Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman served as U.S. special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from March 2011 to March 2013 before joining the U.S. Institute of Peace as a senior advisor to the USIP president. Arif Omer, the first to hold a new four-month Sudanese youth leader residency at USIP, interviewed Lyman at length on the violence and political conflicts that have torn the African country for decades.  The edited interview is being presented on The Olive Branch this week in three parts -- efforts to encourage a national dialogue, Sudan’s relations with the West and what the future holds for the conflict-torn nation.

Princeton Lyman discusses pathways to a national dialogue in Sudan during a March 24, 2014, USIP webcast-only discussion.
Princeton Lyman discusses pathways to a national dialogue in Sudan during a March 24, 2014, USIP webcast-only discussion.

The U.S., United Nations and other powers are urging Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to engage in a national dialogue to end conflicts in Darfur and in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states and to lay out a path toward a democratic transition. Lyman addresses questions including the role of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whose term is due to expire in 2015 and who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Omer also questioned Lyman about al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and armed opposition groups such as the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), which is an alliance of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) fighting in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, and several groups fighting in Darfur such as the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the two factions of the Southern Liberation Movement/Army.

Arif Omer: Most Sudanese are now following your papers on national dialogue in Sudan. What is your foundation?

Princeton Lyman:  The U.S. Institute of Peace, where I am now a senior advisor, is dedicated to conflict resolution. My colleague Jon Temin and I wrote a paper on the ways by which political transformation in Sudan might proceed. I think national dialogue is essential in Sudan. National dialogues don’t work in every circumstance, but in Sudan it seems to me it’s essential. But how the dialogue is carried out is very important. And it can’t be carried out without dealing with some of the conflict situations. I think statements like, “We won’t deal with, and we won’t include the rebels, until they lay down their arms,” that’s not going to work. If the Sudan government were to put forth a dialogue process that was quite attractive, you could probably get a ceasefire during that period. Because then there’s a process to relate to. If the national dialogue seems to be biased or too controlled, then it won’t work. So, I think the big challenge for the government of Sudan, as we tried to deal with in the paper, is to promote the dialogue but not control it. And that’s hard to do if you are government. But it would be best to create a structure around respectable jurists or similarly respected persons, so that dialogue would be not be interfered with by the government.  I always say the government must play a major role in the dialogue, but allow it to be free. That will attract people. If it’s too controlled, or if it’s tightly under the NCP [National Congress Party] or something like that, it won’t work.

AO: In your paper, you mention that the ICC [International Criminal Court] issue is a big challenge for the national dialogue. Is there any roadmap to engage the European countries?

PL: I think this is one of the biggest challenges for Sudan, but there are creative ways to think about it. I think the first step will have to be this dialogue and transformation in Sudan, and establishment of a government that is no longer at war with its own people. That allows that government to have a different stature in talking to the ICC than a government that is still at war with its own people. So, it seems to me that transformation comes first.

Then there are a variety of alternatives. It would not be easy, but the government could then say to the ICC, “We will deal with the issue of accountability internally and here’s how we are going to deal with it,” and see if the ICC would bless that. It may or may not. Or the government can say, “Look we have made a transformation, this is a better government, in terms that we are no longer at war with our people. We are not going to turn the president over to the ICC. But we are a different government.”

That will continue to pose a problem. But if you look at what happened in Serbia they didn’t turn over Milosevic for quite a while. First, they made their transformation, then they had peace and then they addressed Milosevic’s future. This is a difficult issue. You can see Kenya is playing out in a different way. But rather than trying to figure out how one gets to the end point, you’ve got to get to transformation first, because then you get a government in Sudan that has a different standing in talking to the international community about this issue.

AO: It seems like a difficult issue…

PL: Very difficult issue, I don’t deny it.

AO: Is it important for the transformation that al-Bashir steps down?

