In the mid-1990s, Monica McWilliams spent two years at negotiating tables sitting next to the leader of an armed group that had tortured and killed her best friend during the Northern Ireland conflict known as The Troubles.
“After two years at the table,” McWilliams told members of the Sudanese government, civil society, and opposition groups at a series of Carter Center-organized meetings in December, “we were best friends.”
All that time spent talking to each other made the friendship possible.
“Dialogue creates understanding,” she said. “I hope eventually you will get to taste the prize of peace in Sudan as we are in Ireland.”
Sudan has been mired in conflict since 1983. Over the years, armed struggles have claimed the lives of more than two million people and displaced many more millions. There have been breaks in the fighting, and a peace agreement that eventually led to the formation of the new country of South Sudan, but permanent peace has proven elusive. Even after South Sudan’s independence, war between the government and opposition groups has continued in the region of Darfur in western Sudan and in the southeastern part of the country known as the “Two Areas.”
“It’s my dream,” said Buthaina Elnaiem, a professor and activist who attended one of the December meetings, “to have a durable peace, to have a sustainable peace.”
The Carter Center’s meetings brought together key Sudanese officials and activists with McWilliams and four other international experts who have dealt with strife in their homelands. The experts listened as the Sudanese discussed some of the specific challenges they are facing, and then shared some of the lessons they learned while working to resolve conflicts at home.
Ibrahim Mahmoud, an assistant to Sudan’s president and the government’s chief negotiator, attended the meeting for government officials and said he found the experience valuable.
“We can see successful stories of national dialogue in these countries,” he said. “What are the problems or weak points? What are the most important issues for success and change? I feel very confident that this discussion at this stage was very important and fruitful and will help us to go forward in our way to peace.”
The African Union is officially mediating the Sudanese conflicts. Its efforts led to the creation of a peace “roadmap,” signed by the government and many members of the opposition. That was accompanied by a government-sponsored National Dialogue conference, which produced a detailed list of recommendations aimed at unifying the country.
Depending upon whom you talk to, the National Dialogue is either an important step toward peace or a diversion.
“Specific National Dialogue recommendations are contradictory and repetitive, and the meaning of some are in dispute even amongst their creators,” said Mariam al-Mahdi, leader of the National Umma Party, part of a larger opposition group that did not take part in the National Dialogue but did attend one of the Carter Center meetings. She and other members of the opposition called the dialogue a distraction meant to win favor with the international community and buy time for a government on the verge of collapse.
Presidential aide Mahmoud, on the other hand, pointed out that 90 percent of political parties took part in the dialogue and suggested that the armed groups and political parties that boycotted the discussion were out of step with the Sudanese people.
“Nowadays we feel that we are in a new stage of Sudan,” he said. “No voice now is louder than the voice of peace and civility.”
There is now an opportunity to advance this stage: The U.S. government in January partially lifted its 20-year sanctions against Sudan, linking the change to a year-long government cease-fire, increased international humanitarian access to the country, and Sudanese cooperation in combatting terrorism. The situation will be reviewed in six months, and the sanctions could be reinstated if the Sudanese government backtracks. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter played a role in this new arrangement, meeting with members of both the American and Sudanese governments to encourage them to come to terms.
The focus now turns from a cease-fire to negotiating a lasting peace agreement between the government and the opposition, who want to see the release of political prisoners, increased civic freedoms, constitutional reforms, and restitution for victims of government violence.
It won’t be easy, but with the government’s cease-fire in place and millions of Sudanese looking forward to a brighter economic future thanks to sanctions relief, prospects are better than at any recent point.
As another of the Carter Center’s experts, Roelf Meyer of South Africa, told participants: “It takes patience. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison, it took us six years to negotiate a peace agreement.”
Jordan Ryan, vice president of the Center’s peace programs, attended the Khartoum meetings and said The Carter Center is committed to the process.
“We have a long history in Sudan, and we believe in the Sudanese people,” he said, “we’ll do what we can to help Sudan on its path to peace, however long it takes.
Ibrahim Mahmoud is the assistant to Sudan’s president and deputy chairman of the ruling National Congress Party. Ahmed Tugod is a Darfur rebel and the chief negotiator for the Justice and Equality Movement opposition group. The men attended Carter Center-sponsored conflict resolution meetings in December — Mahmoud in Khartoum, Sudan, and Tugod in Nairobi, Kenya. Both sat down to talk to The Carter Center about the conflict. Excerpts from their interviews offer a glimpse of the challenges the country faces in negotiating a permanent peace.
On Why He Joined the Rebellion: I believe the people of Darfur have a genuine cause to fight. They have been politically compartmentalized, socially excluded, economically denied. They have been subjected to a very brutal system of harassment, systematic killing, confiscation of their own land. The government committed serious crimes in Darfur. Too many people have been killed. Communities have been destroyed. It is left for the elite of the Darfur people to find a way to stop this. And also to challenge the government and to protect the indigenous people of Darfur.
On What the Fight Has Cost Him: I have a master’s degree in law. If I had just focused on my profession, I could have resolved my own problems, the problems of my family. I could have made my own money and built my own career. Instead, I have been cut off, family-wise. They are all scattered. Some of them I have not seen for more than 10 years. Some of my brothers are still in refugee camps along the border. I live in the U.K. as a refugee. My wife and three children live in the U.K. now, but they were in Uganda.
On the Current State of the Conflict: The country is heading toward collapse. There is political unrest. The government has been bankrupted, left with very limited options. But the opposition generally— whether they are civil opposition or armed opposition — they are not so strong they can dictate their will and force the government to come to their terms. That’s why there is a vacuum, and the new generation is trying to fill this gap.
On the Need for Peace: Without final lasting peace, it is very difficult to rectify what went wrong in Sudan at the national level and Darfur level. And without the peace we cannot address consequences of the war in Darfur. Without peace, we don’t feel like there will be a life in Darfur. We’re all working hard, at all levels, to bring about peace in Darfur and Sudan.
On the Changing Climate in Sudan: All the people now, they want peace. All the communities in Darfur and Sudan at large, they don’t want any continuation of war. You can feel the peace on the ground in the Two Areas [another conflict site]. It is the time for those who think that they can pursue their political will through guns, and through killing people and displacing people, to accept that it’s high time to think of another way. The avenue now is open for them.
On the Challenges Ahead: This national dialogue and peace process need to be owned by the whole community. One of the problems for us is the small group who are carrying weapons. We have to find a way for them, to say you can pursue some of your political interests without the gun. The government needs to figure out how to build trust with people who are in conflict and fighting each other. We also must remember that implementation of the National Dialogue is more important than having all these documents. How will we ensure that we are going to implement all that we have agreed upon with a timetable?
On His Hopes for the Future: It is high time for our children to have a stable country, to not have the same bad story of displacement and killing and all these problems associated with war. We would like our children to grow in a healthy environment of peace. And train the people not to hate each other, not to kill each other. It is the hope of the coming generation to have a better life than us. It is their right.
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The Carter Center assembled five international experts who have dealt with strife in their homelands and brought them to Sudan to share some of the lessons they learned while working to resolve conflicts at home. They were: