By Luka Biong Deng
June 1, 2012 — This round of talks between South Sudan and Sudan will be different from the previous talks as it has specific time bound of three months and it is definitive in finding solutions to all the pending issues within four months as per the Resolution 2046 of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The parties are aware that the business will not be as usual as the international community will be closely watching with UN Security Council to be briefed fortnightly about the progress of such talks and the implementation of the roadmap adopted by the AU Peace and Security Council (AUPSC). As such this round will involve serious preparation from the parties, political commitment and readiness to accept any outcome from these talks. After the South decided to halt its oil production and captured Panthou (Heglig), the government of Sudan gained sympathy from the international community. In fact the government of Sudan had paradoxically outperformed the South diplomatically. The South failed even to soften the tone of the condemnation of the AUPSC of the South over Panthou. The friends of the South in the UNSC were unable to defend the South in the face of barrage of false and unchallenged accusations articulated by the Sudan against the South. One diplomat in New York confided to me that it is the first time to see Sudan, as the most unpopular government in the world, to gain sympathy and to be listened to by the international community.
However such diplomatic success did not live longer as the international community was made aware about the issue of Panthou. The reckless statements made by the NCP leaders about the South helped to expose the true colour of the regime in Khartoum. In particular the utterances made by President Bashir in describing the SPLM (implicitly Southerners) as insects and implicit reference to Southerners as slaves as well as his outright rejection of the roadmap all dashed away the diplomatic gains and international sympathy. Equally the decision by Sudan to put preconditions for the resumption of peace talks and its partial redeployment of its forces from Abyei area and coupled with its continuous aerial bombardments of civilians in the South were clear defiance to AU and UN and that shifted the international pressure towards Sudan.
Besides this diplomatic failure, the defeat of the Sudan Armed Forces by the SPLA in Panthou, increased military activities of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) and coupled with growing economic hardship as confirmed by the recent IMF report, Sudan enters into these talks in a very shaky negotiating position. The claim that Sudan has received substantial foreign currencies from unnamed source and the resumption of oil production in Panthou is questionable as the available intelligence suggests that these are fabricated information to allay fears of the public about the looming economic collapse. With China now taking a balanced stand towards the two countries and coupled with the growing critical views in US about the conduct of Bashir, Sudan is losing its friends and sympathizers. The current lukewarm US Foreign Policy towards Sudan that considers “the devil you know is better than the devil you do not know” may slightly change to seeing the unknown devil to be better than the current regime in Khartoum unless Sudan shows a real change in the current negotiations. Also the position of US to cut its assistance to any country that receives the indicted President of Sudan into its territory is a clear signal of change of policy towards Sudan.
Also in the region, Sudan has not been successful in managing its relations, particularly with Ethiopia and Eritrea. While Ethiopian Prime Minister has been taking a high political risk in providing a diplomatic platform to cleanse the image of Sudan, his patience may run out as President Bashir let him down in many incidents, particularly his refusal to accept the framework agreement between NCP and SPLM-North and refusal to sign “Status of Forces Agreement” for the Ethiopian Forces in Abyei. Also the way Bashir is handling diplomatic relations with Eritrea to contain the political grievances in the Eastern Sudan may annoy Addis. Although the political developments in Egypt and Libya may be in favour of the regime in Khartoum, the new emerging leaders in these countries may be cautious in dealing with NCP leaders as they may be seen as political liabilities in the way they have corrupted Islam in Sudan.
In terms of negotiating team, Sudan is poorly represented by a team headed by Mr. Idris Abdel Gadir who is weak and with an opportunistic mind that focuses only on party’s political gains rather than national interests of Sudan. He also lacks political backing from the big shots in the NCP. His leadership in the talks was questioned and came under serious criticism after the last round of negotiations that resulted in the signing of general framework agreement on four freedoms and border. Only Sayid Elkhatieb, a refined diplomat and intellectual, came to his rescue in explaining to the extremists in the NCP the rationale of this framework agreement.
