The Sudan Call: A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

With the recent signature of the Sudan Call, hailed by some as an unprecedented political declaration, Sudan seems to have reached a milestone in its contemporary history. Signed by the National Consensus Forces (NCF), the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), the National Umma Party (NUP) and the newly-formed Civil Society Initiative (CSI) led by renowned human rights lawyer and activist, Dr. Amin Mekki Medani, the Call demands the dissolution of the National Congress Party’s one-party rule, now in its 25th year, and the establishment of a transitional government mandated to lead a constitutional process and prepare for national elections. The Call proposes a roadmap for a political settlement for Sudan’s multiple crises, in favor of the African Union-mediated solution as endorsed by the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) Communiqué at its 456th meeting held on 12 September 2014.

The Call generated enthusiasm both domestically and internationally among organizations and states invested in mediating among Sudan’s warring parties and steering the country to a path of lasting peace and stability. For the well wishers, the Call makes it abundantly clear that there are now only two proposals on the table for the African Union High level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) to negotiate. The Call has also sharpened the domestic debate around approaches to peace, highlighting the divide between a comprehensive solution for the peaceful resolution of Sudan’s many civil wars, as advocated by the Call, and the piecemeal approach favored by the government that has locked the negotiations into two separate tracks governed by different mandates for the conflicts raging in Darfur and in Blue Nile and South Kordofan. However, as Sudan has seen with previous such declarations, most notably the New Dawn Charter, the optimism generated by the Call may be short-lived, giving way to the skepticism of those who have seen the scenario of seeming opposition unity repeat itself time and time again to no lasting effect.

While the significance of the Call remains to be felt, it does come at a time when Sudanese and non-Sudanese actors have increasingly realized that a comprehensive approach to solving Sudan’s security and governance crises is the only way forward. While Sudanese civil society has for almost a decade made this comprehensive approach the central piece of its strategy and outreach efforts, it is only in September this year that the AU High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), led by President Mbeki, endorsed a holistic approach for the various stakeholders to reach such a comprehensive solution. It is perhaps in the acceptance of civil society’s long-standing position, and in fact in the recognition of civil society’s role in facilitating such a process—as evidenced by the inclusion of Dr. Medani and the CSI—that the Call registers its most significant aspects. The leading role that the civil society actors present in Addis Ababa took in the process that led to the signing of the Call will make civil society’s convening power and intellectual contributions into national political processes difficult to ignore in future.

Still, the Call represents only a first step in creating a national platform of change agents that is sufficiently representative and inclusive of the leaders of the political opposition as well as those of the armed movements, and of civil society. And, as recent history in Sudan attests, the first step can be the hardest to follow. As if on cue, the government (GoS) quickly responded by arresting Dr. Medani and Farouk Abu Issa, the head of the NCF, shortly after their return to Khartoum. If history prevails, the GoS will only continue its aggression, choose to abandon the promises for economic and political support in return for reform from the international community, and insist on proceeding with its plan for the so-called “national dialogue” and national elections in April 2015. This will further anger the public and prepare the ground for spontaneous, peaceful protests of the type that broke out in September 2013, which the government could only contain in the end with lethal violence. The GoS’s aggression is nowhere felt more than in the marginalized regions of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, where GoS has already unleashed a sweeping offensive with the intent to eradicate the SRF rebellion, at the expense of innocent civilians. And, as the heavy toll of these offensives on these civilian populations increases, so does their resentment of the center, further fragmenting the country.

In addition to an intractable GoS that will likely maintain its position, the Call and its signatories will thus need to prove to a skeptical, divided and fatigued Sudanese public that this latest in a long line of declarations was not just simply another headline-grabbing photo op in a capital in which these are routine. Without building popular support for the democratic transformation outlined in the Call, any chance of building on its potential will quickly evaporate. Building such support begins with both the NCF and the SRF demonstrating their legitimacy in the eyes of the public, which has lost a great deal of faith in their capacities, goodwill and real commitment to change. Specifically, the political parties should respect their own internal governance requirements to illustrate their commitment to democratic reform and give space for a new, younger generation of leaders within their own parties to step up and take prominent leadership roles. Political party leaders who have clung on to power for as long as the ruling NCP only undermine the legitimacy of opposition parties in the eyes of Sudan’s younger generations and the public at large. Similarly, the SRF should devise a smart and strategic public outreach program to reach the Khartoum center and emphasize the urgency of a unified front against the ruling NCP’s destructive policies and the atrocities occurring in the conflict areas. These outreach initiatives should clearly show why the struggle the armed movements are leading has implications for everyone, and how the heavy price of the NCP’s policies, including maintaining wars on multiple fronts, affects the country at large. Lastly, the signatories of the Call must go beyond a declaration and jointly develop alternative policies of governance reforms that address and mend 25 years of the deliberate destruction of Sudan’s long-fragile institutions.

As another difficult year in Sudan draws to a close, and the specter of NCP-led elections looms ever closer, for a Sudanese public long accustomed to the theatrics of politics, will the Call provide the substance they have been longing for?