By Suliman Baldo
August 29, 2014 — Last week, with much fanfare and renewed hope on the part of Sudanese citizens, the African Union High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) for Sudan and South Sudan, led by President Thabo Mbeki, travelled to Khartoum to hold consultations with a broad range of stakeholders on the so-called national dialogue. President Mbeki and his team arrived just in time, coming as they did right on the heels of the ruling party’s announcement on 16 August of the long-awaited roadmap for the national dialogue process. Yet, even with this roadmap, and the National Congress Party’s (NCP) new insistence on its readiness to involve opposition groups, including armed movements, in the dialogue, the AUHIP and other international actors need to remain vigilant in their own insistence that political will is evidence-based and can only be measured by acts. Recent events have proven yet again that the government is serious neither about providing a political environment that encourage free participation nor about allowing a dialogue that ensures a comprehensive political solution. Not only has the violence in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan increased, as a result of the government’s continued aerial bombardments and attacks by its allied militias on civilians, but violations against basic freedoms in Khartoum and other urban centres have multiplied.
Yet, the roadmap outlines a national dialogue process that would span only one to three months. It is no coincidence then that this timeframe would allow for a process that conveniently concludes in time for the ruling parties and its junior governing allies to go into the April 2015 elections, the timetable of which was also recently announced, with some understanding of power sharing and a veneer of legitimacy.
Conscious of the NCP dialogue’s glaring limitations, leading political actors, including armed movements, the opposition groups allied under the National Consensus Forces (NCF), and civil society are increasingly jointly calling for an alternative dialogue, one that is genuinely inclusive and comprehensive, and conducted in accordance with the best international practices. In the most recent significant development, the National Umma Party (NUP), one of Sudan’s largest opposition parties, having walked out of the national dialogue, forged a new grouping with the armed movements that make up the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), in what has come to be called the Paris Declaration.
Not only did the Paris Declaration revitalize the debate about the national dialogue but it also clearly threatened the political position of the ruling party and its allies, old and new, who emphatically rejected the Declaration quickly after it was announced. The Declaration itself calls for a unilateral cessation of hostilities in order to permit humanitarian access to war victims, and ensures the SRF’s engagement in a comprehensive national dialogue, provided that certain requirements for such a dialogue are met, such as the enforcement of fundamental rights and freedoms, and the release of political prisoners and detainees.
It is into these rapidly evolving internal dynamics that the AUHIP landed last week. This will only complicate matters for President Mbeki and his team, who continue to face their own challenges and capacity limitations. Up to now, the AUHIP’s engagement, in its capacity as lead mediator for the conflict in the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, has largely been limited to parties to the conflict. While in this latest visit, the AUHIP welcomed the views of representatives of youth and civil society groups on the national dialogue, there continues to be a glaring omission when it comes to the AUHIP’s engagement with the millions of victims in the conflict areas of Sudan, whose voices remain absent in national discourse. This despite the fact that President Mbeki, during his first mandate in Sudan with the 2009 AU High Panel for Darfur (AUPD), travelled to IDP and refugee camps and heard the views of victims on how to bring peace back to Darfur without sacrificing the demands of justice and reconciliation. The AUPD also held town hall style meeting with civil society and professional groups on a broad range of issues, including the institutional reforms that Sudan remains in desperate need of. The Sudanese miss this type of inclusive, assertive approach, and the question remains whether the AUHIP will fulfil the AUPD’s promise. As momentum for national dialogue advances, the AUHIP must instil urgency in its mediation and other efforts if it is to regain the trust of the Sudanese people.
In the end, though, any alternative national dialogue must be Sudanese-led. The Sudanese must together build the agenda and mechanisms for the national dialogue – it cannot be driven by one party inviting others. As the Sudan Democracy First Group outlines in its most recent publication, National Dialogue in Sudan: Past Experiences and Current Challenges, any such alternative national dialogue must be supported by a conducive environment, including a nation-wide cessation of hostilities, unhindered humanitarian access to all conflict-affected civilians, and basic democratic civil and political rights; genuinely Sudanese-led; holistic in scope addressing all the conflicts and their root causes across different geographic areas; inclusive of the full range of Sudanese society, including geographic, political and social diversity; accountable and open to the Sudanese public; and built around nationally-owned mechanisms for justice and reconciliation.
Such an alternative dialogue is the only chance Sudan has left for lasting peace and unity.
Suliman Baldo is the executive director of the Sudan Democracy First Group.