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 adviser 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-riven nation.

Arif Omer helps manage a March 24, 2014, USIP webcast discussion on national dialogue in Sudan.
Arif Omer helps manage a March 24, 2014, USIP webcast discussion on national dialogue in Sudan.

Part Two: Sudan and the West

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, who has been succeeded as special envoy by Ambassador Donald Booth, 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 Sudan Liberation Movement/Army.

AO: As former special envoy to Sudan, you know that dialogue between the American and Sudanese governments became stalled. What was that point exactly?

PL: You know, I think to be very candid, I think the government of Sudan has made a mistake. They decided that when I finished my role, they didn’t need an envoy anymore, and they did not need to talk to the envoy. And I have said this to people in the Sudanese government; you are making a big mistake. The U.S. secretary of state has got more than 180 countries to worry about; he’s going to be preoccupied with some big crises -- Iran negotiations, Syria, Egypt, etc. Secretary Kerry in fact has got a lot of thoughts about Sudan but he’s not going to work on it 24 hours a day. He has a senior person, the envoy, who works on that 24 hours a day and briefs him and briefs the president. If Sudan doesn’t use that envoy, they are not getting to the secretary, they are not getting to the president. They want that direct entry to the secretary; well, so do 180 other countries and most of them don’t get very much face time.

The value of having an envoy is that it has elevated the importance of Sudan.  And Ambassador [Donald] Booth is a presidential envoy, so the White House will listen to what transpires between the envoy and the government of Sudan. So, I think the government of Sudan made a mistake in thinking that it was better to do without the envoy than working with him. And I just think that they are denying themselves opportunities for dialogue as a result. I’ve said this to members of the Sudan government.

AO: Perhaps they think the dialogue is not necessary…

PL: You see, they say the envoy wants to get involved in things that are none of America’s business like Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile; the government only wants to talk about “bilateral issues.” But you can’t separate those issues. What they call non-relevant issues, like Darfur and Southern Kordofan, impact the bilateral relations. That’s why the sanctions are there, that’s why there are limitations on programs. So you can’t separate them out and say we won’t talk to the envoy because he wants to talk about those issues.

The result is that then you talk about nothing. Because you know, you can talk about trade, but there are trade sanctions. You can talk about debt relief, but sanctions related to Darfur and the Two Areas are relevant. The big issues are all tied up together.

And here’s the other mistake they make. John Kerry is very interested in a dialogue with Sudan. He has always been interested -- as a senator he went out there, we went together and he also went on his own. And when he became secretary, he said to me we have to think creatively about this dialogue. But he’s not going to be able to do it all the time, and so the dialogue has to be furthered through the envoy’s office. And I don’t quite understand why Sudan doesn’t do that. Sure we will have differences but that is exactly why the dialogue with the envoy is so important.

AO: They mention many times that dialogue with the U.S., since the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement with South Sudan), has not been beneficial.

PL: I know they feel that way. In a big way they didn’t get the things they wanted -- being lifted from the sponsors of terrorism list, etc. But the dialogue was useful to them because -- and I took a lot of criticism for this from some other people -- we listened to the government. In the North- South negotiations following up to finish the CPA and all the agreements for the summit in 2012, Sudan had a hearing from me and from all of us on their legitimate issues in those negotiations.

I will give you a clear cut example. One thing that came out of our dialogue was that in any oil agreement there had to be some compensation to Sudan for the loss of the oil revenue. And it had to be real compensation; it couldn’t be offset by claims and come out to net zero. We took that argument to the South Sudanese and we made it over and over again, and as you know, in the final settlement last year, or a year and a half ago, finally South Sudan said okay, $3 billion over time, however they worked it out. That’s just an example of our listening to the Sudanese government on what is its legitimate concern.

Similarly on the border issues, when that whole fight developed over the 14-mile area because Sudan was not accepting the AUHIP (African Union High-Level Implementation Panel) map, and everyone was beating up on the Sudanese government. Then I got involved and I sat down with Sudan’s generals, and with the South Sudanese, and I said what’s going on? It turns out it had nothing to do with the map, per se. It had to do with who was going to control those bridges at the top of the 14-mile area, and how do you work out a way that both sides felt secure. Sudan had legitimate security concerns; so did the South Sudanese. I and my British colleague -- we were able to work out a satisfactory compromise on the 14-mile area, because we listened to both sides.

Now, those aren’t the big things. They didn’t get to lifting of sanctions and all of the rest, but it still paid off. Look at Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. It’s perfectly legitimate for Sudan to say you can’t have two armies in one country. I agree; you can’t have two armies in one country. What we haven’t agreed is how do you get to that agreement. How do you get to a position where you no longer have that situation? And that’s why the parallel talks, political and security, in the Nafie-Malik agreement, made a lot of sense from our point of view. But the principle that there shouldn’t be two armies there is absolutely correct. And so, you know, on various issues, the dialogue pays off.

There a lot of very thoughtful people in Sudan, not just in government, but also outside of government, who have creative ideas about peace. And we benefit a lot from listening to them. So, I understand that the government doesn’t yet get the big things out of dialogue, but the big things come out of solving some of these problems. And whenever they’ve had what I consider a legitimate issue -- whether it’s with South Sudan or somebody else -- we’ve picked it up and carried that issue into the talks.

AO: When engaging the Sudan government during your time as special envoy, did you talk directly to the president?

PL: I was not allowed to talk to the president, and you know that limited our role to some extent, and I accepted that. And there was resentment on the part of the government; there’s no question that they resented it and I understood that. But that was a very strong position in the U.S. because of the ICC indictment. So, we talked indirectly to him through Thabo Mbeki, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles, and I was able to talk to the vice president, with other senior officials, with negotiators, etc. So we had a lot of dialogue.

AO: Did you feel at the time that the president may have a different position?

PL: You know, whenever you are not talking to someone, you have to speculate. We listened to what the Sudanese were telling us, that the president is the ultimate decision-maker in Sudan -- I think that is very clear. We had to get a sense of who was representing the president in the talks.

Next in the series: Sudan Looking Ahead

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