National Dialogue: A Bridge in the South Sudan Peace ProcessPress Release
The Revitalization Forum has recently been moving around the region, starting from Addis Ababa to Khartoum and Uganda, and is expected to extend to Nairobi for what is hoped to be a concluding phase. The process continued to reflect the now familiar dilemmas, with the parties both admitting that their positions were still far apart, but asserting with confidence that peace was coming, perhaps
imminently. That ambiguity persisted, until on August 5, literally at the last hour, partly due to statesmanlike flexibility of President Kiir on power sharing ratios, all the parties signed the agreement on security arrangements and power sharing, a pleasant surprise that apart from the cooperation of the parties themselves, is attributed to the remarkable role played by the Sudan Government.
The ceremony at the Friendship Hall was very well attended by a jubilant South Sudanese community in Khartoum. The fact that such large numbers of South Sudanese in Khartoum attended was both a reflection of the people’s yearning for peace and the Sudan Government’s mobilization of popular support for the agreement. But, as speakers at the ceremony acknowledged, the devil will be in the details of implementation. In fact, although the agreement was reluctantly signed by all the parties, there are still reservations on issues. The issue of the number of states was left to be addresses by the fifteen member Independent Boundaries Commission to be appointed by the IGAD Executive Secretariat.
The acknowledged elusiveness of peace and paradoxical optimism of the parties still poses a riddle that calls for explanation. But how? First, we have to understand the nature of the riddle. It is now crystal clear that what divides the parties does not relate to fundamental questions about the vision of the state or the nation they want to build. In fact that does not even get raised in the discussions. What is contested is allocation of positions, specifically in the Executive and the Legislature at both the National and the State levels. Related to that is the size of the Cabinet and the Legislative bodies at the National and State levels. Correlative to all that is the question of the number of states.
Interestingly enough, the arguments advanced by each of the opposing sides sound plausible on face value. The opposition calls for a lean Government which, considering the economic hardship the country is experiencing, sounds persuasive. The Government on the other hand argues that inclusivity cannot be achieved by dismissing people from their current positions, and that such dismissals might generate new rebellions. This position also sounds reasonable.
Given this seemingly intractable impasse on issues, at least one of which remains bracketed, the sense of optimism rests with the belief, especially on the part of the opposition, that the IGAD region, in collaboration with the African Union and the wider international community, will ultimately impose a solution. This is a misplaced assumption, especially if it implies expectation of military intervention. The most the international community can do is to impose sanctions which, however smart and individually targeted, can only be at best effective over a period of time and inflict more suffering on the innocent masses than on the intended individual leaders.
In this context, the decisive role played by the Sudan is intriguing. The reasons given by the Sudanese themselves rotate around knowing the parties well and the confidence the parties themselves have in President Omar al-Bashir. There was a discreet and unstated sense of Southerners coming back to their old home country and being warmly received. The trust of the regional leaders in the Sudanese President as the best qualified to broker a deal was also highlighted. It should be noted that what is happening in South Sudan was indeed predicted by the Sudan Government which used it as a warning against the referendum and prospective independence in the South. It is also not a secret that both the SPLM/A and the Government of the Sudan supported each other’s opposition groups even after the separation.
This is what I described in my recent book as Bound by Conflict. In that book, I argued that unless the two countries cooperate to help one another resolve their internal conflicts, they would continue to be bound together by conflict. On the other hand, resolving their internal conflicts cooperatively would strengthen their bilateral relations and they could then be Bonded by Solutions. What is now unfolding could be said to represent a positive step in that direction. Although the crisis in South Sudan could be said to be a self fulfilling prophesy by the Sudan, it now looks as though the two countries are beginning to realize that the conflict in South Sudan is harmful to both of them, indeed to the sub-region, which was also foreseen. They see peace, security and stability to be in their mutual interest. What is now needed is for the Sudan to sustain this positive role and for South Sudan to assist the Sudan in mediating the regional conflicts with their former Northern Sudanese allies in the SPLM/A, especially in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile States.
As for the issues that are still to be resolved or finalized, an alternative way out of the dilemmas of elusive peace and optimism in finding a solution is of course ascertaining the will of the people through the democratic process. This usually means elections. But elections, if conducted or overseen by the party in power, would not be accepted as fully free and fair. And even if conducted by an independent authority, the result is likely to be the dictatorship of the winning majority. What option then is left for ascertaining the will of the people? It is reasonable to argue that this bridging function can be found in the popular consultations of the National Dialogue.
In this regard, it is worth recalling briefly the National Dialogue process from its inception and what it has so far accomplished. From the time President Salva Kiir Mayardit first announced the initiative in December 2016, no reasonable person could object to the principle of Dialogue. There were nonetheless several sources of opposition, skepticism, and pessimism. Those who opposed it were sure that it would not be inclusive, free, credible or transparent. They believed that it was intended to be a ploy to serve the interest of the Government to remain in power. The skeptics also felt that however well intended, it was an internal initiative that could not provide a common ground for a nation divided into those inside and those outside. The pessimists welcomed the initiative, but feared that it would not succeed for some of the reasons advanced by the opponents and the skeptics.
