Tag Archives: Sudan

Signing of peace agreement is just the start for South Sudan’s broken politics

The signing of a power-sharing agreement between sworn enemies in South Sudan should be a cause for celebration. President Salva Kiir’s tentative deal with his former Vice-President Riek Machar in Khartoum in August is one of the most hopeful things to have happened in the last two years, given the worsening political and humanitarian crises. But it is far from being a solution in itself. The continued mistrust, and the shallowness of the peace process, are in fact real causes for concern.

The situation is remarkable in many ways. Not least is the impact which these leaders’ hostility has had on their fragile country: a third of the population (more than four million people) have been displaced by fighting since 2013, and an estimated seven million people have been affected by food insecurity – some of them severely. The wounds are deep, since these leaders effectively represent the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, the Dinka and the Nuer. Politics has become even more polarised along ethnic lines, as have its military forces. There are widespread and well-documented reports of ethnic cleansing, rape, and worse, on the basis of ethnicity. The state forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) is increasingly regarded as pursuing the interests of the Dinka group, while Machar’s SPLM-IO (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition) is largely a Nuer force.

The two forces fought each other openly in the capital, Juba, in July 2016 as Machar was forced to flee not just government but the country. He ended up in South Africa where he spent more than a year under effective house arrest, while regional powers sought to restore some kind of calm. So his return to government – as agreed on paper at least – seems like even more of an achievement.

The real concern is that the peace agreement has only been initialled under duress from regional powers – President Kiir was strongly opposed to Machar’s release and any role for him in a future government – rather than having some kind of basis in changing relationships. The negotiations have focussed on issues which look more like a carve up of state resources for the elites involved. The number of vice-presidents is being increased to five (with Machar due to return as First Vice-President). Parliament has been increased to 550 members, with the additional seats divided out under the agreement rather than through any kind of election. Even the government itself has ballooned to 45 ministers (again divided out by faction, with most going to the two largest groups). While the country suffers from one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet, patronage and state capture have taken priority.

From new state to failed state

South Sudan is still celebrated as one of the newest states, having become independent in July 2011. (Independence day celebrations were cancelled this year for the third year running due to lack of state funds.) It achieved its sovereignty after decades of war with northern Sudan, which cost millions of lives. The peace process went remarkably smoothly, with a referendum overwhelmingly endorsing the creation of a new state. Analysts who expected Sudan to somehow overturn the process were proven wrong, even though it meant the breakaway nation leaving with nearly all the oil fields which had started to boost the Sudanese economy. There was considerable international support for the SPLA’s difficult transition from guerrilla movement to proto-state. But the ethnic tensions (exploited by Khartoum during the war) and weak, corrupt, or non-existent institutions were always going to be a huge challenge.

Just over two years after independence, the power-sharing government which ushered in the new state fell apart amid mistrust and rivalry between the two leaders in December 2013. Civilians quickly fled as the ethnic nature of the violence became clear almost immediately. Regional powers brokered an unstable deal – not a good precedent for the current agreement – which allowed Machar to return to the capital. But within months the violence broke out again, in the July 2016 clashes during which he was forced to flee.

Consequences of war

The consequences for South Sudan have been dire – and this was a country already deeply impoverished by neglect and war even before it achieved its independence. Food production has been affected by millions of people fleeing their homes, and insecurity preventing the movement of goods. Famine was declared in parts Unity State in February 2017, exactly as predicted, and only a massive international aid effort prevented deaths on an enormous scale. This year has been worse in ways: the World Food Program (WFP) warned of “alarming” levels of food insecurity  with some communities again just “a step away from famine”. Nearly two-thirds of the population (7.1 million people) were facing severe food insecurity by the end of July. The WFP assisted 2.6 million people in May this year alone.

The link between conflict and hunger in South Sudan has been well documented. It is worsened by continued fighting preventing access by humanitarian organisations. South Sudan has been listed as the most dangerous place for aid workers to operate: 28 were killed last year, bringing the total to more than 100 since 2013.

In terms of displacement, 2.47 million are now refugees in neighbouring countries, with more than a million in Uganda. A total of 1.76 million are internally displaced, with about 200,000 seeking shelter at Protection of Civilians sites in or beside UN bases across the country. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has faced a difficult task in trying implement its complex and multi-dimensional mandate to protect civilians (amongst other things), given the hostile attitude of the government. At the UN Security Council, an arms embargo was finally imposed in July through Resolution 2428, which had failed to get enough votes to pass at its last outing in the final days of the Obama administration. The government meanwhile extended President Kiir’s term of office to 2021 with little fuss in July.

Human rights abuses, sexual violence, and the killing of civilians has continued to deepen enmities and erode trust, even as elites talked “peace” in neighbouring capitals. A report by UNMISS and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented atrocities in detail in April, in which the SPLA was implicated among others.

First steps in a peace process?

