Sudan: Moving Toward Transition

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Presentation to The Sub-Committee on Human Rights, The Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, House of Commons


Over the past year Project Ploughshares has been engaged in a CIDA-funded project with the Africa Peace Forum of Nairobi to engage Sudanese civil society in trying to think ahead to the successful conclusion of the current round of peace talks and to ways in which civil society groups might play a constructive role in ensuring a successful transition to a workable political, economic, and social system for the people of Sudan. The decisive move from war to transition is tantalizingly close, but it is our experience that the hope that many Sudanese increasingly feel remains tempered by the recognition of certain inescapable realities.

The following will try to offer perspectives, informed by our engagement program,1 on some of the prospects and obstacles to entering a qualitatively new time of transition.


Francis Deng articulated one of the inescapable realities of Sudan a few years ago in an important paper on what he called the competing visions for Sudan.2 Few know better than he that Sudan encompasses a myriad of complicated and conflicting political, economic, and social interests, and that these sustain Sudan’s entrenched conflicts, but he summarized all the complications of enduring conflict in Sudan into three “principal clusters” of conflicting groups: the North, the South, and the awakening African groups in the North.

The deep divisions in Sudanese society, he said, owed to the radically different visions of Sudan that are offered by these principal groups: “Since independence, all the major political forces in the North have aimed at creating some form of an Arab-Islamic state.

Southern vision has ranged from secular federalism to separation/independence for the South, with regionalism as an interim compromise that failed. The awakening African groups in the North, whose political identity and vision emerged relatively more recently and are still in the making, would like to see a Sudan where the Arabs, as an ethnic or racial and cultural group, do not dominate and where secularism, pluralism, and democracy prevail.”

For any peace to hold in Sudan, these fundamentally conflicting visions must be addressed and in some way be accommodated to each other. And that represents a primary challenge for the transition period that could soon be a reality. The negotiations now underway will not settle those conflicts – rather they will deliver a timeframe and a structure through which to pursue the constructive attention to and political resolution of those conflicts. It is a process that will require the building and reshaping of political wills, and the reinterpretation of perceived interests.

That’s another way of saying conflict transformation – and it is the kind of fundamental transformation that depends on extensive intra-group and inter-group dialogue to explore alternative visions and to modify expectations.

That in turn means much more, and more sustained, contact on a variety of levels. In a state that has been at war for about 40 of its 50 years, and in conditions of advanced suspicion for the remaining ten years, meaningful contact is not easy. The efforts of civil society to promote crossboundary dialogue are courageous and worthy of sustained support. The myriad of detailed political and technical issues that face the regions and communities of Sudan, including profound constitutional and security questions, will all need to be worked through during the transition – before a final settlement is confirmed by public voting and referendum. This “working through” will require a process of intensified dialogue, joint research, and shared problem solving.

And it is the testimony of those already promoting and facilitating dialogue that shared approaches to problem solving are helpful, not only in expanding the inventory of credible policy alternatives, but also for refining the negotiating process and transitional infrastructure, and for building confidence among the parties through common work and experience.

It is literally not possible to overstate the importance of such work when we contemplate the ways in which Canada might contribute to the pursuit of a durable peace in Sudan.


One area of intense concern raised in all the consultations is the status and fate of people in the “marginalized areas” of the North, during the transition and beyond. As the Committee has already heard, while the Nuba, Abyei, and Southern Blue Nile regions are not in the South of Sudan according to the 1956 borders, opposition forces in all three have long been linked or allied to the SPLA and to southern opposition to the regime in Khartoum. The IGAD talks are far from reaching an agreement on the fate of those territories. In the end, analysts say it seems likely that the only means of finally settling the issue will be to go to the people themselves: “It would appear that the only real chance lies in brokering an agreement in which both parties [to the IGAD talks] guarantee to uphold the results of some form of democratic consultation processes or referenda, in which the indigenous civil societies of the three areas can decide for
themselves on their respective futures.”3

Without international attention and vigilance, consultant participants repeatedly remind us, marginalization can be expected to continue, with the early destabilization of any accord a likely consequence.

