SUDAN: Darfur conflict holds up national development
Thomas Cromwell

John Ukec Lueth Ukec no longer leads demonstrations outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington. Nowadays, he watches the frequent demonstrations on Massachusetts Avenue from the ambassador’s top-floor office. Here he passionately promotes a country that for decades has had nothing but negatives associated with it: poverty, civil war, genocide, slavery, starvation and sponsorship of international terrorism.

People tell me “this is the most difficult job in the world,” he said by way of describing his job as Khartoum’s envoy. Not only does he have to defend policies that are widely unpopular in the United States and most of the West, but he also has to contend with what he sees as a callous and myopic disregard for the National Unity Government that was set up through the active mediation of Washington in a peace agreement that ended 20 years of civil war between the north and south.

A Catholic from the southeastern region of Sudan, Africa’s largest country, Ambassador Ukec has been involved in Sudan’s troubled modern history for a long time. In the first phase of the civil war, between 1955 and 1972, he fought with the rebels who opposed the central government in Khartoum. When peace came, he joined the Sudanese army as an officer. He eventually rose to the rank of general.

But when fighting broke out again in 1983, after President Jaafar Nimeiri tried to impose sharia on the whole of Sudan, he moved to the United States, where he earned a Master of Science in Labor Economics and Public Finances at Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and also became a leading advocate for John Garang’s Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM).

He is frustrated by the present attitude of Washington to the government in Khartoum because, he said, US policies do not reflect the fact of transition from a government controlled by President Omar Al Bashir’s pro-Islamic National Congress Party, which came to power through a bloodless coup in 1989, and the government formed as a result of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005.

“Everybody just wants to see President [Omar Hassan] Al Bashir, or go to Darfur,” he said of people who contact the embassy. He expressed frustration over the lack of real engagement with the new government and his embassy: “They tend to ignore the foreign minister and myself, even though our government was largely the creation of Washington.”

He explained: “[As a southern Christian] I am here as a sign that this is not the [previous] government of the National Congress Party.” He said Washington “forgets about the Comprehensive Peace Agreement… What makes me angry is that the United States and the West don’t see our [SPLM] participation in the National Unity Government as significant.”

The new government has ministers from the south and east of the country, as well as the north, and is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009, which will see a further sharing of national power. All of this is supposed to be part of the economic and democratic development of Sudan in a post-civil war program to unite the country, underwritten by billions of dollars in foreign aid.

The main sticking point for this process, he said, is Darfur. “Our brothers in Darfur are hindering our progress to democracy… Without Darfur, these three years would have seen far more development.” North-south hostilities ended with a ceasefire in 2003, and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January 2005. The unity government was established in July, 2005.

In his view, the conflict between Khartoum and the rest of the world over Darfur is the product of large misunderstandings regarding the long-term realities in the western part of his country, which is just north of where he was born and raised.

He pointed to the centuries-long conflict between farmers and nomadic herders for arable land and pastures as these resources have declined in the face of several decades of drought that have fed an expanding desert. He said the herders have always had a tactical advantage because of their access to neighboring countries, trade routes and weapons, which they have used to get their way.

The conflict in Darfur of the last four years, which the Bush administration has labeled genocide, is the modern incarnation of this struggle, with rebel groups rising up from among the largely African farming population and fighting the armed nomads, now called the Janjaweed. The conflict was sparked in main by some Darfurian feeling left out of the division of national wealth contained in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

The north-south civil war was fought between forces drawn primarily from Christian and Anamist communities of Black Africans in the south and an Islamist government dominated by Arabs, in the north. The conflict was driven by tribal rivalries, religious freedom issues (the south’s resistance to the imposition of sharia by the north), economic interests and the right of the south to secede from the nation.

Unlike the north-south conflict, the ambassador believes that in Darfur the conflict is primarily among Darfurians, who are almost all Muslims. From this perspective, he sees Darfurians themselves as largely responsible for their own situation today. He believes the problems in Darfur are not intractable, and that if all sides would simply suspend hostilities a political process could resolve differences.

To demonstrate an alternative that could be an example to resolve the Darfur crisis, he pointed to the resolution of conflict in the eastern part of Sudan, where Eritrea mediated an agreement between Khartoum and local tribes that has been implemented peacefully and appears to be a durable solution.

He noted that because of the conflict in Darfur, the rebuilding of a united Sudan, as envisioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, has been put on hold. Development funds pledged by foreign governments and international agencies are not being released and projects have been shelved. “I blame it on Darfur,” he said bluntly.

“The [north-south] peace agreement is part of the Bush administration’s legacy of success,” he said. “But with implementation now stalemated, the situation could degenerate into chaos again, needing decades to fix.”

