Ambassador Princeton Lyman, USIP’s Senior Advisor, offered the following remarks at a presentation for the Peace Research Institute at the University of Khartoum, Sudan.


I appreciate very much the honor of speaking today at the Peace Research Institute at the University of Khartoum. The U.S. Institute of Peace, with which I am affiliated, is like PRI dedicated to ending violent conflict and to the furtherance of peace. I think we would all agree that those objectives are often just beyond our reach. In Sudan and South Sudan, despite years of intensive negotiation, multiple agreements, and the dedicated work of so many, peace remains not only elusive, but in South Sudan and parts of Sudan, has been lost altogether. Yet we cannot despair nor pull back from this work. Too many people are suffering, too much potential is being lost, too much danger exists of even greater loss of life that, if anything, we must intensify our work. Thus I welcome the opportunity for our two Institutes to be in close touch, to see how we can reinforce our efforts in pursuit of peace.

As everyone here knows, I am sure, I spent more than two years working on behalf of my government in promoting peace between Sudan and South Sudan and the full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005. But I have been coming to Sudan for more than thirty years. When I think of Sudan, I think not just of its current challenges and ongoing conflicts, but of its long history of intellectual leadership in constitutional law, Islamic theology and practice, medicine, and so many other areas of scholarship. I recall the welcoming atmosphere and the tolerance and good will of the many Sudanese I have known. These continue to be in my view the foundation blocks for peace, democracy, and prosperity in this country. That again, is why I am so pleased to be here at the University of Khartoum, which is part of that tradition.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement

Today, however, I will concentrate my talk on the efforts of peacemaking, national and international, in Sudan and South Sudan, in particular on the outcome of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, and ask why there is that missing piece, Peace, in its denouement.

Surely, the CPA was comprehensive. It provided not only for resolution of the two long wars between north and south Sudan and a pathway for South Sudan’s self-determination. It laid out as well a pathway, through the elections of 2010, for greater democratization in north and south, an opening through those elections of political space and the flowering of multi-party democracy in each. It provided an innovative if somewhat ill-defined process for addressing the issues in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile – the popular consultations – and for a referendum to resolve the dispute over Abyei. No one can say it was not comprehensive in scope and intent.

And there have been no shortage of agreements. Not only the signing of the CPA itself, but multiple agreements covering debt, oil, citizenship, assets, establishment of a demilitarized border, introduction of new peacekeeping arrangements and joint administration of Abyei, and others. Some of these have been kept; others have fallen by the wayside. But agreements, there have been many.

But there is no peace. Sudan remains embroiled in internal wars in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, and has been drawn once again into the conflict in South Sudan. South Sudan has descended into a civil war of immense human loss and suffering.

The problem in the comprehensive ambitions of the CPA was that, whereas it was possible to bring the parties together on the independence of South Sudan, it was not possible for either the mediators or the international community to influence -- surely to control -- the evolution of internal political direction in either country. The elections of 2010 did not usher in a period of multi-party democracy and more open space, but rather the opposite, the firmer control by one party in each of the north and south. Popular consultations never were clearly enough defined nor accepted by Sudan’s leadership as leading to a more genuine political process, so they failed to address the issues in those Two Areas. The results of those consultations in Blue Nile remain locked in a warehouse, in row after row of carefully preserved recordings, but never perhaps to be used. The Abyei referendum never came off.

In South Sudan, despite extensive aid and international experts made available, and heavy political support, the regime drifted steadily and ominously toward greater control of the media and free speech, human rights violations by security forces, and eventually to discarding even the trappings of party-led government to one of militarization and ultimately civil war.

We in the international community watched these developments with deep concern. But we focused much of our attention on the continuing disputes and threats of returned war between Sudan and South Sudan.  We were immersed in addressing border skirmishes, Sudan’s military overrun of Abyei, South Sudan’s cutting off oil production, and the implications of the resumed conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile not only for peace in Sudan but for the relations between Sudan and South Sudan. Sudan’s and South Sudan’s leaders did the same, blaming whatever upset the peace in each of their countries on the acts of the other, e.g., Sudan blaming the situation in the Two Areas on South Sudan’s support for the SPLM-N, South Sudan blaming all its troubles on the continuing ambitions of Sudan to take back the oil, continued support to anti-government militias, and the like. It was convenient for each side to focus attention on the lingering issues between them rather than on the hard political issues within.