There are other areas of the North that also fit into Francis Deng’s category of “awakening African groups in the north.” In the northeast Beja people have been part of the NDA through the Beja Congress, while the people of the Ingessana Hills remain isolated and estranged from the regime in Khartoum.

The Fur of Darfur in the western part of the North have become increasingly restive, with instances of violence already occurring. While the objectives of the leadership of the Darfur opposition group is not entirely known, the grievances at the root of the opposition is familiar:

“The conflict in Darfur arises from a long history of political marginalization, partisan interventions by the central government, local conflict over resources and political office, and vigilantism related to the weakness of the government security presence. Comparable conditions led to the war in the Nuba Mountains in the mid-1980s.”4

Parties now outside the formal negotiations are of course particularly concerned that any GOS/SPLM agreement takes account of their needs – without which such an agreement would in any event fail to end the fighting.5 To ensure a comprehensive approach, representatives of some non-SPLM parties have called for regular consultations and discussions with the IGAD mediators. Some go further to suggest that the expected agreement based on the Machakos principles be brought to a National gathering or assembly to ratify the agreement and thus to build broad ownership in it. Participants in the consultations suggested that the international community, including meetings of donors, would signal the importance of a comprehensive, inclusive approach by including representatives of marginalized groups in all their meetings or consultations with Sudanese.

Inclusiveness also has a special meaning within the South. While it is the SPLM that is negotiating on behalf of the South, as noted below, a large number of non-SPLA militia and opposition groups operate extensive military forces. These forces reflect alternative political and communal interests, not just economic or personal opportunism, and the SPLA/M will need to find a way to reach accommodation with them.

As the consultation of intellectuals and experts concluded, one of the key requirements of the transition period is that power be devolved to the regions: “A change of the traditional practices can only be ensured if the hegemony of the centre is abolished and a new centre of power is reconstructed and rebuilt whereby the marginalized groups are stakeholders. This is about empowering different social groups and classes.”6

Ultimately, as a recent German conference concluded, a comprehensive and inclusive settlement
is about ensuring that in both the North and the South, the central outcome of peace negotiations
must be a commitment to an open, representative, democratic system.7


a. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration

The interim period must also give particular attention to a range of security issues that will continue to plague Sudan. At an SPLA/civil society consultation a few years back in the Western Equatoria region near the town of Yei, about 300 people gathered for five days of talks in the shade of a mango grove to discuss the rebuilding of their society in what was then a newly liberated area (that is, it had recently come under the control of the SPLA). A primary, repeated testimony of the people was that the level of violence remained largely unchanged from what it was during the time of war in their region. The combination of small arms and young men without other means of livelihood continued to visit an extraordinary hardship on the people and communities trying to recover from war.

These circumstances are duplicated throughout the country now. Security will inevitably be a central issue, and the dialogue and action of the interim period will have to include active promotion of a range of security issues including planning for intensified demining, encouragement of programs for small arms collection and control, the demobilization of former combatants from the full range of fighting forces, inter-communal security cooperation mechanisms, civilian control over military institutions, and the integration of Sudan into a
reliable sub-regional, Horn of Africa, security architecture.

b. Controlling the government militias

There are significant fighting forces outside the direct command of the SPLA, the GOS, or the NDA. The Nuer militia of the Upper Western Nile are playing a major role in the ongoing fighting and promise to play a spoiler role in the peace process if they are not effectively dealt with.8 The GOS strategy of dividing the Nuer, not only from the SPLA but also within the Nuer communities, in order to weaken their resistance to GOS oil exploitation, has been especially successful. Some 25 groups, comprising at least 12,000 fighters, are gathered under the broad umbrella of the South Sudan Defence Forces. Largely in alliance with the GOS for resource and tactical reasons, they represent a maze of shifting loyalties and tactics.

