Sudan Talks in Addis Ababa: To Be or Not To Be “Comprehensive”

Sudan Talks in Addis Ababa: To Be or Not To Be “Comprehensive”

Civilians Held Hostage by the Parties’ Failure to Agree
SUDAN: Frontline and Negotiation Developments
The negotiations that were suspended yesterday in Addis Ababa between the Government of Sudan (GoS) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) were the latest series of negotiations to collapse as both sides accused each other of recalcitrance. The talks took place in the wake of pivotal political and security developments that deeply shook the country in the previous weeks and months and played a part in changing the calculations of the parties and their positions. These shifts notwithstanding, mediators of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) struggled to convince the parties to stay at the negotiating table.  The talks have not made headway for almost the same exact reasons previous rounds had failed. The SPLM-N continued to blame the government for refusing to accept a national approach to resolving the conflict in the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile and insisted on the 28 June 2011 Framework Agreement, which was signed by the two parties, as its basis for negotiations. For its part, the government delegation rejected the 28 June Agreement, which it reneged only days after signing it, and refused to widen the scope of the talks to national issues, beyond the conflict in the Two Areas. The government also refused the SPLM-N’s demand to address issues of the road map to national dialogue and democratic transformation. As of 18 February, 2014, the Chairperson of the AUHIP, President Thabo Mbeki, suspended the negotiations for a period of ten days to give delegates time to consult proposals put forth by the Panel with their respective camps.

Indeed, at the heart of the disagreement between the two parties during these talks, is the aborted 28 June 2011 Framework Agreement between the National Congress Party (NCP) and SPLM-N on Political and Security Arrangements in Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states. The seven-page agreement calls for, among other things, the “establishment of political partnership” and “governance arrangements for Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan” as well as for inclusive broader national political dialogue. Furthermore, UN Security Council Resolution 2046, under Chapter VII authority, issued on 2 May 2012, urges the GoS and SPLM-N to reach a negotiated settlement on the basis of the 28 June Agreement. The Security Council Resolution also recommends that both parties accept the February 2012 tripartite proposal submitted by the African Union, United Nations and Arab League, to permit humanitarian access to the affected population in the Two Areas. The GoS, trying to avoid the politically embarrassing agreement that they had vehemently reneged as soon as they signed it in 2011, has attempted to shift attention back to the tripartite proposal on humanitarian access, as well as a proposed draft agreement submitted to the parties by the AUHIP on 17 September 2012. The tripartite proposal on humanitarian assistance to war-affected civilians in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states was formally accepted by the SPLM-N, with reservations. Although the GoS signed the agreement after long delay in August 2012, Khartoum announced it no longer accepted the agreement by November 2012, effectively killing it.

An environment of deep economic and political crisis:
The GoS’s agreement to negotiate had come in the wake of considerable internal and external pressures that left it with limited choices. The security and economic situations colluded to aggravate the regime’s political isolation and worsen the overall crisis environment. The military mobilization for the dry season offensive was a key determining factor in the government’s decision to lift subsidies from basic commodities, but the drastic measures failed to contain inflation and stabilize the economy as anticipated. The government’s brutal repression of the September 2013 popular protests alienated key constituencies and led to a succession of defections from the core base of ruling party. Undoubtedly, the successions of deep crises that the regime had confronted in the past months have seriously undermined its grip on power by year’s end. 

As for the SPLM-N, the need for a comprehensive solution led it to join the Darfuri rebel groups in a coalition, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). In January 2013 the New Dawn Charter then sought to unify the SRF’s armed resistance with National Consensus Forces (NCF), the loose umbrella of political parties, around common goals of regime change and democratic transformation of governance. However, the SPLM-N seems to have all but forgotten the Charter only one year after it had been signed. In addition, the recent wave of violence in South Sudan also puts great pressure on the SPLM-N to reconsider its position in relation to the negotiations with NCP. Nevertheless, one implication for the talks was that the SPLM-N had the political duty of representing the position of its comrades in the SRF for a comprehensive solution, as well as expanding the negotiating table to ensure their inclusion.

Ultimately, the SPLM-N’s major political failure has been its inability to date to come up with a well-articulated national political program, with the required depth of vision to rally the long-suffering population of the Sudan behind its cause. Until the SPLM-N puts forward such a rallying vision, and improve its media work to reach out to the broader population beyond its traditional areas of control, it leaves the field free for the NCP to manipulate public opinion through its strong and resourceful propaganda machine.