And that is where the CPA and the role of international mediators reach their limit: because the underlying obstacles to peace in each country, the fundamental issues of governance and representation, can only be addressed through a commitment of the people – and especially the leadership – in each country to addressing them. The neighboring countries and the wider international community can certainly be important in reining in conflict, and getting contending parties to the table, and even hammering out agreements that shift the conflict from military to political competition.  Political pressure, sanctions, and peacekeepers are effective for this purpose. But internal peace in countries like Sudan and South Sudan requires political transformation – a new, inclusive, responsible and accountable way of governance. There are few cases where outside powers have been able to accomplish that.

But there are numerous cases where countries have themselves carried out such transformation. Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, and Spain have all carried out democratic transitions, coming out from autocratic or one-party rule, and done so without crippling civil war. The conditions in these countries have varied, but several – like Indonesia, South Africa, and Chile -- emerged in the process from deep internal conflict. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan carried out the transition even when facing an ongoing external threat.1 

Sudan could surely do this. So let me begin there.


Sudan: National Dialogue is Not Enough

National dialogues have become a popular means for addressing deep internal divisions within countries. Some time back, my colleague Jon Temin and I wrote a piece for USIP on a pathway for national dialogue in Sudan. My colleague Susan Stigant, who is here today, has written on such experiences elsewhere. Another USIP report focused in particular on the experience in Yemen.  I will not go through all of what has been said on this, as many of you have read those writings.2

The point I want to make here is that national dialogues have to be part of a broader transition process. Within that context, their particular purpose and structure must be carefully determined.

The principles and some of the problems in national dialogues can be summed up as follows:

  • Inclusiveness is essential, to include civil society, opposition parties including armed ones, intellectuals, and experts. Inclusivity is important not only for achieving national buy-in but also to bring in the concerns of the general population who may well have been denied a voice in an autocratic system.
  • But dialogues that become too large, with agendas too diffuse, degenerate into debating societies, and are poorly structured to address some of the most critical political issues. Indeed, government and other political leaders often resist such broad participation or seek to control it. As one Yemeni political leader expressed it, it is hard to enter into meaningful political negotiations “with all these women and civil society around.”
  • That gets to the heart of the challenge for national dialogues. Tough political issues are rarely negotiated in public forums. Indeed as Alex de Waal illustrates in his new book on the Horn of Africa,3 most political negotiations take place in what he calls the “political marketplace” where the price of agreements are determined and deals are made. 
  • Thus national dialogues must proceed from and along with other forums and processes that address some of the hardest political issues, decided by key political leaders from the various sides. Only then can the broader issues of constitutional development, human rights, federal or other wealth or power sharing agreements, the principles of which would flow from the national dialogue, be formalized.

In Sudan, the National Dialogue has been underway for months and is reaching its conclusion. There is no doubt that the participants in the dialogue have been addressing very critical and sometimes very sensitive issues with vigor and earnestness. The results could be far-reaching.

But the dialogue is not coordinated into a particular political direction. The peace talks between the government and the SPLM-N drag on without results. The situation in Darfur has degenerated into such a complex set of combatants and issues that no single process is available for addressing it. Participation of key political groups and leaders is thus missing from the dialogue. Simultaneously, crackdowns are taking place on political activity, civil society, and individuals which are surely inconsistent with the very idea of a national dialogue.

I would suggest that at the heart of the problem is that there has not yet been a commitment to a real democratic transition, especially by the ruling authorities. I understand a ruling group’s fear of such a transformation. It often appears to such a group that it is a zero sum game. That democracy would surely mean not just losing power, but perhaps revenge, imprisonment, or worse. Or that it would necessarily mean uprooting strong religious principles in governance. Yet in the experience of the countries I have mentioned that have gone through such transitions, those fears have not been realized. In South Africa, not only were the privileges of the Afrikaner civil service preserved, the military officer corps protected, and the economic position of the white population quite well-maintained, but also political freedoms were found to be liberating for the white population, freed not only from international condemnation, but able to find their own rights protected through a strong constitution, an independent constitutional court, freedom of speech and media, and all the other trappings of a democratic state.

In South Korea, a country I know pretty well – I lived there in the 1960s - the daughter of General Park Chung Hee, who forged the transition in the 1960s, is today the president of South Korea, as head of her father’s party. In most of the countries going through this process where there was a history of human rights violations there has been a negotiation over accountability and justice that met most concerns on all sides. Leaders of Islamic thought in Sudan have pointed to the ways in which Islam and democracy can and should be reinforcing in this country.

