No shortcut to national dialogue, Sudanese civil society insists

sudan darfurA national dialogue to address Sudan’s endemic crises requires security and basic rights for all citizens, a lifting of the state of emergency and a cessation of hostilities, say Sudanese civil society groups

Eighteen NGOs issued a statement on Thursday demanding that the national dialogue, proposed by President Omar Al Bashir earlier this year, should be inclusive of civil society.

Hafez Mahmoud, Director of the Sudanese Justice Africa, one of the signatories of the statement, told Radio Dabanga that the dialogue process should not be limited to political parties. “They lack the participation of society.”

Other signatories of the statement are the Darfur Bar Association of lawyers, the centre of Alkhatim Adlan for Enlightenment and Human Development, Nuba Relief and Rehabilitation, and Sudan Democracy First.

“We welcome calls for a national dialogue in Sudan, but we are deeply concerned as active civil society organisations that current plans for dialogue fall short of the minimum required,” the statement said:

A common approach to addressing grievances across our country is desperately needed. A de facto one party system has confiscated democratic freedoms and sought to silence dissenting voices even from within its own ranks. Piecemeal approaches to peace have failed, with the Darfur conflict now in its eleventh year and fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile continuing unabated.  

Full enjoyment of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, along with a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access are required before any meaningful dialogue can start.

“In my many travels to Sudan over the years, I have been inspired by the resilience, courage and vision of civil society leaders and activists,” said Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the former US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan.

“I am impressed by the commitment of these non-partisan Sudanese citizens to advancing the interests of their country through open public consultations on creative proposals to resolve long-standing national problems,” which is why he is especially “concerned that the government has recently been increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders,” he wrote for Al-Jazeera.

The dialogue must be inclusive of all stakeholders and not restricted to political parties and alliances within them,” the NGOs added:

The process must not be elitist, limited to like-minded political parties and lack the participation of and accountability to society at large. This will require public access to credible and independent information on the dialogue and the space to debate and reach consensus. The ultimate failure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was its lack of ownership by the Sudanese people. This time around, representatives of victims of Sudan’s many wars, civil society, youth, women’s groups, trades unions and intellectuals must be included, as well as political parties, and society at large.  The National Congress Party (NCP), National Consensus Forces (NCF), opposition groups, and Sudan Revolutionary Front must all participate.

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The ‘latest front in a long war’: democratic challenges in the Sahel

“While it draws scant attention from the Western media, the Sahel-North Africa region is actually more important than Afghanistan to the vital interests of Western powers,” say two leading experts.

“North Africa provides energy security for Europe with its vast oil and natural gas deposits, along with maritime security in the Mediterranean. Governments in the region have the potential to foster democratic change in post-authoritarian states,” according to Georgetown University’s Chester A. Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, and Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center.

“But the Sahel is unlikely to ever see large-scale troop deployments from NATO countries that are war-weary and financially tapped out from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” they write for the International Herald Tribune.

Over the past 24 months, the Sahel – a vast swathe of territory from Mali through Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic and the South Sudan to Somalia- has often made headlines because of the series of humanitarian, political, military and security crises it has encountered simultaneously, a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy heard this week. The fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the ensuing crises in Mali were a wakeup call to Sahel observers and democracy practitioners, underscoring the region’s structural fragility as a distressing domino effect was set in motion. 

Radical Islamists have benefited from a “vast criminal infrastructure” of drug trafficking, while the modern technology of GPS has opened up the region to malign external agents, said Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Criminal and jihadist groups had changed the balance of power with Sahel countries’ militaries, he told the NED forum (above), suggesting that more “ideological work must be done” to promote deradicalization and counter radical Islamist ideas.

“Terrorists gain when sovereignty is in question and governments are distracted by issues more central to their near-term survival,” says John McLaughlin, distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“If Syria, Iraq and North Africa have problems with sub-sovereign conditions, they are modest compared with those on display in the vast stretches of the Sahel,” he writes for the American Interest. “The Nigerian federal government is clearly struggling with an extremist-inspired uprising in its northeast. And there is evidence that the local group, Boko Haram, has been able to recruit fighters from outside Nigeria, even while developing ties with other regional groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and the larger al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

Strengthening democratic institutions is vital to enhancing Sahel security and development, the Bridges Institute’s Vivian Lowery Derryck told the NED forum. “Civil society groups can build bridges and share strategies for resolving conflict, said Derryck, who paid tribute to Kamissa Camara, NED’s West Africa program officer, for pioneering the Sahel Strategy Forum, a civil society-focused initiative led by the NED, in partnership with The Bridges Institute.

A revival of the Club de Sahel pioneered by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the UN, and since incorporated into the OECD, might provide a valuable transatlantic forum for addressing the region’s pressing issues of security and democracy, said NED president Carl Gershman.

“North African states need to help their southern neighbors, and vice versa, to prevent lawlessness from spreading north or southeast across the Sahel into Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria,” Crocker and Laipson suggest:

If the Malian government reaches out to rebuild the political fabric of the vast nation, it could isolate the jihadist element and reverse the negative dynamics in Mali itself. If not, a contagious and deadly interplay of people and violence could cross borders in many directions.  …..Today Mali needs the sustained support of African and Western partners. The victory there must be carefully sustained using all the political, diplomatic and economic tools available. A counterterrorism strategy will not succeed in a political vacuum.

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Sudan’s youth ‘rage against the regime’

Almost five years ago, activists began youth movements dedicated to toppling the regime of Omar al-Bashir, who took power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. But even they were caught unawares when impromptu protests erupted late last year, writes analyst Katrina Manson.

“We weren’t in control; the street really took us by surprise,” says Hajooj Kuka of Girifna, an underground youth movement whose name translates as “we are fed up”.

The regime’s tacit supporters appear fed up too, Manson adds:

As well as a portion of the city’s middle classes and urban poor, some members of the regime itself and part of the corporate elite want its rulers to go. Even much of the army has had enough, say diplomats and insiders.

Sudan is in a situation where nobody knows what will happen next,” says a university professor. “It’s a countdown but we don’t know if we’re counting down from 10 or 100.”

Civil society

“In my many travels to Sudan over the years, I have been inspired by the resilience, courage and vision of civil society leaders and activists,” said Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan.

“I am impressed by the commitment of these non-partisan Sudanese citizens to advancing the interests of their country through open public consultations on creative proposals to resolve long-standing national problems,” which is why he is especially “concerned that the government has recently been increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders,” he wrote for Al-Jazeera.

Tight control

“The NISS [National Intelligence and Security Services] is all over the place doing its best to keep a tight control on things, but it’s not like the days of torture of the 1990s. The regime is more flexible and pragmatic than it was,” a senior diplomat tells Manson:

In some ways, the regime can afford to take such an approach. Mr Bashir’s dominance is the crowning achievement of a regime that has cajoled a support system into existence, made alternatives look impossible and handed out punishment sufficiently harsh to deter dissenters. His regime has systematically dismantled or co-opted the country’s trade unions, political opposition, university unions, free media and civil service…..

The regime’s repressive capabilities may allow it to remain in power for now despite rising discontent. Sudatel’s problems suggest its unwillingness – or inability – to introduce effective reforms will weaken its chances of surviving in the long term.

“Sudan needs to reform its governance of the country, to take into account the legitimate demands of people in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and the east as well as the demands for greater freedom of expression, press, and human rights throughout the country…Such changes would also lead to full normalisation of relations with the United States,” said US envoy Lyman, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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