John Young Michael Busch

When South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, its emergence as Africa’s newest nation-state was greeted with enthusiasm throughout much of the world. South Sudanese independence represented, for many, the successful resolution of conflicts that had wracked the region for decades and conformation that international intervention — and the liberal peacemaking processes it imposed from outside—offered the best hope for solving perpetual wars on the continent. “This is a beautiful day for Africa,” glowed President of the UN General Assembly Joseph Deiss. “This is a remarkable achievement, a longstanding conflict has been stopped.”   

But the supposed success of the Sudanese peace process was anything but according to John Young, a longtime analyst and researcher of Sudanese politics. In his new book, The Fate of Sudan, Young argues that American-led international interventions over the past decade in Sudan fostered a peacemaking process which created a new state — South Sudan — but failed to address longstanding concerns of those groups excluded from the process. The result, according to Young, were weak authoritarian states in the north and south, a fragile peace between them, very little democracy, and populations in both countries who continue to suffer. Worse still, these problems and the unresolved issues left hanging by the CPA will likely lead to further crises and continuing conflict in the years to come.  

Warscapes recently had the opportunity to talk with Young about his views on the peace process, the flawed theory that undergirds it, alternative approaches that might have produced preferable outcomes, and what he sees as the fate of Sudan. 

Michael Busch: Let’s start by discussing the origins of The Fate of Sudan — where does the book come from, what were you hoping to accomplish with it, and why now?

John Young: There were two elements that led me to believe that I had something to contribute. One was that, although I wasn’t directly involved in the peace process that produced the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). I was circling the process, as it were. I had been commissioned by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) — which formally led the process — to do an assessment of it and I was very familiar with the actors, the issues, and the conflict, having been involved and living in Sudan off and on since 1986.   

Then there was the output of the process — the election, the referendum, the popular consultations in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile. I was directly involved in them, serving as political advisor to the Carter Center on the implementation of the CPA throughout the whole period. As a result, I think I was in a good position to analyze what had happened and produce a strong critique of the peace agreement, the process that created it, and the output. The timing for the book was obvious, since the process had formally come to an end. But, of course, it didn’t actually end. It has dragged on, and most of the issues dealt with in the CPA are still not resolved. 

My objectives in writing this book were in the first instance to produce a critical analysis of the Sudan peace process, particularly for the Sudanese and now South Sudanese who were largely locked out of their own peace process, and secondly, to use what I had learned through studying the Sudan peace process to expose the weaknesses of the liberal peacemaking model.  

MB: You argue that the peacemaking process in Sudan has been a disaster. Can you talk about what you see as the origins and consequences of this failure?

JH: In the book, my determination of failure was based on the objectives of the people who led the process. Essentially, there were two linked tracks. One was the IGAD-led process which produced the CPA. The principles underpinning the agreement are laid out in the Machakos Protocol, which emphasizes two things. First, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the National Congress Party (NCP) committed to the unity of Sudan. It goes without saying that this objective wasn’t met. The second is the one I emphasize most: commitment to democratic transformation. I think it’s mentioned something like seven times in the protocol. Well, that didn’t happen, there are no grounds for believing it will happen in the future, and the international overseers of the peace process did little to ensure this objective would be realized.  

The second and later track was led by the African Union. This was directed by former South African president Thabo Mbeki who repeatedly stated his objectives. One was sustainable peace. The fighting that’s going on in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile in the north, the various conflicts in South Sudan, the border tensions, and South Sudan’s blocking of the oil pipeline all make clear that there is no sustainable peace, and nothing indicates that it’s on the horizon. Mbeki’s second objective was the creation of two viable states when it became clear that South Sudan was going to become independent. This, too, doesn’t look likely. In fact, we are looking at two states that are on the verge of economic, if not political, collapse. Thus when I say the process was a failure, I’m judging it by the terms set by those who led the efforts. 

The result of this failure of peacebuilding is that the people of South and North Sudan are living in terrible conditions. They live under authoritarian, military governments in both countries, their standards of living have declined, both countries are beset by multiple armed conflicts, and each is left with a government that many people are deeply unhappy with, governments which are not dealing with the kinds of problems people are faced with in the north and the south and I don’t think this is going to change short of a democratic transition. 

MB: The very theory of liberal peacemaking comes under heavy fire in your book. Can you unpack what you see as the “false dichotomy” of choice the theory presents, and what that looks like in practice?

JH: I’m not a theoretician, but one has to start somewhere. I had been looking at things from a field level and saw significant problems in the CPA and the process that produced it. But it wasn’t until I began reading the Nicaraguan analyst, Alejandro Bendana — who carried out many critical studies of peace processes, particularly in Central America — that I realized the approach in Sudan was basically taken off the UN shelf and that it was not unique to Sudan. Although this approach has gone through many refinements since it was first formulated in the early 1990s, it is still in my view deeply flawed. The trouble is that while this liberal peacemaking accepts that democracy is important to sustainable peace it never accepts that peace equals democracy. The contradiction emerges in the vast liberal peace-building literature (which has become something of an industry) over a conflict between the two objectives of peace and democracy. And it is always made clear in the literature, and in practice, that when this conflict rises, which inevitably it does, that democracy must give way in the interests of peace.

To me, that is a false dichotomy. It is false because you are not going to have peace unless you are committed to, and are trying to realize, democratic transformation. And that was the fundamental flaw of the Sudanese peace process. It begins theoretically in the ways in which these processes are conceptualized and the mechanics of the thing. In the case of Sudan, Washington set the framework. Washington picked its favorite dictator in the region, Kenyan President Daniel Arab Moi, to essentially oversee the negotiations. Moi, in turn, used his top general, Lazaro Sumbeiywo — who had kept him power for many years — to direct the peace process. Not surprisingly, the process was a completely top down affair in which no other parties apart from the NCP and the SPLM were permitted to participate in the negotiations. Civil society was shut out, and the whole process was deeply secret. 