It is estimated that 200,000 Darfurians have lost their lives over four years of fighting, and some two million have lost their homes.

There are 7,000 African Union troops trying to keep the peace in Darfur, but they are overwhelmed by the size of the place and the magnitude of the problem. The United Nations has long sought to send in peacekeepers of its own, to add much needed muscle to the operation. Washington has pushed hard for a UN force for Darfur, and been insistent that the joint UN-AU force be commanded by a UN general. Khartoum has hedged and delayed any such deployment, but recently agreed to a UN force.

The ambassador said that his government was of the opinion that since the bulk of the 20,000 peacekeeping troops of the joint force will be Africans, that a general from their ranks would be preferable. He noted that Khartoum believes the deficiencies of the African Union force are primarily in funding, equipment and supplies and not leadership ability.

Another argument made by his government, and one that is largely dismissed in the West, is that the UN is a proxy for the United States, and that by accepting UN forces Sudan will be opening the door to a de facto American presence that might draw the sort of anti-American fighters now in Iraq and Afghanistan. One reason for the Western skepticism is that some 10,000 UN troops are assigned to keep the peace in south and east Sudan, with the agreement of Khartoum and without their value being disputed.

One particular problem in Darfur is the splintering of the opposition, diluting the value of any agreements hammered out so far. When a May 2006 peace agreement was made in Abuja between the government and rebel groups were only three groups. Now there are 15.

Of the two main rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the SLA has split, with part of it in compliance with the agreement signed between rebels and Khartoum, and involved in the national government, and the other faction still part of the rebel movement.

Ambassador Ukec said that unless the rebels can unify their positions on what they want for Darfur, it will be very difficult to negotiate a settlement. “Darfurians should develop a common position,” he said. He pointed out that this was key to solving the north-south conflict: the southerners agreed on a unified position and negotiated for that together.

Still, he said, the key to achieving peace in Darfur is a ceasefire that will allow the parties to talk with, rather than shoot at, one another. One benefit of a ceasefire would be that it will give the national government and international peacekeepers, such as the UN and AU forces, a chance to identify and stop continued armed action by the Janjaweed and other groups acting outside of a peace process. They will be in violation of the ceasefire and hence easy to identify and stop.

“How can you distinguish between who is a rebel and who a Janjaweed?” the ambassador asked rhetorically, referring to the present situation. “We want to punish all those fighting us… We are at war with all those who have not signed a peace agreement with us.”

On a personal note, the ambassador said that he wants to give his all to the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. He believes this is the key to achieving lasting peace in Sudan, and that it is a possible model for other countries torn by conflict, such as Congo and Iraq.

There are two main milestones ahead: the elections in 2009 and a referendum in 2011 on whether the south should secede to form an independent state. His strong belief that the agreement brokered by Washington is a blueprint for success energizes his efforts for his country, but also exacerbates his frustration over a conflict in Darfur that is holding up progress to its full implementation.


General (Prof.) JOHN UKEC LUETH UKEC was born to Henry Lueth Ukec and Mary Achang Amiri in Aweil, Sudan.  He joined the Southern Sudan Liberation Movement (SSLM) in 1964 where he served as a military officer in the Anya-nya Forces until the Addis Ababa Peace Accord in 1972, when he was absorbed into Sudan Armed Forces with the rank of Captain.  In Sudan Armed Forces, General John served as Chief Instructor – Infantry School, Adjutant, Operation Officer and lastly, as Commanding Officer of Combat Training Center in the First Infantry Division.  General John achieved several degrees in military and academic institutions:- (a) Double Major in Economics and Political Science from University of Juba; (b) Master of Military Science from Command and Staff College in Omdurman, Sudan; (c) Master of Arts from Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, USA; (d) Master of Science in Labor Economics and Public Finances at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA.

In the United States of America, General John Ukec was an activist and public speaker on liberation issues of Southern Sudan.  A frequent visitor of the United States Congress to lobby on behalf of SPLM/A and Southern Sudan communities in the U.S. and Canada. 

General John turned his military training experience into teaching at colleges and universities.  First, as an Assistant Professor of Economics and Business at Langston University in Oklahoma and Des Moines Area Community College in Iowa from 1989 to 2005.

Professor/General John was also a Financial Aid Administrator at Iowa State University where he also hosted many of the SPLM/A members who attended short courses at Iowa State University.  General John was Chair of the Human Relations Committee at Iowa State University and Co-chair of Black faculty and staff.

General John left both Iowa State University and Des Moines Area Community College to join the Government of National Unity as Sudan Ambassador to the United States of America.