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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > Horn of Africa > Sudan > Sudan: The Prospects for “National Dialogue”

Sudan: The Prospects for “National Dialogue”

Africa Briefing N°108 11 Mar 2015

Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir speaks during a rally in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, on February 24, 2010.

AFP PHOTO/ABDULLAH DOMA


OVERVIEW

Prospects for an inclusive national dialogue President Omar al-Bashir promised in January 2014 are fading, making a soft-landing end to Sudan’s crises more doubtful. Sceptics who warned that the ruling party was unwilling and unable to make needed concessions have been vindicated. Peacemaking in Darfur and the Two Areas (Blue Nile and South Kordofan) and potential merging of these negotiations with the national dialogue were dealt a blow with suspension of African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP)-mediated “parallel” talks in Addis Ababa in December. A separate German-backed initiative has elicited a more unified and constructive approach from the armed and unarmed opposition, but no breakthrough yet. The government still holds many cards – including formidable means of coercion – and has little sympathy for the increasingly unified demand of the armed and political opposition for a really inclusive process and true power sharing. Unless both sides give ground, a continuation of intense war and humanitarian crises is inevitable.

The offer of national dialogue was prompted by a series of events – partly due to unaddressed consequences of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and South Sudan’s 2011 independence – including large, violently repressed nationwide September 2013 protests in Khartoum and other cities, followed by a costly, unsuccessful and unpopular military campaign in South Kordofan. But almost as soon as the government’s offer of dialogue was announced, there was a crackdown on opposition activists and the media. The recently-formed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) reportedly were deployed in Khartoum to quell protests. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), alongside the RSF, have since renewed their “hot dry season” campaign against the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition in the southern peripheries and Darfur.

Opportunism and divisions within the civilian and armed opposition have given the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) a respite. While other parties refused to participate in or withdrew from the preparatory National Dialogue Committee (NDC), some Islamist, traditional and smaller parties remained, looking to maximise their share of government posts in return for lending credibility to planned April elections that other major parties will boycott, further polarising the country. The December 2014 “Sudan Call”, which reflected a growing unity of demands from the political opposition, civil society and armed groups, came too late to influence the NDC’s discussion in August of the parameters for the dialogue and was immediately rejected by the government. However, the opposition’s more sophisticated approach at subsequent meetings in Berlin has improved prospects for an inclusive preparatory meeting before the election.

The NCP has reason to believe Sudan’s vulnerable regional and wider international position has improved. The International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to “suspend” its Darfur work gives the president more confidence he will not be prosecuted. Pressure from anti-Muslim Brotherhood Arab and Gulf states has eased somewhat. Meanwhile, the civil war in South Sudan has distracted the SRF, an increase in gold exports has relieved economic pressure, and the steep drop in oil prices has been weathered, because Sudan now imports much of its fuel, and its substantial income from oil transport fees is fixed. But this betterment of the government’s political and military position is fragile and reversible; fundamental, dangerous weaknesses remain.

As Crisis Group has argued in previous reports, a peaceful, political solution through an inclusive national dialogue would be a vital step toward ending the violent protests at the centre and wars in the periphery that could otherwise lead to Sudan’s further fragmentation. The NCP, and the military-security apparatus in particular, are unlikely to submit to another “CPA” process requiring them to share power in Khartoum with a still-armed opposition, but might accommodate greater regional administrative autonomy if they can continue to dominate the centre.

Western donors’ influence is much reduced, and the responsibilities for mediating the fighting, encouraging recommitment to inclusive dialogue and bearing the burden and cost of instability now mostly fall to the AU (especially the AUHIP, which is mandated to mediate the proposed national dialogue); immediate African neighbours; Arab friends (collectively the Gulf Cooperation Council); and China, given its huge investments. These actors could exert greater and coordinated influence for remedial actions that would improve the chances for more talk and less war by:

  • pressing the opposition and government to participate in an inclusive preparatory meeting for the national dialogue, hosted and mediated by the AUHIP prior to the national elections, to forge clear terms of reference and common positions to which all parties are fully committed;
  • urging the AU Technical Assessment Mission to consider the impact an AU observation mission to a controversial election might have on the AUHIP’s mandate in the national dialogue process;
  • encouraging opposition parties and civil society to develop further a common position on the national dialogue through trusted third-country facilitation (eg, the German-sponsored initiative);
  • pushing the government and opposition to re-engage with the AUHIP’s strategy for a parallel and loosely synchronised process of talks on the Two Areas and Darfur; and
  • consideration by China of how its economic investments can better address regional inequalities that are fuelling continued wars.

Nairobi/Brussels, 11 March 2015

 
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Nadja Leoni Nolting (Brussels)
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+32 (0) 2 541 1635

Michael Zumot (Brussels)
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Contact Crisis Group’s Communications Unit: media@crisisgroup.org

Quotes

cbarnes

“A comprehensive approach to peace in Sudan is as distant as ever. The ruling party does not want it. The opposition is divided. To find common ground, the past year of national dialogue needs to be re-set to include more parties, rebel groups, intercommunal talks and negotiations over humanitarian access to crisis areas”.

Cedric Barnes, Horn of Africa Project Director

cero

“Sudan’s President al-Bashir may believe his position is improving: regionally as rebels are distracted by South Sudan's civil wars, economically as oil price and sanctions pressures lessen and internationally through broader acceptance of his regime and the suspension of the International Criminal Court’s work in Darfur. But all this is fragile and reversible. Fundamental, dangerous weaknesses remain”.

Comfort Ero, Program Director, Africa

jmguehenno

“As Western influence in Sudan dwindles, responsibility for mediating an end to fighting, encouraging inclusive dialogue and bearing the burden of instability mostly fall on the African Union, immediate African neighbours, Arab friends and China. Recently Germany and Russia have cultivated bilateral ties too. All these actors’ influence should be brought in to bear in preparing a new, more inclusive format for talks”.

Jean­ Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO