GWEN IFILL: The civil war in Sudan is Africa's longest ongoing war, and one of its bloodiest. Sudan, a desert nation of 35 million, is the largest country on the African continent. During Sudan's nearly 20 year conflict, more than two million people have died -- most from starvation. Relief agencies often are blocked from reaching large parts of the country. Another four million are homeless.
MASOOD HYDER, Director, World Food Program: The people will move, and they will add to the huge number of displaced persons in Sudan. Their nutritional status will drop dramatically, and people will die. I see a disaster, unless the government appeals to the international community for assistance and cooperation.
GWEN IFILL: The civil war stems from a bitter battle between the Islamic government in the North, and rebels in the South seeking independence or secession. They're known as the People's Liberation Army. Seventy percent of the country's population is Muslim, but many of the southern population are followers of indigenous tribal religions, or they are Christian.
Now, for the first time, there are signs of a possible end to the war. Encouraged by the U.S., both sides have been negotiating in Kenya since June. They have announced progress on two major issues: The government in Khartoum agreed not to enforce Islamic law in southern Sudan; and there would be a referendum on whether the South could secede. That vote would not happen until six years after peace is declared. Even so, the tentative agreement has not stopped the gunfire, and even the idea of peace remains fragile.
ANDREW NATSIOS, U.S. Agency for International Development: On the issue of peace, I think the civilians in the North and the South are ready for a peace agreement. I'm not sure the political leaders are entirely ready. I think there are factions within the northern government that would like peace, but there are other factions, which were more militant, that are not in favor of peace. So I think it's a question of which faction will win out and carry the day.
GWEN IFILL: One of the issues that has galvanized an unusual U.S. coalition of Christian conservatives, African American groups, and human rights organizations, is allegations of slavery in the Sudan. These groups have argued that the Islamic majority and the Sudanese government condone slavery, by allowing government troops from the North to buy, sell, and torture rebels. Estimates of those held in captivity range from 14,000 to 100,000. Growing profits from Sudanese oil are playing a role, too. Opponents say oil is paying for arms, and fueling the war.
Bishop Macram Max Gassis, a Sudanese Catholic cleric who lives in exile in Kenya, talked to the NewsHour last year.
BISHOP MACRAM MAX GASSIS: For me, oil is a curse. For me, oil has inflamed more than war. Khartoum now is... they have renovated their arsenal. They have more sophisticated weapons. They are producing, now, ammunition and assault rifles, and huge, big trucks for the war.
GWEN IFILL: The U.S. has long considered Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism. Osama bin Laden lived there from 1991 to 1996. The Bush administration, concerned about slavery, terrorism, and the civil war, has engaged more directly with the Sudanese government.
And five days before September 11, President Bush announced that former Senator John Danforth, an Episcopal priest, would be his special envoy to the country. The administration has asked for $22 million in humanitarian assistance for Sudan, five times more than in 2001. Danforth attended the negotiations in Kenya earlier this month.
GWEN IFILL: And former Senator John Danforth joins us now. Besides attending the talks in Kenya, he spent eight days in Sudan and neighboring countries. He has met with the Sudanese president and other regional leaders. Welcome, Senator.
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: So this agreement that was signed a month ago in Kenya between the Northern government forces and the South, what does it mean? What is the significance of it?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I think there's more hope for peace in Sudan than there's been in 20 years. The agreements that were reached a month or so ago are very, very significant. These are the most difficult issues that have been before the parties. One is as you pointed out in the tape, the issue of religion and the state. And the other is the right of the people in the south to have a referendum in six years to secede. Those really were very, very thorny issues. With the help of a lot of people and most especially a Kenyan general who has been in charge of negotiations, the parties reached agreement on those two issues. Now there are difficult points ahead and the negotiations are now going on but on there's at least strong reason for some hope.
GWEN IFILL: You were so pessimistic after your first trip to Sudan about the potential for peace. What do you think changed?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, I think several things changed. I think first of all, there's been a lot of attention from the world community. President Bush has been personally very involved in the issue in Sudan, hence my appointment. European countries, countries surrounding Sudan have been very focused on it. There was an agreement reached in April relating to a part of the country called the Nuba Mountains for a cease fire. That cease fire has held. It's of course partial, it’s just a province but I think that has shown the people on both sides that peace is possible. In addition to that, the ongoing talks, the presence of the international community at those talks, the very able leadership of the Kenyan general. I think all of these things are working together.
GWEN IFILL: One of the two key points of the agreement was that in six years after peace is declared people in the South would be able to vote on seceding from the North. How do you know when peace is declared. Isn't that six years after an uncertain thing happened?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well no, It would be six years after the signing of and agreement. But the fact is that an agreement itself doesn't create peace. It's the beginning of a process. And what the people in the South have insisted on is the right to have a vote at the end of six years on how this is going. So, if they think it's going well that, it's not just a cease-fire, but that it’s a just peace, if they think that they are being treated fairly and that they are full members of Sudanese country, then they may well vote to stay in the country. On the other hand, if they are abused or treated as second-class citizens, then they may well vote to secede.
