Several Sudanese experts joined Institute specialists for a wide-ranging, online-only discussion of prospects for launching a national dialogue in Sudan that could provide the basis for new, political arrangements, possibly including a new constitution and renewed efforts to peacefully address the country’s violent, internal political conflicts.


The March 24 event, which was webcast from the U.S. Institute of Peace, reflects USIP’s ongoing efforts to help Sudanese address the root causes of their persistent instability and struggles to effectively govern a large, diverse country.

The idea for the discussion originated with Arif Omer, USIP’s first Sudanese youth leader and a freelance journalist, and builds on the publication of a recent USIP Peace Brief that explores paths to a Sudanese national dialogue.

USIP’s Princeton Lyman, a former U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, cited the South African experience of a government and opposition agreeing to embark on a process of peaceful transformation—in that case, replacing minority rule and apartheid with a fully democratic system. Lyman suggested that Sudanese now need to define what a national dialogue for Sudan would entail, what its role and authorities would be and who participates. If the government and other political forces are committed to such a process and to a transformation of Sudan’s political system, he said, “it can happen.”

However, Lyman, now a special advisor at USIP, also cautioned that the process would be very difficult, including determining who participates. Careful thought needs to be given to how broad participation is organized. “Just saying you’re going to include everybody is a trap” that would lack effective structure, he said. Lyman also suggested that such dialogue not be placed under the government itself.

Jon Temin, director of the Institute’s Africa program and co-author with Lyman of the earlier Peace Brief, also predicted that the anticipated process would be “messy” and urged that “we can’t wait for perfection on these things to move forward.” How the process can be more than just bargaining among pro-government and opposition elites and become genuinely popular is “the crux of the matter,” he said. Temin also drew attention to the need to consider how a national dialogue would play a role in ongoing efforts to secure peace in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and to advance a process for writing a new Sudanese constitution. Overall, a national dialogue could take two to three years—or more—and “accepting that reality early on is very important.”

Abdullahi Ibrahim, an associate professor of African and Islamic history at the University of Missouri, expressed pessimism about national dialogue prospects with the current government in Khartoum, saying it meant “speaking truth to power, and that makes power irritable.” Unlike the South African experience, Ibrahim said, “there is no culture of forget and forgive” in Sudan. He added, “We really need to take national dialogue with a grain of salt.”

A real national dialogue will need the participation of Sudan’s civil society—especially organizations representing labor and students. A democratic environment and the removal of certain laws that prevent free elections to choose the leadership of such organizations are necessary. Until then, Ibrahim said, “you are really working under the shadow of big brother.”

Sayed Elkhatib, director of the Khartoum-based Center for Strategic Studies, said there is “a good opportunity” now for national dialogue. “The country needs a new minimum of consensus, without which it’s difficult to see how we could go on,” he said via a Skype connection. Whatever mechanism emerges to conduct national dialogue needs to be agreed by all participants, he said, and those involved should extend beyond traditional political parties. Elkhatib argued that the 1 ½ years between now and planned 2015 national elections would provide sufficient time for a serious dialogue and that, in any case, the process should neither be open-ended nor an attempt to resolve all the country’s problems.

Ahmed Hussain Adam, a visiting scholar at Columbia University, said the Sudanese government must show the “political will” to pursue a national dialogue. “There is no time given the situation on the ground right now to play games or buy time,” he said. “The question is, are they really serious this time?” he asked. Some actions, such as a military campaign underway in Darfur, indicate otherwise. “There is a huge gap of trust that needs to be filled.”

Magdeldin Elgizouli, a German Academic Exchange Service Scholar at the University of Freiburg in Germany, warned that “vast swaths of the country” do not feel represented by existing political movements in the opposition or the government, and that a national dialogue that is structured as an “elite bargain” would be shortsighted. Without adequate freedoms for Sudanese such as the freedom to associate and organize, future talks among elites would not offer the needed “popular process,” he said via Skype. “I think that’s the heart of the matter,” he said.

Nasredeen Abdulbari, a lecturer in international and comparative law at the University of Khartoum, agreed that “the current political organizations do not represent generally the Sudanese aspirations and the Sudanese people.” Broad participation and the abolition of laws restricting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including those that currently bar free access to news media, are needed to create the conditions for a durable national dialogue, he said, and the power of Sudan’s intelligence and security agencies needs to be limited. On the sensitive issue of the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for alleged criminal responsibility for genocide and war crimes in Darfur, Abdulbari said that justice had to be embraced as a principle in a national dialogue. Justice is needed for Sudan’s future peace and stability, and “we should not compromise that.”

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