Some Western governments are threatening to cut their aid programs here unless progress toward peace is made by the Sudanese regime, which has rejected several recent opportunities to end its war with rebels in the south.
This explicit linkage is unprecedented in the West's relations with Sudan. Until recently Sudan, which is strategically located between Marxist Ethiopia and Islamic fundamentalist Libya, was considered pro-Western.
The quiet but intensifying Western pressure produced one apparent step forward last month, when Prime Minister Sadek Mahdi agreed to a two-day, U.N.-sponsored meeting between relief agencies and government officials, scheduled to take place next Wednesday and Thursday in Khartoum.
The session is designed to air relief workers' complaints about the government's hindering of emergency shipments to the south, where an estimated 250,000 civilians died of starvation last year because convoys were blocked or destroyed by government and rebel activity. Another 100,000 civilians are menaced by starvation this year, relief officials say.
Some Western diplomats here say they have detected a loosening of Mahdi's obdurate opposition to early peace talks with the rebels.
The outside prodding comes as pressure grows within the country to settle the war. Military leaders, stung by an unprecedented series of victories in the south by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army, demanded that Mahdi form a new government that places a priority on peace talks.
Mahdi, however, countered the army's ultimatum with one of his own, threatening to resign by Saturday unless the military gives him a free hand in concluding the war on his own terms.
$700 Million in Aid
But many observers here say that Mahdi remains so opposed to a political settlement that an end to hostilities is not likely soon. If that is the case, reductions in foreign aid could have a telling effect on conditions in Sudan, one of the world's neediest countries.
Sudan's foreign debt totals more than $10 billion; its annual debt service of $1.1 billion--the cash required to keep current with its debt obligations--is about three times higher than the most optimistic projections of its annual earnings from foreign exports.
Meanwhile, the country depends on as much as $700 million a year in foreign aid--plus an equal amount in emergency aid to overcome recent plagues of drought, floods, locust infestations, famine and epidemic disease.
The most explicit action linking aid to peace has been that of the Netherlands, which in December cut its $60-million aid allocation to Sudan for this year by $2.5 million.
"We told them there would be a further reviewing of aid for 1989 in May, with a view toward diminishing it if no further steps are taken," said Peter Feith, charge d'affaires at the Dutch Embassy here. "And already we expect that to be the outcome."
Feith said the $2.5-million figure was selected to send a strong signal to Mahdi without "devastating" existing programs.
The Dutch also told the Sudanese government they would allocate more than one-third of the aid to the south, which is a largely Christian and animist region that receives little help from the Islamic-majority government. Because almost no development programs exist in the vast war zone, Feith said, that allocation will be used mostly to help southerners who have moved north as refugees.
Diplomatic sources in Khartoum say Britain and West Germany also are discussing explicit linkages between their aid and Sudanese peace moves "at the very highest levels of government."
Non-emergency aid from the United States to Sudan virtually ceased in January, but that is largely because American law prohibits further aid until Sudan moves to erase $14.5 million it owes on 10 years of U.S. wheat shipments. In the past, the United States has provided roughly $100 million in non-emergency aid a year.
Meanwhile, rhetorical pressure from Western governments also is building. Secretary of State James A. Baker III last month publicly urged Mahdi's government to undertake peace talks. And Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is due in Khartoum in the first week of April. The blunt-talking British leader is widely expected to give Mahdi a stern lecture.
Still, many donors are aware they walk a tightrope in trying to influence the government through aid. For one thing, what little succor their programs provide to Sudan's burdened population hangs in the balance.
"It's a dangerous game," says Bona Malwal, a former government minister who now edits the opposition Sudan Times, an English-language newspaper in Khartoum. "These donors could be responsible for more suffering, as they have been responsible for past suffering by their support of the government."
Logistically, the next few months are a sensitive period for relief agencies.
"On the one hand, I'm in favor of this kind of pressure," says one relief official who, like others interviewed, spoke on condition of anonymity. "On the other, I know that if these cuts come in the next 90 days, as they might, I've in effect lost a full year. Once the rains come back in April and May, I can't get any food or supplies to people in the south."
Some also fear a backlash against the West. "If the donors all got together and demanded flat-out an end to the war, there'd be a negative reaction," one diplomat in Khartoum said, observing that the Islamic fundamentalist parties that control the Sudanese Parliament already have assailed Western nations for "interfering" in internal affairs.
"It's not peculiar to Sudan that after a protracted period of national catastrophe, people are irritated by well-intentioned foreigners who are taking over things," another said. "The difference here is that the fundamentalists see us as a main barrier to the Islamization of the country."
Even in the best of times, providing aid in Sudan has never been easy. Aid officials complain that much of their development money disappears amid official ineptitude, corruption and hostility.
In the last month, the government has added what many relief workers consider a new layer of harassment: a law requiring all Western relief agencies to obtain official permits to continue operating here.
The law threatens any agency found to be acting against Sudanese political and religious codes with confiscation of all its goods and supplies--a clear warning to all agencies, despite their neutrality, operating in rebel areas.
"We're very concerned about discretionary use of these powers," said a Western diplomat charged with overseeing his country's relief program. "The obligation to register every year creates a climate of insecurity, and there's continuous threatening of expulsion."
Although four Christian relief agencies were expelled last year, so far this year registration has been denied to only one group. That is the Belgian branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), which provides mobile health care in remote areas throughout the Third World.
The Belgian group says it has received no explanation of the denial, although local workers conjecture that it might have stemmed from a raid on an agency office that turned up a newspaper photo of John Garang, leader of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army.
The snag has all but halted the group's activities in western Dafur province.
"We can't travel or bring in supplies like drugs or medical material," said Pierre Poivre, head of the agency's office in Khartoum. "Our people can leave Dafur but can't go back, and we can't bring anyone else in or make commitments."