PRESIDENT Nimeiry is taking the wrong tack in trying to reunify troubled Sudan. Over the long haul the imposition of force, such as his weekend decree of martial law, will not produce a unified country. The policy of conciliation, which he has used so successfully in the past, holds the best prospect for success - if he can be persuaded to employ it again.
The indigenous differences between the northern and southern sections of the Sudan, Africa's largest nation, would pose enormous challenges for any ruler. Northern Sudanese are Arab and Muslim; this region is better developed, its people better educated. Southern Sudanese are African in background and outlook, poorly educated, their religions are Christianity or indigenous sects; the area is very undeveloped, with few roads.
Despite these disparities President Nimeiry for several years had largely reached accommodation with the south by a policy of conciliation toward it. Last September he changed tactics and decreed that the south, like the ruling north, must accept fundamental Islamic precepts - including punishments.
The south, with its different heritage and religious beliefs, strenuously objected: Its reaction was to rebel. Now the rebellion, apparently aided by Libya, seriously threatens northern rule over the south. Nimeiry's decision to impose martial law indicates that the situation may be effectively out of control for his government.
It will not be easy persuading Nimeiry that he is moving in the wrong direction, but the US and other nations should try. There should be a carrot with that diplomatic stick: The US should add that, if he were to soften his policies, Washington would help provide developmental assistance for the south. But the US would have to insist that the Arab north not block the aid.
It is a tall order. But a unified Sudan would be worth the effort.