Civil war is spreading in Sudan, and concerted international action is needed to stem the violence and prevent it from engulfing the entire country and the wider region.
Khartoum’s most recent military offensive — this time in Blue Nile state — adds to fresh fighting between government and opposition forces in Southern Kordofan and recent hostilities in Abyei. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced, at least 20,000 of whom have fled into Ethiopia from Blue Nile in recent days, the growing war on multiple fronts poses serious dangers for the country, for its future relationship with the Republic of South Sudan and for the stability of the region as a whole.
The recently renewed conflict in these three areas is rooted in unimplemented provisions of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between Khartoum’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which ended a two-decade-long north-south civil war in Sudan that cost millions of lives. Those lagging issues include the failed democratic transformation of Sudan, stymied popular consultations, and the unresolved status of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces indigenous to the North.
After the end of the CPA, rather than negotiate with Sudanese opposition forces, the Arab minority government has opted for a military solution — not an unusual policy response for the regime when confronted with opposition. This, however, is pushing Sudan’s disparate rebel movements and opposition forces together and could trigger a wider civil war for control of the country.
The CPA was intended to lay the foundation for a new reality in Sudan, end chronic conflict and make continued unity attractive. It was premised on three major principles: fairer distribution of power and wealth between the centre and the peripheries, democratic transformation and the right of southern Sudanese to determine their own future. The CPA also granted the people of the states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile to conduct popular consultations to rectify the document’s shortcomings on their areas and to redefine their relationship with Khartoum.
General elections were scheduled half way through the six-year interim period (ie, by 2008), so as to widen participation in governance. In the period after the elections, the new representative government was to build on those foundations in order to consolidate reconciliation, start the popular consultations, continue review of constitutional arrangements and establish conditions that would affirm the rights of all the people of Sudan and encourage Southerners to choose continued unity of their own free will.
This never happened. The NCP failed to hold elections as scheduled and manipulated them when they were eventually conducted, two years late in April 2010, so as to ensure majorities in their regions. Consequently, they wasted the period that had been intended to consolidate peace and unity, and the democratic transformation agenda was dropped.
The situation became volatile in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, where many sided with the South during the civil war, but which remained in the North after Southern secession. The promised popular consultations were repeatedly delayed, and even when they started in Blue Nile state on September 2010, SPLM supporters and leadership lost confidence that their demand, namely the right to self-rule, would be met by Khartoum. The situation deteriorated further when Ahmed Haroun, a man indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, was re-elected governor of Southern Kordofan in July 2011, in elections the SPLM-North candidate, Abdel Azzizal-Hilu (also Deputy Chair of the SPLM-N and former Deputy-Governor of Southern Kordofan), claims were manipulated.
Lacking real political power, the leaders of the SPLM-North were reluctant to relinquish their military forces, the former 9th and 10th SPLA divisions composed of troops from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, despite the CPA requirement that these units be demobilised or redeployed to south of the 1956 North-South border. With the CPA coming to conclusion after the South seceded, and failing popular consultations, they asked instead that a new security arrangement be negotiated that would allow for a more gradual integration of their forces into the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).
The NCP, weakened by the impending separation of the South, refused any further political accommodation, and Khartoum opted to remove its opponents militarily. This began with the SAF invasion of Abyei in May 2011, followed quickly by the attempt to take control of Southern Kordofan in June, and now Blue Nile state.
Internal Sudanese Dynamics
The loss of South Sudan has had a profound effect on the NCP, and senior generals led a soft-coup within the party. They have outflanked more pragmatic elements in the NCP who seek a negotiated strategy. Encouraging progress in the post-separation arrangements between North and South was blocked. More importantly, hardliners in Khartoum — including SAF generals — immediately rejected a 28 June framework agreement, which includes a political and a security agreement for Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, facilitated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, and signed by Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, Co-deputy NCP chairman and a presidential adviser. A few days later, President Omar al-Bashir publicly disavowed the agreement.
After conflict broke out in the Blue Nile on 1 September, Khartoum formally banned the SPLM-N, arrested a number of prominent opposition leaders and declared a state of emergency in Blue Nile state and replaced its governor, Malik Agar.
Now, the rebel forces are openly attempting to unify and pursue a policy of regime change. On 8 August 2011, Abdel Azziz al-Hilu met with the leaders of the Darfur rebel movements who rejected the Doha peace process in Kouda (an SPLM-N controlled area in Southern Kordofan), and afterwards, they announced a new alliance with a common objective: to change the regime in Khartoum by the use of force and popular uprising. Two thousand armed men linked to the Democratic Unionist Party and led by Al-Tom Hago joined this alliance. The Beja Congress of East Sudan likewise issued a statement vowing to rejoin the military opposition.
In an effort to defuse the situation, Ethiopian Prime Minister Zenawi met with Malik Agar and Al-Hilu in Addis Ababa on 21 August, and on the same day, he took Malik to Khartoum to negotiate a way out of the danger. However, President Bashir responded by saying his government was unwilling to engage in further external negotiations and would not commit to the rejected framework. The door for direct SPLM-NCP talks was closed.
On 8 September, the SPLM-N officially split from the SPLM, formed a new leadership structure under Agar and vowed to continue war against Khartoum. On 16 September, the SPLM-N submitted a “road map for political transformation” to Zenawi to discuss with Bashir. It lists six conditions to be met by the government before the SPLM-N would accept a cessation of hostilities, including reinstituting Governor Malik Agar, allowing humanitarian access to affected people and agreeing to international investigations into crimes committed in both Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. If Khartoum agrees to its proposals, the SPLM-N would want a mediator to negotiate the road map. Since Zenawi’s 17 September trip to Khartoum, there has been no reaction from the NCP. Hundreds of thousands are now displaced, fighting has intensified in both states, and the rainy season ends in three weeks, foreshadowing increased conflict.
