The Chairman instructed me to represent the Movement for the negotiation and implementation of the relief operation. I left Addis Ababa for Nairobi on 17 March, and met Grant again to conclude the agreement. It aimed to get sufficient food aid into southern Sudan to feed approximately two million civilians, bringing in 100,000 tons of food over a six-week period before the rainy season made the roads impassable. The cost of the operation was estimated at US$132 million. It was code-named Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS), and officially launched on 1 April 1989 in Nairobi when Grant flagged off the first convoy of trucks taking food to Kapoeta and Torit through Lokichoggio.
The following terms formed the basis of Operation Lifeline Sudan:
- The UN has to deal with all the parties to the conflict that control territory through which relief items pass or to which they are delivered
- The parties to the conflict commit themselves to the safe and unhindered passage and delivery of relief items to the needy population
- The UN, as a neutral body, was to co-ordinate the operations with the parties to the conflict
There was no written agreement between the parties to the conflict (the SPLA and the GoS) and the UN when OLS came into being on 1 April 1989. It was only the express commitment of the parties to the above terms that kept the operation going. Although the UN does not confer formal recognition of any kind to the SPLA, it had to deal with it in order to reach the needy population. Indeed, Grant made it clear that the choice of UNICEF as the UN lead agency in OLS was in part to stress non-recognition of the SPLA while dealing with it on this humanitarian undertaking.
Kenya and Uganda readily agreed to allow cross-border relief operations through their territories. Since the Ethiopian government did not give its consent, the plans for river and land cross-border operations envisaged through Gambela were shelved. Lokichoggio was chosen as the main relief centre to serve the SPLA-administered areas of southern Sudan, especially by air. During this period, relief items were delivered into the areas of southern Sudan controlled by both the SPLM/A and the GoS by river, rail and air. Improved health conditions among the population became noticeable.
The advent of OLS provided an opportunity for the SPLA High Command to have a presence outside Addis Ababa, facilitating sustained direct access to the SPLM/A leadership for the international community and the press. In fact, for the first time in the SPLA's history, journalists were milling around in previously out of bounds SPLM/A-administered areas.
There was a profound connection between OLS and opportunities for peacemaking, even if peace was not its stated aim. The operation was mounted to ameliorate the suffering caused by war-induced famine, hence, the final solution to the problem lay in achieving peace. OLS also provided the donors, especially the US, with leverage or influence on the SPLM/A. In a meeting between the SPLM/A leader and Grant at Panyagor in April 1989, the latter raised the issue of how he and the donors could assist in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. This was followed by an announcement from the Chairman of a unilateral one-month ceasefire to commence on 1 May 1989. It will be recalled that this was one of Grant's initial requests. The ceasefire was renewed several times. The SPLM/A's initiative had the effect of exerting tremendous pressure on the government of al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, and led to the first peace talks between the parties in Addis Ababa in June 1989. This was a very significant shift for the Movement, which had previously held meetings only with political parties and not with the sitting government. The talks made considerable progress and the two sides agreed to reconvene on 4 July. The process was, however, interrupted by the coup d'etat on 30 June 1989.