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A Critical Moment in Sudan: Views from Thabo Mbeki and Haile Menkerios

With seven months remaining before the referendum in South Sudan to determine whether or not the country remains united, and given the recent increase in violence in Darfur, the country remains volatile and its future uncertain.

Date & Time

Jun. 16, 2010
4:00pm – 6:00pm ET


Introductory remarks:
Steve McDonald, Consulting Director, Africa Program, Wilson Center

His Excellency Thabo Mbeki, Former President of South Africa,
Head of the African Union High Level Implementation Plan (Sudan)

Haile Menkerios, Special Representative of the Secretary General in Sudan, Head of the United Nations Mission in Sudan

Moderated by:
David Smock, Vice President, Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution, U.S. Institute for Peace

This event was co-hosted with the U.S. Institute of Peace.

With seven months remaining before the referendum in South Sudan to determine whether or not the country remains united, and given the recent increase in violence in Darfur, the country remains volatile and its future uncertain. The United States and the international community - particularly the African Union and the United Nations - remain deeply involved in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the preparations for the referendum. There are still unfulfilled elements in the implementation of the CPA, as well as serious challenges facing the country as a whole in the economic, political, and security arenas that don't bode well for the prospects of unity.

On June 16, 2010, the Africa Program of the Wilson Center, in partnership with the US Institute for Peace (USIP), convened a conference on this critical moment in Sudan with H.E. Thabo Mbeki, former president of South Africa and Head of the African Union High Level Implementation Plan (Sudan), and SRSG Haile Menkerios, Special Representative of the Secretary General in Sudan, Head of the United Nations Mission in Sudan. These two key leaders, addressing the ongoing international effort to manage the difficult transition in Sudan, spoke about the coming months until the referendum, giving context to the complexity of the situation and outlining their view of what needs to be done to ensure a peaceful transition - be it to a unified Sudan or a secession of the South. Throughout the conference, both Mbeki and Menkerios emphasized the need for rigorous collaboration between the two main political parties, the National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). A cohesive and functioning government body is in part defined by its ability to communicate and work together efficiently, they insisted, which has not been happening between the NCP and the SPLM. This collaboration must be the willing initiative of both parties and cannot be imposed on them from an outside body. Another central point was that the work being done to prepare for the referendum should continue well beyond January 2011, when the vote will take place. Unity, whether formal or informal, between the North and the South is a long term goal, both relevant and necessary to the political, economic and social cohesion of the country and the region.

Opening the afternoon, Africa Program Director Steve McDonald outlined several questions that remain unanswered in these months preceding the January referendum. Even though the Comprehensive Peace Agreement allows for the South to choose unity or secession, both governments need to work toward a free and fair process that presents real options that are understood by southern voters. McDonald underlined the uncertainty of whether both the North and the South will accept the outcome and the level of support the international community is ready to give in cooperation with North and South to ensure a free, fair, and peaceful process both leading up to and following the referendum. The session that followed was addressed by former President Mbeki and SRSG Menkerios, and moderated by Dr. David Smock of USIP.

Mbeki began by outlining the major challenges currently facing the country. The conflict in Darfur is impeding progress towards the referendum and the Darfur Peace Agreement needs to be concluded before January, he stated. Issues such as power and wealth sharing, and Darfur's place within a unified Sudan remain contested and need to be resolved. Another hurdle is the question of justice and reconciliation, and the adjudication of crimes committed in Darfur. Many Darfurians have little to no confidence in the Sudanese judicial system, and have proposed a hybrid court not dissimilar to the one established to try war crimes in Sierra Leone. In this instance, the local judiciary would be reinforced by other regional or international judiciaries. Mbeki has spent considerable time on the ground, meeting Darfurians; the population of Darfur agrees that whatever is decided regarding Darfur needs to be done in an inclusive manner, in order to ensure the buy-in of everyone implicated.

