The UNITAMS Initiative and Lessons Learned from the Failure of the 21 November 2021 Agreement

Khartoum January 12th 2022

*Yasir Arman*
Since 1964, Sudan has witnessed many processes that were intended to end its internal wars, strengthen nation-building, promote democracy and create a national project that commands broad consensus. However, none of these processes have addressed the historical questions of Sudan or led to a sustainable nation-building process. The most famous of all was the Naivasha Peace Process, which resulted in the disintegration of Sudan rather than preserving its unity. Each initiative was followed by a new process in an endless cycle of failed peace agreements leading back to war, short-lived democratic dispensations sliding back to dictatorship, and dictatorships leading to uprisings as has happened in October 1964 and April 1985. It has never been possible to reconcile democracy and peace. The December 2018 Revolution represents the most serious attempt to achieve a paradigm shift that can bring a new socioeconomic, cultural, and political dispensation that is democratic in nature and can provide for unity in diversity. Millions of young people and women, who are shaping and owning this process, are determined to build a New Sudan, which would end dictatorships for good and open the door to implement the main slogans of the Revolution: freedom, peace and justice.
The December Revolution is an ongoing nation-wide process that has never succumbed to the repression that it has faced for more than two years, especially since the 25 October coup.
Against this background, the initiative of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) has been launched in a very complicated environment, coming after the failure of the 21 November agreement between the former Prime Minister and the leader of the coup. The international community made a mistake by trying to support a political process based on an agreement that was rejected by the forces of the revolution and change because it was widely perceived as legitimizing the coup. If it is not to share the same fate, the UNITAMS initiative must learn lessons from the failure of the 21 November agreement.
The most important lesson is that, if the UNITAMS initiative is to succeed, it needs to resonate with the street and with those who are prepared to sacrifice their lives to fulfill their dreams. To win their backing, there needs to be a genuine and effective process that can end the stalemate, the killing and repression, restore hope to the Sudanese people and establish a new constitutional process to roll back the coup. This will require the active participation and leverage of serious partners in the region and the international community.
When briefing the UN Security Council last month, the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Sudan, Dr Volker Perthes, had the courage to openly acknowledge that the 21 November agreement did not enjoy wide support. This opened a new page in relations between the UN and the forces of revolution of change and helped UNITAMS to initiate the current process. Nevertheless, the UNITAMS initiative faces many challenges, starting with the complete lack of trust between the parties to the conflict, particularly following the violence and repressive measures used by the security forces against the ongoing peaceful protests. The huge gap between the political vision of the pro-democracy forces and the military is another major challenge. Added to this, the UNITAMS initiative also suffers from the perception on the part of civilians that the mission does not have sufficient leverage on the military. It therefore needs a strong panel of prominent personalities from the region and the international community who have access to world leaders and can bring the necessary political pressure to bear.
It is true that there are many other global challenges demanding international attention from Ukraine to Ethiopia. Nevertheless, the international community cannot afford to ignore the need for a robust and effective political process in Sudan at such a critical time. If the process fails due to the absence of sufficiently senior regional and international participants and Sudan becomes more unstable in an already turbulent region, the cost of reversing the damage will be hugely greater tomorrow than it is today. We will also have lost a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Sudan to become a role model for transition towards civilian-led democracy in Africa and the Arab world.
UNITAMS Initiative: Getting the Procedure and the Process Right
According to Volker Perthes, the declared objective of the UNITAMS initiative is to facilitate a Sudanese-led process that will help Sudanese stakeholders agree on a way out of the current political crisis, starting with initial consultations with a range of key stakeholders. If it is to succeed, it will be important to focus on the procedure and the process first, though the substance and the process are closely interconnected. Without getting the procedure right, the UNTAMS initiative is unlikely to be able to address the essence of the problem. The first step should therefore be the appointment of a high-level panel with trusted regional and international personalities. As the aggrieved party are the civilians, it is particularly important to pay attention to their concerns as it was the military who completely sidelined the civilians in a zero-sum game that has resulted in an equally strong reaction from their side. On 25 October, the military destroyed their partnership with the civilians and ended the democratic transition by abrogating the Constitutional Document, arresting the Prime Minister and other high-ranking civilian personalities, and subsequently killing scores of young activists, arresting hundreds and injuring over a thousand in Khartoum alone. This violent repression is still continuing. As a result, the civilians adopted the famous “three no’s”: no compromise, no negotiations, no partnership. It is clear who deserves the blame and who is responsible for initiating this zero-sum game. Therefore, any political process must ensure that the civilians can control their destiny and fulfil their aspirations, which they so richly deserve after enduring more than 30 years of dictatorship, genocide and repression.
