Review of: John Young, The Fate of Sudan: The Origins and Consequences of a Flawed Peace Process, London, Zed Books, 2012.
One of the truisms about Sudan is that the more you know about the country, the harder it is to write anything that makes sense. Those who have hardly been there have no difficulty in writing reams of text, those who have spent half their lifetimes working in the country find it a painful process to try to organize their material into a cogent story. John Young has spent 25 years working on Sudan and its neighbors and the result is a book rich in detail, but also an account that struggles to achieve narrative and analytical coherence.
The strengths of this book lie in its frank account of the political actors in Sudan. Young has no illusions about the government in Khartoum and the northern Sudanese political establishment. Neither has he any illusions about the SPLA. He grapples with and punctures the Garang myth—the notion that John Garang was a democrat with a clear vision for the future of Sudan.
Young describes the twists and turns of the negotiations that led to the formulation and signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), including the stratagems, short-cuts and deceptions used by both the negotiators and the mediators. There are many fascinating details here, notably the dynamics surrounding the signing of the Machakos Protocol in 2002, the foundational text of the CPA, and the beginning of the direct talks between Vice President Ali Osman Taha and Garang a year later. Young plausibly argues that Machakos represented a significant narrowing of the terms of the Declaration of Principles (DoP) adopted by the InterGovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, the grouping of north-east African countries) in 1994, and a successful maneuver by Salva Kiir to simplify the Sudanese crisis to a north-south crisis with the secession option as the implicit but inescapable end-point. Garang surely knew this would hobble his political aspirations, not least because of his weak power base inside southern Sudan. Garang’s visit to the Nuba Mountains and escalation of the Darfur war in the months following Machakos must be seen in that light.
One of Young’s key points is that when they signed the key agreements in 2002 and 2003, neither the government nor the SPLA expected them to be honored. The negotiators on both sides were playing a complicated game of position, each expecting the worst of the other. As the core documents expanded to become the protocols that ultimately constituted the CPA, detailed legalistic provisions filled in for the lack of trust or even a common understanding of the basic intention of the CPA. Indeed the CPA merely translated the political struggle between the protagonists to a new dimension.
The ambiguity of the CPA is captured in its title: itifaag al salaam al shamil. To English speakers, “comprehensive” implies that the agreement has covered all issues and refers to an intention to become inclusive of all. To Arabic speakers, shamil has a very different resonance. Shumuliya is totalitarianism, and al itifaag al shamil implies a closed, exclusive deal. This was the root of the undoing of the Darfur negotiations: while the mediators envisaged the Abuja agreement as a mechanism for bringing the Darfurians into an inclusive democratic transformation of Sudan, the Darfurian rebel leaders were focused exclusively on what share of posts and cash they would be allocated in the transitional carve-up.
Young is correct to conclude that the NCP, the SPLM and the U.S. colluded to restrict participation in the peace talks. They kept out the northern civilian parties in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the emergent Darfurian opposition and the South Sudan Defence Force (SSDF) and other non-SPLM southerners, and marginalized the Nuba and Blue Nile members of the SPLM. Between 1999 and 2003, Justice Africa campaigned hard to bring these groups into the peace process, but without success. I coordinated this project, and we believed that Sudan’s best chance was an all-inclusive peace process, and I can attest to the obstacles we faced. Young overlooks the irony that certain Clinton administration officials were instrumental in this blockage, and then went on to lead the international outrage over the Darfur war that resulted.
Elections are the centerpiece of democratization, and voting in elections or referenda has become the “graduation ceremony” for most internationally-sponsored peace processes. Given Young’s central thesis that democratization was Sudan’s central challenge, he gives considerable attention to the conduct of the April 2010 elections, the January 2011 referendum on self-determination in southern Sudan and the May 2011 elections in Southern Kordofan. He provides a deeply cynical account of the general elections, and the depth of manipulation by the National Congress Party. It is all eminently credible, including the disorganization and unpreparedness of the opposition and the take-no-chances approach of the NCP, which was on course for a win under any scenario, but ultimately managed a wholly non-credible landslide. Against this background, Young’s account of the Southern Kordofan elections a year later, and his conclusion that the SPLM failed to win, needs to be considered very seriously.
Over the years, Young has developed a particular expertise on the southern Sudanese militia that in the early 2000s comprised the SSDF. The reader is in danger of becoming lost in the details of the gyrations of enmities and alliances among the numerous factions during the war, the negotiations and the post-secession rebellions. Young is surely right to observe that the exclusion of the SSDF from the CPA was a potentially fatal flaw, which risked an internal civil war in southern Sudan. The SSDF was more numerous and better armed than the SPLA, and the legacy of internecine strife among the southerners provided plentiful reason for fearing the worst. Garang’s predilection during the war years of striking first and hardest against internal competitors in southern Sudan, meant that when the war ended he had more enemies in the south than in the north. The enormous and enthusiastic crowd that welcomed Garang on his return to Khartoum in July 2005 dwarfed any comparable reception in Juba.
Garang’s death and Salva Kiir’s commitment to an inclusive government created the conditions for averting this imminent intra-southern conflict. The January 2006 Juba Agreement between Salva Kiir and Gen. Paulino Matiep (a short and simple document, the product of a genuine relationship of trust between the principals) was, for southerners, just as important as the CPA itself. It was Salva’s finest hour. But the deal proved to be a buy-off, funded by oil monies, and the SPLM’s failure to develop governing institutions, let alone democratic institutions, mean that the danger of internal armed conflict remains.
