Dialogue in the Two Sudans

Newly arrived South Sudanese refugees wait for their children to be treated for malnutrition at Kule Camp - Courtesy of UNICEF Ethiopia

Since independence, national dialogues have been repeatedly invoked by successive administrations to resolve Sudan’s armed conflicts. What lessons are there for South Sudan’s own process?

Last Saturday, I attended a seminar, organised by the Sudanese Programme at St Anthony’s College of Oxford University, and entitled “Dialogue in the Two Sudans”.

Among the speakers, were Hon Angelo Beda, a Member of the South Sudanese Transitional National Legislative Assembly and co-chairman of the National Dialogue steering committee; Mr Mr. Faisal Muhammed Salih, a veteran Sudanese journalist; and Nhial Deng Nhial, also a Member of the South Sudanese Transitional National Legislative Assembly, senior presidential advisor and special envoy for the Transitional Government of National Unity.

The seminar was held under the Chatham House Rule. As such, I won’t be giving an account of what was said that day. What follows are my own thoughts, inspired by the day’s discussion, and supplemented with further reading after the event.

Dialogue within the Sudan

The examples of failed national dialogues, held within the Sudan, serve as a sobering reminder of the fragility of such exercises. Though they may have started with the best of intentions, and run by well-meaning and respected personalities, they were invariably subverted by the cynical manipulation of a political elite, unwilling or unable to take tough decisions and make serious concessions.

Since realising its independence, the Sudan has been involved in over a dozen rounds of internally and externally driven national dialogues. These have been aimed at securing peace and achieving consensus on the future direction of the country. Nearly all have failed.

The most recent example is the 2013 national dialogue process, which ran for three years and concluded without any appreciable dividend for the Sudanese people.

To be successful, the sentiment behind a national dialogue process must be genuine. There must be consensus, among the political class and the citizenry, on the scope of its outcome. The must be a conducive environment enabling debate at all levels of society. And perhaps most importantly, there must be a readiness to accept its outcome, no matter how politically unpalatable.

The 2013 national dialogue process was intended to bring an end to armed conflict in the country. Following a wide-reaching reshuffle of his government, President Omar al-Bashir gave a speech signalling his intention to incorporate concerns over repression, marginalisation and identity politics in the scope of the national dialogue.

Unfortunately, the rhetoric failed to match the reality of implementation. According to a 2014 paper by Atta El-Hassan El-Battahani, then of Khartoum University, on the experiences of national dialogues in the Sudan, the approach of the political elite has often been “dictated by politicians prioritizing their own personal and short-term interests”. This latest process was to prove no different.

There was unconditional support for the national dialogue process from pro-government parties, and significant scepticism from other Sudanese political parties, civil society groups and the armed opposition. This scepticism was not without warrant. Many of the pro-government parties, included in the dialogue, lacked popular support. Others are alleged to have been manufactured specifically to take part in the national dialogue.

Early in the process, it was clear that President al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) wouldn’t commit to any provisions that might weaken their control over the state. Requests for proof of the ruling party’s sincerity, primarily the repeal of repressive laws and policies, were ignored.

The process of national dialogue was intentionally calibrated to engage Sudan’s political parties and opposition groups. Public participation was relegated to occasional outreach events, where political personalities would wax lyrical on the mechanics of the process itself and its progress. There was little attempt to hear the public’s views, let alone incorporate them in the dialogue’s findings.

Wider popular engagement with the national dialogue was further muted by restrictions on the press, freedom of speech and freedom of association. Likewise, continued military operations in restive regions effectively excluded large numbers of the Sudanese population from the dialogue process.

By 2015, the dialogue process was overtaken by a focus on upcoming elections. Most didn’t expect the elections to be free and fair. These were perceived as an attempt by the ruling party to entrench its control. With an electoral mandate, the NCP could see off any demands for substantive reform that might result from the dialogue process.

A report by the International Crisis Group, published in March 2015, begins with the following observation: “Prospects for an inclusive national dialogue President Omar al-Bashir promised in January 2014 are fading … Sceptics who warned that the ruling party was unwilling and unable to make needed concessions have been vindicated.”

In October 2016, surrounded by heads of state from Egypt, Uganda, Chad and Mauritania, President al-Bashir celebrated the conclusion of the national dialogue process by signing the National Document in Friendship Hall. It was claimed that 74 political parties and 34 armed movements had joined the dialogue. Promises of upcoming constitutional reform were proffered.

And yet, nearly one year later, and Sudan remains mired in political deadlock, social instability, and armed conflict.

The experience of Sudan shows that, without political will, attempts at a national dialogue are invariably doomed to failure. At best, they devolve into half-hearted attempts at conflict resolution that fail to yield tangible results. At worst, they buy time, enabling the ruling party and its core beneficiaries to strengthen their position.

Dialogue within South Sudan

The lessons for South Sudan’s own process of national dialogue could not be starker. In the wake of the Sudans Programme seminar, I remain unconvinced that South Sudan’s transitional government can deliver a successful process of national dialogue.

