THERE IS JUST A glimmer of hope that Sudan's endemic civil war could be in sight of a settlement. After so much bloodshed and so many failures to reach agreement, it would be foolish to overstate the case. The only reason for optimism is that both the Khartoum government and the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) are exhausted by the conflict.
Peace talks between the two sides at Abuja in Nigeria reached a significant agreement (on paper, that is) about separating the legal systems of the Muslim north and the largely Christian south. The leader of the avowedly Islamic fundamentalist government team, Ali el Hag Mohammed, declared that "the issue of state and religion has not been finally resolved, but we have agreed that Islamic law will only be applicable to the north while the south is exempt."
That is a major concession to the SPLA which has been fighting since 1983 against what it sees as the domination of the black Christian and animist south by the Arabised and Muslim north. It is not yet enough, apparently, because the SPLA wants to see non-Muslim southerners (the majority of them refugees from the war) in and around Khartoum also exempted from Islamic law. Similar talks in Abuja last year led to nothing (The Middle East, July 1992). But it is significant progress all the same.
The government is anxious for a settlement because it is friendless abroad and bankrupt, Militarily, it has been getting the better of the SPLA, but the cost of superiority has reportedly escalated from $50m in 1991 to $150m last year.
For its part, the SPLA is beset with internal divisions. The mainstream group, headed by Colonel John Garang, is prepared to settle for autonomy within Sudan. Breakaway factions, which have organised themselves as the self-styled SPLA United, are holding out for independence.
The rivalry is more tribal than ideological, however. Garang derives his support from the Dinka people; his chief opponent, Riak Machar, is a Nuer. The two tribes have a history of fighting between themselves, limited in the past largely to cattle-raiding. Today, with food scarce and Kalashnikovs in abundance, they are engaged in total war.