Sudan and the Failure of Liberal Peacemaking

Peace cannot be imposed top-down contends John Young.
By: /
May 17, 2012

Last year, after 22 years of civil war, South Sudan became the world’s newest state.

In the wake of the generally problem-free January 2011 referendum on southern Sudan secession, and President Omar Bashir’s subsequent acceptance of the outcome, the international backers of the peace process congratulated themselves and assumed the way forward would be smooth sailing. But it doesn’t look that way now. South Sudan faces a number of seemingly insurmountable challenges: new wars in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile; a continuing war in Darfur, supported by the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM) government in Juba, the capital of South Sudan; a stalemate over Abyei; rebellions in the states of Greater Upper Nile, supported by Khartoum; a northern-imposed economic blockade on the South; failure to resolve any of the 12 post-referendum issues; economic crises in both states; and a series of clashes along the border, among others.

Combined, these conflicts make clear the failure of the peace process.

So, what went wrong? The problem is that the supporters of the Sudan peace process focused on southern self-determination, gave short shrift to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement’s commitment to democratic transformation, ignored critical groups in the conflict, and never appreciated the need for state reconstruction. As a result, they laid the basis for two successor authoritarian states that are now at war within themselves, and with one another. 

Liberal peacemaking theory posits a link between peace and democracy, but when tensions emerge between the two, it is democracy that is set aside. Moreover, according to Alejandro Bendana, when liberal peacemaking is put into practice, it is invariably “top-down, externally and supply-driven, elitist and interventionist.” Bendana further concludes that peace building “becomes an inherently conservative undertaking seeking managerial solutions to fundamental conflicts over resources and power, seeking to modernize and re-legitimize a fundamental status quo.” This is as good a summing up of the Sudan peace process as one can find, and it was written by a Nicaraguan academic who was largely examining failed liberal peacemaking in Central America.

Roland Paris contends that failed peace processes are due to inadequate implementation, and not to liberal peacemaking. However, in Sudan, there was actually a concerted effort to ensure that the peace process was not democratic. In fact, when the process went badly off the rails, such as during the April 2010 election, the internationals joined forces with those who committed the abuses to keep what they considered the core of the peace process – which did not include democratic transformation – on track.

The problems with Sudan’s peace process actually began long before the election. They started when the international backers of the peace process and the SPLM and National Congress Party (NCP) leaders agreed to ensure that only the North-South conflict was acknowledged, and that only these two protagonists would be recognized. By doing so, these parties effectively ignored ongoing conflicts in eastern and western Sudan, and failed to give voice to the South Sudan Defense Force, which was of comparable size to the SPLA  Moreover, civil society and political parties in both the North and South were excluded from the peace process.

In the end, it wasn’t even two parties that were engaged in the peace process – it was two individuals. Dr. John Garang (representing the SPLM) and Vice-President Ali Osman (representing the NCP) negotiated alone, and behind closed doors. The fallacy of constructing a peace process around just these two individuals was made clear when Garang died within weeks of the agreement being signed, and when observers acknowledged that Ali Osman was not the power broker in Khartoum that diplomats had assumed.

Having pressed elections on the reluctant parties, the international community downplayed the rigging that took place, the harassment of the opposition parties, and the country’s resulting de facto division between the SPLM and NCP. It did all this to ensure that the peace process was not threatened. The parties involved came to view the democratic transformation that the Comprehensive Peace Agreement called for as extraneous. In effect, the peace process was reduced to the referendum on southern self-determination. The legacy of the failed elections continues to embitter political life in Sudan and South Sudan, and gave their ruling parties a veneer of undeserved democratic legitimacy.

The peacemakers also failed to recognize just how much impact the central state of Sudan had on sustainable peace, and, as a result, treated the various conflicts afflicting the country as if they were all separate issues, with no common origins. For instance, they considered the conflicts in Blue Nile, the Nuba Mountains, and Abyei as appendages to the peace process. The shortsightedness of that approach is evident in the conflicts afflicting those areas today. Furthermore, Eritrea took up the war in eastern Sudan with the unstated objective of reconciling Eritrea and Sudan, and did nothing to address the problems of some of the most marginalized people in Sudan. Another peace process under the auspices of the African Union produced the Darfur Peace Agreement, but it collapsed before the ink was dry.

It was not credible to consider Sudan’s various conflicts as separate events, rather than the result of periphery struggles against the same oppressive central state. Even less believable was the assumption that these conflicts could be resolved in a sustainable manner without structural reforms to the state. By approaching each conflict as a separate, unrelated issue, the peacemakers not only failed to address the root causes of Sudan’s conflicts, but also served the interests of the NCP by dividing the opposition and ensuring more years of conflict. As a result, the fundamental causes of conflict remain, and, without a democratic transformation, an independent South Sudan is now producing the same problems as those in Sudan, including armed struggles in the peripheries.

The NCP opposed an all-encompassing peace process because it would be overwhelmed by the many enemies its policies had produced, while the SPLM feared that bringing the northern opposition to the table would detract from a North-South focus. Both parties agreed to national reconciliation, but refused to implement it. Both the NCP and SPLM made clear their opposition to democratic transformation. The international mediators and backers of the peace process went along with the parties because they believed that was the best way to get a signed agreement. As the problems pile up, it becomes increasingly clear that the peace agreement has been little more than a dressed-up ceasefire, with sustainable peace remaining as distant as when the process began.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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