Waging peace in Sudan – and what it means for development

As Norway’s development minister in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hilde Frafjord Johnson was intimately involved in Sudan peace negotiations, outlined in her new book “Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War." Photo by: H. F. Johnson

Sudan is at a crossroads. Following the referendum in southern Sudan, the world is likely to see a new country born. This poses another major challenge to international peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction.

Experiences in Sudan over the last six years have not been promising. For Sudanese to see stability and development in the years to come, the international community and the Sudanese leadership – on all sides – need to do better.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, signed in January 2005, ended a 20-year civil war that pitted the southern Sudanese population against successive Arab Muslim regimes in Khartoum. The war, which ultimately claimed more than two million lives and displaced twice as many, was finally brought to an end.

The peace agreement came about as a result of talks between the government of Sudan and the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement, supported by the region. But it would not have happened without the critical role played by the “Troika” of the United States, United Kingdom and Norway, who were literally waging peace in Sudan. This is reflected in my book “Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War,” which was released recently.

The six years since the peace accord was signed were intended to see the country transform, with democratic change and the delivery of peace dividends making unity attractive for the southerners.

This did not happen. It was related to the death of John Garang, the late chairman of the SPLM/A, as well as other factors. Implementation was questionable and bumpy. And it did not help that the attention of the international community turned elsewhere during most of the period.

The result was a strengthening of southern Sudanese sentiments for independence, which were reinforced by failures in development and post-conflict reconstruction. Peace-building literature suggests that such efforts in the first six to 18 months after a conflict are among the most important factors for sustaining peace. Absence of concrete and tangible benefits can create instability in an already fragile situation. At the same time, aid has to arrive in the right way and be sustained over the long term for sustainable peace to be achieved. This did not happen in the war-affected areas of Sudan.

There were glaring gaps in funding, provision of capacity, and deployment of human resources. As humanitarian funding was curtailed or transferred to Darfur, basic services were in many instances cut back.

Development agencies were slow in becoming operational, development aid came too late, and the famous “gap” occurred. The World Bank’s multi-donor trust fund, holding hundreds of millions in donor contributions, was by southerners seen as the worst. Few peace dividends were visible. Beyond the absence of war and freedom of movement, both southern Sudanese and people in the most marginalized areas had to wait for a very long time before they saw any tangible results in their daily lives. As an Agar woman said: “People say there is peace, but there are still two sides of the river.”

A chance to do it right

Now that a new country is likely to become a reality, the international community needs to learn from these lessons. The peace-building process needs to be managed much better, addressing the political realities, security and peace dividends, reconstruction and development.

The aid community has not been particularly successful in state building and nation building in the past. Southern Sudan is an opportunity to get it right. Top-down “blueprint” approaches must be replaced by incrementally developing capacity locally, with the assistance of “doers” that have executive experience, rather than “fly in – fly out” consultants. Transparency and accountability must have first priority. Other marginalized areas in Sudan should also be supported. This is a critical part of the peace-building process.

History shows that more than half of all peace agreements fall apart and relapse into war. Sudan itself has provided an example of this with the return to conflict after the last peace agreement in 1983. We have to avoid history from repeating itself. None of the two parties want to reignite Africa’s longest civil war. But it can still happen – inadvertently. There are enough hot spots in the country, especially the oil-producing Abyei, where small incidences can spin out of control.

That is why it is critical that a constructive political process takes place between the parties. This includes agreement on key post-referendum issues, including Abyei, with a view to establishing good neighborly relations. The situation in the north is also very fragile and needs to be managed very carefully. Apart from the pressing crisis in Darfur, permitting the situation to slide out of control in Abyei, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, the Eastern region, parts of the South or in other border areas is extremely risky.

In a 2005 speech before the United Nations Security Council, the late John Garang warned against this – and a failed state in Sudan. I would go even further. The risk is not only a failed state, but a fragmentation of the country as a whole. The danger is real. That is why a comprehensive peace-building approach is imperative.

It is my hope that maturity among Sudanese leaders, as well as strong and competent engagement by the international community, will prevent such a worst-case scenario from becoming a reality. As Sudan faces its most decisive period in history, the international community has a significant role to play. This includes political engagement, security and protection, as well as state building and the delivery of peace dividends to war-torn regions. If there is one important lesson to learn from the process that ended Africa’s longest civil war, it is the need for action – continuous, coordinated and forceful – from the international community. The same leadership is needed now. Waging peace in Sudan is more important than ever. In fact, it is now that the job really begins.

Read more:

After the Referendum: Sudan’s Development Challenges

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Hilde F. Johnson

    Hilde F. Johnson is an assistant secretary general of the United Nations. She served as Norway's minister of international development 1997-2000 and 2001-2005. Johnson is the author of “Waging Peace in Sudan: The Inside Story of the Negotiations that Ended Africa’s Longest Civil War,” published Jan. 1, 2011 by Sussex Academic Press.