During the discussion, it was roundly acknowledged that both Salva Kiir and Riek Machar were to blame for dragging the country back into internecine warfare for the sake of their own political positions. There was little likelihood of the peace holding should these two personalities be required to work together. Mutual animosity and ingrained intransigence would ensure that the peace process fails to yield the kind of results that the people of South Sudan so desperately need.

We find ourselves in a political deadlock, with tragic consequences for our country. With each passing day, the fabric of our society deteriorates at an alarming pace. A new way needs to be found. But, given the current environment, it’s extremely unlikely that the national dialogue process will provide the means to break that deadlock and silence the guns.

In response to early scepticism over the sincerity of the national dialogue process, President Salva Kiir removed himself as patron and appointed two retired “eminent personalities”, Abel Alier and Angelo Beda, to co-chair the dialogue’s steering committee. The appointments have done little to allay concerns. It’s unclear just how much real authority these frail octogenarians exert over the direction and management of the dialogue process.

“In a national dialogue, we are speaking truth to power. And that makes power irritable.” Dr Abdullah Ibrahim, USIP Panel Discussion (2013)

Whether Abel Alier and Angelo Beda retain the political clout, let alone the stamina, to oversee a credible dialogue to a successful conclusion is in doubt. The cards are stacked against them in what will be a tough and exhausting process. Frankly, despite their historic prominence, these elder statesmen appear to be out of their depth. This leaves them ripe for manipulation by a political elite that is intent on self-preservation.

Furthermore, all those who are pinning their hopes on the national dialogue’s success, are putting the cart before the horse. There can be no substantive progress without peace.

According to the UNHCR, a little over 50,000 South Sudanese fled the country in August 2017 alone. Each day, an average of 1600 men, women and children, continue to undertake the hazardous journey, in search of safety, security and humanitarian access.

Despite the irrefutable statistics, authorities in Juba continue to deny the scale of the crisis facing South Sudan. This level of denial reaches to the highest levels of government. President Kiir downplayed the humanitarian crisis in an interview with DW, a German news service. He claimed the migration of people from South Sudan, routinely described by observers as the largest exodus in African since the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, was “not a big deal.”

Following a recent meeting with President Salva Kiir, the USAID chief administrator, Mark Green, noted that “the president believes it’s safe and that there is security and that humanitarian workers aren’t at risk. What we saw in Wau is completely in contrast to that.”

Given the present context of chronic insecurity and mass displacement, there is a near insurmountable barrier to public participation in a dialogue that needs to be inclusive.  But the political attitude in Juba seems oblivious to this reality.

Meanwhile, constraints on political expression continue to play a role in diminishing  dialogue at the grassroots level. Restrictions on the press have not been relaxed. And civil society organisations are routinely prevented from holding discussions on topical matters.

The sentiment behind the national dialogue may have been genuine.  But, that won’t stop it from degenerating into an empty monologue. Those in contested areas will be left out of the process entirely. Those in uncontested areas will be subdued and cautious in their engagement, careful not to draw unwelcome attention to themselves.

Left behind, to drive the dialogue forwards, will be those whose views, on core matters, are most aligned with that of the establishment. A bland echo chamber, devoid of the depth and richness of opportunity that a genuine and far-reaching dialogue might bring.

And so, it seems that South Sudan is destined to repeat the mistakes of Sudan. The country’s first process of national dialogue will likely be undermined by a lack of inclusivity and manipulated by a political class that is determined to protect its privileges and the status quo.

Recommitting itself to an inclusive reboot of the peace process should be Juba’s priority at this stage. Ensuring the guns fall silent through a negotiated settlement will go far in creating a conducive environment for holding a national dialogue. But on its own, this is not enough. Releasing a tranche of political prisoners and declaring presidential amnesties is woefully inadequate in proving the sincerity of the authorities in Juba for genuine dialogue. A dismantling of repressive legislation, reigning back the security services and relaxing restrictions on the press and on freedom of expression would speak volumes about the authorities intentions. There are risks there for the political elites. But demonstrating that they are willing to take these risks in the national interest will be a potent stimulus for South Sudanese to get behind the national dialogue.


Bonus Tract

I trust that the following recollection from the seminar keeps to the spirit of the Chatham House Rule.

Angelo Beda captivated the audience. Speaking with a lilting and unmistakeably Western Equatorian accent, which rankled at the English language’s propensity to end an unseemly amount of its words with a consonant, he would often subconsciously compensate by rounding such words with a vowel, to redress the perceived deficiency.

He began by describing his own experiences of colonial era South Sudan. In a light-hearted repost to Bona Malual’s assertion that he was older than Mr Beda, he served up a humorous anecdote.

Mr Beda explained that to delay the often-ruinous consequences of being pensioned by the colonial authorities, it was common for civil servants to claim they were born a few years later than they were. Though Mr Beda was born in 1938, he had declared himself as being born a full three years later, in 1941.

Little did he realise this fib would come back to haunt him. As he prepared himself for marriage in his home town, he was alarmed to learn that the local parish records were more scrupulously maintained than he thought, and comprehensively debunked his official age.


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