As the African Union prepares to convene peace talks on Sudan's Two Areas for the third time in as many months, the stakes for peace are higher than ever. Independent human rights monitors confirm that February 2014 was the deadliest month for the aerial bombardment of civilians in South Kordofan since the current conflict began in 2011. Meanwhile, Darfuris are facing yet another brutal wave of state sponsored janjaweed violence, which has already led to the displacement of over 215,000 people in just the first three months of the year.
Responses to these developments continue to be counterproductively fragmented. In the Chadian border town Um Jaras, President Deby hosted a broad spectrum of Darfuri tribal leaders and Sudanese government officials, including President Bashir, on a forum on peace and security in Darfur. However, the forum, which concluded with a resolution recommending the complete disarmament of all militias in the region, excluded all of the areas armed factions. Meanwhile, in Khartoum, the government is stage-managing a "national dialogue" process with around fifty “traditional” opposition faces, while excluding independent civil society actors and all of the major elements of the armed opposition. Kept out of both of these processes, the Sudan Revolutionary Front is pushing for an independently facilitated constitutional conference instead. At the same time, the Sudanese government has been narrowing political space by closing down newspapers, arresting activists and sentencing rebel leaders to death after trial in absentia. Citing constraints on free expression, the National Consensus Forces, a coalition of major opposition parties, have refused to participate in the dialogue process, further reducing the chance of an inclusive discussion. In the absence of a coordinated and holistic peace strategy to tackle all of these issues, the prospects for real progress in Sudan are dim.
Undoubtedly, the parties to Sudan’s many conflicts hold starkly different visions for how to move the country forward, particularly on the questions of inclusion and sequencing. For its part, the government prefers to limit participation in the national dialogue on the country’s political future and keep discussions with armed actors restricted to security concerns in their areas of operation. The rebel coalition argues that their historically marginalized constituencies deserve a voice in the national political debate and that their military leverage entitles them to a place at both tables. The government in turn demands that they renounce violence before joining a nationwide political discussion. Finding it “impossible to bridge the chasm” between these visions, in early March 2014, President Mbeki’s panel appealed to the African Union Peace and Security Council (A.U. PSC) for guidance on how to proceed with negotiations. In response to this plea, both the A.U. PSC and the Commission’s Chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, signaled a recognition of the need for a more holistic strategy to address Sudan’s wars.
In a major step forward and for the first time, Chairperson Zuma met with rebels from the Darfur region to discuss their vision for the way forward on peace talks. Despite Chairperson Zuma’s recent and public engagement with the Darfuri groups, it is clear that fear still prevails within the A.U. about truly expanding to a more holistic approach. While Chairperson Zuma met with these groups, she did not issue a public statement, likely to avoid being seen as undermining existing processes being led by President Mbeki on the Two Areas and Mohammed Ibn Chambas on Darfur. Similarly, although it acknowledged the panel’s existing mandate over Darfur too, the African Union Peace and Security Council’s decision only pushed for renewed negotiations on the Two Areas.. While the A.U. PSC identified the end of April as a target for the completion of talks on the Two Areas, it set no deadline or target for either the national dialogue process or the Darfur talks. Similarly, although it noted the evolving national dialogue process, the A.U. PSC failed to discuss the need for an enabling environment for that dialogue to proceed. Undoubtedly, a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of Sudan’s wars and marginalization remains the key to unlocking the transformative political change that a broad range of Sudanese constituencies are demanding.
For years, the Enough Project has called on the international community to unite more strategically to this end. Sudanese civil society organizations and independent international analysts support a comprehensive peace approach as well. In recent communiqués, the African Union and the European Union have also embraced this approach. U.S. officials have given lip service to a more comprehensive approach, but have yet to commit the requisite diplomatic resources to building a broad international coalition in support of a new peace strategy for Sudan.
In their pursuit of region specific ceasefires, both the A.U. High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) and the United Nations have played into the government’s effective strategy of dividing international attentions. Any regionally delimited ceasefire will only serve as a reprieve for the government army in that area, allowing forces to redeploy to another war zone to intensify offensive operations there. For example, in the event of a cessation of hostilities in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Khartoum’s forces could advance in Darfur and support Janjaweed militia units – renamed Rapid Support Forces – to destroy villages perceived to be sympathetic to rebel Sudan Revolutionary Forces elements. February and March 2014 attacks on dozens of villages southeast of Nyala and west of el Fashir by the integrated Janjaweed fighters of the Rapid Support Forces have already evidence this pattern. Just as with any peace process, a humanitarian ceasefire must be comprehensive and inclusive of South Kordofan, Blue Nile and all five states of Darfur. Otherwise, a respite in one area will enable the armed combatants to engage in an escalation elsewhere.
Despite the emerging consensus around the need for a comprehensive negotiations’ architecture for Sudan, the African Union’s recent decision shows that it remains committed to pushing for progress on the existing process for the Two Areas, leaving Darfur to its long-collapsed initiative. In the absence of a cohesive strategy, bringing the parties together for more talks could actually be counterproductive. If Sudan is going to find peace, the African Union must demand holistic, coordinated and comprehensive approach to the peace process that addresses all of the country’s conflicts, and an inclusive national political dialogue. Otherwise, continuing to engage in never-ending fragmented negotiations processes and supporting a superficial “national dialogue” will just further entrench an authoritarian government, deepen the conflicts, and disempower change makers. Still, gridlock related to competing visions for a peace process should not prejudice an immediate and robust international push for a nationwide humanitarian ceasefire. This year’s rainy season is beginning early, putting millions at risk of food insecurity.
In order to effectively advance the peace agenda in Sudan, external actors must take four critical steps.
First the A.U. PSC should direct the AU HIP to begin working toward the construction of one comprehensive peace process addressing the conflicts and involving parties from Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and even eastern Sudan, where a 2006 deal languishes unimplemented. As part of this, the U.S. and other donors should end all support for the Doha framework for peace in Darfur and the AU HIP’s initiative focusing solely on South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Second, the U.S. should redouble its diplomatic efforts around that construction of an international coalition willing to push for a comprehensive peace process. In order to achieve that objective, a much larger investment in diplomacy in Sudan must be made by the U.S. The current U.S. envoy for the Sudans, Donald Booth, is understandably focused for the most part on the escalating war in South Sudan. Sudan needs its own U.S. envoy or deputy of ambassadorial rank to carry out the intensive multilateral diplomacy required for building a new peace process.
Third, the U.S. Congress should pass a measure with notwithstanding authority to allow capacity building support to the political and humanitarian branches of Sudan’s armed opposition as it transforms itself into a political party, and increase support to Sudan’s civil society. Specifically, support to the SRF should focus on political platform construction, negotiation skills and humanitarian aid delivery capacity. Sudanese civil society groups would benefit from communications workshops and conferences.
Fourth, the U.S. should lead diplomatic efforts in the preparation of focused incentives and pressures which could be deployed in support of a comprehensive peace initiative. These efforts could include targeted sanctions and restrictions on Sudan’s lucrative gold trade, or clear statements on debt relief.