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Sudan’s Best Chance for Peace: How Not to Lose It

 PDF version of Sudan’s Best Chance for Peace: How Not to Lose It


On 1 September 2002, two weeks into the second phase of the peace negotiations in Machakos, Kenya, the Sudanese government suspended its participation in the talks being brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). This followed the capture, after a series of battles, of the southeastern Sudanese town of Torit by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA).

The Machakos talks represent the best chance for peace the Sudanese people have had since the beginning of the war nearly two decades ago, and the interruption is dangerous. The government has reached an historic fork in the road as it deliberates next steps. Two scenarios are possible. Either those officials benefiting from the status quo will torpedo the peace process and intensify the war, or those who see the far greater benefits of peace will ensure that the government returns to the table and seeks a negotiated end to the war. The rebel SPLA movement, bedevilled by competing tendencies towards war and peace, faces a similar moment of truth.

If an attitude persists that without peace on their terms war should continue, the outlook is bleak. Forceful diplomacy by the mediators and the application to both sides of increased international leverage will be required to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and to forge an agreement to end one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The first order of business should be to arrange mutual informal commitments to cease major offensive actions for the next half-year to break the dangerous battlefield dynamic and give negotiations a chance.

Despite widespread international scepticism, IGAD scored a major breakthrough during the first phase of talks. The parties reached agreement on the “Machakos Protocol” of 20 July 2002 for dealing with one of the most important issues driving the conflict, self-determination for southern Sudanese, by means of a referendum that will pose the alternatives of continued national unity or secession for the South at the end of a six-year interim period during which laws in the North will be based in part on Sharia law while those in the South will be secular. (The basis of law for the central authority that will also exist during this interim period is still disputed, as is the legal status of non-Muslims in the North.)

These are not new positions for the parties. What is new is that they have incorporated them in a jointly signed document in the context of a serious peace process from which it will be difficult to backtrack without significant diplomatic costs. It is a significant achievement for the partnership between the IGAD mediators, led by General Lazaro Sumbeiywo of Kenya, and involving envoys from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, a quartet of active international observers representing the U.S., UK, Norway, and Italy, and the United Nations.

The government’s early agreement to a self-determination referendum with an independence option surprised almost everyone. Its possible motivations are varied, even partially contradictory. They range from a survival decision driven by calculations about the need to make inroads into the constituencies of the larger sectarian parties by showing it can deliver peace, oil and prosperity, through a desire to obtain greater oil revenues and debt relief, to uncertainty about U.S. intentions in possible further stages of its “war against terrorism”. They may also include tactical judgements, at least among the harder line elements of the regime, that early agreement on a single big issue provides an opportunity to split the SPLA from its northern allies or to paint the SPLA as the intransigent side responsible for the eventual breakdown of the negotiations.

The signing of the Machakos Protocol had a catalytic effect on internal political dynamics, not all of it positive. While grassroots support for a comprehensive peace is growing across the country, the government, the SPLA and the northern opposition parties are all aggressively seeking to use the new situation to undermine each other, and politics are becoming more polarised by the day. The Machakos process has also revived dormant hard-line tendencies, or uncovered hidden ones, on both sides that will have to be overcome if the parties are to reach a final deal.

The remaining negotiations will be very difficult since the agenda includes complex issues that have heretofore been little discussed. The two largest remaining obstacles are arrangements for internal security and for the areas adjacent to “the South” that are also in armed revolt. Other difficult issues involve wealth and power sharing, human rights, and serious structural reforms of the state.

For peace to come, it is crucial that the mediators encourage, and the parties accept, proposals that genuinely give Sudan’s long-term unity a chance. To ensure that Southerners have confidence and commitment to put down their weapons, there will have to be security arrangements acceptable to the SPLA and provisions for substantial redistribution of national power and wealth. The agreement must vest the SPLA in national development and governance, not just control of a southern regional government.

Khartoum is simply unlikely to sign, or maintain its commitment to, an agreement that does not provide a reasonable prospect that the South will in the end vote to keep the country together. It is critically important that the mediators put forward proposals that will – if implemented fully – create favourable conditions for unity. They must, accordingly, take the time to develop compromises as complex as necessary to ensure their lasting acceptance. Additionally, the mediators must use the break in negotiations to address the status of the areas adjacent to the South that are in armed revolt.