Strong incumbents can indeed manage the transition to assure that it is not a zero sum game. But there has to be a fundamental commitment to change. I recall a senior advisor to President F.W. De Klerk telling me that the National Party leaders recognized in the 1980s that they could maintain the apartheid system for a long time to come, but not forever. Better, they concluded, to be in the driver’s seat in preparing for and negotiating the transition, rather than be its victim. They began a process of negotiation that they acknowledged would indeed have to culminate in a democracy, one man one vote, but could also protect their people.

In Sudan, those most concerned over the process of transition, those most suspicious -- if not outright opposed -- should be made part of the process of dialogue, not remain outside it. If they are fighting it, it will not get far. That includes especially those in the security sector, and others most resistant to change. Change well-managed can be both consistent with democracy and self-serving. Change mishandled, as I believe is the case today, only prolongs the crisis. Before a national dialogue gets well underway the consensus on the need for fundamental change, and that it need not be fundamentally threatening, should be nurtured and subsequently confirmed within the leadership.

A point of clarification: Management of the transition by the regime does not mean managing or directing all aspects of the process. That itself would undermine confidence. The broader national dialogue would be best-served by being under independent leadership. That assures free expression, new ideas surfacing, and real debate taking place. The regime at the same time should be in negotiations with the key political actors from across the country to hammer out the basics of how a democratic system will be structured so that all sides come out with enough to support the overall outcome. Separate regional negotiations can also take place simultaneously. In the end, the political negotiations and the broader national dialogue can be made mutually reinforcing by agreeing on the formal process of constitutional and institutional reform.

To make this work, the opposition has to be united in its goals and principles. This requires in the view of those who have studied these transitions, “bridging deep disagreement about aims, leadership, strategies, and tactics.”4 Especially relevant to Sudan, they argue that in order “to persuade elements within the regime to be open to change, reformers must make credible assurances that they will not seek revenge or confiscate the assets of regime insiders.”  There have been several efforts among the opposition parties, both armed and unarmed, to develop this degree of consensus. I think the government makes a mistake in frustrating this process as it has done by forbidding travel or punishing participants. A divided opposition in Sudan only furthers the cause of those who take up arms or look to violence. It makes the national dialogue all the more messy and unpredictable.

A united opposition will also have to renounce the goal of overthrowing the government by force. That is not a wise or even practical goal. Transformation by armed might has moreover proved disastrous in many countries, leading often to chaos or new autocracy rather than to democracy. Far better, is a negotiated one. Renouncing the goal of armed overthrow is nevertheless most difficult for armed groups that have been frustrated by false peace proposals or unfulfilled political promises. But there is precedent for compromise here as well. Nelson Mandela was careful of both his constituency that felt strongly about the armed struggle and the prospects being offered for a successful negotiation when he faced De Klerk’s government’s demands that he renounce the “armed struggle” as a condition for negotiations. His answer was to “suspend” the armed struggle, for as long as credible negotiations for democracy were proceeding. De Klerk was wise enough to accept this compromise. After a while as negotiations proved successful, the armed struggle became irrelevant. This will be harder to achieve in Sudan but it is the direction the negotiations should go.

Here is where different forums can serve the whole. The negotiations now under way with the SPLM-N and Darfur armed groups should focus on a cease fire and on humanitarian access in the Jebel Mara area of Darfur and in the Two Areas, as stepping stones to a larger political process where the issues of federalism, security sector reform and military integration, and other such issues are addressed. The current talks between the government and the SPLM-N cannot in themselves solve those larger issues. But you cannot expect to have agreement on the stepping stones, if the larger forums do not yet exist. So there has to be movement on broadening the national dialogue process, and on creating parallel political talks on these larger issues, so that there is confidence that agreements on the local situation will not be misused or exploited by either side. Sudan’s hard line on humanitarian access is particularly unhelpful in winning belief in the regime’s ultimate intentions. Security officials believe humanitarian access will be exploited to revive and rearm the SPLM-N. But the SPLM-N has remained resistant for four years without it and will remain so. On the other hand, granting humanitarian access would greatly enhance the government’s internal as well as international position.

Let me summarize. Sudan is like South Africa in the 1980s in one respect. It can maintain, for a time, the historic policy of traditional leadership from the central part of the country; play opposition elements off each other or suppress them militarily; it cannot defeat the insurgents in the Nuba mountains but it can contain them; it can live with the near anarchy of Darfur as long as it does not threaten the center; and it can live economically off a combination of rents, humanitarian assistance, and a trickle of foreign investment to keep up the livelihood of its supporters. Perhaps it can do this for some time. But it can only do this at great long-term cost. The country will not develop its economic potential, it will not attract any significant foreign investment, it will not overcome international opprobrium for its human rights violations, it will not know peace or real prosperity. At some point, the system will not hold.