PL: Well I think, you know, I don’t want to prejudge how the dialogue will come out. That’s the purpose of the dialogue, to come to this and many other issues. But I do think in terms of Sudan moving beyond this crisis and re-establishing itself with the international community, it probably has to come after President al-Bashir steps down. Now, if he is a private individual, it’s a different thing. But if he is president of the country, it’s an obstacle. And again, you could see it from Serbia -- until Milosevic was no longer president, the Serbian government could not negotiate with the European Union; they couldn’t even start to get back out from under sanctions and other limitations. They didn’t turn Milosevic over for some time, but the government was starting to get credibility, international respect, able to begin negotiating with the European Union, etc.

I don’t think Sudan can do that while President al-Bashir is president because the indictment will hang over him and thus the government. So you’ve got to have a new government that has a different image, led by people who aren’t indicted. That government then has to take this issue on, but that government would be in a better position to negotiate on the ICC issue than a government in which the president is under indictment.

Now, President al-Bashir is in a difficult position, there’s no question about it.  He’s going to say, “Wait a minute -- you want me to go through this dialogue and step down in 2015, and not know my future?” So there’s going to have to be some very creative thinking during the dialogue to say to President al-Bashir, “Here’s what we are moving to, and here’s how we are going to try and move this issue afterwards. Is that sufficient for you or not?” 

I don’t want to prejudge that, but you can’t duck it either.

AO: Who should start this creative thinking for the ICC -- European countries or the U.S.?

PL: I think it has to start within Sudan -- that there’s going to be a government that comes out of this process that is no longer at war with its own people. Once you have that, then whether it is friends of Sudan in the African Union, whether it’s the government itself, whether its people in the ICC -- you can have a real dialogue on this. But I think it’s harder when the government itself is not in good graces in the international community.

AO:  A big challenge for the Sudan government is how to get past 2015, especially when the constitution is very clear that this is al-Bashir’s last term as president. Is this considered in your proposal for national dialogue?

PL: Well, we have to see. A national dialogue, as I said, has to be free enough and open enough, that people feel comfortable that they’re going to be heard. But second, the people have to decide what are the terms of reference for the dialogue. Is it just a talk fest -- everybody talks but then you get to the same political set-up and the same constitution? Is it going to be a group that eventually helps draft a new constitution, or is it a group that only makes recommendations?

So, the first step -- and we put this in the paper -- is you have to decide, what is the role of the dialogue? I watched this in Nigeria, for example, when President Obasanjo called what I would describe as a halfway national dialogue. It wasn’t clear what its authority was and what was to come out of it. So it didn’t satisfy the people who wanted the national dialogue. It didn’t entirely satisfy him either. So we have to see really, how President al-Bashir defines the role of this dialogue, what its functions are. Then people will see whether this is something they really feel is going to be beneficial.

AO: How can you imagine that the national dialogue will be fair if there is no political balance between the NCP and other parties?

PL: I don’t disagree; I think this is one of the difficult challenges. But in the process of the dialogue, if you recognize -- let’s say the SPLM-North as a party and the potential of the SRF becoming a party -- political alliances can be developed over the course of the dialogue. If you look at the history in Kenya or elsewhere, it’s when opposition parties came together that they were a sufficient coalition to win an election, or when different coalitions are created, as in the most recent Kenya election, it is possible to overcome the sharp differences and violence that occurred previously.

That’s going to be difficult in Sudan because there are a lot of differences between the different opposition parties. But I think that if the dialogue is two years long, that gives a lot of time for creativity among the other parties, especially if the rules of the game are made for free and full dialogue over the critical issues of national identity, democracy, and other matters. If the rules of the game are such, it will encourage better opposition politics.

And we’ve tried to stress this in the paper -- it’s not a winner-take-all kind of situation. The future of Sudan has got to have a place for all the key constituencies of the country, whether they are in the presidency or the parliament. So, the Islamists must have a future in Sudan -- you don’t push the NCP out as a legitimate player, but the rules have to be such that everybody has a fair shot at becoming president. It doesn’t mean that any party that wins has all the power and can kill everybody else. But I think the principle of dialogue is that everybody’s got a place, now let’s find where that place is.