Mbeki stated that both the SPLM and the NCP, the main political parties in Sudan, agree that the referendum must take place in January as the final stage in the implementation of the CPA. Both parties, he said, have committed to respect the outcome, no matter what it is; however, many of the necessary preparations for the upcoming vote have yet to be completed. The process must be credible, transparent, and occur without violence if the results are to be accepted by political parties, the people of Sudan (in both the North and the South) as well as the AU, the UN and the international community at large. He said that the process leading up to the elections in April was not satisfactory to elections observers or the Sudanese population and this must not be the case in January.

Mbeki and Menkerios elaborated on other outstanding geo-political matters mandated by the CPA that need to be resolved before the referendum occurs. These include a the conclusion of the border commission consultations on a the demarcation of the border between the North and the South; issues relating to the borders of Abeye; agreements on a mutually beneficial exploitation and sharing of revenues of natural resources between North and South, particularly oil, but also water; and the popular consultations supposed to take place in both Blue Nile and South Kordofan. The formation of a government in South Sudan is also key to the implementation of many of the preparatory processes, as well as to a smooth and peaceful transition after the referendum - either to a united Sudan or a two country solution. Mbeki and Menkerios both talked about UNMIS, the UN mission in Sudan, which has been working with key stakeholders in both parties in an attempt to sort these matters out, and agreed that progress is being made. However, many observers are worried that there is not enough time remaining to satisfactorily address all these issues.

Mbeki commented that the scope and level of involvement of the international community demands coordination and cooperation. During a May 8 meeting in Addis Ababa, special envoys from several countries, the Arab League, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference were all present, in addition to members of the AU and the UN. Discussions about how to coordinate a viable solution to the peace process and the full implementation of the CPA led to a general agreement about the problems, and a commitment to continue meeting on a regular, bi-monthly basis to help the international community move forward and track progress on this issue. Heavy emphasis was put on avoiding any uncoordinated efforts, and to support Sudan in a peace process that extends beyond the referendum. Mbeki added that whether the country remains united or splits into two sovereign nations, it should be a source of peace and progress in the region and on the continent rather than a destabilizing factor.

SRSG Haile Menkerios focused largely on the long-term goals in Sudan, stressing the importance of continuing the peace process beyond the referendum. Because of the finality of the referendum it is all the more important that both main political parties be engaged and dedicated to a smooth process, and to all of the preparations necessary to carry out the referendum as scheduled and in an open, free and fair manner. Because of the difficulties encountered during the preparations for and carrying-out of the April election, and the escalating tensions that resulted, there is a level of skepticism about the tight timeline for the January referendum and whether the involved parties have the capacity to adequately prepare for this important political exercise.

Menkerios pointed out that the CPA had mandated that both parties would work to make unity an attractive option for southern Sudanese. Political parties from both the North and the South as well as UN bodies are advocating for unity between the regions; however, this is an election by plebiscite, which will reflect the will of the people. The signatories of the CPA have attested to the fact that they would prefer unity, but it is the population that will determine the outcome of the referendum. Recent polling data show that unity is not the favored option of southern Sudanese and a general consensus exists that the South will choose to secede; however, according to Menkerios, the best way to make unity attractive is to make separation possible. He emphasized that there can be no blockage or obstacles to separation - it must be a truly democratic process - but also that the decision to separate into two states should not be seen as a complete political divorce. There are political, economic, and social ties inherent to the northern and southern regions as well as to the surrounding countries; inter-regional cooperation and political cohesion are necessary for future growth and development of the region as a whole. For this reason, the campaign for unity must extend beyond the January referendum and an eventual separation should by no means lead to an end to political or economic relations.

Menkerios stated that the UN, for its part, has been asked to double its level of engagement and support, in part to avoid the discrepancies and controversy present during the April elections. Both political sides are asking for UN support, not only to be seen as legitimate among the Sudanese, but also to gain international acceptance of the referendum results. The credibility of the referendum is essential if the North and the South are to have a peaceful future, as one country or as two.