The foundation upon which any peace agreement must be built remains the agreement already achieved – the referendum. It is the SPLA’s absolute requirement. So long as they have it, the rebels should be willing to accept creative proposals on other points that give unity a chance. The prospect of the South voting, after six years of transition, for independence is a strong incentive for Khartoum to implement the terms it signs.

It is not just North-South issues that have been tearing Sudan apart, and if an agreement in the end is only a narrow power sharing deal between the SPLA and Khartoum along geographic lines, it is unlikely either to last or to maintain the country’s unity. A further crucial dimension not yet seriously addressed at Machakos is how to bring into the process the views of other Sudanese groups deeply disaffected with the present government – the SPLA’s northern allies (the National Democratic Alliance, NDA), the Umma Party and other political parties and key members of civil society from North and South.

Peace is indeed within reach but much work remains to be done, not least by the U.S., which must lead other international actors in organising multilateral leverage and then using it judiciously to move the parties through all the crucial decision points still ahead.


To the IGAD Envoys, the IGAD Secretariat, and the International Observers:

1. Maintain commitment to the Machakos Protocol in its entirety, most particularly the self-determination referendum after the six-year interim period that gives the South the options of unity or secession, and enshrine international guarantees about the modalities and timeframe for the referendum in the final agreement.

2. In order to bring the parties back to the negotiating table, seek an informal commitment from both to undertake no major offensive action for the next six months, and when the parties return to Machakos begin negotiating the terms of a comprehensive ceasefire as part of the overall agreement.

3. Make every effort to bring the views of other political actors – particularly the Umma Party and the opposition coalition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) – and civil society formally into the process, including by:

(a)      seeking their views on each major issue during the negotiations by setting up a consultative mechanism, based in Nairobi and parallel to the Machakos process;

(b)      ensuring that an all-inclusive constitutional review process takes place early in the six-year interim period after an agreement and before a self-determination referendum in the South; and

(c)      scheduling free and fair multiparty elections – at local, regional and national levels – to ensure a transition to democracy but in ways that do not threaten the stability of the agreement and the fragile post-agreement internal political dynamic.

4. Focus mediation efforts on developing creative proposals designed to make unity attractive to referendum voters if the peace agreement is implemented fully and faithfully, including

(a)      on state and religion, maintain that the “consensus of the people” will be the source of legislation in the national constitution, or remain silent on the source of legislation; press for exemptions from Sharia for non-Muslims living in northern states;

(b)      on power sharing, use formulas that maximise meaningful SPLA and broader southern involvement in the central government and fundamentally reform structures that are discriminatory and exclusive;

(c)      on wealth sharing, prioritise the use of national resource revenues, especially oil, in national economic and social development programs that promote joint or cooperative development of North and South;

(d)      on internal security arrangements, allow the SPLA operational control of the South within a national army of equals, with significant power sharing in the central military and security institutions, joint patrols in sensitive areas, and joint training and modernisation, as well as facilitation of demobilisation and the monitoring of joint exercises by the international community;

(e)      on a ceasefire, arrange for the deployment of an international observer mission in ways that promote cooperation between the parties, particularly through joint patrols that include the observer mission; and

(f)       on the status of the contested areas adjacent to the South (Abyei, the Nuba Mountains, and the southern Blue Nile), affirm a mechanism for determining the wishes of the inhabitants, and create special arrangements for these areas to take into account their history of severe marginalisation and their unique present circumstances.

To the International Observers (U.S, UK, Norway and Italy and United Nations) specifically:

5. Play a leading role in stimulating the supportive efforts of other key members of the international community, for example by pressing Egypt at a high level not to reactivate its joint initiative with Libya but rather to adopt a more constructive approach based on the shared objective of achieving fundamental reforms in Khartoum that will increase the prospect of keeping Sudan together.

6. Craft a multilateral strategy of incentives and pressures that can be deployed at the request of the IGAD mediation team when one or the other party is being intransigent or undermining the negotiations. The first major task will be to bring the government of Sudan back to the negotiating table.

7. Take the lead in supporting donor efforts to prepare Southerners for the interim period by immediately embarking on a serious program of capacity building and skills training for the SPLA and others involved in governance.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 September 2002

 PDF version of Sudan’s Best Chance for Peace: How Not to Lose It

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