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-torn nation.

A woman builds a shelter for herself in the village of Damra Toma in North Darfur State, Sudan.
A woman builds a shelter for herself in the village of Damra Toma in North Darfur State, Sudan. Photo Credit: UN Photo/Albert González Farran

Part Three: Sudan Looking Ahead

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: How will the extended conflict in South Sudan affect Sudan, especially along the border line?

PL: It will affect it in several ways. Of course the oil production is affected, which affects the economy of Sudan. It makes the border area even more difficult. Early in the conflict, Sudan launched a major offensive in the Southern Kordofan-Blue Nile area, probably trying to reach the border and control it, but it did not succeed. So that border area remains contested. The neighboring states, under the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), are engaged with bringing about an end to the civil conflict in South Sudan. And Sudan is a member of IGAD. At the same time, AUHIP, the African Union high-level panel headed by Thabo Mbeki, should be focusing on the crisis in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, and that leads into the whole question of transformation in Sudan. That’s where the AUHIP has already done a lot of work and where it could make its best contribution right now.

AO: Al Bashir recently announced political reform in Sudan -- why now?  Is he getting pressure from the U.S.? 

PL: It’s hard for me to know exactly what led President Bashir to his proposal, and you have to see exactly what kind of a national dialogue will be structured. But Sudan faces a decision by 2015, and I think if I were President Bashir, I would want to know where the direction of the country was going by 2015, even just to make a decision whether to run or not. And so I would imagine he’s saying, “Well, we better get started on this, in order to be able to make a decision.” But that’s my guess. You know, as you said, I have had no access to the president. Overall, however, I believe that these decisions are being taken because Sudanese leaders see them as necessary for Sudan, not because of any outside pressure.

AO: Recently, the Sudan government has been briefing European ambassadors on its planned reform for the country. Why do you think they are not involving the U.S.?

PL: Well, you know, it goes to this unfortunate situation where they say, “Well, you know dialogue with the Americans is not getting us anywhere, so we are not going to do it anymore.” I think it’s a big mistake. Joseph Stafford was a wonderful interlocutor; they should have made much more use of him, an Arabic speaker, very sincere, very dedicated. They don’t make use of Donald Booth, the presidential envoy.

There wasn’t anybody other than the officials under ICC indictment that I, as envoy, wasn’t willing to talk to. I remember driving through Sudan one time. A small group was making terrible charges about the United States. We drove over to the leader’s headquarters. He was amazed. I walked in and sat down, I asked what is this all about? That is just a small example of our reaching out.

The government is missing a very important opportunity by not dialoguing. Maybe the dialogue won’t give them what they want, but how do you know if you don’t dialogue with the United States? And as I said in trying to give more examples earlier, we listen; we don’t always agree, but we listen. And I am sure that if there was a really significant transformational process getting under way, it would be of great interest to the United States.

AO: Do you think the dialogue between Sudan and European countries will be successful?

PL: I just don’t know, I think it’s too soon to really know, from my point of view because I am not on the ground.

AO: The Sudan government has been negotiating with the World Bank to get involved in the HIPC  (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) initiative. Do you think this may be the reason for political reform?

PL: No. I think it’s more internal political factors than just economic. Look, the trouble in South Sudan means that the oil is not going to flow as much; it’s going to take a long time to get it even back up to normal. That’s going to aggravate the economic problem.

Now, debt relief is good and necessary in the long run, but in the short run the government has got these huge military expenditures because war is going on all over the country. And that can only be stopped by a political process. So I think there’s a recognition that continuing on the same pathway is not going to be good for the country. And I don’t think this government wants to go through another set of demonstrations over economic problems. So I think it’s partly economic, partly political. But you know, in the long run, debt relief is very important.

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