In addition to the Nuer militia, in Bahr al-Ghazal the Murahleen (travelers) are raiding tribesmen (Baggara and Misseiriya of southern Kordofan and the Rezeigat of southern Darfur) that stage abduction and looting operations among the Dinka and are drawn into specific pro-government action as needed. In Equatoria, longstanding distrust of the Dinka and the SPLA, including disputes over grazing lands, has allowed the GOS to recruit militias in general alliance with the GOS.

While these militias are manipulated by the GOS, they are also a reflection of genuine local grievances, and “if the peace process does not pay more attention to these local factors, it could easily break apart even if national-level agreement were to be [reached].”9

Recognizing their role as potential spoilers in the peace process, the Churches and NGOs have initiated a process of discussion among all southern groups. It will not be an easy process. The militias are heavily dependent on the GOS and are unlikely to give up the source of their power in favour of an uncertain future under the SPLA. On the other hand, the SPLA can expect only long-term conflict in the South if some accommodation is not reached.

“The threat is quite real that much of the South could disintegrate into fiefdoms dominated by warlords and militias, particularly the oil rich areas of Upper Nile. Chaos could erupt in Juba, Torit, and other areas if the SPLA were to try to move in without having reached prior understandings with the militias that consider these areas their home turf. As one militia leader stated: ‘Everybody must be taken seriously, if the Mochakos talks will culminate in the peace accord. Without the involvement of SSDF, the Equatoria Defence Force and others, there will be war.’”10

It would be a mistake to treat the divisions in the South simply as the product of some southerners’ having entered personally opportunistic arrangements with the GOS. There is much that is unsavoury, to put it mildly, in the actions of the militias, but the violence that is reflected in militia operations also has deeper roots. Extreme underdevelopment, competition for land and water among pastoralists, and small arms proliferation are all issues that need urgent attention.

Especially important will be continued and increased support for south-south dialogue efforts.

c. Verification and monitoring

The effort to produce monitoring arrangements is especially encouraging, although the current arrangements still are some way from realizing their potential.11 Some analysts assume that an international peacekeeping force will not necessarily be part of the Machakos settlement, although others argue that a relatively lightly equipped but multi-tasked UN-mandated force would be an effective contribution to the transition. A more likely arrangement may be an upgrading or expansion of the existing monitoring mechanism to cover the security arrangements in the South.12

d. Transitional security arrangements

Security arrangements during the transition will necessarily have to involve much more than monitoring the GOS and SPLA forces. Non-regular forces and militia must be brought into the ceasefire arrangements and the monitoring framework. One issue of immediate importance in ceasefire arrangements will be to clarify rules regarding the free movement of civilians and their access to land.13 On a wider security matter, the peace talks have to date not been able to reach agreement on basic security arrangements for the transitional period, particularly on whether opposition and government forces, and militias in varying degrees of integration with official government forces, should be integrated into a new national, interim armed force.14


a. Women and the peace process

Women involved in a Netherlands-led process to facilitate the involvement of Sudanese women from the North and the South in peacemaking efforts, including close monitoring of the IGAD peace process, joined with Africa Peace Forum and Project Ploughshares in a recent consultation on the peace process. Sudanese women have already been extensively engaged, including through a north-south program of “Support to Sudanese Women’s Empowerment for Peace” (SuWEP). The workshop15 addressed the full range of issues in the peace process and focused on exploring ways of ensuring ongoing access to the process, and of disseminating timely
information to grassroots communities.

In a broad range of forums, women’s organizations, especially in the South, are actively engaged in addressing the issues, but a universal concern is that those managing the negotiations are not hearing their voices. Neither the GOS nor the SPLA has made a point of including women at senior levels of their negotiating teams.

b. Religion 

The consultation with Sudanese intellectuals and experts highlighted what some regard as the contradiction in the Machakos Protocol’s commitment to the unity of Sudan, on the one hand, and its clear division of Sudan along religious lines, on the other. Northern participants in particular asserted the right of all Sudanese to decide whether they want to be ruled by religious or secular laws. They also point to the difficulty created for the many non-Muslims living in the North.