So, an actual peace process was never more needed. The main sponsor has been the regional body of states (including South Sudan itself) known as IGAD (Inter-Governmental Authority on Development). It brokered a cessation of hostilities in December (which is frequently ignored) and effectively gave permission for the release of Riek Machar from house arrest in South Africa in late March (something strongly opposed by President Kiir). Talks principally involving the two groups, along with other less powerful factions, took place in the neighbouring capitals of Ethiopia, Uganda, and Sudan. The agreement was initialled in August by most parties in Khartoum, followed by further renegotiations there with a further deal being initialled at on 30th August. Talks on the implementation matrix continued in Khartoum.

But even if the agreement can be implemented – including the tricky questions of power-sharing and reintegration of Riek Machar’s forces into a national army – the problems are far from over. The deal represents a share-out of jobs and resources for those with leverage, rather than a peace process. There are of course many voices of courage in South Sudan, with the vision, humanity, and solidarity to build a future based on co-existence, despite the very hostile environment for civil society organisations. A deal which involves elites and armed elements seeking to advance their interests is not a peace process which can heal the alarming ethnic polarisation of national politics and everyday life in South Sudan. The importance of a process like this is well understood, but the country is a long way from seeing the leadership which would allow this kind of dialogue to emerge.


Suggested Reading:

Arensen, Michael J, 2016, If We Leave We Are Killed: Lessons Learned from South Sudan Protection of Civilian Sites 2013–2016, International Organization for Migration, South Sudan.

Christian Aid, 2018, In It for the Long Haul? Lessons on Peacebuilding in South Sudan, London and Juba: Christian Aid

Concern Worldwide, 2018, Conflict and Hunger: The Lived Experience of Conflict and Food Insecurity in South Sudan

Jok Madut Jok, 2017, Breaking Sudan: The Search for Peace, Oneworld Publications.

Center for Civilians in Conflict, 2016, Under Fire: The July 2016 Violence in Juba and UN Response, Washington DC: Center for Civilians in Conflict.

United Nations, 2018, Letter dated 12 April 2018 from the Panel of Experts on South Sudan addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2018/292


Sudan – President Al-Bashir easily wins re-election bid

Sudan held its latest general election from April 13 to 16 after the voting period was extended by one day due to low voter turnout. With official results due to be released on Monday, April 27, there is little doubt long-time President Omar Al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) will emerge as the overwhelming victors. This outcome, while entirely predictable, has nevertheless led to renewed speculation about Sudan’s political trajectory, and the prospect of more violence on the road ahead.

A pyrrhic victory for the Bashir and the NCP

While these elections do not pose a challenge to Bashir’s hold on power, they do little to reinforce the legitimacy of the NCP regime. In power since 1989, the current leadership has had to contend with unprecedented opposition in recent years, prompted in part by the severe economic repercussions of oil-rich South Sudan’s secession in 2011.

The low turnout at last week’s polls expressed the clear lack of enthusiasm for the ruling party, not to mention cynicism regarding the electoral process. As one observer quipped, why bother holding elections over several days when they could be done ‘in five minutes?’

Violence perpetrated by rebel groups in Sudan’s embattled periphery further highlighted the prevailing instability in much of the country. Gunmen in North Darfur shot at ballot boxes while in South Kordofan, attacks led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North resulted in the closure of several polling stations.

An opposition boxed and cornered

The decision by the main opposition parties to boycott the elections further undermined any added legitimacy the NCP could hope to gain.

The decision to stage a boycott came after repeated arrests of opposition party leaders, including in December of last year after an unprecedented coalition of political parties, civil society organizations and rebel groups jointly issued the ‘Sudan call.’ The ‘Call’ expressed a commitment to a non-violent political process aimed at dismantling the one-party state. The NCP government did release two political detainees shortly before the elections, but that did little to alter the sense of opposition persecution.

Unsurprisingly given the political environment, the primary opposition parties remain weak. Even the mainstream opposition does not have the nation-wide structures or clear political programme that would enable it to form a government.

Given the circumstances, Bashir ended up running against 13 little-known presidential contenders who could hardly dent his share of the vote.

Fading prospects for a peaceful transition in Sudan

The fact that Bashir appears ‘stronger than ever’ and the obvious weakness of the opposition has exacerbated fears that the NCP regime—and its powerful base in Sudan’s security system—will never be able to hand over power peacefully.. As noted by one Khartoum-based Western Diplomat, ‘There is an uneasy feeling among diplomats here that these elections were a lost cause. It would be better to focus on the 2020 elections, even if it looks like the peaceful way of challenging al-Bashir’s power may have run out.’

In general, Western powers appear to be reconsidering their attitude vis-à-vis Bashir’s government. Long-time a pariah state, not least given the ICC’s arrest warrant for Bashir, Sudan is currently working to reposition itself regionally. It has loosened ties with erstwhile ally Iran while looking to strengthen its links with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Europe and the US, meanwhile, appear concerned that the removal of Bashir and his NCP could herald a new era of domestic and regional instability. While many western powers continue to issue weak statements condemning the worst of the NCP’s political abuses, these do not seem calculated to have any real effect.

