There is no doubt that some form of a national dialogue will be a key ingredient to a comprehensive peace in Sudan. But, to have a transformative effect on governance, that process needs to be meaningful, genuine, and inclusive. Despite hopeful signals in September 2014, Sudan’s nascent national dialogue process is currently none of those things. As it stands right now, the dialogue’s format remains imbalanced, exclusive and restrictive. Beyond problems with the structure of the process, the Sudanese government’s actions outside of the dialogue forum have further undermined prospects for genuine discourse about the way forward. But, this could change, if the Sudanese government decides to engage meaningfully and demonstrates its commitment by fulfilling six preconditions, including an alternate neutral administration for the dialogue. International stakeholders now have an opportunity to help to rebalance power dynamics and revitalize the much-needed but deeply compromised process.
Undoubtedly, the time is ripe for this kind of discourse. As evidenced by the August 2014 Paris Declaration and the early December 2014 Call for Sudan Declaration, there is now unprecedented unity amongst Sudan’s armed and unarmed opposition. Notwithstanding threats of reprisal from state security, a diverse group of opposition leaders jointly pledged to “work to dismantle the one-party state regime and replace it with a state founded on equal citizenship.” In addition, after almost a decade of stove-piped negotiations, which looked at each of Sudan’s regional conflicts separately, competing regional peace efforts for Darfur and the Two Areas are finally being unified under the same umbrella. Although negotiations on both tracks are currently suspended, the African Union (AU) mediation’s new “two tracks one process” approach represents a groundbreaking shift towards a “comprehensive approach.” Finally, negotiations around stopping the war are being linked to conversations about governing the country. As a result, many believe that a window of opportunity for change has opened in Sudan. In a recent brief, the Sudanese policy and research organization Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG) and the international violence prevention organization Saferworld argue that there is now “a glimmer of hope that a comprehensive resolution to Sudan’s conflicts may be possible.”
Despite these positive signs, many indicators point in the opposite direction. Most worrisome, despite an ostensible commitment to dialogue as the basis for conflict resolution, the Sudanese government’s security services and aligned militias continue to inflict extraordinary violence on people throughout Sudan. The mass rape by Sudanese army troops of women in Tabit, North Darfur has drawn international headlines, but the sad truth is that state-sponsored sexual violence is now a feature of life along the country’s long-marginalized periphery. In the country’s war zones, the army, the security services’ new Rapid Support Forces, and allied militias continue to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity on a daily basis. Notwithstanding an explicit promise from Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir not to seek another term as president, the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) announced in October 2014 that he will run for reelection in 2015. In leaked minutes from an August 2014 meeting of senior Sudanese security officials, one of the government’s senior decision-makers is quoted as planning to “attack [those in the war zones] before the harvest and bombard their food stores and isolate them completely.” Another vowed that “those who think to go out and demonstrate against us must know that their lives will be the price of the change.” In the wake of the December 2014 Call for Sudan Declaration, state security forces carried through on these threats by arresting Faroug Abu Eisa, head of the National Consensus Forces, and Dr. Amin Mekki Madani, chairman of the Sudanese Civil Society Initiative. Both men join hundreds of other political prisoners who remain under detention. As of mid-December 2014, prospects for a credible and meaningful national dialogue in Sudan are dim.
But things do not have to remain this way. With their appeal for debt relief on Sudan’s behalf, the AU and its mediation team has already invited external actors to help shape the process. Many in Sudanese civil society groups, including SDFG, cautioned against steps like unconditional debt relief. Instead, they have urged “members of the international community [to] clearly outline the requirements for a genuine process before any support [is] provided [to the government of Sudan].” Thus, the key to forward progress lies in the application of leverage. Economic tools hold the potential to alter the calculations of those involved in the dialogue, in particular the player holding most of the cards—the ruling NCP leadership.
Economic leverage against the Sudanese government has been effective in the past. The recent fines imposed by the United States on international banks that laundered money for the Sudanese regime, the edicts from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia prohibiting commercial banking transactions with Sudan, and recent restrictions on Sudanese livestock exports to Saudi Arabia have had a deep impact in Sudan. In March 2014, a Sudanese banker was quoted lamenting that “most of the accounts or money going out of Sudan [is] completely frozen.” But without additional measures, the momentary influence on Sudan’s choices that the international community has cultivated will dissipate. The Sudanese regime is in survival mode: it will not consider allowing a genuine dialogue unless it sees no other option. Further steps to exert greater pressure on the Sudanese government could include: restructuring or delaying the requested debt relief, enhanced enforcement actions against sanctions violators, with a focus on banks and other financial institutions, deepening targeted sanctions against officials and entities fueling war in Sudan, urging Qatar to stop its financial support to the Sudan Central Bank, and making a push to restrict markets for the sale of conflict-affected gold from Sudan. By further raising the cost of doing business with Sudan’s ruling elites, these coercive measures will stop the country’s war machinery.
At the same time, there is room for positive economic engagement as well. Once Sudan’s government demonstrates its willingness to participate in a meaningful national dialogue with a new neutral administration, a package of economic incentives, including steps towards debt relief and the relaxation of existing sanctions, could be put on the table. These incentives should be explicitly conditioned on six changes:
- An end to the deliberate targeting of civilians in the war zones, especially aerial bombardment and attacks by the Rapid Support Forces. An internationally monitored cessation of hostilities agreement would cover these measures, but negotiations on that issue are moving at a snail's pace. In the meantime, even if it does not end its battles with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), the government of Sudan should commit to stopping asymmetric attacks on civilians.
- Both international and national aid workers should be granted unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of the country, in particular rebel-held areas of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, which have not seen aid for years.
- The National Security Forces Act, which grants immunity for acts committed by state security forces, should be repealed. This law has allowed acts amounting to crimes against humanity to be carried out by government forces with impunity.
- President Bashir should honor his promise to release all political prisoners and assure the continued safety of those in the opposition. Hundreds of other youth activists and opposition political leaders are under near-constant state security surveillance and face frequent arrest and detention. Among others, Faroug Abu Eisa and Dr. Amin Mekki Madani, who were arrested in the wake of the December Call for Sudan Declaration, remain in government custody. Credible dialogue can only occur once these opposition figures are released.
- Even as cessation of hostilities negotiations continue, progress on expanding the national dialogue process should be carried out simultaneously. To allow for greater inclusivity, the existing 7+7 framework for the national dialogue must be significantly revamped. In accord with the demand from both civil society and the new Call for Sudan coalition, a new neutral administration should be established for the dialogue.. Additionally, women’s groups should be given their own constituency in the dialogue process.
- The new national dialogue administrators should engage in broad consultations with traditional authorities, leaders of camps for the internally displaced people, and refugees and heads of Arab tribal militias. Without such consultations, a political deal will not be enforceable on the ground.
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