July 13, 2003
What was slated as the sixth and decisive round of talks in the Machakos peace process has collapsed, with a complete lack of progress. The centerpiece of negotiations was to have been a carefully crafted draft peace accord that dealt “holistically” with the various and difficult outstanding issues, all of which required some compromise by the parties. The document was based on extensive consultation among the mediators and a recent wide-ranging canvassing of Sudanese opinion—north and south—by chief IGAD mediator Lazaro Sumbeiywo. But instead of responding to the draft as the basis for final compromise, the chief diplomatic representatives for the National Islamic Front (NIF) regime in Khartoum have vehemently criticized not only the draft peace accord, but the mediators themselves. This includes General Sumbeiywo and his IGAD partners as well as the diplomatic representatives of the so-called “troika,” Norway, Great Britain, and the US.
A series of international wire reports indicate the categorical nature of Khartoum’s rejection of this best and most comprehensive effort to reach a just peace agreement. Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) reports the comments of Amin Hassan Omer, a senior NIF negotiator:
“Speaking to the official Sudan News Agency (SUNA) in Nairobi Saturday, Amin Hassan Omer said [ ] the draft agreement itself was ‘unfair, contradictory and unfit to constitute a basis for negotiation.'” (dpa, July 12, 2003)
Dpa reports further on the response of lead NIF negotiator, Ghazi Salih el-din Atabani:
“Further peace talks scheduled for July 23 would be meaningless unless the draft agreement to end the war was amended, [Ghazi] Salah al-Din [Atabani] said to reporters.”
Reuters reports from Nairobi that Khartoum’s officials have labeled the draft peace accord “completely unacceptable” (Reuters, July 13, 2003).
“Unfair, contradictory, and unfit to constitute a basis for negotiation”; rendering further talks “meaningless”; “completely unacceptable.” There are two possibilities in assessing the meaning of Khartoum’s unambiguous and categorical rejection of the draft fashioned by Sumbeiywo, his fellow mediators, and his international diplomatic colleagues.
The first view holds that this is an ultimate form of diplomatic brinksmanship on Khartoum’s part. Eventually Khartoum will return to the negotiating table and hammer out a just peace in good faith (so the argument goes), but for now the regime is playing vicious diplomatic hardball and trying to beat the mediators and the whole peace process into submission by threatening to leave the table unless the carefully drafted compromises are radically revised to suit their wishes.
The second view is that Khartoum is simply unwilling to make the concessions that are necessary for a just peace, and having finally been confronted with a document that holds promise of such a just peace, the regime is ready to collapse the peace process altogether. This latter view would seem to be supported by the decidedly pessimistic tenor of Arabic news reporting in Khartoum over the last five days, with a clear effort to prepare northerners for the end of Machakos. We should also consider the apparently authoritative claim by SPLM/A spokesman Samson Kwaje (on July 9, 2003) that Khartoum is seeking to change the venue for peace talks from IGAD (a consortium of East African nations) to the African Union. This “peace forum shopping” has been a characteristic diplomatic ploy by the NIF, and it would hardly be surprising if it were occurring again.
Given the stakes in the Machakos process, and the shortness of the time-frame for its end-game, it is worth assessing briefly both ways of taking account of what has transpired this past weekend. Talks are supposed to resume in ten days (July 23, 2003); and while Khartoum has not declared it will stay away, it has nonetheless sent a very clear signal that without major changes to the draft peace document, it will not return to Nakuru as scheduled. Moreover, General Sumbeiywo has recently spoken of the peace process as culminating with a mid-August 2003 signing of a final agreement. But here the diplomatic advantage of setting clear deadlines for an agreement (understandable when so little has been achieved in the year since the Machakos Protocol was signed) is matched by the danger that ensues when one party is willing to reverse the intent of such leverage, and use the urgency of the deadline as a means of pressuring the mediators themselves.
 What we have seen over the past few days may indeed be the ultimate form of diplomatic brinksmanship, the actions of a regime that eventually intends to reach an agreement but feels that the best way to achieve its goals is by implicitly threatening to collapse talks that are the only means of securing an internationally desired goal. Khartoum knows that even as it enjoys an asymmetrical military advantage (one that increases steadily with the regime’s ongoing violations of the October 15, 2002 cessation of hostilities agreement), it also enjoys an asymmetrical diplomatic advantage. The SPLM/A simply can’t indulge in such brinksmanship without risking an international response that says in effect, “if you won’t negotiate on the terms we’ve set, then despite your desperate plight we can’t/won’t help you.” As much as all of Sudan desperately needs peace, including Khartoum, the needs of the south are incalculably more urgent in the most basic human terms. Moreover, the SPLM/A is well aware that, in the eyes of the international community, it is negotiating as a “rebel movement.” Given the diplomatic rules of engagement, this inevitably creates a major disadvantage in standing and perceived legitimacy.