These are all compelling descriptions and the inadequacies of the CPA are exposed. But does Young’s central hypothesis, that the peace process itself is significantly to blame for Sudan’s enduring crisis, hold up? Would the inclusive approach championed by Justice Africa, and myself, more than a decade ago, have resolved Sudan’s conflicts and engineered a democratic transformation? I like to think it might have done so, but the counter-arguments are also persuasive.
International mediators and their supporters were not uninterested in addressing the deep problems of the Sudanese state. The 1994 IGAD DoP, drafted by the Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and his advisers, addressed this issue square on. But the Sudanese Government rejected the DoP for three years, accepting only under serious military and political pressure, and making clear its reservations. It was quite capable of stalling, if need be indefinitely. By 1998 Sudan was on the brink of becoming an oil exporter and anticipated, correctly, that it could expand the national budget tenfold. This bonanza would deliver a decisive military and political advantage over the SPLA, and both sides knew it. For the Sudanese government, the principal reason for taking the IGAD negotiations seriously was that success promised normalization of relations with the U.S., which would bring a major oil company with technology capable of increasing the extraction capacity from Sudan’s oilfields substantially.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the SPLM fastened onto the right of self-determination as their promissory note, and framed all other negotiating positions around that. Garang pursued the IGAD negotiating forum as the least preferred of his three parallel options, the other two being nationwide insurrections that would bring down the regime and regime change through the joint efforts of a popular uprising by the northern parties alongside the SPLA’s military advance.
The “troika” of the U.S., Britain and Norway went along with the joint NCP-SPLM insistence on exclusive bilateral talks because at least it promised something other than a continuation of the war. As Young acknowledges, it was the internationals who insisted on multi-party elections during the transitional period, against the preferences of both parties. During the first part of the transitional period, the internationals took the elections more seriously than the parties themselves—and more seriously than the northern opposition parties, which stood to gain most from even a modicum of pluralism.
When the African Union took over the Darfur mediation, it envisaged a Darfur peace agreement as a pillar to the CPA, a means of bringing the Darfurians into the national democratic process. Neither the NCP nor the Darfurians saw it that way: their focus was on dividing the spoils of office. In 2009, the African Union High-Level Panel on Darfur (AUPD) defined the Darfur crisis as “the Sudanese conflict in Darfur,” and identified inclusive democratization as the priority. The AU Peace and Security Council, when it adopted the AUPD report and set up the AU High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), specified that the Panel’s new mandate was “to assist in the implementation of all aspects of the AUPD recommendations, as well as to assist the Sudanese parties in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and other related processes, as part of the democratic transformation of the Sudan.” For six months, the AUHIP concentrated on rescuing the electoral process. It didn’t succeed. None of the political parties was committed: the NCP and SPLM wanted only an imprimatur of legitimacy on their respective commanding majorities, and the northern opposition parties wanted the elections cancelled or delegitimized as soon as they realized they would lose. Only the southern civilian parties were serious about democratization, because they saw it as a means of restraining the militarism and authoritarianism of the SPLM.
Young is aware of all of this (though Darfur is largely neglected in his account). His response: “if the combatants will not accept a commitment to democratic transformation, then the mediators should withdraw.” (p. 359)
I am not ready to accept this course of action.
First, the Sudanese parties would, as soon as they sense that their mediator demands a commitment to democratic transformation, make that commitment, and then find a hundred ways to delay or derail it. In fact this is precisely what they did over the CPA and during the Darfur peace talks.
Second, when the IGAD countries walked away from the mediation in 1994, they did not walk away from engagement. On the contrary, three of the four governments (Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda) sent their troops into Sudan and actively supported the opposition, forcing the Sudanese government back to the table. Unless any would-be mediator has comparable pressure to exert, walking away is not an option. The U.S. had no such option over Darfur: the kinds of threats it made were puny compared to the Ethiopian brigades that crossed into Sudan in 1995-97, defeated the Sudanese on the battlefield, and withdrew without advertising their actions. There were no such options for anyone when Sudan and South Sudan fought in Heglig in April 2012 and stood at the brink of all-out war.
Third, and related to this, what should a mediator do when walking away entails standing by while Sudan (and South Sudan) plunge into a crisis with potentially disastrous regional repercussions? This is precisely what was threatened in 2011-12. The AUHIP mediators were well aware that the crisis between Sudan and South Sudan was not ripe for resolution: there were plenty of influential people on both sides who wanted war rather than peace. But the AU also knew that if the conflict were not managed it risked a far worse outcome, including dragging in the entire region, from Egypt to Uganda. Mediators do not usually have the privilege of choosing their parties or their circumstances: they must take them as they find them.
Young is certainly right that the Sudanese peace processes of the last fifteen years have been riddled with mistakes. But Sudan belonged to the Sudanese (and today the two Sudans belong to the Sudanese and South Sudanese), and the main crimes and blunders have been by the Sudanese leaderships. The international mediators undoubtedly made their own mistakes, as well as achieving some unanticipated successes. As I mentioned above, I would like to believe that an inclusive peace process was possible. And I believe that, had the mediators and the Troika listened to the Darfurians in 2001 and 2002, as Justice Africa demanded at that time, the chances of the disaster in Darfur would have been reduced. But I am not confident that, even if IGAD and the Troika had insisted on bringing in the diverse northern and southern political parties, armed groups and civil society organizations, that the outcomes would necessarily have been better. Both parties had the option of fighting and were ready to carry on doing so. Would another decade of war have brought a better peace? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t like to have been part of the experiment.
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