Understanding Sudanese and South Sudanese “National Dialogues”
Assessing the conduct and results of the recent National Dialogue in Sudan, and its current variation in South Sudan, reveals a lot about the countries’ political culture(s). The division of the biggest African state into an Arab-dominated, Muslim-majority North and the African, Animist-and-Christian South, completed in 2011, did not stop the flow of models of political “ways of doing things”. In many aspects, borrowing the neighbour’s ideas remains a natural choice.
The national dialogues
Both “national dialogues” share similar characteristics, attempting to build on popular demands (or sentiments) for change without questioning the nature of the system.
From the moment when it obtained its independence in 1956, the Sudanese socio-political construct was tarnished by deep divisions and sharp ideological rifts. It resulted in an almost perpetual domestic conflict, which took different forms over time and produced armed confrontations on the periphery of the state. The idea for a national dialogue, which would bring together a broad spectrum of political actors is not new, and numerous attempts at reconciliation within the country have been undertaken before, each with mixed results. An initiative by President Omar al-Bashir, announced in 2014 and commenced by the end of 2016, was therefore rooted in the political tradition. South Sudan followed the path, as well. President Salva Kiir was happy to adopt the Khartoum-developed idea of a “home-grown” reconciliation process (as it can be presented internationally) for a top-down scheme of reaffirming his legitimacy (which it actually is).
Within this construct, diverging from and eventually challenging a Presidential-Security consortium or cohabitation, which remains effectively in control of all the major policies and decision-making, would be pointless.
Both “national dialogues” share similar characteristics: they attempt to build on popular demands (or sentiments) for change without questioning the nature of the system; in this regard, both are attempting to channel (or hijack) cries for reconciliation and progressing forward. They both try to create an impression of building an appeasement-friendly environment despite lack of securing of an essential prerequisite: peace. Both “national dialogues” are massively promoted by their respective governments and earn little credibility internationally. Finally, both follow the strict top-down approach, despite their declared intention to be open to civil societies.
Much ado about nothing
Co-option seems to be a key method and the end-goal for the government-steered Dialogue.
In the North, undoubtedly, real work was done, and an impressive amount of paper went through the hands of its participants; throughout one year since its launch in October 2015, the dialogue’s 600+ committee members held more than 300 meetings, produced and discussed more than 500 working papers and elaborated almost a thousand recommendations. Translating them into the constitutional norms would be a task for the new government and next elected parliament. However, the pattern of implementation of the promises for introducing a Prime Minister’s post (not seen in Sudan since Bashir ousted Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989), indicates what the entire process would look like. After the Parliament amended the Constitution in December 2016, Bakri Hassan Saleh, the incumbent First Vice-President was appointed to the newly created position. He is a former head of national security and a trusted aide of Bashir, sometimes referred to as his successor. Within this construct, diverging from and eventually challenging a Presidential-Security consortium or cohabitation, which remains effectively in control of all the major policies and decision-making, would be pointless.
The very fact that the signing, after the year-long marathon of deliberations, of the Dialogue’s final document (The National Document) by 89 political parties, 36 armed movements, representatives from civil society, and national figures, went surprisingly unreported (internationally), is indicative of the low expectations towards it.
The international community had no clue how to fix South Sudan apart from imposing sanctions on selected officials from the government and its foes, authorising a regional force to enter the country, and speculating about imposing an international trusteeship, but without any concrete action-plan.
Although the Sudanese are highly politicised, only a handful of strong parties have relevance at the national level – most of the groups involved in the conference were little-known pro-government organisations. Some might have been set up only to take part in the Dialogue. Some were later included into Saleh’s new “Reconciliation Government” (although only a few out of 80+ parties expressed interest in it). Extension of the Parliament was also approved to accommodate other Dialogue participants.
Co-option seems to be a key method and the end-goal for the government-steered Dialogue – a distant echo of the logic of South Sudan’s “Juba Declaration” (2006) which took the bulk of the rival militias on the payroll of the autonomy’s army, hoping that a share in state revenues would secure their loyalty. What was clearly missing from the beginning was a comprehensive approach: a genuine national dialogue would require reaching out to all the regions, ethnic and religious communities and those disadvantaged by the disparities of the country’s development. Instead, the Dialogue was largely limited to different representations of the Khartoum-based elites.
Vision and competition
While the National Dialogue seems to focus on a “national” level, many of the grievances over injustice and war traumas, identity, resources, and power are localised and must be answered at the local level.
The major Sudanese dissidents from the very beginning remained sceptical about the National Dialogue. Those included the leader of the National Umma Party (former Prime Minister, al-Mahdi), the major Darfuri rebel groups, and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army-North, the influential South-leaning armed group based in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The SPLA-N is led by Yasir Arman, an ideological child of John Garang, the late primary challenger of the Khartoum-centred system throughout the 1980s, 90s, until his death in 2005.
The future of the final document will also be subject to a well-tested model – Bashir makes it clear it will not be renegotiated, but the abstaining parties are welcome to join it, which is a repetition of the scheme for Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (2011).
The National Document has seven chapters – Identity, Freedoms and Basic Rights, Peace and Unity, Economy, Foreign Relations, Governance Issues and Dialog Outcomes, and Comprehensive Reform of the State Apparatus – which were filled with very general and soft declarations. A careful reading would have one struggle to find any real substance. The only parts of the document which suggest a change in approach were on the multicultural (and multi-religious) character of the Sudanese society and its identity. This stance is at odds with Bashir’s (and most of his predecessors in Khartoum) policies promoting Arab-Islamic identity. A massive collection of Recommendations, another output of the Dialog Conference, lacks coherence and guiding vision: it is little more than a loose conglomerate of suggestions, often contradicting one another (and sometimes going against the spirit of the National Document as it is, by assuming the more traditional approach towards the place of religion in the state and identity).