In short, Khartoum may be calculating that the people of the south need the Machakos process much more than Khartoum itself does, and calculating further that this sense of asymmetry will eventually govern the decisions of the negotiators. Indeed, Khartoum can measure success in only one way: will the regime be able to reverse what is now the diplomatic commitment of the Machakos process to a just peace (as embodied in the draft peace accord), and secure in its stead an expedient willingness simply to reach peace by any means, this as a way of removing international embarrassment over an inability to end the world’s longest and most destructive civil conflict? Opinion on the broader form of this question has been divided in a series of recent analyses from the International Crisis Group, Justice Africa, Sudan Focal Point, and the highly informed Africa Confidential. The debate will continue until it is fully clear how the Machakos mediators will respond to Khartoum’s behavior of this weekend.
But it must be remarked now, and with the clearest understanding by all, that any capitulation to Khartoum’s strategy of brinksmanship (if this is in fact what we are seeing) would fatally compromise the whole Machakos process in the eyes of the SPLM/A. Though not happy with all in the draft document, the SPLM/A is clearly pleased to have secured what it views as the basis for a just peace. The highly divided and various constituencies that are represented by the SPLM/A at Machakos (some of course quite unwillingly) will not settle for less than has been secured on the key issues of security arrangements, the three contested areas, the status of the national capital, and power- and wealth-sharing.
There certainly must be room for some give-and-take. But the SPLM will rightly insist on both parts of the formula: what they give up at this point in the negotiating process must be matched by what enhances the agreement from their perspective. Though a draft document, the peace accord represents a best diplomatic effort to find a just accommodation of the competing claims of the parties. It is already in this sense a “compromise,” indeed an interlocking series of compromises. What Khartoum is seeking is nothing less that a radical recalibration of what comprises the elements of a just peace. Such radical change is no longer possible, given the degree of consultation, assessment, and deliberation that have entered into the formulation of the document by diplomats who are now functioning as arbitrators, not merely mediators.
 A contrary view of the pronouncements and behavior by Khartoum this past weekend would hold that what we are seeing now is the inevitable consequence of the National Islamic Front regime confronting the claims of justice for the people of the south and other marginalized areas. These are claims that when embodied in concrete changes in governance and constitutional reform would inevitably have a democratizing effect that would spell the end for the NIF. To be sure, there will be costs to Khartoum for collapsing the Machakos process, given the international investment in this historically most promising of diplomatic efforts in the search for peace; but (Khartoum calculates) they are costs that can be borne. A significantly enhanced military situation now allows for the final victory that will force the world to accept as a fait accompli a crushed and subservient southern Sudan, at least in the oil regions.
And as a diplomatic fig-leaf for any who might wish to wear such, Khartoum will profess a willingness to “engage anew” in an effort to reach peace. Such viciously cynical efforts have too often been rewarded in the past for Khartoum not to think that the “charm campaign” of recent years can be revived after taking a few knocks. The US Sudan Peace Act, at least without capital market sanctions, seems only vaguely threatening to Khartoum, even as October 21, 2003 (the next deadline for Presidential certification that Khartoum is negotiating in good faith) seems sufficiently far off. And if the past reporting exercise by the Bush administration is any measure, there is little that Khartoum has to fear from a US willingness to get truly tough in confronting the regime.
SPLM spokesman Samson Kwaje was reported on July 9, 2003 (Agence France-Presse) as having evidence that Khartoum was actively seeking to substitute the African Union (AU) for IGAD as the negotiating forum for peace talks. Given the extremely severe constraints on public communications that General Sumbeiywo has (understandably) placed on both parties during the negotiations, it is quite unlikely that Kwaje would be speaking without very substantial evidence that this is truly the case. If so, then we can make a good deal of sense out of the fact that Khartoum’s diplomatic emissaries did not simply criticize the draft peace accord, but the IGAD Secretariat (and thus most conspicuously General Sumbeiywo) and the negotiators as a team.
For example, Khartoum’s official response to the Nakuru draft accord speaks of a “brazen retreat” on the part of the negotiators, of the draft language “recklessly abandoning the language of the Machakos Protocol,” and of a draft “hastily drawn up, to the extent that [parts] are barely intelligible” (“Government of Sudan Position on Important Outstanding Issues,” July 11, 2003).
