean and Tigr'ean Liberation Movements. The Eritrean and Tigr'ean forces are guerrilla insurgencies fighting for independence from Ethiopia.
The Sudanese authorities feel trapped between their wish to bring the war with Garang to a speedy end and their reluctance to harm the Eritreans and Tigr'eans by sealing the border with Ethiopia. However, the Sudanese appear to glimpse some hope in the latest Ethiopian offer to allow considerable autonomy to Eritrea and Tigr'e under a new constitution that is being drafted.
It is not yet possible to see how the obstacle caused by Garang's boycott of the elections can be removed before the April 1 deadline. However, if some modus operandi can be reached with him to avoid a complete halt to polling in the south, it might still be possible to persuade Garang to join in the political process after the April elections, observers say.
In March 1972, Mr. Nimeiry had agreed to a certain measure of autonomy that brought respite from the conflict for nearly a decade. But early in the 1980s it became clear that the former President's policies had eroded the south's autonomy. The SPLA was established in the middle of 1983 to renew and intensify the southern opposition.
Garang initially launched his struggle to secure the overthrow of Nimeiry and to return Sudan to democratic rule. He has insisted consistently that the SPLA is a national movement and not just a southern regional one. He is totally opposed to any question of secession by the three southern provinces.
The rebel leader has, however, refused to have any dealings with the new military regime -- one that is largely led by Nimeiry's former senior officers.
However, should the military return to the barracks and a new civilian government take over in Khartoum, Garang's basic objections would be met.
That, analysts say, could open the way for an end to the military conflict and for negotiation of a new democratic constitution -- the first task of a new constituent assembly. Khartoum hopes that Garang can be persuaded to join in these negotiations.