Sudan: On the Path to Peace or Crisis?


Sudan: On the Path to Peace or Crisis?

To listen to this event, please click here.

John Prendergast

Co-Founder, The Enough Project

Dr. J. Peter Pham
Senior Fellow and Africa Project Director, National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and Vice President, Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA

Ambassador Herman J. Cohen
Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs

Dr. Gérard Prunier
Senior Researcher Emeritus, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, and Member of the Academic Council, ASMEA

Ambassador David Shinn (moderator)
Former Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso

On Tuesday, April 13, the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa hosted a panel discussion on the situation in Sudan. The panelists offered their analysis of the nationwide elections presently taking place and discussed the implications of the upcoming self-determination referendum, in which South Sudan will vote on whether to become independent.  The panel also addressed the influence of China and regional actors.

Ambassador Cohen opened with an overview of the historical context, arguing that Southern Sudan has sought independence for decades.  Sudan’s current borders were imposed by the British for administrative reasons, and, in post-colonial times, the North has maintained the present state by using divide and conquer strategies against the southern tribes.  In Cohen’s view, the upcoming self-determination referendum for the South is preferable but not necessary, as South Sudanese will almost unanimously support independence from their former oppressors.

Dr. Pham addressed the elections currently underway.  He noted that the timetable as stipulated in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was always unrealistic, and the extremely complex election structure—8 different ballots in the North and 12 in the South—undermined the process from the start.  The elections will have little meaning and, under the circumstances, diplomatic efforts should be shifted to deal with the approaching independence of the South, focusing on the demarcation of the border and a resolution on the oil wealth.

John Prendergast similarly argued that the elections were fraudulent and stolen by dictator Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party and really represent a major diversion from the major issues which will determine whether Sudan is plunged back into war.  Prendergast cautioned against the potential of renewed Northern support for Southern militias and a resumption of the divide and conquer strategy in order to prevent the self-determination referendum.  He also highlighted the repression of Northern opposition groups and warned of the fracturing of the country into more than two independent states.

Prendergast criticized U.S. diplomatic efforts under Special Envoy Scott Gration as “amateur hour.”  The Obama administration’s strategy, he argued, has no benchmarks and no consequences and has served only to embolden Bashir while demoralizing the opposition.  Absent more serious and productive diplomatic measures, the international community will be forced to contribute billions more in humanitarian aid and peacekeeping forces to deal with a Sudan in crisis.

Dr. Gérard Prunier observed that the process occurring now is “not an election” but a repositioning of forces for what is to come, namely the referendum on Southern independence.  In Prunier’s assessment, everyone has lost in this process.  The Northern opposition has been cut off from the dominant Southern opposition party, the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and the SPLM faces additional discord in the South itself.  Meanwhile, Bashir’s NCP had hoped that the elections would give them democratic legitimacy, but the complete disarray of the process precludes that possibility.  Finally, the international community has been shown that its efforts have been woefully inadequate: the South will walk away, the North is fragile, and the Doha process (concerning Darfur) is a “ghost.”  Going forward, the most important issue is finding a solution for the oil wealth, and preventing a military struggle over this natural resource wealth.

Fielding questions from the audience, the panel also noted that other regional powers for the most part have not interfered in Sudanese affairs, in part because they are preoccupied with their own internal issues.  However, the panel emphasized the importance of Chinese influence in Sudan.  Ambassador Cohen suggested that China may attempt to embolden the North to attempt a military seizure of the oil fields in the South, in order to secure future oil supplies.  China may go so far as to provide political cover in the international community and use its U.N. security council veto.  Ambassador Shinn and Dr. Pham argued that China would not place all its bets with the North and is already seeking to increase its power in the South.  Regardless, the panelists agreed that China must be diplomatically engaged by the international community at the highest levels on the issues at stake in Sudan.

Representatives of the Embassy of the Republic of Sudan and the Mission of the Government of Southern Sudan also made statements. 

Salah Elguneid, Deputy Chief of Mission of the Republic of Sudan, argued that the categories of Arabs versus Africans have largely disappeared in today's Sudan.  He further asserted that the current elections and democratic electoral process more generally were of critical importance to his government and the future of Sudan.  He acknowledged that there were problems with the elections but, citing statements from the Carter Foundation observers, argued that the process was overall a success and in accordance with regional standards.

Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, Head of the Mission of the Government of Southern Sudan, argued that the election has been stolen by the NCP in order to preserve Bashir's power.  He contrasted the use of intimidation tactics in the North with the open atmosphere in the South.  Additionally, many Southerners see this election as only a rehearsal for the self-determination referendum in 2011.  He defended the right of the South to seek independence, and urged the international community to ensure that the eferendum would be conducted freely and fairly and that the results would be supported internationally.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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