As Menkerios pointed out, historically speaking, the AU and the international community at large have been very reluctant to redraw the colonial inheritance of borders of African states, as witnessed in the early nineties during the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia. However, the AU is also a guarantor of the CPA, and is committed to its full implementation, including a possible new delineation of borders.

With respect to the limited amount of time remaining before January, there are several concerns about the readiness of the country and the preparations that still need to be carried out. The peace process in Darfur is taking much longer than expected, and questions of accountability for war crimes have yet to be addressed. Mbeki sees this peace process as a convergence of two elements: the peace agreement among belligerents, happening in Doha, and more socio-political questions such as power and wealth sharing. A successful peace process must be an all-inclusive one, not predicating the success of one element on the completion of another. Military leaders should be granted the necessary immunity and indemnity in order to participate in political negotiations, but talks leading toward a cease-fire must also continue. If the veto power is given to the belligerents by allowing the lack of a cease-fire agreement to stall forward progress on other negotiations, then no conclusion will be reached. Conversely, if negotiations on a peace agreement are held without the participation of the belligerents, it will never be legitimate in their eyes, and will be less likely to succeed.

Speaking from the audience, the Secretary General of the SPLM, Pagan Amum Okiech, highlighted a series of delays that have prevented an efficient implementation of the CPA, also pointing out that five and a half years after the signing of the CPA, both parties have failed to make unity an attractive option. Many of the delays, according to Pagan, have been intentional, including the failure to demarcate the border between the North and the South or to resolve the Abeye question. In fact, the referendum commission which starts registration on July 9 has not yet been established. Okiech asked what the AU and UN could do to move the process forward. "I think we are in a crisis," he said. The national government of Sudan has not assigned "a single person" to ameliorate the problems of the South or make it feel a part of unified Sudan. The Sudanese Ambassador to the US, Akec Khoc Acieu, spoke from the floor to thank the presenters but also to emphasize that the North and South, which are bound by history and geography, "are determined to work together …for their mutual political and economic benefit, and for the stability of Africa."

In response, Mbeki agreed that there have been several delays, but laid the blame for those at the feet of both parties. The UN mission has gone back and forth between Khartoum and Juba, ironing out delays in reporting to the president on the delimitation process and disagreements on individual commission appointees, pushing each party to move forward. Mbeki expressed frustration that once agreements appeared to be finalized, subsequent delays had occurred or a report was not finished. We are left to "bang tables," Mbeki said, because we cannot make the decisions. That is "a shared responsibility between these two parties, to make sure all these problems are solved." The NCP and the SPLM are both in the new national government, sharing the ministries, and "sitting in this powerful institution together." Mbeki highlighted the situation with the National Elections Commission, which has not even been established in Juba and must start from scratch in locating offices, vehicles, computers, and organizing itself. This is an issue, he said, that we will push upon our return, because it's going to take another 3 months before they are up and running. "So I will make those sorts of interventions, but hopefully with the support of the NCP and the SPLM."

Regarding the inclusion of women in the process, Mbeki spoke about the difficulties in bringing women into the government, especially during the preparation of the report on Darfur. The role of women and civil society must be decided upon; there are also quotas of female inclusiveness in the government that have yet to be met. Regarding traditional leaders and governing structures, this is an especially difficult issue to address. Civil society has a huge role to play, especially in the context of NGOs, in the southern region. Bolstering institutional capacity is crucial in the South, so that there can be a "soft landing" after the referendum. This requires both Sudanese and international cooperation, and the involvement of all levels and sectors of society.

Regarding the outcome of the referendum, Menkerios summed up the words of Sudanese President Bashir who said that he would accept whatever the South decides, because "we've tried war and it didn't work, didn't get us anywhere. (So) we have chosen peace and possible separation, rather than unity with definite war." Although, as Mbeki pointed out, it has been historically difficult to achieve African unity, there is now a strong sentiment and push for both regional and continental unity and the developments in Sudan need to be seen in this context. This cannot be treated as a six month project or even one exclusive to Sudan; this is a long-term effort that must engage the region and the continent as a whole.


Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, including our Africa Up Close blog, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more

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