As the African Union (and pretty much everybody else) welcomes the largely positive response to the call for dialogue by the Sudanese government, some disturbing signals about the breakdown of habitual Sudanese civility were also beginning to manifest themselves. The invitation for dialogue came in January, when President Omar Hassan al-Bashir delivered a speech proposing to open long overdue discussions on political change.
The current constitution, agreed in 2005 as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, became largely redundant when the South separated following a referendum in 2011. A new one is now needed in advance of the elections slated for 2015. The government has been offering talks since 2011, but the opposition continues to question its sincerity.
In January, however, some of the regime’s bitterest enemies, led by former ally Hassan Turabi of the Popular Congress Party (PCP), stunned observers by attending the function at which Bashir delivered his speech. The PCP had been the leading party in the more radical opposition coalition which demanded the removal of the regime. In early April, leading opponents were again present at a meeting held to launch the dialogue, boycotted by only a handful of left wing parties. Those rejecting the overture insisted that concrete steps be taken in advance to make the dialogue meaningful.
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Bashir partially responded to these demands, ordering in his April 6 speech the release of political prisoners and the lifting of restrictions on freedoms of expression and association. He also offered safe conduct for representatives of rebel groups wanting to take part in the dialogue.
Civility no more?
However, in tandem with these encouraging developments, armed conflict continued in Darfur and Sudan’s “New South” (the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile), despite ongoing mediation efforts. No less worrying, however, were signs of alienation nearer to home. In early April, the family of the renowned Sudanese dissident poet, Mahgoub Sharif, prevented the Khartoum State Health Minister from visiting him as he lay dying in a Khartoum hospital. A few months earlier, mourners at the home of a young pharmacist shot dead during last September’s protests, barred Dr Nafi Ali Nafi, then the third man in the regime, from offering his condolences to the family.
These steps signalled a radical departure from habitual Sudanese civility, which is unique in spite of the country’s well-deserved reputation as a locus of endemic barbaric violence. Sudanese are weary from having to explain to outsiders this “paradox of barbarity and civility”, as Alex de Waal calls it.
I recall how former US President Jimmy Carter, perplexed by another improbability in Sudanese dealings, recounted to me his shock at the opening of Sudanese talks he was chairing in Nairobi in 1989. Having spent days preparing himself for a frosty encounter and even memorising some jokes to lighten up the atmosphere, he watched in amazement as SPLA rebels and government representatives warmly greeted each like old friends, leaving him to wonder, as he said, why these people were fighting in the first place.
This inexplicable civility still reigns, and was evident at the recent meetings. However, some activists, especially among the younger generation, are no longer happy to play along. The late Mahgoub Sharif would have probably courteously received the minister and thanked him for his visit, but some of the younger members of his family had other ideas.
Is this a sign of a further deterioration in social relations, or a positive indication that people are now expressing themselves with increasing frankness, which is essential for genuine dialogue? At another Sudanese “dialogue” encounter in 1989, the veteran Sudanese diplomat Francis Deng provocatively told the participants that “what is not said is what divides us”. He meant habitual Sudanese courtesies hide and camouflage latent racism and other problems that were not sufficiently articulated to enable them to be challenged.
Resolving unresolvable differences
What is not being talked about in the current dialogue sessions is what would happen if the talks succeeded and change took place. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges that include genocide and war crimes. But the ICC may be the least of his worries if regime change were to eventually come. The regime and its supporters stand accused of committing atrocities and of unlawfully enriching themselves.
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At a minimum, many supporters could lose their jobs and livelihoods. Many could stand trial or even face extra-judicial punishments and revenge attacks. Indeed, the uncompromising (not to say abusive) language one encounters on the myriad of websites expressing dissident views is very disturbing, and is one sure sign of the deterioration of Sudanese politics.
Contributors regularly deploy a language of hate and vindictiveness, not just against the regime and its supporters, but against rival opposition formations or figures. It does not help that some of those expressing themselves this way have weapons, and many rebel factions they support are no less guilty of atrocities.
Sudan thus does have serious problems, which the stalled dialogue has not even begun to address, let alone resolve. Politics continues to deteriorate at a precipitate rate, and the quality of leadership (within the government and the opposition) is not improving either. We lack our Mandelas as well as our De Klerks. This problem is compounded by the very structural conditions which made the dialogue imperative (the failure of the regime to stabilise itself and build a viable political system), since these very conditions militate against a successful outcome.
The ruling party has up to now failed to make the political breakthrough that would make it secure enough to agree to power-sharing, while the opposition continues to make exorbitant demands that bear no connection to its fragmented status and lack of either political or military muscle. Thus, neither side feels strong enough to be magnanimous, or weak enough to make concessions. So neither is offering compromise, or even contemplating it.
The opposition is demanding a total dismantling of the regime, and calling for its leaders to be held to account for their past misdeeds. The regime, in turn, insists on maintaining full control and has yet to offer meaningful concessions. The armed factions reject the call to join the dialogue. It would be naive to expect the regime to sign up to a deal which would send its president to The Hague and the rest of its strong men to jail, or worse.
However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. Many observers, including the African Union’s High Level Panel on Sudan, led by former President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, see potential for a breakthrough, and is doubling its efforts to bring the parties together. The panel has worked a few miracles before, but squaring the current circle may need an even higher display of wizardry.
A lot of imaginative political thinking is needed to convince the regime and its entrenched supporters that they have nothing to fear from real change, and to persuade the opposition to accept a gradualist approach which would attain regime change in stages. Whether Mbeki can work this miracle remains to be seen.
Dr Abdelwahab El-Affendi is Reader in Politics and the Centre for the Study, University of Westminster and Co-ordinator of the Centre’s Democracy and Islam Programme since 1998.