Sudan Envoys Past and Present Weigh In on Conflict, Talks between Two Sudans

Posted by Annette LaRocco

Against the backdrop of a new round of talks between Sudan and South Sudan in Addis Ababa, the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C., held an event last week examining the many obstacles to peace between the two countries, with a focus on how the international community should engage. The speakers were well placed to offer tangible recommendations; in particular, it was an insightful opportunity to hear from U.S. special envoy to Sudan Ambassador Princeton Lyman about what he thinks are hampering the ongoing negotiations between Khartoum and Juba.

Ambassador Alan Goulty, who served as the British envoy to Sudan from 1995 to 1999, and Marina Ottaway, a senior associate with the Carnegie’s Middle East program, joined Ambassador Lyman on the panel and offered varying degrees of pessimism about the ability of Sudan and South Sudan’s leaders to overcome years of conflict and mistrust. But Ambassador Gouty pointed out that while the current situation is indeed "dire,” it has always been dire. “We need to have relentless optimism,” he said.

Marina Ottaway set the stage for the discussion by laying out what she sees as the four main obstacles: First, these two countries with a deeply antagonistic history must find a way to share one source of revenue. Second, the border is more than a matter of technical demarcation; it is also about the identity of people living in border areas. Third, Ottaway suggested that two countries that have always been at war (more or less since independence) experience a degree of comfort in war activities. War posturing allows leaders to deflect domestic problems. The South faces the daunting task of nation building, while deep political divides and ongoing war on several fronts are crippling the North. Although the internal problems are different, both sides see external conflict as easier to tackle than domestic problems, Ottaway said. Finally, she attributed the current impasse and flaring violence to “old and tired leadership,” particularly in the North. Lack of renewal of leadership means engrained mentalities continue and new solutions are unlikely, she said.

South Sudan’s peaceful referendum and independence last July earned accolades for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA. But with many elements of the peace agreement still unresolved even as South Sudan approaches its first birthday, the agreement’s shortcomings have become more glaringly apparent. Ambassador Gouty discussed these pitfalls, while acknowledging that some of the compromises that eventually forestalled implementation were crucial to finalizing the deal and ending the war.

The CPA was premised on the notion of "one country, two systems," Gouty said. There was no real planning given to what the separation would look like and how it would be executed, even though unity was never made attractive to Southerners. Provisions were made for the interim but none in the event of secession, Gouty said. He gave the example of the Three Areas: Pacifying and reforming governance in this volatile area looked less difficult to address when they were regions within one country. Resolving these issues with the added element of an international border becomes tremendously difficult.

Gouty also pointed out that while the CPA was "comprehensive" of issues between the Sudanese government and SPLM—narrow by necessity because adding in more parties would not have worked—it never addressed how to deal with political opposition in the North. After secession, the NCP drew a line in the sand, accepting secession but no more. For domestic political reasons the ruling party has become more hardline and won't make further concessions in negotiations. After getting the agreement signed, Sudanese parties and the international community didn’t treat implementation with the same sense of urgency. In particular, the concept of “making unity attractive” fell by the wayside. After SPLM leader John Garang’s death, both sides thought it was the other’s responsibility to make unity attractive, and neither made a meaningful attempt. This legacy is now playing out in negotiations, where the two sides need to work to together to tackle intertwined issues.

Building off the observations made by Gouty about the shortcomings of the CPA, Lyman provided some insights about the calculations of both sides that led them to put off resolving their common issues. Both sides believed it was better to sit and delay, because both thought they would be in better bargaining positions after independence, Lyman said. The North thought the South would be so weak and difficult to govern that they would have the upper hand in negotiations; the South thought they would finally have respect, international backing, and sovereignty on their side. This mentality doesn't help any settlement because each side is waiting for the other to crumble, Lyman said, explaining that the conflict isn’t really about oil but that the resource is a tool they are both using to cudgel each other—and it’s working: They are committing mutual economic suicide, Lyman said.

Meanwhile, as the two countries stood at the brink, the international community quickly re-engaged, to some positive effect. Heglig was a “game changer,” Lyman said, because before that confrontation oil infrastructure had been off the table. Neither side wants war—both Juba and Khartoum asked Lyman to not call the situation “war”—and there has been a stepping back since Heglig. Now the talks between Juba and Khartoum must focus on two key issues: preventing full-scale war and producing a solution on the border to keep clashes down. Although these are “imperfect steps”—not resolution on final issues—some harmony and agreement must be developed before the bigger challenges are tackled, Lyman said.

Looking ahead, Lyman urged the international community to be more pragmatic and to work to establish linkages between the two countries—beyond their relatively infrequent exchanges over the negotiations table in Addis Ababa. More dialogue between the two sides is needed, Lyman said, pointing again to the deep mistrust between Presidents Bashir and Kiir. Remarkably, despite being a unified country up until last year, there is no connection between the banks, no trade to speak of, and no joint institutional relationships between Sudan and South Sudan. The countries could benefit from a more holistic approach to building goodwill, Lyman suggested.

Laura Heaton contributed to this post.