Voice of America (July 13, 2003) reports the NIF as declaring that the mediators are no longer impartial:
“The government delegation spokesman, Said al-Khatib, said the draft framework, drawn up by mediators, was unbalanced. ‘I think that in this latest proposal, I just can’t say that they are balanced. And, in light of the violations of former agreements, I would wonder as to the departure from the spirit and letter of the Machakos Protocol,’ he said. ‘I would say that the mediator should be impartial, otherwise, we will not attain peace.’
Agence France-Presse reports that lead NIF negotiator Ghazi Salih el-din Atabani also directed his comments at the negotiators themselves:
“Atabani put the blame mainly on the IGAD Secretariat whose proposals ‘differ largely’ from the Machakos Protocol, a peace blueprint forged in Kenya last year, and from previous agreements.” (AFP, July 13, 2003)
And of course for the draft peace accord to be described by Khartoum as “unfair, contradictory, and unfit to constitute a basis for negotiation” certainly bespeaks a strong view of the negotiators, as well as their document. “Unfair” and “unbalanced” would seem to be words that could easily lay the groundwork for Khartoum to declare that the Machakos process has been “fatally compromised.”
What will the next ten days look like? the next month? When will we know whether Khartoum is engaged in brinksmanship or has effectively ended the Machakos process? Our first clues will come from the Machakos mediators and their response to Khartoum’s collapsing of the most recent round of talks, and the regime’s subsequent characterization of the draft peace accord. So far, Sumbeiywo has held fast, indicating both his own resolution and his confidence that he enjoys the support of the other IGAD diplomats and the “troika” (Norway, Great Britain, and the US). Voice of America (July 13, 2003) reports that in response to the allegation that the draft accord, and by implication Sumbeiywo himself, was “unbalanced” the Kenyan declared:
“[Sumbeiywo] says the draft proposal is balanced. ‘They [Khartoum’s negotiators] have a right to suggest what they want,’ he said. ‘My proposal is fair and the international community agreed with me that it was fair. I am very impartial, and they [Khartoum’s negotiators] have acknowledged [so] themselves on many occasions, including today.”
It is difficult to see how a radically new peace accord document can grow out of this perspective. And since Khartoum undoubtedly has known for at least a week what would be tabled in Nakuru, this may in turn explain the pessimistic tenor in Khartoum’s (Arabic) presentation of the news in northern Sudan over the last five days. Indeed, a column in the important al-Rayaam on Saturday (July 12, 2003) spoke openly of the country’s ability to withstand whatever consequences of the US Sudan Peace Act might follow from the failure of Machakos. Khartoum’s recent military redeployments southward on the Nile toward Juba are also consistent with a belief on the part of the regime that Machakos must now be collapsed.
To be sure, it is likely that a delegation from Khartoum will show up on July 23, 2003 for the next scheduled meeting. But absent a complete about-face on the part of Sumbeiywo and his fellow negotiators, it is not clear what could prevent failure from being starkly evident at that moment. If it is indeed brinksmanship by Khartoum, there will either be a highly embarrassing climb-down—or the regime will have found that instead of extracting massive changes and concessions, it will have publicly shaped for itself the clear profile of intransigence and bad faith. They will in a sense have led themselves to “step over the brink.” The regime’s response will of course then be to stall, to play for time. But Sumbeiywo and the other diplomats have defined what they regard as a reasonable time-frame for good faith efforts; and they should consequently understand what Khartoum’s failure to be bound by this time-frame implies.
If the negotiators continue to cleave to the principle that has evidently guided their draft peace accord, if they insist that any changes to the draft must leave in place an agreement that is truly just, then Khartoum in turn must finally reveal itself—as a regime that, having failed in brinksmanship, is at least nominally ready to commit to peace. Or the regime will be seen for what it has long been: a cynically deft, intransigent, and duplicitous group of tyrants. These latter qualities in the National Islamic Front leadership are what suggest most strongly that what we are seeing now is not brinksmanship, but a brutal willingness to see Sudan’s unfathomably destructive civil war resume. And as all who have traveled in Sudan recently can attest, if war comes again, it will be with a fury and violence greater than anything in the conflict to date.
The international community simply must have a response to such a choice by Khartoum. If all the diplomatic chances for peace are presently staked on the Machakos process, that must not mean that there are only diplomatic consequences for the failure of Machakos.
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