The South, on the other hand, is recovering remarkably after the diplomatic show down as a result of its decision to stop oil production and capturing of Panthou. With more historical evidence provided by the South and international experts that clearly shows that Panthou is a contested area and not exclusively part of Sudan, the international community started adjusting their attitude towards the South. The South performed extremely well in response to the roadmap adopted by AUPSC. Only four days after the resolution on the roadmap, the Government of South Sudan endorsed the roadmap and redeployed its forces out of Abyei area 6 days before the expiry date set by UNSC. Equally, the South adhered to the ceasefire and accepted the resumption of talks with Khartoum without any preconditions as per the resolution of UNSC and AUPSC. With these actions towards implementation of the roadmap and coupled with its earlier decision to redeploy its forces from Panthou, the South has managed to demonstrate to the international community that it is not only a law abiding and responsible member of AU and UN but it has shown its eagerness to finding peaceful solution to all pending issues with Sudan. Also the visit of President Salva to China was a successful diplomatic outreach as it has greatly helped in improving diplomatic relations of the two countries.
Despite this diplomatic success, the South faces serious challenges that might hinder its negotiating position with Sudan. The South is entering into these talks but extremely worried about its economic challenges as vividly painted by the World Bank in its recent report. There is also looming food insecurity that might even worsen during the hunger gap in July when the South will be celebrating first anniversary of its independence with half of its population unable to access food. The budget that was approved recently by the national legislature is not at all austerity budget as the public sector remains unreasonably huge with no serious efforts of reducing wage bill and operating costs. Equally, the remaining meager foreign reserves are not properly prioritized to meet the urgent needs of the population. Most donors may be forced to shift their development aid to humanitarian assistance in face of the growing food insecurity and inability of the government to finance its development progammes.
People are now queuing up in fuel stations in the South because of inadequate supply of fuel and inflation has reached an alarming level with food prices increasing to unaffordable level. The public servants and the law enforcement forces will soon realize that their wages are worthless in the face of hyperinflation that might trigger political discomfort. This situation has been exacerbated by the economic warfare adopted by Sudan against the South with shoot to kill any smuggler of goods and food supplies to the South. Recently, some of northern traders who attempted to smuggle goods to the South were either killed or trialed as traitors.
The South is highly or even over-represented in the current talks with almost key ministers being members of negotiating team that is headed by the Secretary General of the SPLM. Although this high representation shows seriousness and commitment of the South to the talks, it also underlines the need for rationalizing such representation in the light of crisis faced by the South. In comparison to the delegation of Sudan, the delegation of the South is capable and politically mandated and backed by the leadership of the South. One would have wished for the South to scale down its representation to spare some ministers to manage the looming economic crisis and food insecurity in the South. In fact most members of the national crisis management team are members of the negotiating team of the South. It seems the South has put all its hopes in these talks and this may not reflect well in the way our government is managing the crisis facing our new nation.
Given the desperation of the two states to ease political pressure, it is likely the two states may reach agreement on the pending issues. It is clear that Sudan would adopt a strategy of winning the trust and confidence of AUHIP during the three months period with the aim of not concluding agreement on issues that AUHIP might favor their positions. On the other hand, as the South expressed concerns over the mediation of AUHIP, the South would be better-off to finding amicable solution of all the pending issues within three month and to minimize a chance of refereeing any issue to AUHIP, particularly on the issues that they will not get a good deal from AUHIP. Also the way the parties would endure the economic hardship during the next three months will also determine the speed with which to reach agreement on the pending issues. In fact the parties are aware of these predicaments and the AUHIP could in fact use such dilemmas and expectations of the parties as leverages for finding amicable solution of all the pending issues within three month rather than imposing solutions that might be difficult to implement.
As it is extremely difficult to predict the outcomes of these talks, there are good opportunities in this round of talks to reach amicable solutions for all the pending issues. This will, however, entirely depend on how AUHIP will be able to facilitate these talks and to have a good sense of the pending issues so as to gain the confidence of the parties. Although AUHIP has been mandated to mediate these talks, there is a common perception that AUHIP has image problem in ensuring its neutrality and objectivity. This impression is not with the South but it is also shared by some circles in the international community. This could be overcome by making use of the wealth of knowledge and political backing of special envoys of the countries such as USA, China, EU and UN and who have in one way or other the confidence and trust of the parties.
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