The Risk of Conflict Contagion
There is a real possibility of a new era of protracted civil war in Sudan if key international actors are not able to contain it. Fighting could quickly expand both within Sudan and spill over into South Sudan. To the resurgence of war in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile will likely be added an escalation in Darfur, especially now that the leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has returned from Libya and rejoined forces in Darfur.
In addition, both Sudan and South Sudan have intensified rhetoric that each country is supporting its rival’s insurgents. The government of Sudan claims that the military action by the SPLM-N is a grand plan to topple the regime in Khartoum, an agenda supported by external elements including the government of South Sudan. Juba claims the war is a northern affair and accuses Khartoum of supporting South Sudan rebellions.
The situation will escalate if the international community is delayed or disjointed in its response.
Unfortunately, the NCP no longer trusts the key interlocutors who engaged previously, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the European Union. Khartoum suspects them of indirectly encouraging regime change, including by calling for additional investigations into crimes committed in Southern Kordofan, complicating if not derailing the Darfur Political Process (a key process towards settlement of the Darfur problem after the Doha agreement), and refusing to invoke Article 16 of the Rome Statute for the deferral of the ICC cases against Bashir and others. Khartoum is also sceptical of the U.S. offer to normalise relations. After Southern secession these perceptions have deepened.
It is becoming apparent that the only acceptable interlocutors are the African Union High-Level Implementation (AUHIP) team supported by the regional actors and the United Nations envoy, Haile Menkerios, as well as key partners such as China and other major investors.
Two Sudans: The Need for a New Approach
The CPA period is over, and there is no coherent political framework to deal with the many remaining challenges in Sudan. Unfortunately, international attention focused on safeguarding South Sudan’s referendum and independence, and largely underestimated the impact of secession on the North.
New thinking is required to take into account a Khartoum regime now in the hands of SAF generals, a unifying opposition that seeks regime change, and an international community that seems to be losing the ability to engage coherently on Sudan’s problems. Continuing with the current ad hoc approach to negotiations and short-term arrangements to manage crises will not address the underlying causes of conflict. The various issues — North-South negotiations, Abyei, Darfur Peace Process, and Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile — are interrelated and efforts should be made to ensure coherence in resolving them.
What is urgently needed is a new approach — supported by the key external actors, including friends of Khartoum — to deal with the internal crisis in the North and the conclusion of post-CPA agreements between the North and South. The AU and UN should continue to support North-South talks, and both parties should be brought back to focus on the key agreements that must be reached, most immediate being economic arrangements.
Meanwhile, the international community should unite behind a single approach to begin addressing internal Sudan crises. A sustainable solution to these must focus on a cessation of hostilities and an inclusive national dialogue consisting of renegotiating the relationship between the centre and peripheries, and agreement on decentralisation and a redistribution of power leading to a new constitution, on the basis of which a referendum and new elections should be held.
A negotiated settlement of disputes is in the interest of all parties. Neither the SAF nor the SPLM-N can achieve an outright military victory. Bashir and SAF generals must be made to understand that the current military strategy of using Arab militias, genocide, ethnic cleansing and allowing insurgencies to fester, only increases the risk of fragmentation and prolongs international interference. Likewise, the newly aligned opposition will face similar military challenges; the NCP regime is weakened but not powerless, and an alliance of the disparate opposition groups is unsustainable in the long-term. Widespread instability in North Sudan would not only exact a great toll on the Sudanese people but jeopardise the future of South Sudan. The parties should be helped by their international partners to recognise the imperative of a non-military solution.
To begin implementing the approach outlined above, mediation efforts must be streamlined, and key actors must agree on a common international strategy on Sudan. The AUHIP is facilitating the post-secession negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan (with support from the UN and US special envoys). These efforts should continue, but new leadership and the involvement of friends of Sudan are needed to convince the parties to step back from war and engage in a genuine national dialogue and key reforms. The AU, UN and Ethiopia can be helpful, but are unlikely to deliver a comprehensive process without active engagement by others, including efforts by some key actors to re-engage the regime in Khartoum. The following steps could help build much needed consensus on the way forward:
1. Define a new strategy: The AU, UN and Ethiopia should develop a strategy in line with the new approach articulated above: an immediate cessation of hostilities in the three disputed areas, and commitment by the parties to hold an inclusive national dialogue leading to decentralisation, a new constitution and free and fair elections. The AU, UN and Ethiopia should work to build support amongst international partners and friends of Sudan on the new way forward. This will require renewed engagement from key actors.
2. Streamline the mediation: The roles of the AUHIP, the UN envoy and regional efforts under Prime Minister Zenawi should be clearly defined and the processes streamlined. The mediation efforts should have clear objectives and define a set of benchmarks to underpin resolution of the conflicts and a genuine transition to an inclusive government.
3. Achieve consensus: Convening of an international conference under the auspices of the AU to build consensus on a new international strategy for Sudan. The conference should comprise a group of people representing all different blocs with a stake in Sudan and should include the AU, IGAD and the following countries: South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, as well as the EU, UN and members of the troika (US, UK and Norway).
Now is the time for Sudan’s key external actors to speak in a single voice in support of a political strategy that comprehensively deals with Sudan’s spreading conflicts and that is underpinned by a clear set of principles on genuine political transformation rather than the current fire fighting approach.
President Bashir will undoubtedly resist any further external efforts to pursue a more peaceful outcome for Sudan, but given the increasing fragility of the regime, not least its growing economic weakness, he may be persuaded to engage with a coordinated international approach. International actors must come out with a strong voice to support a national agenda for a transition to an inclusive government. In the absence of a national political framework, and without clear international consensus to encourage and support a national peace process, the conflict in Sudan may spiral out control and engulf the region.