The general language and opacity of the proposal suggest that bolstering the government’s credibility and buying time are its prime motivations, while commitment to a genuine change is probably not the highest priority.
At first sight, the radical language of the opposing “Sudan Call” document has little in common with moderate reformism. It was developed jointly by a collection of anti-government parties (National Consensus Forces) and armed movements (Sudanese Revolutionary Forces), the Alliance of the Sudanese Civil Society Organisations and the Umma Party. A text finalised in Addis Ababa on the 3rd of December 2014 called for the dismantling of the one-party system, the dissolution of the government militias, and a cessation of hostilities in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains. The text also called on the government to end the denial of its responsibility for ongoing conflicts referring directly to the new youth protest movements (Girifna, Change Now) as a driver for generational change in the political life. The announcement of the document produced a furious reaction on the part of the government, including the immediate arrest of some of its signatories. From its inception, the government-sponsored National Dialogue had to compete with the “Sudan Call” in engaging a broad spectrum of stakeholders and proposing a “new opening” for the Sudanese. While the former was visibly achieved and highly promoted by the official media (the room was indeed full), the latter proved to be beyond its range.
The President of South Sudan, Salva Kiir, brought up the idea for a National Dialogue in his speech in Parliament on the 14th of December 2016, a day before the third anniversary of the Juba massacre (when Kiir’s loyalists slaughtered thousands of the rival Nuer population: survivors remain stranded in the UN Protection of Civilians site). Despite the promise that it will be run by persons who are "trusted, genuine and credible", the first 30-member body was composed of his prominent supporters.
When the National Dialogue was officially launched on the 22nd of May 2017, the country was in a dramatic situation. Half of the population required assistance because of war and international efforts to bring the warring factions back together – without addressing the causes of the war and without the inclusion of actors other than veteran warlord politicians – failed. The fighting broke out again shortly after Riek Machar, a key rebel figure, came back to Juba with his fighters in 2016. Machar was chased away from the country, excluded as a partner by the US (without a viable alternative) and his SPLM/A “In Opposition” movement was taken over by a Kiir loyalist. The international community had no clue how to fix South Sudan apart from imposing sanctions on selected officials from the government and its foes, authorising a regional force to enter the country, and speculating about imposing an international trusteeship, but without any concrete action-plan. In this context, the political initiative was effectively back in the hands of Salva Kiir, and his quest for regaining legitimacy made him look to the National Dialogue formula as an attractive option.
The co-option of mild opponents is likely to be the two Sudanese dialogues’ biggest achievement.
Contrary to the Northern experience, he did not insist on remaining a patron of the process. Instead, two elders were appointed to chair the 93-person “steering committee”: Angelo Beda and Abel Alier. Both being around the age of 80, they held prominent positions during the first Southern autonomy (1972-1983) and had a long history of affinity with Khartoum. As the invitation to participate in the National Dialogue was announced to be open for everyone (except for Riek Machar), clearly there was no neutral ground at their disposal. When the hostilities continue on the battlefield, it is difficult to think about the Dialogue concerning a genuine effort for reconciliation and reforms. Secondly, while the National Dialogue seems to focus on a “national” level, many of the grievances over injustice and war traumas, identity, resources, and power are localised and must be answered at the local level. Francis Deng, former South Sudanese ambassador to the UN, suggested that “the Steering Committee will need to employ teams of resource people who will go to all the States, Counties, [communities], to organize meetings with representatives of the relevant groups to seek their views on the grievances held by their people (…)”.
Kiir himself described the role of the National Dialogue as “both a forum and a process through which the people of South Sudan shall gather to redefine the basis of their unity as it relates to nationhood, redefine citizenship and belonging, restructure the state, regenerate social contract, and revitalize their aspirations for development”. Again, the general language and opacity of the proposal suggest that bolstering the government’s credibility and buying time are its prime motivations, while commitment to a genuine change is probably not the highest priority. As in the North, there is no consensus among the political leadership and the citizenry on critical problems that require a joint effort. Without a clear vision for the end-goals of the process, the very grounds for the National Dialogue are shaky.
National Dialogues, both in Sudan and in South Sudan, share similar fundamental weaknesses, which make them unlikely to bring long-term change. The Khartoum-led dialogue was concluded in the presence of the Presidents of Mauritania, Chad, Uganda, and Egypt – each of whose legitimacy could be brought into question. Most are notorious for excluding significant segments of their societies. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda assisted in the inception of the Juba-based dialogue and is a long-time ally of President Salva Kiir, taking an active part in the latest war on his behalf. They are not necessarily the best options to celebrate a spirit of dialogue and reconciliation with. The co-option of mild opponents is likely to be the two Sudanese dialogues’ biggest achievement.
 The National Document, National Dialogue Conference, Khartoum, 10.10.2016, http://hewarwatani.gov.sd/eng/images/Papers/NDen.pdf
 Recommendations of the National Dialogue Conference, The Presidency, National Dialogue
Conference, General Secretariat of the National Dialogue, Khartoum 2016, http://hewarwatani.gov.sd/eng/images/Papers/Rec-en.pdf
 F.M. Dang, The Dialogue Brief, The Sudd Institute, Juba 05.07.2017