The Long Break in the Talks:
As was the case during the previous round of talks on April 24-26 2013, the head of the government delegation, Ibrahim Ghandour, reiterated the government’s willingness to discuss “only the issue of South Kordofan and Blue Nile” states. Yasir Arman, leading the SPLM-N delegation, called for the talks to be based on the 28 June 2011 Framework Agreement, as well as on UN Security Council Resolution 2046 that required the parties to pursue the comprehensive path. Arman hoped last year’s talks could lead to “an inclusive constitutional process … and peaceful democratic change … by adopting a wider holistic approach.” That wasn’t to be. The 2013 round stalled, similar to this round of talks, mainly because of the government’s insistence on limiting the scope of the negotiations to the local level, in the face of the SPLM’s preference for taking a holistic approach to address the root causes of Sudan’s many conflicts. In discussing the agenda, the SPLM-N’s insisted that the humanitarian crisis should take precedence over the political and security negotiations – which the government wanted to discuss before agreeing to a cessation of hostilities – to allow delivery of assistance to the civilians trapped by the conflict. Conditions of those displaced by the fighting only got worse in the intervening months as a result of the parties’ failure to agree even on this urgently need relief. 

Battlefronts and Security Developments:
To underscore its national credentials, the SPLM-N launched a major offensive and briefly occupied two towns in the heart of the government’s stronghold of central Sudan days after the failure of the April 2013 talks. In the resulting military backlash, the government recaptured the town of Abu Karshola, and subsequently launched a major mobilization drive. This included the purchasing of new weapon shipments, in preparation for what it labeled a decisive dry season offensive. The government also commandeered some 5,500 militia fighters from Darfur, retrained them in Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) training centers in central Sudan, and deployed them in the South Kordofan offensive, where they upheld their record as perpetrators of mass atrocities of crimes against civilians, rape, and plunder, triggering a new wave of displacement. SAF announced its commitment to make 2013 “the last year of the SPLM-N/SRF rebellion.” However, recent history shows that Sudan’s leadership is incapable of resolving conflicts either peacefully or militarily, and the deadline has quietly shifted to 2014.

A few months into the campaign, SAF had to slow down the ground offensive in the face of stiff SRF resistance that benefited from the mountainous topography of the battlefields. In January 2014, Darfuri government militias later withdrew to El-Obeid, capital of North Kordofan. Here, they terrorized the population while awaiting compensation from Ahmed Haroun, state governor and ICC indictee for his role in overseeing the recruitment and command of Janjaweed militias in Darfur during the peak of the violence there in 2004-05. Ten years later, Sudan’s government has learned nothing about the human costs of “counterinsurgency on the cheap”.

The tensions around the presence of the Darfuri government militias in North Kordofan had exposed serious flaws in the government’s current counterinsurgency response to the rebellions raging in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The militias deployed as shock troops in the September-January campaign proved undisciplined and ready to perpetrate widespread violations of international humanitarian law. The episode led to a startling admission from Gov. Haroun that these forces were deployed under the operational command of the regime’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). This official confirmation of the chain of command of today’s Janjaweed forces should suffice to hold the GoS to account for all a the atrocities committed by these forces in the course of the 2013/14 military offensive in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Fighting in unfamiliar surroundings and with little link to the locals, the Darfuri militiamen became easy prey to ambushes and counter attacks.  As the rebels countered the ground offensive, the regime resorted to the intensification of aerial bombardments of civilian targets to levels unseen since the beginning of the war in South Kordofan in 2011 (as reliably reported here), unleashing another wave of displacement.

During the peak of its military campaign in rebellious battlefronts, in December 2013, Khartoum paraded some 7,000 fighters belonging to its Special Forces of the NISS in the streets of the capital. These forces appear to be strictly reserved to quell urban unrest throughout the country, in conjunction with the Central Reserve Police, a paramilitary force consisting of several incorporated Darfur militias. The combined forces cracked down with ruthless efficiency during the widespread September demonstrations, killing upward of 200 unarmed protesters in the capital alone, predominantly of school age children and youths. Counterinsurgency and riot control tactics that privilege the lethal targeting of civilians have only added to the isolation of the regime at the heart of its traditional constituencies and in the marginalized regions. The NCP has never been as internally isolated as it is today.

Responsibility to Protect Civilians Caught in the Crossfire:
Despite great anticipation, the AUHIP-mediated talks in Addis Ababa between the GoS and SPLM-N did not achieve any breakthrough, especially in regards to a comprehensive solution to the conflict. The NCP’s demand to limit the negotiations to the Two Areas and insistence on maintaining the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur as the exclusive framework to resolving that conflict calls into question its commitment to genuine, lasting peace. Furthermore, the exclusion of the other actors that make up the SRF from the talks ensures that parties continue to be kept away from the table – fueling further conflict.

Meanwhile, as the political wrangling continues in Addis, the millions of war-affected civilians in Sudan’s marginalized areas continue to suffer the consequences. When the talks resume in ten days, the AUHIP and the international community should insist that the parties desist from holding the needs of the deeply distressed populations in rebel areas hostage to their drawn out political and military wrestling. The parties should be required, as stipulated in Resolution 2046, to agree to and abide by a cessation of hostilities, engage in direct talks without preconditions and make the necessary concessions. The GoS should end its scorched earth tactics and the indiscriminate aerial bombings of civilians. The two parties should be pressed into allowing unfettered humanitarian access to civilians affected by the fighting in their respective areas of control.

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