The Berlin Meeting: What’s At Stake?

The Berlin Meeting: What’s At Stake?

An Update by the Sudan Democracy First Group (SDFG)

25 February 2015

Between 25 and 27 February, Berlin will become the hub for the Sudanese unarmed and armed opposition, invited by the German Foreign Ministry and the think-tank, The Berghoff Foundation. Those invited represent the opposition alliance now calling itself the Sudan Call Forces, namely the National Umma Party (NUP), the National Consensus Forces (NCF), and the armed opposition alliance of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). Representatives of the fourth signatory to the Sudan Call, the loose grouping of civil society actors of the Civil Society Initiative (CSI), were also invited after some hand wringing, notwithstanding the CSI’s role as the catalyst that brought together the Sudan Call signatories, and subsequently acted as the cement that helped unite them around joint public initiatives in Sudan. This includes the “Leave” campaign to boycott the upcoming April elections launched by the Sudan Call Forces on 2 February, several well-attended public rallies across Sudan, and giving the Call a lively presence online and in the social media, thereby reaching out to a younger generation of activists.

SDFG is also hearing that attempts continue to invite to the Berlin meeting, a second opposition alliance led by the Reform Now Party (RNP) of dissident Islamist Ghazi Salah Al-Din Attabani. The recently established National Alliance for Change, spearheaded by the RNP, has also launched an elections boycott campaign, and pledged to coordinate and consolidate efforts with the Sudan Call Forces.

Opposition distrust of the government and ruling party has fed rumors that the meeting organizers had also invited senior government representatives to Berlin, but these reports remained unconfirmed. If senior party or government officials are indeed invited, the Berlin meeting’s hosts would most likely attempt to conduct concurrent but separate discussions with the opposition actors and government, and then bring them together in a joint process once agreements were separately reached.

 Why Now?

The Berlin meeting is tacitly or explicitly supported by international actors with interest in the situation in Sudan. SDFG’s reading is that this is because of concerns that the situation in Sudan might dramatically deteriorate, with an increase of violence by government forces in conflict areas, primarily against civilians, and an escalation of political repression and the violent suppression of peaceful protests in urban areas. Organizers fear that those in power might feel sufficiently cornered by the Sudan Call’s emphasis on “regime change” to unleash such mayhem.

The German hosts and the international community will want to press the government to postpone at least the legislative elections of April 2015 out of concern that the NCP’s insistence to hold them without the majority of the opposition would condemn the national dialogue to failure.

The international community appears to see continuity of the regime, in one form or another, as key to stability in Sudan and the wider region. This is despite evidence of the regime’s ruthlessness in the face of open or presumed defiance, its destabilizing role in the Central African Republic that brought that country to the brink of total state collapse, and accusations leveled at it by some Gulf countries of supporting Islamist extremist factions in Libya, Gaza, and beyond. On the other hand, the international community perceives the opposition as incapable of keeping the country together if they were to take over. The Berlin meeting would thus seek to persuade the Sudan Call Forces to climb down from the call for regime change and reaffirm their earlier position of the SRF and the NUP to participate in an alternative and more credible national dialogue. If this is achieved, Berlin’s organizers appear confident they can persuade the government to make enough concessions towards a more credible national dialogue.

The assumption that the current regime is the only force capable of preventing the country from falling apart would leave many Sudanese baffled. While the regime has built an impressive security state that remains very much in control of the citizenry through neighborhood surveillance, electronic eavesdropping, infiltration of opposition groups and the stifling of fundamental freedoms, Sudan is also perhaps the only state in Africa that has for decades targeted entire communities for collective punishment through state sanctioned violence. Such extreme policies were key in convincing the South Sudanese to opt for independence in 2011. Application of the same policies of collective punishment in conflict areas in Sudan could lead to further dismemberment of the country.

On the other hand, the opposition has managed to achieve unprecedented unity among its different components over the last few months and is showing renewed vigor and the willingness to speak out publicly. It still has a lot to do to persuade the disaffected public of its credentials as a viable and credible alternative to the current regime. Given the fragility of its new found unity, it has much work to do to consolidate and broaden its ranks if it is to have a chance of achieving its proclaimed objectives.

Indicators of Success, Implications of Failure

It is doubtful the government and the ruling party would agree to a national dialogue format that would not assure them control over the process and its outcome. The Secretary for Organization of the NCP, Nafei Ali Nafei, once famously said those who believe the regime would organize a dialogue process that would lead to the dismantling of the party are deluding themselves. At the same time, the Sudan Call Forces will be in no mood to turn themselves in to the custody of an NCP dominated national dialogue exercise.

The “Berlin process” will have the best chance of success if it leads to the Sudan Call Forces reaffirming the position that only the SRF and NUP had agreed to in the 5 September Agreement in Addis Ababa with the AUHIP and the 7+7 Committee envoys. An identical document was signed by a subcommittee of the steering committee for the government launched national dialogue, known as the 7+7 Committee. Success in Berlin would evidently also require the government to recommit to the convening of an inclusive preparatory meeting for a new National Dialogue at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, as stipulated in the Communiqué of the 456th meeting of the AUPSC.

Short of a return of the two parties to the middle ground of the AU Communiqué, it is not only the Berlin process that would risk failure. Today, the proposed mechanism to resolve Sudan’s political crisis and the AUHIP’s framework for negotiations between the Sudanese government and the SRF rebels have effectively merged, through the notion of an inclusive and credible national or constitutional dialogue process. Failure to reach agreement in Berlin would therefore by extension risk leading to the collapse of the AUHIP mediation framework and structure for the peace negotiations to resolve the conflicts in the Two Areas and in Darfur.

