A National Dialogue, or a National (Congress Party) Monologue?
In the wake of President Omar al-Bashir’s speech in January, the National Congress Party (NCP) has been spearheading a “national dialogue” process that focuses on identity, peace, economic reform and political freedoms. The purpose of the dialogue, as the president argued, is to help Sudan “leap” from the stagnation and malaise that has plagued the country since the independence of South Sudan and the loss of over 70% of the country’s revenues. Despite this call for dialogue by the NCP, the necessary measures to create an enabling environment for a genuine and democratic debate have not been undertaken—aerial bombardment by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) continues in Blue Nile and South Kordofan as regime militia wreak havoc in Darfur, freedom of expression and of press is constantly hampered, the grip on civil society has increased, excessive violence continues to be used against peaceful protestors, and political activists—particularly those from marginalized areas—remain in the regime’s prisons and torture chambers. Despite the cooptation of the traditional political parties, namely the National Umma Party (NUP), Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Popular Congress Party (PCP), the NCP-led national dialogue is widely perceived as an attempt to ease the mounting economic, political, military and diplomatic pressure on the ruling party.
This call for dialogue came after the president reshuffled his cabinet in December 2013, in the biggest shakeup the regime has witnessed in over a decade, ostensibly bringing in “reformist” elements of the NCP. The “national leap” speech aimed to highlight the president’s priorities – in the style of an electoral campaign launch – and set forth the process for the formation of a mechanism to oversee the dialogue. The speech, which was marketed as containing a “major surprise,” was a huge disappointment, as it contained no concrete proposals or, what most Sudanese citizens had hoped for, major concessions on the part of the regime. In fact, the first roundtable convened by Bashir on 6 April—marketed as a brainstorming session on how the precise mechanism under which the national dialogue should proceed—merely resulted in a near-consensus to form a 14-member committee, made up of seven NCP members and seven opposition party figures. The mechanics of the national dialogue process itself however still remain unclear.
Of interest is PCP leader al-Turabi’s return to the circles of power and his “unconditional acceptance for dialogue,” which are attributed by many to the role of Qatar in seeking to unite the Islamists in Sudan, the last major stand for Islamists in the region. In March, President Bashir and al-Turabi met for the first time in an official capacity publicly. It’s believed that the Qataris have pushed the agenda of unification amongst Islamists in Sudan, as Bashir Adam Rahma, a leader within the Turabi’s PCP, stated in an interview with Sudan Radio on 28 March, “this is not the first dialogue initiative coming from the NCP but it is different from all precedent ones as it comes in a national context of economic and security crisis, and regional changes in neighboring countries among increasing international pressures.” al-Turabi is also known to have strong ties to the financial circles of the Muslim Brotherhood’s international supporters. Furthermore, the Qatari’s investment in the political process was highlighted after the Qatari Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, announced a $1 billion deposit into the coffers of the Central Bank of Sudan, during a one-day visit to Khartoum in April.
Not in attendance at the 6 April roundtable were the Sudanese Communist Party, the Sudanese Congress Party, the New Forces Movement, and the opposition umbrella National Consensus Forces (NCF). The NCF has entirely rejected the NCP’s call for national dialogue, and has called instead for preparing the ground for a genuine, inclusive and transparent national dialogue by setting in place a transitional government that would oversee a transitional period where cessation of hostilities is enacted and freedoms of expression, speech, assembly, and association are protected. The PCP, once a nominal member of the NCF, now finds its membership frozen, given al-Turabi’s announcement of “unconditional agreement” to participate in the national dialogue.
This political wrangling continues to confuse, as recent developments with the NUP attest. Having initially accepted Bashir’s call for national dialogue, the NUP has now publicly frozen its engagement, as a result of the arrest and pre-trial detention of its leader, al-Mahdi, on 17 May. The politically motivated arrest followed the former prime minister’s denunciation of ongoing atrocities committed by the government’s Rapid Support Forces in Darfur and South Kordofan.
As alliances continue to shift in Khartoum, the government has also attempted to invite, or rather pressure, the SPLM-N to participate in the national dialogue, though both sides remain engaged on the battlefield. The regime’s hollow invitations aside, the SPLM-N and its allies in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) continue to call for a genuine, inclusive and comprehensive process for national reconciliation. In this regard, during recent African Union-mediated negotiations between both sides in Addis Ababa, the SPLM-N put forward the SRF’s vision for resolving the various conflicts in Sudan. This includes Darfur, where, as the joint AU-UN peacekeeping force, UNAMID, recently stated, the previous year has seen the worst violence and insecurity since the mission’s deployment. The nature of the violence in Darfur, as well as its actors, are constantly in flux, further complicating the ability to deal with the conflict’s outcomes and impacts.
Of note, as the government woos the opposition, including the armed opposition, is the absence of any engagement of civil society and other social actors, including youth and women’s groups, professional associations, and traditional leaders—all of whom have close relationships to key constituencies and grassroots communities. In the NCP’s dialogue, there is clearly no space for these groups.
What way forward?
A dialogue under this current context would not bring about national consensus and durable peace. The first aim of a genuine dialogue process should be to prepare the ground for a conducive environment that guarantees an inclusive, participatory and transparent process. An assessment of the current context, and the unlikelihood of guaranteeing such a process, must then call into question the merit and real objectives of conducting any national dialogue at this time.
First, amid increasing insecurity and a worsening humanitarian environment, a cessation of hostilities represents not only an immediate need but also a necessary precondition for a genuine and peaceful dialogue process. Humanitarian support for citizens in the conflict areas, as well as support to IDPs and refugee communities is also necessary to ensure their meaningful participation in any genuine national process.
Second, addressing the lack of freedoms would further set the stage for a democratic atmosphere. Since the call for dialogue, freedom of the press has deteriorated, national media platforms continue to be largely controlled by the NCP, and private outlets continue to be closely censored and controlled by the NISS. The state’s excessive use of violence against peaceful protestors continues, as demonstrated by the events of 11 March, when security forces and NCP students violently attacked peaceful protestors in the University of Khartoum, killing one student.
Finally, as SDFG has previously outlined, conducting elections in Sudan’s current environment is a non-option, and the government should immediately announce the delay of the 2015 vote until a more conducive environment is created. A transitional period, governed by a transitional government of national unity should be tasked with overseeing the process of a national dialogue, which must not be held at the behest of the regime. The guarantee of cessation of hostilities, unfettered humanitarian access, essential freedoms, and the dismantling of the state’s notorious parallel security apparatus, including its militias, must be the first steps towards a truly genuine process. Sudan also needs a new transitional constitution that will lay the groundwork for a comprehensive transformation of the state towards a just, democratic, and peaceful Sudan. If these conditions are not met, the citizens of Sudan will only suffer through a farcical process that maintains the status quo, and continues to precipitate the deterioration of the country.