National Dialogue in Sudan: Past Experiences and Current Challenges (2)

Prof. Atta El-Hassan El-Battahani, University of Khartoum

The current context
The secession of South Sudan in 2011 marked a turning point in the history of the Sudanese state. This outcome, the result of a failed transition following the CPA, left the remaining regions of Sudan embroiled in old and new patterns of conflict. Conflicts have been instrumentalized and violence has become the means to address political grievances and access wealth and power.
Following the end of the CPA’s interim period, in July 2011, the Government of Sudan signed the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) with the Liberation and Justice
Movement (LJM), chaired by Tigani Sesi, followed by a number of separate deals with defecting leaders from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) factions. Following the return to war in South Kordofan in June 2011, the Government and SPLM-N signed the Nafie-Agar 28th June Agreement in Addis Ababa, but this was abruptly abrogated by President al-Bashir.
In the wake of the major reshuffle of the government in November 2013, President alBashir’s reform speech of January 2014 signaled a potential new move among Khartoum’s ruling elites towards negotiations with traditional political parties, and possibly with rebel
groups. President al-Bashir’s speech outlined the intention of his government to undertake reform measures, promising a new phase in the evolution of a quarter of a century of Islamic rule in Sudan.
The main elements of the speech were:
• Bringing about a resolution to the armed conflicts around the country
• Democratic transformation, including freedom of association, freedom to form
political parties and freedom of expression
• Addressing poverty and marginalization
• Addressing questions around identity and citizenship in the country.
The positions taken by key political actors following President al-Bashir’s reform speech can be characterized as follows:
1. Unconditional support: the pro-government parties of the Democratic Unionist Party
(DUP) of al-Mirghani, Ansar al-Suna and other parties, already co-opted and fully integrated into the state patronage machine, hailed the speech as a significant step towards peace and gave almost unconditional support to the process and President alBashir.
2. Conditional support: the major opposition parties, such as the Umma National Party of al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Popular Congress Party (PCP) of Hassan al-Turabi, and the newly formed Reform Now Party led by Gazi Salahedin, welcomed the process, but requested certain concrete measures as proof of its sincerity. However, the positions of these parties were not initially identical and shifted over time. By mid-June 2014, the PCP remained the most militant supporter of the Dialogue process beyond the ruling party, seeing in it an opportunity to reunify the Islamist movement at a time of growing regional hostility towards it in the Middle East. The detention of Sadiq al Mahdi in mid-May, in retaliation for his critique of the government’s
counterinsurgency practices, prompted the National Umma Party to withdraw from the dialogue. By early June, the Reform Now Party suspended its participation in the Dialogue in protest against a wave of detentions of political leaders and activists, and continued attacks on freedom of the press.
3. Opposition to the process: this includes both the secular, liberal-leftist opposition of the National Consensus Forces (led by Farouq AbuEisa) and the armed rebel groups of the SRF. These groups are suspicious of the intentions of the process, believing it is an attempt to settle differences within the riverine, dominant establishment to preserve the status quo rather than bring about change.
4. Positions of civil society and youth groups: youth leaders as well as many civil society groups view the process with skepticism, in particular until concrete measures are taken to translate policy intentions into action. Leading civil society organizations have initiated an effort to promote an “Alternative Dialogue” that would meet these conditions.
Prospects, obstacles and challenges for national dialogue and peace
Given Sudan’s history of at best partial and in fact mostly flawed national dialogue and peace processes, as well as the current context, there are a range of obstacles and challenges to launching a successful process of national dialogue.

National Congress Party

Having been in power for a quarter of a century, NCP policies and the vested interests of the riverine, conservative Arab-Islamist constituency remain a major stumbling block to a just and comprehensive peace deal and a genuine national dialogue. Fears of radical regime change and the personal safety of the leadership are at the top of the NCP’s priorities. Popular protests in urban middle class neighborhoods in Khartoum in September 2013, and subsequent defections from within the NCP and Islamist movement, are signs of fissures within the main constituency of the NCP. While this is a positive, pro-change sign, it may nonetheless constrain NCP negotiators since the defectors did not make a clear break with Islamic discourse of governance.
As Lyman and Temin accurately contend, President al-Bashir and the upper echelon of the regime will not agree to anything that will result in the dismantling of the regime, especially given the security and safety concerns of the President and his entourage, as well as the indictments by the International Criminal Court. Furthermore, “[convincing] the regime to engage in a meaningful dialogue and reform process, while simultaneously addressing their self-preservation concerns, remains a central, unsolved riddle” (Lyman and Temin, 2013).
In the search for a Shared Dialogue Framework, Sudan faces the fundamental struggle that the parties are not interested in actual dialogue, and where the constant failure in communication is central to the problem, particularly because of conflicts over fundamental
values. According to Jakobson, the quality of any form of dialogue is based on the context of communication and on the capacity of the participants in dialogue to present their messages
in a manner that is clear and understandable. At present there is huge mistrust among the parties and political actors, and therefore poor communication is a result (Jakobson, 1960)