 How Did We Get Here?

Parties to Sudan’s chronic political crisis and protracted civil wars have accepted that a comprehensive national or constitutional dialogue process is the best mechanism to address Sudan’s fundamental problems. However, there is little agreement beyond that. The political and peace negotiations are at a standstill. Ironically, Sudan hit this dead-end barely a year after President Omer Al-Bashir launched on 27 January 2014 a call for all political parties and armed movements to participate in a national dialogue. As could be expected, the government and the ruling NCP designed the process in such as way that would ensure their firm control of it.

Opposition skepticism about the sincerity of the national dialogue, particularly among the smaller leftists and liberal groups allied under the NCF, was quickly vindicated when the government took measures in the intervening twelve months that consistently undermined the credibility and legitimacy of its own dialogue. Most remarkably, it unlawfully detained Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the Chairman of the NUP, in May 2014 at a time when he was the leading advocate for opposition engagement in the government-led dialogue. Furthermore, the major spoiler of the national dialogue is the government’s own insistence to hold presidential and parliamentary elections in April 2015, despite the expectation elections would be a key issue under any national dialogue.

After his release from detention Sadiq al-Mahdi left the country and worked to establish an alliance with the SRF to agree on a new roadmap for a genuinely comprehensive alternative national dialogue. This led to the signing on 8 August of the Paris Declaration. Following al-Mahdi’s departure, opposition parties that remained engaged in the government’s dialogue produced a roadmap for the process that requires the government to create the minimum conditions of free speech and association needed. The government has failed to deliver.

In early September, the Paris Declaration Group met with a sub-committee mandated by the 7+7 Steering Committee of the government’s national dialogue to reach out to and secure the participation of the SRF. This resulted in the signing on 5 September between representatives of the 7+7 and the Paris Group, each with President Thabo Mbeki, of identical texts for a road map for a new national.

Notwithstanding this major breakthrough, the government’s consistent failure to meet the minimum requirements demanded by the Steering Committee of its own dialogue led to the breakdown of the opposition participation, with 3 groups abandoning the process and joining other opposition parties in the boycott of the April elections.

In the wake of the 5 September agreements, President Mbeki argued for and obtained a reinforced mandate for the AUHIP from the AU Peace and Security Council in the Communiqué 456 on 12 September 2014. This followed assurances by President Omer Al-Bashir that the government would adhere to the alternative course to the national dialogue defined in the Addis Ababa agreements. President Mbeki has since tirelessly worked to build international support behind the AUHIP’s enhanced mandate that made it the facilitator of the national dialogue, in addition to its mandate as mediator in Sudan’s conflicts in the marginalized  regions of Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur. The AUHIP is also the official mediator for the post-independence issues between Sudan and South Sudan.

Buoyed by the new momentum of an alternative vision for the dialogue and its international recognition, the Paris Group managed to broaden their bilateral pact to include more opposition groups. The resulting Sudan Call document signed on 3 December by the NUP, the SRF, the NCF, and the Civil Society Initiative raised the demands of the opposition coalition to new levels, with  the stated goal of working together “to dismantle the one-party state regime and replace it with a state founded on equal citizenship, through daily popular struggle, including popular uprising to create a solid foundation to secure the rights of Sudanese people to be liberated from totalitarianism, violence and enforced poverty, and to enjoy well-rooted democracy, just peace, and balanced development.” Signatories also reiterated their commitment for the national dialogue as charted out in AU PSC’s Communiqué 456.

When the Guns Talk

Before even the political actors gathered in Addis Ababa in early December 2014 had dispersed, the government unleashed its “Decisive Summer” counterinsurgency campaign in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. Repeated threats by the Minister of Defense to “achieve peace through the barrel of the gun” have failed during the first wave of offensives in South Kordofan in which an estimated ten thousand government regular and auxiliary forces engaged in battles with SRF. The SPLM-N fighters repulsed the attacks, and captured many trucks, arms and munitions in the process. The fighting displaced tens of thousands of civilians. This includes civilian displacement in Darfur as documented by the UN Expert Panel on Sudan and UNAMID in their periodic reporting to the UN Security Council. Despite the new offensives little has changed on the ground, with neither side making significant gains compared to positions at the start of the war in 2011.

 In SDFG’s opinion

Failure to reach consensus among opposition actors in the Berlin meeting, starting today, would risk seriously undermining the AU’s High-Level Implementation Panel’s (AUHIP) mediation framework and the very structure for the peace negotiations to resolve the conflicts in the Two Areas and Darfur.

President Mbeki, the AUHIP’s Chair’s, position could be undermined by a failure to reach consensus in the Berlin meeting. However, the AUHIP remains the best positioned mechanism to achieve a comprehensive peace across Sudan, having correctly identified Sudan’s problem and managed to win support for integrating the two tracks (Darfur and Two Areas) into one single process.

International pressure on the Government of Sudan must be increased to have it backtrack on:

  1.  Proceeding with the elections without participation by major opposition parties;
  2. Putting on hold the weak and boycotted national dialogue exercise; and,
  3. Accepting the relevant articles of the AU Peace and Security Council’s (AUPSC) Communiqué 456 that set the necessary conditions for a genuinely inclusive dialogue in a conducive environment. Pressure should also be put on Qatar to support the Panel rather than reinforcing the position that Darfur political issues have to be addressed under the discredited Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) and that the AUHIP is only mandated to negotiate a ceasefire/security arrangements. Armed and non-armed opposition groups known as the Sudan Call Forces should also be pressured to remain committed to roadmap and principles in the AUPSC’s Communiqué from the Council’s 456th meeting. 

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