The African Union High Level Implementation Panel, various peacebuilding groups, and others in the international community can help develop an alternative scenario and assist in the processes of dialogue. But only the Sudanese -- the leaders that must make the deals, the intellectual leadership that can forge definitions of national identity, the scholars and religious leaders that can show the way to tolerance, mutual respect, and inclusiveness -- only the Sudanese can make it happen.

One more story from South Africa. In 1992, the negotiations had broken down, violence in the townships had boiled over, constitutional talks had deadlocked, the sides had stopped talking to each other. The process appeared to be on the verge of collapse. President George H.W. Bush called the leaders of South Africa and offered the mediating assistance of his Secretary of State. As the crisis dragged on, he repeated the offer. But both De Klerk and Mandela rejected it. They told Bush, “This is our country. And we must solve its problems.” And they did.

South Sudan

The Weakness of Institutions

It is particularly painful for an American, one who worked on behalf of South Sudan exercising its right of self-determination, to witness the calamity in South Sudan. It is such an enormous disappointment. It is such a betrayal of the hopes and dreams of the South Sudanese.

As I mentioned earlier, the descent into civil war occurred despite hundreds of millions of dollars of aid, hundreds if not thousands of experts provided to the government, and the presence of a UN peacekeeping mission. It stands as a jarring example of how little influence even such inputs from the international community create when the internal political dynamics work in the opposite direction. This is not meant as an excuse. I lose a lot of sleep, and press those who were part of this history, to seek an answer as to whether -- and if so, how -- we could have prevented this disaster. I do not have the answers yet, not to my satisfaction. But understanding the limits of outside involvement and influence, before and now, helps understand the prospects for peace today.

The situation in South Sudan is not comparable to that in Sudan. In South Sudan, there is a near-total breakdown of accepted government, a vicious civil war, and in parts of the country an unsafe environment arising from crime, armed individuals or groups, and revenge taking. Some 200,000 people are sheltering in UN compounds. Close to 1.7 million are displaced. The threat of widespread famine is grim. It is one of the largest humanitarian disasters in the world today.

I commend to everyone interested in South Sudan to read the report of the Commission of Inquiry, headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. The report is not easy reading for it details some horrific human rights violations. But the report also analyzes at some length the weakness of institutions that should have stood against the decline into civil war: the ruling party, the judiciary, the legislature, the army, the parliament and civil society. All of them had fundamental weaknesses that limited their ability. The SPLM was not ever an independent political party so much as a political wing of the liberation army. When President Kiir was challenged for the presidency by his Vice President, Riek Machar, the party was unable to manage the situation and was eventually pushed aside by the president. Political control of the military, a fundamental tenet of democracy, was not even a serious possibility. The army had itself become an assembly of militia, brought together by oil-generated largesse meted out to the various militia leaders but the militias were never integrated into a true national army. When the conflict broke out, it broke apart as well. Each of the major contenders and several of the militia generals rely heavily on ethnic mobilization and ethnic rivalry to mobilize supporters and to justify their actions. Political agendas are almost non-existent, except as competition for power and for resources.

Sudan should take no satisfaction, no schadenfreude, from these developments. Sudan’s government promoted and long supported the various militias in South Sudan that fought the SPLM during the civil war and continue today to create havoc and complicate peace efforts. Sudan did little to develop strong institutions in the south that might have governed more effectively at independence.  Sudan now suffers from loss of oil revenue, hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese refugees, unrest at the border, and sharper competition with Uganda for influence in South Sudan.

Who can bring peace to South Sudan?

The sub-regional organization, IGAD, has been charged with this process. It has labored hard to bring the parties to an agreement, and to end the fighting. To its credit, it has brought about an agreement that is comprehensive in scope. The agreement calls for a transition period in which a new constitution, many new laws and commissions, security sector reform, closer oversight of finances, a hybrid court to address accountability, and a process of reconciliation will all take place to usher in a new dispensation and a democratic form of governance. I say this is to its credit because the weakness of institutions, as pointed out by the Commission of Inquiry, contributed to the civil war, and without their reform the country will almost surely fall back into civil war in the future.