The armed opposition

Despite signs to the contrary, the SPLM-N and Darfur rebel groups of the SRF appear to be fragmented and their ultimate objectives are not fully clear. The January 2013 New Dawn Charter has gone some way to make their position clear, but has lost political momentum with a number of signatories withdrawing their support.
A significant challenge is therefore whether opposition groups and rebels can agree and articulate a common political agenda.
Unarmed opposition political parties.
The traditional opposition political parties are divided, playing into the hands of the regime and those opposed to change. President al-Bashir’s reform speech has attracted the leadership of the ‘old political club’ who broadly represent the interests of the riverine conservative Arab-Islamist constituency who accepted to join the initiative of the President to talk of reform without clearly laying out conditions for the process as required by their allies in the National Consensus Forces. On the whole, the opposition parties seem at odds with each other, as the example of the Umma Party’s objection to the document produced by the
National Consensus Forces, the Democratic Alternative, with the Umma Party leadership insisting on a different strategy and opposed to close ties with the SRF.
Following his detention and release in June 2014, the National Umma Party (NUP) leader alSadiq al-Mahdi suspended his party’s participation in the government’s National Dialogue. In an outmaneuvering tactic, al-Mahdi met with SRF leaders in France and singed “Paris Declaration” on 8 August 2014, calling for an end to violent conflict and inclusion of the SRF in the National Dialogue. Immediate repercussions and ripples set off by this move are still unfolding causing re-arrangements of political coalitions by drawing the Umma Party once again to the mainstream opposition forces. Parallel to al-Mahdi’s move, the NCP went ahead with its plans for National Dialogue when the leading committee, known as “7+7,” (comprised of government-allied parties and opposition parties) met on the 9 August 2014 and adopted a framework agreement, or a road-map, for the dialogue process, setting a time frame, defining committees and agreeing on procedural matters. Adding to this political momentum, the African Union (AU) has decided to set up a higher committee to support Sudan’s ongoing national dialogue and tasked its chief mediator, Thabo Mbeki, with chairing it .

Local communities in war-affected areas

The humanitarian situation in war-affected areas is of paramount concern and while the conflict continues, including aerial bombardment and the blocking of humanitarian assistance, a genuine national dialogue will be impossible. In the past, addressing humanitarian concerns has been an entry-point of political dialogue and can be crucial to build confidence between the belligerents and with the local population. Providing the war affected population the opportunity to voice its grievances and concerns can be crucial to build peace, as was seen in the Popular Consultations in Blue Nile, although this was ultimately not carried through. On the other hand, failure to address the humanitarian and security needs of the local population, and a prolongation of the conflict in which civilians are directly targeted, could create an environment where the population, and in particular youth, in the marginalized war-affected regions adopt a more radical and separatist sentiment, leading to further dismemberment of the state.

Civil society and social groups

Although the legal and political environment is not conducive for a vibrant civil society, there is a lot of potential energy to be tapped in order to support peaceful change. Recently, the University of Khartoum has stepped in, proposing to hold a roundtable event bringing all parties together to discuss issues pertaining to reform and peaceful change, yet it remains to be seen whether such initiatives area allowed to operate independently and unhindered.
International community
The role of international community is indispensable for peace in Sudan. However, given the polarized positions of parties to the conflict, the international community cannot please everybody. The long term and ‘balanced’ approach favored by the international community may not be enough for anti-government parties and movements who want to see more robust and vigorous stance in favor of reform and change.

Creating a conducive environment

There is a need to create a credible environment in which dialogue can take place to ensure full engagement of the majority, if not all, political actors and segments of the population. There must be guarantees that decisions will be implemented in order for key actors to engage, something absent in past processes. For example, in the Kenana Darfur forum there was an agreement on keeping Darfur as a single region, but this was not respected, nor therefore were the wishes of the people of Darfur.

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