While observers in Nigeria are still celebrating the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another, the elections in Sudan leave little hope for a similar breakthrough in the foreseeable future. Instead, the country is left with an aging President and little sense—either at home or abroad—of what could come next

Sudan – Tensions high as President Bashir officially launches his re-election bid

On Sunday, January 11, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir officially registered his re-election bid, setting the stage for a continuation of his now 26 year reign. Bashir’s action comes amidst heightened political tensions at home and waning enthusiasm for his leadership within the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), yet his grip on power seems as firm as ever.

A fraught domestic scene

This time last year, observers began to speculate about a possible thaw in Sudanese politics. Following a brutal crackdown on protests in September 2013, which led to the death of over 200 demonstrators in Khartoum, the President Bashir called for a ‘national dialogue’ with political and civic forces. A committee of both government and opposition representatives was convened to pave the way for a ‘National Dialogue Conference’, which government representatives affirm will take place early this year.

Opposition support for the dialogue, however, quickly began to collapse. The first to jump ship was the National Umma Party (NUP), Sudan’s largest opposition party, which denounced the dialogue after its leader was arrested in May 2014. In August, NUP faced renewed threats from government after it joined with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) to sign the ‘Paris Declaration’, which calls for genuine dialogue between all political forces, including rebel groups. December witnessed a further unification of opposition forces as an unprecedented coalition of opposition parties, civil society organisations and rebel groups jointly issued the ‘Sudan Call.’ Described in the press as a ‘breakthrough’ event, the ‘Call’ expresses a commitment to a non-violent political process aimed at dismantling the one-party state. It also includes a demand for government to allow humanitarian aid to reach Sudan’s embattled periphery, particularly Darfur.

Deemed an ‘unholy alliance’ and ‘treasonous to the homeland’ by NCP officials, the coalition was immediately targeted with the arrest of two prominent leaders. On January 13, just two days after Bashir registered his candidacy in the April elections, the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) moved to dissolve NUP and ban its activities under the pretext that the party is colluding with rebel forces.

The government is still trying to put on a conciliatory face, claiming that 83 government and opposition parties will participate in the upcoming ‘national dialogue conference.’ Already in tatters, though, the legitimacy of the dialogue took yet another hit this week when the NCP breakaway party, the Reform Now Movement (RNM), suspended its participation. RNM also announced that it will boycott the April elections, thus aligning with the Muslim Brotherhood and NUP, among others who have denounced the upcoming polls as a government-orchestrated ‘absurdity.’  The promised boycott heralds a repeat of the 2010 scenario in which opposition parties similarly shunned the polls, the first since the NCP seized power in 1989.

With AU-mediated negotiations between government and rebel groups also at a standstill, Sudan is very far from ‘a new minimum of consensus’ observers hoped might be achieved when the ‘national dialogue’ was first launched.

Within the NCP – leading by default?

While a battered opposition continues to criticize Bashir’s government, his re-nomination as presidential flag bearer for the ruling NCP was, as argued by one observer, ‘conspicuously squeaky.’

Late last year, Sudan’s foreign minister, a close ally of the President, declared that Bashir is the ‘only person trusted’ to head the NCP, but there appears to be a large portion of the party leadership who do not share this trust, or else remain apathetic.

The 522-strong NCP shura (consultative) council convened to vote on a presidential nominee in October.  With 126 members absent, though, the council barely mustered the 75 percent quorum required to vote while just over 50 percent of the total shura members (many of whom were not present) actually came out in favour of a Bashir re-nomination.

Despite condemnation from opposition actors and the somewhat tepid embrace of his own party members, Bashir’s power shows no obvious signs of weakening. Admittedly, the Sudanese economy continues to struggle with double-digit inflation, slow growth, and the aftershocks of IMF-mediated fiscal consolidation, much of which is tied to the 2011 secession of oil rich South Sudan. A number of other factors, though, are playing in Bashir’s favour. The ICC, which long had a warrant out for his arrest, suspended its investigations in December. Bashir has meanwhile worked to shed his international pariah status by multiplying his trips abroad while also receiving foreign dignitaries, most recently China’s foreign minister, in Khartoum.

The foreign charm offensive aside, Bashir has also worked to consolidate power at home, notably by—in his own words—abolishing competing ‘power centres’ through the substitution of elected state governors with presidential appointees. He also appears to have successfully gambled on a military strategy in the restive South Kordofan region, where government troops and Khartoum-backed militia are reportedly on the verge of routing rebel opposition.

Raw political tensions, violent conflict in the periphery and deeply entrenched socio-economic inequalities at the centre are as much as ever a part of the Sudanese reality. But for now at least, these obstacles appear of little importance in shaping Bashir’s hold on power. In this context, presidential elections—and Bashir’s participation in them—do seem like a non-event, indeed an ‘absurdity.’ But the so-called absurdity does put into greater relief how a combination of repression, fear and apathy ensure Bashir retains his position without serious challenge.