But there is an echo here of the CPA. While the scope of the agreement is comprehensive, the international community is not in a position to enforce it.  Responsibility for carrying out much of this reform has been assigned in large part to the two leaders whose competition for power generated the conflict. There is little reason to believe that either is committed to such reform, especially if it limits their future ambitions. While others have been assigned positions in the unity government, their real power is questionable. What has happened is that, in the evolution of this peace process, focus on comprehensive reform has steadily given way just to getting the fighting stopped, to getting the two contending leaders to the table and to agree on (yet again, for this is what existed in practice before) a unity government. In the underlying competition between fundamental reform and focusing on the “guys with the guns,” the understandable but lamentable default has been to the latter. Just as the CPA monitors focused on the continuing crises and issues between north and south, and less on the internal reform process, IGAD has moved similarly in South Sudan to focus on stopping the fighting first and foremost, even if that means putting power back in the hands of those who began it.

Unlike in the CPA, however, IGAD has introduced a stronger role for the international community. A Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (JMEC) will provide oversight to the process, and is headed by a distinguished former head of state, Festus Mogae. He will report to IGAD, the African Union, and to the UN Security Council. A hybrid court headed by an African jurist from another country will address the human rights violations that have occurred and determine responsibility. The question now is can these mechanisms be any more effective on internal reform than the processes of the CPA?

I will argue that in the situation in South Sudan, there is almost no hope for peace, let alone needed reform without strong international involvement. Without it, none of the independent bodies or experts, civil society, or other instruments of inclusivity called for in the agreement will have voice and power. But the JMEC, backed foremost by IGAD, may not be able to carry out this role. First of all, IGAD is itself divided. Sudan and Uganda have competing interests and have carried out a near proxy war in South Sudan during this period. Ethiopia and Kenya do not see eye to eye on the peace process. Many within the IGAD countries have both economic interests and engage in arms sales, interests which work against strong actions by IGAD, such as to call for an arms embargo or commit to economic sanctions against the parties when they fail to live up to their agreements. Other African governments brought into the process have often muddied the waters with competing peace processes, such as the Arusha one, and have their own special interests. Finally, only one of the IGAD members, Kenya, is a true democracy. How determined will IGAD be in enforcing a truly democratic transition in South Sudan?

I fear therefore for the peace in South Sudan. If the current process does fail, the issue must be brought to a higher international level. Some combination of the UN and the African Union must take this over. There have to be stronger sanctions against those obstructing the peace process. Several of these individuals have now been named by the UN’s sanctions investigation panel. African countries above all have to decide that peace overrides any competing interests that keep the conflict going. Despite the carnage and the hundreds of thousands of refugees flowing across the borders, they are not there yet. When they do get there, stopping the flow of arms, and cutting off support from the neighboring countries themselves for the various factions, and instituting some of the instruments of the peace agreement such as the hybrid court will help stop the bloodshed.

Yet for all the reasons I discussed regarding Sudan, outsiders will not be able to effect a democratic transition in South Sudan. Only South Sudanese can do this. They can be supported by actions of the international community that stop the war, protect civilians from mass slaughter, and provide financial and expert support for institutional change, and monitor the processes of transformation. This will give the country needed space. Only when there is a period of at least relative peace, a time to step back from the killings and resulting anger, time for new voices and institutions allowed to emerge, can this process really get under way. This is what the current peace agreement could provide, but only if enforced, if there is stronger international backing for JMEC and greater costs inflicted on those who would undercut it. African and the larger international community can and therefore should do everything possible to create this space, this period of calm and internal growth. In that space the South Sudanese will have to once again take up the tasks of democratic development which were so violently hijacked.  It will take a long time.


The task of peace still cuts across the borders of Sudan and South Sudan. The conflicts within each country cross over into the other. Instability and turmoil in one impacts the wellbeing of the other. Sudan and South Sudan are no longer legally or statutorily linked, but as neighbors they will always be so inextricably bound together. The processes of dialogue and transformation that each undertake internally can thus also cross borders, and impact positively on the prospects for peace in both countries. Let us all reinvigorate our efforts to achieve such a peace for all Sudanese.

Thank you for the privilege of addressing you today.

Abraham F. Lowenthal and Sergio Bitar, eds. Democratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. See also their article, “Getting to Democracy, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2016.

Princeton N. Lyman and Jon Temin, Pathway to National Dialogue in Sudan, U.S. Institute of Peace, August 13, 2013. Susan Stigant ad Elizabeth Murray, National Dialogues: A Tool for Conflict Transformation? U.S. Institute of Peace, October 23, 2015. Erica Gaston, Process Lessons Learned in Yemen’s National Dialogue, U.S. Institute of Peace, February 2014.

Alex de Waal, The Real Politics of the Horn: Money, War, and the Business of Power (Polity Press, 2015)

Lowenthal and Bitar, Foreign Affairs, pp. 137-138