The reality has so far proven all those views wrong. The process has lived up remarkably well to the principles normally considered essential to any national dialogue: inclusivity, credibility, transparency, and integrity. The Steering Committee, which comprised over hundred imminent men and women across all regions of the country and from all walks of life, reflected a significant degree of national inclusivity. But of course inclusivity has been constrained by the fact that opposition leaders outside have refused to join the National Dialogue as an internal process.
Although the Leadership of the Steering Committee has tried to reach out to refugees, the Diaspora, and the opposition leaders abroad, except for the constructive dialogue with refugees in the region, the success of that effort has been limited and mixed at best. Nevertheless, seen as a whole, it would be fair to say that the National Dialogue has acquired a life of its own. While the President has repeatedly said that the Dialogue was never meant to be a net or a bait on a hook to catch adversaries, and that it was genuinely intended to be a Forum for the free expression of views, the process has probably succeeded beyond his expectation. Indeed, he has said that much on occasions.
The Dialogue began with a month of open-ended debates by the Steering Committee about the myriad crises facing the country. This was followed by seminars in which the experiences of other countries and the lessons learned were presented. Two major reports came out of this initial phase. Document No. One outlines the major political, institutional and administrative problems identified by the Dialogue as constituting the core of the national crises facing the country. While it does not offer solutions, it points the way to possible remedies. Document No. Two covers the genesis of the National Dialogue Initiative, the creation of the Steering Committee, the process by which the fifteen Sub-Committees were established, the seminars in which the experiences of other national dialogue experiences were shared, and the proceedings, preparations and operational guidelines for the conduct of field consultations.
Fifteen sub-committees were formed covering the ten former states, selected for reasons of logistical convenience, and the two administrative areas of Abyei and Pibor, with three thematic committees on security, national capital, and outreach to refugees and Diaspora. These sub-committees conducted consultations at the state and grassroots levels. They have recently completed their consultations and submitted their reports to the Steering Committee. These reports are now being edited for language and format without changing anything of substance. When edited, the reports will be published to stand on their own as historical records for researchers and posterity.
The candor and degree of freedom of speech reflected in the open debates of the Steering Committee and the consultations of the sub-committees would surprise most observers. Throughout the process, there were no reported cases of intimidation, harassment, or arrest. Nor was there any sign of fear or restraint in the way people spoke. Even those who were initially opposed or skeptical are conceding that they are positively surprised by the way the National Dialogue has so far played out. Whatever the end result of the process, this in itself is a major achievement.
The Leadership of the National Dialogue and the Secretariat, in collaboration with internationally renowned constitutional experts, are now analyzing the reports to highlight major findings, observations and recommendations of the sub-committees. While the consultations reflect both agreements and differences on matters of detail relating to the causes and manifestations of the crises, including the apportionment of responsibility, there is a broad consensus on the major issues and a remarkable courage in placing blame at all levels.
Although the themes of the consultations do not suggest specific changes in the constitution to address the concerns expressed, there is no doubt that any constitution that is to reflect the will and the aspirations of the Nation must put these views into consideration. Some of the issues are largely administrative and will require action at local and state levels; but many are national issues which will need to be addressed by the regional and national conferences that will mark the end of the process. This is where the National Dialogue provides a potential bridge between the internal and external forces in the peace process.
As I have argued on numerous occasions, including in published articles, the Revitalization Forum and National Dialogue are complementary. But while they are both pursuing the same objective of peace, the National Dialogue process is substantively and representationally more comprehensive and ongoing; it aims at addressing the challenges of statecraft and nation building and should reinforce and strengthen the culture of dialogue. This is in fact part of the tradition of conflict prevention, management and resolution in South Sudanese and indeed African indigenous societies.
The Revitalization and National Dialogue processes intersect or overlap at the phase of preparing a constitution. When the Revitalization process reaches an agreement, which it will sooner or later, and a Transitional Government is formed, the next challenge will be drafting a constitution that embodies the spirit of the nation. While there may be various means of ascertaining the views of the people about the system of Government they want, there can be no better source than the materials that have been obtained through the broad-based consultations conducted by the fifteen sub-committees at home and abroad. Through these consultations, the people of South Sudan have spoken and it would be a serious affront to the democratic will to disregard their voice.
The regional conferences are expected to be conducted in November of this year, and the National conference should follow after. The main findings and recommendations will be presented to these conferences. The Khartoum phase of the Revitalization process had produced an agreement that was initialed on July 25, by the major parties to the conflict, namely the Government and The opposition faction of Dr. Riak Machar. The other opposition groups have so far refrained from initialing on the ground that their concerns or reservations have not been adequately addressed. It is however hoped that a full agreement will be reached to be signed in early August by all the parties in the presence of regional leaders. If a comprehensive peace agreement is achieved by then and the process of implementation is underway, a way should be found for the opposition to participate in the regional and national conferences. Even before that stage in the peace process is reached, sufficient momentum will have been built to warrant the participation of the opposition in the remaining phase of the National Dialogue. If the opposition groups still feel reluctant to join the process inside the country, some way of ensuring their participation at a venue within the region could be explored.
Many national dialogues have been carried out around the world, but that of South Sudan is arguably unique in that it is vertically and horizontally comprehensive, a top-down and bottom-up process in which virtually the entire country has been represented in some form. The result is a national resource that should be constructively utilized to foster lasting peace, security and stability.