Sudan’s PM visits rebel stronghold on peace mission

First visit by a senior official to the rebel stronghold of Kauda in nine years marks a significant step forward for the peace process in Sudan.

KHARTOUM - Sudanese Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, accompanied by UN officials, travelled to the rebel stronghold of Kauda in South Kordofan province on Thursday, in a major step toward government efforts to end the country’s long-running civil conflicts.

The first visit of a senior Sudanese official to the town in nine years comes as peace talks between Khartoum and rebel groups are stalled over demands by the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N al-Hilu), which says it will seek to establish a state in the areas under its control unless certain demands are met.

Sudan’s transitional government has been engaging in peace talks with rebel groups since October, looking to stabilize the country and steer it towards democracy following the military’s overthrow of longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir last April after nearly three decades in power.

The talks are taking place in Juba, capital of South Sudan, which itself gained independence in 2011 and has been plagued by civil war in recent years.

The SPLM-N al-Hilu is Sudan’s single largest rebel group and is active in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces, where it controls significant chunks of territory. The group is calling for a secular state with no role of religion in lawmaking, the disbanding of Bashir’s militias and the re-vamping of the country’s military.

Sudanese officials in Khartoum say they have no objection to demands for a secular state, but say the issue can only be settled through a constitutional conference rather than in peace negotiations.

A crowd of tens of thousands, including thousands of armed rebels, welcomed Hamdok to the town in the Nuba Mountains, about 1,000 kilometers south of the capital Khartoum, for a meeting with SPLM-N leader Abdelaziz al-Hilu.

Hamdok arrived with five Cabinet ministers, the head of the UN World Food Programme and American, British and Norwegian diplomats. 

The area has been stricken by poverty for years, but fighting barred aid groups from visiting. Thursday's visit was just the second time since 2011 that the UN World Food Programme has been able to access the area. Aid workers were bringing with them supplies for a school feeding program that they say is a first step towards addressing dire hunger in Kauda and nearby communities.

Sudan’s new transitional government has six months to make peace with the country’s rebels under a power-sharing deal reached this summer following al-Bashir's ouster. If they fail to do so, it could undermine the deal and put the country's fragile transition in jeopardy.

The government and most of the rebels reached an agreement, dubbed the Declaration of Principles, in September, detailing a road map for peace talks and extending a cease-fire in disputed areas.

The deal also envisaged trust-building measures by the government, such as granting humanitarian access to contested areas across the country, the release of war prisoners and dismissing sentences and charges against rebel leaders.

Sudanese rebels have for years fought al-Bashir's loyalists, not just in Darfur but also in the southern provinces of Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The rebels have observed a cease-fire since before Bashir’s overthrow, in solidarity with the protest movement against him.