For Sudan, it could be the light at the end of the tunnel

It is always wise, however, to take a step back from the abyss when looming catastrophe stares you in the eye.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Successful foreign intervention. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) meets with the chief of Sudan’s ruling military council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum, June 7. (AFP)
Successful foreign intervention. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (L) meets with the chief of Sudan’s ruling military council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum, June 7. (AFP)

Good news from Sudan is rare. Indeed, one tends to expect only dire reports from Africa’s third largest country, which has been plagued with civil strife, ethnic cleansing and drastic food shortages causing famine and disease.

Suddenly, unexpected good tidings emerge. The main antagonists in the current conflict — the military and the protesters — appear to be working towards a peaceful settlement.

Optimists find reassuring that the Sudanese appear to be shedding the zero-sum game approach that deadlocked many conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather, they are accepting to live and let live. They are willing to seek their country’s welfare as a common responsibility, not as spoils of war.

The leaders of the protests, which toppled the 30-year rule of pro-Islamist authoritarian Omar al-Bashir, are not letting the bloodshed of recent weeks lock them into a cycle of hate and revenge as “revolutionaries” often do.

An Ethiopian mediator said protest leaders agreed to end their campaign of civil disobedience, begun after a deadly crackdown on demonstrators, and resume talks with Sudan’s ruling generals.

The United States has engaged in the Sudanese process to support the apparent breakthrough. A top US diplomat was sent to Khartoum to talk to both sides and to press the generals to avoid the return to crackdown measures against protesters. A special envoy was named by Washington to monitor the transition process.

The United States, which had largely been absent from Sudan during the al-Bashir years, stepped back into the country with the arrival in Khartoum of US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy. A US State Department communique said Nagy would call for a “cessation of attacks against civilians and urge parties to work towards creating an enabling environment” for talks to resume.

Sudan has been led by a Transitional Military Council since al-Bashir was toppled April 11 after months of nationwide protests against his iron-fisted rule. Following al-Bashir’s removal, protesters camped outside military headquarters in Khartoum for weeks to demand civilian rule before security and paramilitary forces dispersed them June 3 in a crackdown that killed dozens.

After that, protesters called for a campaign of civil disobedience and most businesses closed while people remained indoors. The protesters threatened to pile more pressure on the generals by releasing a list of members for a new ruling body — the key point of dispute between the two sides.

As a result of Ethiopian mediation and of the civil disobedience gradually losing steam, both parties agreed to return to negotiations.

The UN Security Council said sides should “continue working together towards a consensual solution” to the crisis and voiced support for African-led diplomatic efforts.

The Security Council also called for an immediate halt to attacks against civilians and stressed the importance of upholding human rights, a week after Russia and China blocked a similar draft statement on the crisis.

Protest leaders said they would name a new ruling body to replace the generals.

Regional pressure might have nudged the generals to the negotiating table. While supporting the role played by the military in the process, Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi denounced the violence and called for the resumption of talks.

While the news that the two sides agreed to negotiate was encouraging, observers remain cautious, given the country’s tumultuous history of violence since independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule some 60 years ago.

Still, the return to negotiation vindicates the pragmatic stance of domestic and international actors who pushed for political engagement to the crisis. It would have been too easy — but hardly helpful — to go back to the track of internationally imposed sanctions as advocated by US actor and Sudan activist George Clooney.

It is highly unusual and very noteworthy that anywhere in the Arab world or Africa, antagonists would agree to sit down and talk when they seemed on a collision course.

It is always wise, however, to take a step back from the abyss when looming catastrophe stares you in the eye.

4