Mediating for peace and democracy in Sudan

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 12 Jun 2019

The Ethiopian premier’s recent visit to Khartoum focused on negotiating a democratic and consensual transitional period for troubled Sudan

Abiy Ahmed arrives Sudan
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, arrives to mediate in the political crisis that has followed after the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan June 7, 2019 (Photo: Reuters)

No breakthrough followed the Ethiopian prime minister’s one-day visit to Khartoum where he landed to mediate negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Alliance of Freedom and Change (AFC), the main opposition group.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Khartoum visit came on the heels of the African Union’s suspension of Sudan’s membership “until the effective establishment of a Transitional Authority”.

Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council Patrick Kapuwa said “The Council will automatically impose punitive measures on individuals and entities that have obstructed the establishment of civilian-led authority.”

The move was welcomed by the European Union.

The AU’s decision to suspend the participation of Sudan in all AU activities was issued a few days after the forced dispersal of protesters camped in front of the army headquarters in central Khartoum.

A mixed bag of statements was issued following the dispersal in which 46 people were killed, including soldiers in Sudan’s armed forces, according to figures released by Sudan’s Ministry of Health, affiliated to the TMC.

The army leadership denied its involvement in the dispersal, whereas figureheads of the AFC pointed accusing fingers at the Rapid Support Forces.

Meanwhile, the Sudan Doctors’ Central Committee said more than 108 Sudanese people were killed during the dispersal. The committee is part of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the opposition bloc comprising non-official professional groupings, and which spearheaded nationwide demonstrations soon after they erupted 19 December 2018.

Before Ethiopia’s premier arrived in Khartoum earlier this month, the TMC proposed the resumption of talks —which were interrupted several times — with opposition groups. The AFC turned down the TMC’s offer.

The two parties had previously achieved a breakthrough in their talks that kickstarted 14 April. The TMC and AFC agreed on a civilian government of technocrats comprising leading figures known for their integrity and professionalism, in addition to a legislature, two thirds of which was to be picked by the AFC and the remaining third to be selected jointly by the TMC and AFC.

A sovereign council remained a point of contention, however, between the two parties. The TMC wanted the establishment of a sovereign council with a head and the majority of seats drawn from the military, whereas the AFC demanded a civilian-led council with limited military representation.

This point was the reason Ahmed decided to start mediations in Sudan, his country’s largest neighbour. He met with each party for over an hour after which he demanded a “quick” democratic transition in Sudan.

“The army, the people and political forces have to act with courage and responsibility by taking quick steps towards a democratic and consensual transitional period,” Ahmed said.

“The army has to protect the security of the country and its people and political forces have to think about the future of the country,” he added.

Ahmed’s mediation efforts were “conditionally” welcomed in the Sudanese capital.

The conditions were revealed by Omar Al-Degeir, head of the Sudanese Congress Party, part of the AFC, during a media conference.

The TMC had to “confess to the crime” it committed, said Al-Degeir, referring to the dispersal of crowds stationed at the Khartoum army headquarters and which the army leadership said a committee was formed to investigate.

“We also demand the withdrawal of military manifestations on the streets,” in addition to seizing the work of an international investigation committee present in Khartoum.

Al-Degeir also demanded the restoration of Internet services that had been severed in Sudan lately, as well as more public freedoms and the liberation of the media.

Although much hype revolved around the Ethiopian premier’s visit to Khartoum last week, many observers questioned its real intentions and whether it was going to reap any benefits.

“I believe Ahmed was in Khartoum to listen to both parties, not to present an initiative. This was clear in the media statement his bureau released,” said Mohamed Al-Asbat, a Sudanese journalist and former spokesperson of the SPA in France, “although much of it was lost after the detention of Mohamed Esmat Al-Masrafi who coordinated the general strike last week.”

Al-Masrafi, an opposition politician, was arrested after exiting the Ethiopian Embassy in Khartoum which hosted the meetings between Ahmed and AFC leaders.

Two members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) were also arrested a few hours following their meeting with Ahmed: Ismail Jallab, secretary-general of the SPLM-N, and the group’s spokesman, Mubarak Ardol.

Jallab and Ardol were deported to South Sudan’s Juba on Monday.

The SPLM-N has been engaged in fighting against the regime of ousted president Omar Al-Bashir since 2012 in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states.

Jallab was arrested at his Khartoum residence where he had been staying since he arrived with an SPLM-N delegation, headed by the group’s vice president, Yassir Arman, who had been detained days earlier. Sudan’s army leadership and security apparatuses denied knowing Arman’s whereabouts.

None of the military or security bodies announced they had detained Al-Masrafi, Jallab or Ardol, which adds more tension in a country mired in civil wars and suffering an unprecedented decline in its economy.

The circulation of photos including Ahmed with a number of Ethiopian prisoners released from Sudan’s prisons “planted some doubts on the Ethiopian premier’s intentions”, stated Al-Asbat.

Other photos circulated in the local and global media, meanwhile, were of the general strike which was described as receiving “wide” support on the part of the Sudanese people. The majority of stores and pharmacies were closed and pedestrians and vehicles were rarely seen on the streets of the capital.

However, flight operations at Khartoum airport continued. A number of open shops were frequented by the public who wanted to buy basic commodities.

The SPA had earlier called for the general strike as an escalatory measure against the TMC after negotiations had reached a deadlock.

Activists published posters guiding the people on measures aiding the strike, such as abstaining from applying for governmental papers and services, which could direct money to the treasury, not recharging electricity and water meters, and taking a leave from work on the days of the general strike.

Some observers believe the relative success of the strike encouraged the SPA to call for disobedience, a measure rejected by Sadek Al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party and Hassan Al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party.

“These measure [the general strike and civil disobedience] are the SPA’s weapons. But more importantly, they show the strong and weak political powers in the country,” commented Al-Asbat.

Although the call for disobedience received a relatively positive response, the SPA is being criticised for spending a long time in the negotiations phase that has weighed down the Sudanese people who are already suffering on multiple fronts.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Mediating for peace and democracy in Sudan

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