AO: How can we engage the armed opposition in the national dialogue?

PL: It’s a very important point. In all the dialogue -- when I was envoy -- that we had with the armed opposition, we said to them, “You can’t expect to be accepted as legitimate by the people at the center and all the NCP supporters, if your only function is to throw them out of power and you come in. Why would they dialogue with you, why would they ever want to sit down and talk to you?”

So, our whole discussion was to urge the armed opposition to develop a political platform, a vision for a united Sudan, in which everybody plays a role. And that was the source of our discussion every time we met, in Washington, in Kampala, everywhere. And the SRF [Sudan Revolutionary Front] has moved in that direction, little by little. Each document has been a little better. They stopped talking about the “periphery,” I think. They never use the term “new South” any more -- it’s a terrible term; it sounds like you are getting ready to secede. So, we urged them to move away from that rhetoric, and elaborate their vision of a united Sudan. And they’ve been moving in that direction.

Now, they are pulled in different directions internally, because some in the armed movements say, “We are not fighting out here for some political compromise; we are out fighting to get rid of this regime.”  Second, they don’t have the same vision.  JEM [Justice and Equality Movement] doesn’t have the same vision as Abdelaziz al-Hilu in the SPLM-N, for example, so the SRF has its own internal struggle on this. But your point is exactly valid -- for them to participate in the dialogue, they have to say, “We are coming into that dialogue with the idea of a united Sudan in which everybody has a role. We are not coming here to push you into the Red Sea.”

AO: Earlier this year, the Sudanese government was saying, “We don’t have a national or political agenda to discuss with the rebels, unless they lay down their weapons.” Even now, when the government is opening the door to a broader political dialogue, the government sends troops into the conflict zones or threatens to do so unless the armed groups end their fighting.

PL: There is a political problem here. Otherwise these people would not have been fighting all this time. And the government will not be able to solve it militarily.

That doesn’t mean the armed groups are right in everything they’re demanding. But you can’t, especially when you are dealing with an internal guerilla movement like this, representing deep and unresolved issues, say, “Well it’s just a military question, lay down your arms, we will deal with the political issues afterwards.” You’ve got to have a political process. And you can have a parallel political process, along with addressing the security issues, but you have got to do both.

Now a tougher issue for the government is that, even when it professes a readiness to talk about political issues, the government likes to say it will talk to the SPLM-N about Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. But what’s happened in the members of the SRF -- they have moved away from talking about their particular areas and insist on talking about the national political structure of Sudan. That is because the problems in those areas are related to the fundamental way the government of Sudan is organized and functioning. That is the conclusion that outside specialists as well as many Sudanese now recognize.

It is the reason that so many piecemeal peace processes -- in Darfur, in the Two Areas -- have not brought about peace. And that’s where the national dialogue comes in. Because if Sudan had a national dialogue process getting under way, the government in Khartoum could say to the armed movements, “You could be part of that; there has to be a stop to the fighting, but you are going to be part of this national dialogue.” But it cannot say, “We don’t have that process, or you can go into that process, but you can only talk about Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, or Darfur.” That approach is no longer going to work. So, there has got to be some more enlightened thinking on the part of the government.

The irony is -- I know this gets into a controversial area in Khartoum -- but the  agreement signed by then presidential advisor Nafie al-Nafie and SPLM-N leader Malik Agar in Addis Ababa in June 2011 laid it out perfectly, and said you’ve got a political set of issues, you’ve got a security set of issues. They can be addressed in parallel fashion. Those political issues can go from the regional to the national. Not exclusively -- the SPLM-N is not the only player -- obviously everybody else is going to be part of this process. But it, like other parties, can be part of the national dialogue. The parties have to get back to that approach.

Next in the series: Sudan and the West

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