GWEN IFILL: If an agreement is reached or peace is declared, and some sort of signing ceremony takes place, who enforces this, outside forces? Would the U.S. play a role?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, I'm sure there will be international monitoring just as there is for the cease-fire in the Nuba Mountains. That does not mean a peace keeping force; it means simply that there are monitors to keep track of what's going on. But I think that as far as the people in the South are concerned the ultimate guarantee is their right to have a referendum in six years. The government of Sudan wants to keep the country intact. The surrounding countries want the country to be kept intact, but the people who have to be persuaded are the people who have now taken arms against the government. If they sign a peace agreement, they are basically saying, all right, demonstrate over a six-year period of time whether this peace is in our interest.
GWEN IFILL: Should the United States be taking sides in this? As you know, many of the American domestic groups, whether Christian groups, African-American groups, whomever are very strongly involved on the side of southern rebels rather than on the side of the government in Khartoum. Should the U.S. be taking their side in this?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: There are a lot of people in the United States who are very concerned about Sudan and for good reason. They know that this is a country with tremendous misery. A lot of people are suffering right now. But what we're trying to do in the United States under the leadership of President Bush is to find out if there's a possibility for concluding all of this fighting, for lessening the misery and for having peace. Of course, peace means that there has to be an agreement that is acceptable not just to the government but to the people who are opposed to the government.
GWEN IFILL: You heard in our piece a bishop say that oil is at the center of so much of this. If that's true, if you agree with that -- you can disagree if you like -- if you do agree that oil is a key bargaining chip in all of this, what of the countries who business in Sudan, China, Canada and Sweden, multinational oil companies?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, oil is -- it certainly has been a problem in that a lot of fighting has taken place around the oil fields. And the government has been using proceeds from oil -- oil revenues to finance its war. So right now I think the bishop is absolutely correct that oil is the problem. It is also possible that oil can be part of the solution. This is one of the things that’s being discussed in the peace talks in Kenya. If there is peace, then what can be done not just to develop oil but to share on a fair basis, the proceeds from the oil, so it can work either way.
GWEN IFILL: Does the U.S. then take a role in this in trying to exert pressure on these companies or on these countries to do something to play a more active role in trying to end this fight over oil?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: I'm not sure that the United States has much of a say in what companies from other countries are doing with respect to oil. I think what we can say is that if Sudan wants to develop its oil resources, right now the United States is not participating in that and cannot participate as a matter of law. U.S. companies cannot be involved in it. If they want to produce oil, then the key to that is to reach a peace agreement.
GWEN IFILL: Do you see any movement, Senator, on the slavery issue? Many of the groups that have been involved in what they called slave buy backs, which is giving traders who trade in labor money to release, they say, people who are being held in slavery. Is that something you have seen any movement on or any change?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: One of the things that happened in the spring of this year is that an agreement was reached on several parts of the problem in Sudan and one of the agreements had to do with slavery. It consisted of appointing an international commission of eminent persons to go to Sudan to look at the problem of slavery. They have made recommendations including recommendations relating to the monitoring of the slavery situation. I believe it is possible to put in place in the near future a structure so that this terrible problem of taking hostages, taking people and using them for the purpose of slavery, it’s possible to have a structure in place to monitor that and to I think control it.
GWEN IFILL: Do the buy backs work?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, it just -- I don't know -- you know, the people who are involved in that believe that they do. It seems to me that the number of dollars spent on buy backs just produces more people to be produced in a line to be bought back. So I don't think it gets to the root cause of slavery.
GWEN IFILL: You were appointed to this position five days before September 11. Since September 11 there's been much discussion from the U.S. government that any country that harbors a terrorist or that shields terrorism in anyway should be considered terrorists themselves. Sudan has been on the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Has that affected the U.S.'s ability or has it even helped the U.S.'s ability to effect some sort of middle ground on this?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: Well, Sudan after 9/11, the government of Sudan has certainly indicated an interest in having a better relationship with the United States. Our government has said that a better relationship depends on three criteria: one is peace which is what's going on in the peace agreement now that’s hopefully being negotiated in Kenya. One is humanitarian access, meaning that the whole country is opened up to food and medical relief and the other is -- the third is the issue of terrorism. The United States insists on cooperation by all countries, including Sudan on the issue of terrorism. So if there is going to be movement towards a more normal relation between the United States and Sudan, these are the three areas that will have to be satisfied.
GWEN IFILL: And finally what is on the table in Kenya in these peace negotiations? What are the next hurdles that have to be gotten over?
FORMER SEN. JOHN DANFORTH: The next hurdles have to do with what kind of governmental system will be put in place. What is the power sharing arrangement? What arrangement will there be for sharing revenues from resources including oil; what are the security arrangements, and the most difficult issue of all involves three regions in the middle of the country and where they will be placed in an overall agreement. Will they be aligned with the North or aligned with the South? That has really been the most difficult single issue that is before the negotiators right now.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. Senator John Danforth, thank you so much for joining us.