By Omer Ismail
On October 10, Sudan President Omar al-Bashir launched a purported National Dialogue in Khartoum, nearly two years after he had first announced his intention to hold a forum to resolve the country’s numerous social, economic, and political issues. In the intervening period, Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) handpicked participants, naming a congregation of mostly minor splinter parties, perhaps upward of 100 parties in all. Bashir and his ruling party determined the National Dialogue agenda unilaterally, setting up a 7+7 steering committee of seven parties allied with the government and seven opposition parties. Bashir also gave himself the authority to oversee this exercise.
This dialogue—more aptly a monologue—is little more than a ploy designed to provide the regime with the appearance of working to improve economic conditions and resolve conflict. In fact, Bashir’s government has already squandered two important opportunities to work with the African Union (AU) and opposition parties to find peace. In March, after first agreeing to a pre-dialogue meeting proposed by the AU, the regime reneged on this commitment and did not attend. Earlier this August, Bashir rejected the AU Peace and Security Council’s (AUPSC) request to hold a preparatory meeting at AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa before the National Dialogue began. The second rebuking clearly upset AU officials, as the AUPSC emphasized the need for a “holistic solution” to Sudan’s conflicts. The AUPSC’s position was underscored by an August 25 communiqué, which noted its “deep disappointment and concern” that despite “the more than six years of unparalleled efforts of the AUHIP, as well as the support offered by the international community, the fundamental challenges of the Sudanese nation remain unresolved.”
These meetings presented key chances for the Sudanese government to meet in good faith with armed and political opposition allied under the Sudan Call banner to find common ground and move the country forward. Instead, the government insisted on a flawed process that nearly all opposition groups rejected. As such, the dialogue features Bashir’s ruling NCP largely talking to itself, its allies, and its handpicked domestic opposition. Unsurprisingly, influential opposition parties including the Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) criticized the regime’s decision as a deliberate impediment to a meaningful dialogue. SCP Chairperson Ibrahim al-Shiekh, who spent several months in prison earlier this year after criticizing the Rapid Support Forces for serious human rights abuses, noted that the NCP and its allies ran the dialogue “according to their own views and interests,” and that as a result, other political parties distanced themselves from this exercise. Likewise, JEM Chairperson Jibril Ibrahim Mohamed stated: “The proposed alternative national dialogue is intended to buy time and distract people with a dialogue to be controlled by Al Bashir and his ruling crew.”
Given the regime’s actions, nearly all serious opposition parties declined to participate in the National Dialogue. The lone exception is Hassan Turabi’s Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP). Still, even leaders of the PCP expressed reservations regarding the utility of this exercise. Abu Bakar Abdel-Razig, a senior member of the party, stated that he doubted that the NCP would form a transitional government and that the absence of other political parties would negatively affect the dialogue and hamper prospects for peace. The National Umma Party (NUP) and the National Consensus Forces (NCF) also refused to participate in the dialogue. NUP leader Sadiq al-Mahdi called for a more inclusive process before the dialogue began and questioned Bashir’s neutrality while overseeing this exercise. Further, NUP Secretary-General Sara Nugdallah emphasized the need for the dialogue to occur under a neutral body and for the Sudanese government to demonstrate its seriousness to the dialogue by stopping the conflicts, allowing humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations, and restoring civic freedoms. Finally, dissident Islamist groupings that despaired of reforming the NCP from within, such as the Reform Now Party, headed by former regime stalwart Ghazzi Salah Eldin Attabani, and the Just Peace Forum, chaired by the president’s uncle Al-Tayeb Mustafa, both stayed away.
In addition to opposition parties, foreign leaders and AU officials also declined to participate in the dialogue. Although Chadian President Idris Deby and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Arabi attended, Thabo Mbeki, Head of the AU High Implementation Panel on Sudan, was a conspicuous absence. On October 12, Sudan Minister of Information Ahmed Bilal Osman attempted to dismiss Mbeki’s decision to skip the dialogue as trivial and called the Sudanese government’s rejection of the AU preparatory meeting a “misunderstanding.” This position is simply not believable, as demonstrated by a further 21 parties withdrawing from National Dialogue committees and Sudan Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim Ghandour scramblingto meet Mbeki in South Africa.
The backdoor maneuverings working to salvage Bashir’s dialogue have reportedly led the government to agree to attend a negotiation session with the SPLM-North in Addis Ababa in early November. This session is meant to pave the way for the participation of broader Sudan Call forces in a genuine national dialogue as initially mandated by the AU. Although the regime is elusive regarding its plans, it has recently stated that it will consider meeting opposition forces abroad, but that it will only meet with armed groups and not with political parties. This divisive tactic is an attempt to undermine the solidarity between opposition groups and is emblematic of a regime that would rather divide and conquer than govern.
Whether Bashir’s government will engage with the opposition in a constructive way remains to be seen. Thus far, the National Dialogue has been yet another delay tactic employed by a regime that has shown a complete unwillingness to engage with political opposition. Accordingly, policymakers should recognize this process for what it is: a sham meant to distract observers from the self-inflicted economic hardship and continuing state violence that the regime enacts against its citizens. Indeed, in this dialogue, the NCP has not put forth any new ideas or initiatives to improve economic conditions or resolve the country’s conflicts.
Bashir and the NCP have withstood over 25 years of armed conflict and political isolation. The current National Dialogue is just one more example of its feigned commitment to a peaceful resolution of conflict, economic and political reform. Until Bashir and NCP loyalists face real pressure to allow the opposition a meaningful role in the country’s future, Sudan’s government will continue to violate human rights, ignore fundamental freedoms, and perpetuate conflict. A refocused policy must target the illicit financial activities upon which the regime depends. Such a policy can finally move Sudan towards peace by cutting off the cash that makes conflict possible. Instead of spending time on a monologue that is, by intention, going nowhere and saying nothing, policymakers should instead look to targeted sanctions, anti-money laundering practices, and other financial tools to stop the economic activities that make the regime’s continued inaction possible.
Omer Ismail is Senior Advisor at the Enough Project (www.EnoughProject.org)