Sudan dialogue: Enough playing Pollyanna

Sudan’s emerging civil society and political opposition need to kick-start their own wider dialogue.

Widely considered to be the staunchest advocate of national dialogue, Mahdi was held in detention for almost a month for his criticism of the Rapid Support Forces [AFP]

The future of Sudan’s proposed national dialogue came under the spotlight when Sudanese authorities arrested the National Umma Party (NUP) leader al-Sadig al-Mahdi. Widely considered to be the staunchest advocate of national dialogue, Mahdi was held in detention for almost a month for his criticism of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

The RSF originated in 2003 when the government unleashed the militia known as Janjaweed to fight alongside the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) against the growing insurgency in the Darfur region.

In an attempt by the government to legitimise and control the notorious Janjaweed militias, the RSF was incorporated last August to work under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in fighting rebel groups in the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile states.

Mahdi accused the RSF of committing serious abuses in conflict zones, such as rape, and the looting and burning villages. If he is convicted, Mahdi’s charges could lead to the death penalty.

Mahdi, who was later released, and who has received the highest national medal, the Order of the Republic, from the Sudanese president last December for his “national stances”, is probably regarded as the ruling National Congress Party’s (NCP) least hostile political foe. His arrest was as much a surprise to the NCP’s own supporters as to their adversaries.

Broader mission

Nonetheless, Mahdi’s arrest, together with other taken measures, is an indication of the broader mission the NISS is undertaking. It signifies where the real power lies within the regime, and also signals increasing dissent among influential figures in the NCP to the proposed dialogue.

However, ever since the president’s appeal for national dialogue in January in his famous “Renaissance speech“, and apart from the debate between the political elites in Khartoum, very little has been done to enable the climate for reform and dialogue.

As national dialogue was one of the few options sought to avert a bitter transformation of power in Sudan, Sudanese opposition parties, which believe in national dialogue and the international community, need to revisit their convictions.

On April 6, President Omar al-Bashir hosted a preliminary round-table meeting with 83 members of various political parties. The meeting produced an agreement to form a body to manage the process of national dialogue, the Higher Commission for the National Dialogue (HCND).

At the start of the meeting, the president ordered the release of those political detainees who have not been found guilty of criminal acts; directed state and local authorities to enable political parties to carry out their activities without restrictions; and also pledged to ensure unconditional press freedom, although the sentence ended to read: “…as long as they abide by the norms of the profession.”

Thus far, the president’s orders seemed to be as far as the government would go. The verbal and written agreement did not translate into action. On the contrary, serious actions taken by the government undermine the sincerity of this call for dialogue.

What has actually happened on the ground? It took the NISS less than 48 hours to disregard the presidential directives. On April 7, NISS barred the Reform Now Party (RNP) from holding a public seminar, despite their having obtained public permission.

On 15 April, the president issued a decree guaranteeing the political parties the freedom to carry out public activities, but the paradox came at the end of the sentence when this freedom was made conditional on his having obtained prior authorisation. The power to issue this authorisation was retained by the security apparatus. Consequently the Sudanese opposition alliance rejected the decree, stating that it poses more restrictions than freedoms.

On 27 April, two people were arrested in Darfur and four Baath members were arrested in Khartoum. Two days later, more Baath party members were arrested.

Press freedom

Despite the presidential pledge to ensure press freedom, Sudanese authorities seem to have taken a hardened stance toward newspapers: eleven newspapers were seized by NISS in the space of one week. Al-Saiha daily newspaper was suspended indefinitely, and the NISS filed charges against 13 Al-Saiha journalists. Furthermore, in a statement harbouring a veiled threat, the Sudanese presidency warned media against crossing the “red line”.

Two weeks later, on May 12, three student activists were arrested and are to date still in custody. Mohamed Salah and his colleagues were arrested for speaking at a rally demanding justice for Ali Babiker, the University of Khartoum student who was killed in protests linked to the Darfur region.

Three weeks after Mahdi’s arrest, the government arrested Congress Party chief leader Ibrahim al-Sheikh over a speech he made criticising the government’s handling of the Darfur crisis, RSF and a surge of violence.

Recently, security forces attacked a peaceful rally organised by the NUP jointly with political activists demanding the release of political prisoners. This peaceful protest was met with tear gas and the arrest of all protesters.

And more recently, on June 24, Salema Centre for Women’s Research and Studies, a human rights organisation working on women’s empowerment and gender-related issues in Khartoum, was closed down by Sudanese authorities without giving any grounds.

The detention of political leaders and activists, the government’s continued and intensified war in the conflict zones of Darfur, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile, a tighter grip on media and gagging of the press, all together cast doubts on the government’s sincerity about dialogue.

The frustration went beyond national boundaries; a joint international statement reflected the growing foreign frustration with the Sudanese national dialogue.

An exercise of bravado

Mahdi’s release was expected from the outset; however, NISS’s anger over his remarks on RSF needs to be seen as an exercise of bravado sending different messages. Mahdi and Ibrahim al-Sheikh were not the first to criticise the RSF; the RSF were criticised even by different members of parliament who accused the government of nurturing the conflict in Darfur by arming different militias and undermining the role of SAF.

Parliamentary member Ahmed Abdullah Nimir was quoted as saying: “Everybody in Darfur is dressing [in] military uniforms, even those riding camels are dressing like [the] army… Darfur is trapped between insurgency and chaos.”

But the criticism of Nimir and other MPs has not provoked the NISS.

The political environment has, in effect, worsened since the government revealed its plans for reform. Events cast doubt on NCP’s real commitment for a genuine national dialogue.

All things considered, it has proved impossible to attain any meaningful dialogue for three main reasons: first, the current balance of power in Sudan significantly favours the NCP over its political rivals; secondly, the present dialogue’s tone illustrates its centrist and elitist domination. Thirdly and most importantly, as it became probable that the president may depart his throne soon, internal conflicts within the NCP between different power centres make dialogue the last option hardliners may wish to consider.

The latter point illustrates how the NCP is presently contested between those veteran members who realise the challenges and who want to reconnect with the international community through the dialogue, and those hardliners who are very influential, having considerable leverage over the security forces and, unfortunately, the upper hand.

Revisiting their convictions

For these hardliners, dialogue is seen as yet another process to appease the international community and a typical NCP approach in which procedures and processes undermine the real result. There are countless examples in the NCP’s 25 years of tenure of signed agreements that are not implemented and for which they know they will not be held accountable.

As national dialogue was one of the few options that were sought to avert a bitter transformation of power in Sudan, Sudanese opposition parties, which believe in national dialogue and the international community, need to revisit their convictions.

Sudan’s emerging civil society and political opposition, consisting of both armed and unarmed groups, need to kick-start their own wider dialogue. This needs to be both inclusive and transparent; the international community needs to support such an initiative.

Already the NUP and RNP have declared a suspension of dialogue, though it’s not clear whether this stance will last for long. If they still choose to participate in NCP’s flawed dialogue, they will no doubt become mere cogs in the NCP’s internal machination to relinquish power in Sudan, and that would best take the shape of a Yemeni scenario in Sudan.

Mohamed Elshabik is a Sudanese blogger, development professional and a freelance socio-political analyst.