The UNITAMS initiative needs to gain the support of all parties to the conflict, and especially that of the aggrieved party. This means designing a process that would have teeth and leverage to ensure that all parties take the initiative seriously and that would also guarantee implementation of the eventual outcome as so many agreements have been dishonored. While it is essential that the Sudanese should own their own process, it is clear that they cannot solve the crisis alone given the huge trust deficit between the parties.
Before launching this initiative, there are therefore serious questions to be addressed about process design, such as the regional and international partners who should sit on the panel, especially as we are not starting from scratch and there are already partners who have been highly supportive of the transition in Sudan and who have their own “Friends of Sudan” forum, which is scheduled to meet next week in Riyadh. This would be a good opportunity to discuss how best to support and strengthen the UNITAMS initiative.
In terms of African engagement, we should recall that Africans in the AU Peace and Security Council and in the UN Security Council were supportive of the UNITAMS mandate to promote peace and democracy in Sudan and therefore this does not contradict the notion of African solutions for African problems. This provides grounds for UNITAMS to work in partnership with the African Union. The Sudanese will always look for support to eminent personalities in democratic countries in Africa such as Ghana, Botswana, Senegal, South Africa and Kenya.
Moreover, before UNITAMS goes into the substance and starts soliciting the opinions of key stakeholders on how to facilitate an inclusive and constructive process, they need to prioritise confidence building measures. Such measures include, though are not limited to, stopping the use of violence against civilians and their arbitrary arrest, releasing all political detainees among the activists, lifting the state of emergency, establishing an independent commission to investigate the recent killing of over 60 young people, opening the bridges, restoring the internet and respecting freedom of the media and peaceful assembly. Agreement on these measures would be an important first step to build confidence between the parties.
Sudanese youth have learned through bitter experience that they have no future under military rule and want to see a genuine process that will fundamentally reshape relations between the civilians and the military. After the experience of the last two years, and particularly after the crushing of the sit-in and the 25 October coup, they do not trust the idea of a civilian-military partnership, as envisaged in the 2019 Constitutional Document and will never accept a return to the status that prevailed before the coup. There is a need to learn lessons from the coup and the era before it. The current crisis goes back to 1956 and even before that. The Constitutional Document no longer provides a solution for the problems of today. However, it still represents an important reference, as does the Juba Peace Agreement. The parties to these documents need to think outside the box and have the courage to look for solutions that will meet the aspirations of the December Revolution as it represents a historical event that no one can ignore.
If the Sudanese are to find a way out of the current political impasse, it is important to learn from the mistakes of the past and especially the way the Constitutional Document was designed and the structure of the transition so that we can address the shortcomings and widen our perspective to develop a national project that enjoys sufficient consensus.
The transformation and reform of the military and security sector remains the biggest hurdle because of the military’s dominant role in the country’s political and economic life. The political economy of the security sector needs a set of carefully designed policies to reform it gradually during the remainder of the transitional period and beyond. Integrating the security sector into a democratic state will require far-reaching reform in the structures of the state and political life as the democratization process moves forward. Bringing the autonomous military sector into wider institutional reform under the control of an elected democratic leadership will take time and a long process of democratization. However, it needs to start now with a clear vision, policies and timetable, including implementation of the security arrangements of the Juba Peace Agreement and addressing related issues such as building one unified national professional army with a new military doctrine that reflects the diversity of Sudan. This will also require new policies regarding the military’s involvement in the wider economic sector.
When we talk about inclusivity, we should distinguish between the inclusivity needed at this point in time, which must include the forces of revolution and change and the military establishment as parties to the conflict that need to agree on a new constitutional process and inclusivity for participation in the national constitutional conference, which should also include forces that were not part of the Revolution but are part of the national fabric. We shouldn’t confuse the two processes. Lastly, we should take the opportunity of this new process to find ways to include the armed movements, who did not sign the Juba Peace Agreement so that they can also have an opportunity to shape the face of the new transitional period emanating from UNITAMS initiative. This is an opportunity to make peace inclusive and comprehensive.
Sudan is scheduled to be on the agenda of the UN Security Council today and this is an opportunity that should not be missed to inject more momentum into the UNITAMS initiative by developing it further so that it can lead to a genuine and effective process.
*12 January 2022*