The participants called for much more intensive consultation and exchanges between Muslims and Christians, Northerners and Southerners, especially during the transition period, and many hoped that the political system to emerge out of the transition period could still be influenced and pushed toward a model of tolerance and pluralism. “The present peace process should arrive at a constitutional arrangement which will ensure the equal rights and duties for all citizens of Sudan regardless of their religion, race, gender, region or social-cultural background.”16

c. Preparing for elections

The experts’ group identified a detailed program of activity and the conditions required for effective elections. It is a daunting list. The introduction refers to “repatriation, resettlement, rehabilitation, reintegration, reconstruction, reconciliation, demobilization, disarmament and demining,” and then goes on to fill in some of the details. Besides addressing technical issues like a census taking, the creation of a voter registry, the formation of political parties, and a range of other details, the report places major attention on public information, training, and dialogue.17 The Women’s workshop also discussed civic education programs related to the electoral process.

d. Maintaining political pressure

A key imperative that emerged out of virtually all of the consultations and conferences is that the international community stay engaged in Sudan at a political and security level, as well as at economic and humanitarian levels.

There is a particular provision in the Machakos Protocol for international participation in an independent Assessment and Evaluation Commission (para 2.4). The Commission is to monitor the implementation of the agreement and provide a mid-term evaluation. It is to include representatives of the parties to the agreement, and not more than two reps from each of the following categories: the IGAD front-line states, the observer states, and any other states or international organizations – the latter category could provide an opportunity for Canadian participation.

An additional key role will be to hold the parties politically accountable to their respective undertakings. It is clear that both sides will face extensive temptations to pull back on those commitments. The GOS will always have an incentive to avoid a southern referendum, and the SPLM will not find it easy to fully democratize and draw in those elements of the populations, and especially their political leaders, not now inside the SPLM fold.



  1. The three consultations to date: Elizabeth Mutunga, Report of the SuWEP/APFO/Ploughshares Symposium, January 29-31, 2003 [Women’s Consultation]. Proceedings of the Consultation of Sudanese Intellectuals, March 28-29, 2003 [Experts’ Consultation]. Elizabeth Mutunga, Proceedings of the Africa Peace Forum/Project Ploughshares Consultation with the NDA (Asmara, Eritrea), April 25-27, 2003 [NDA Consultation].
  2. Francis M. Deng, “Visions for the Sudan: The Search for a Common Ground,” mimeo (Francis Deng is distinguished Professor of Political Science, Graduate Center, The City University of New York, and the Representative of the United Nations Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons).
  3. Justin Corbett and Paul Murphy, “Abyei, Nuba, Mountains and South Blue Nile (FUNJ),” The Heart of a Peace Agreement for Sudan, mimeo, Nairobi, March 19, 2003.
  4. Justice Africa, “Prospects for Peace in Sudan,” Briefing, March 2003.
  5. NDA Consultation.
  6. Experts’ Consultation.
  7. David Mozersky, Notes on the May 2-4, 2003 Sudan conference in Hermannsburg, Germany on “The Role of the International Community during the Interim Period.”
  8. The following relies primarily on the ICG report: “Sudan’s Oilfields Burn Again: Brinkmanship Endangers the Peace Process, Africa Briefing (International Crisis Group, Nairobi/Brussels), Feb 10, 2003.
  9. ICG.
  10. ICG.
  11. “Monitoring team grounded for a month,” Apr 11/2003, IRIN News, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
  12. Justice Africa, “Prospects for Peace in Sudan,” Briefing, March 2003.
  13. “Nuba ceasefire experience suggests points to ponder,” April 9/2003, IRIN News, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
  14. Charles Cobb, “Peace in Sudan, how close?” April 25/2003, All Africa Global Media (
  15. At the last minute, the women from Khartoum were not allowed to board the airplane taking them to the meeting; hence the workshop focussed extensively on the violation of the rights of Northern women to free speech and movement.
  16. Experts’ Consultation.
  17. Experts’ Consultation.
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