The US-led international community endorsed this framework, and the interests of other actors in Sudan, and in what is now South Sudan, were marginalized. Indeed, they had no role at all, and didn’t even know very much about the process given its high level of secrecy. The people of Sudan and South Sudan were also not permitted to vote on the CPA and during the 2010 national elections parties opposed to the peace agreement were not permitted to run. So, you’re talking on the one hand about democratic transformation, but there’s nothing about the process that was remotely democratic nor anything that suggests democratic transformation could possibly result from something skewed so heavily in the interests of the gun carriers in the north and south. There are layers of contradiction here, but all of them fundamentally revolve around the fact that there’s rhetoric of democracy but no real attempt to realize it and that was made most clearly during the flawed national elections which the international community simply chose to ignore.

And that’s where we are now. Nothing points to the emergence of legitimate, effective governments in the north or south that have the capacity to govern their states or enjoy some measure of legitimacy. As a result, the fundamental question of democratic transformation still needs to be addressed. 

MB: What would have been a preferable alternative?

JH: I entertain two approaches. The first is that the warring parties handle the situation themselves. This derives from a theoretical literature which is on the margins but goes back to the early 1990s, popularly summed up as “give war a chance.” It holds that invariably international involvement in peace processes does not live up to expectations and in many cases it makes things worse. When we look at the Horn of Africa and its conflicts — in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda — none of them were resolved by peace processes, but by war. In each case, one party ended up conclusively defeating its opponent, and then coming to power. Obviously, there are problems with this approach. But there are also some real advantages. Conflicts don’t drag on and on. The parties on the ground themselves control the situation. I’m not suggesting that Ethiopia, and certainly not Eritrea, are perfect models of states that come from war. But the conflicts they were involved in came to a decisive end.  There was no attempt, for example, to keep the Derg in Ethiopia alive through compromises reached at the negotiating table. It was a murderous government and it’s quite right that it was eliminated. And what Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement in Uganda were faced with was also a government that did not deserve to be kept alive through a peace process. Better to just eliminate such governments.  So there’s that thread to it. Also, I should say that my own sympathies are with the local parties controlling the processes, even if that goes very much against the grain of Western liberals who are forever calling upon their governments to take up peace processes.

The second line, which I lay out in the conclusion and to which I give emphasis, is to push the commitment to democratic transformation and the structural changes this implies. I’m not opposed in principle to the international community being involved in peace processes. But the commitment to democratic transformation cannot simply be at the rhetorical level and then dispensed with in practice as it is in liberal peacemaking. The international mediators must themselves be committed to democratic transformation and if the parties are not prepared to commit to democratic transformation, then it is better for the international community to back out of the whole thing. It’s only going to be through a genuine commitment to democracy, and a process that is credible, that sustainable peace is possible. Otherwise, the international community is likely to become an appendage to the interests of warmongers who have no interest in democracy and therefore no interest in sustainable peace.

MB: A lot has gone on, even in the month since your book was published. What’s your sense of how the most recent negotiations between Khartoum and Juba are going, and what outcome they’re likely going to produce? Are things going anywhere, or are we just muddling through?

JH: We are just muddling through. The parties themselves were never really committed to the peace process. There was a deep level of distrust right from the very beginning. The SPLM was saying right up until to the eve of elections that they would not be held. Then, until the eve of the referendum on independence, they were saying that there wouldn’t be any vote on independence because Khartoum wouldn’t allow it. The level of distrust was that high. As a result, many people in the governments in Khartoum and Juba think there cannot be sustainable peace until the other party is removed. Agreements on the issue of borders, on Abyie, or other things can be made, but they are unlikely to be sustainable. The agreements pacify the international community and the parties can’t walk away without being condemned. But the SPLM leadership doesn’t really think these agreements will hold up in the long term. And in the north, the view of the NCP is not that much different. 

The trouble in the south is that there aren’t many forces that could replace the SPLM. The north is much more developed politically. Thus if the NCP is removed there are groups that could take its place, although some of them could be worse than the present government. In the south, that’s not the case. It is so politically undeveloped that there are no organized groups that could replace the SPLM at this time despite its truly awful performance. As a result, Khartoum has supported rebel groups in the south with the idea of simply causing chaos. At this particular stage of the peace process when things are under the international microscope they have held back these groups, but they are still very much there. If the process doesn’t go forward in ways Khartoum finds desirable, these groups will be unleashed. Meanwhile, Juba remains linked to the on-going insurgencies in the north in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Darfur. 

Diplomats work at getting people around the table to sign agreements. But the history of these agreements suggests that there isn’t much reason to have confidence in them.  Negotiations have been going on for decades. I don’t know anyone close to the present process and who isn’t a diplomat who is confident about any of these efforts. I really wonder who they’re trying to con after all these years of failure!  

MB: So, what do you see as the fate of Sudan? Is a lasting peace possible anymore without war?

JH: The only way to sustainable peace is through democratic transformation. I don’t want to sound glib about it. I am not suggesting that democracy will solve all the problems of Sudan and South Sudan. But ultimately, you need to have governments that have real accountability to their constituents, governments who, when they sign agreements, have the capacity to implement those agreements.

The other thing that is in the background of my study is the creation of an independent state of South Sudan. It begs the question: is this a state that should have been given birth to by the international community since the SPLM never militarily defeated the north? Does South Sudan constitute the material that could form a genuine state? Could the SPLM actually run a country? I think the answer is no to all of these questions. And basic questions of governance are also coming up in the north. Northern Sudan had all the advantages during the period of colonialism. Under the British almost all the development in the country took place along the northern reaches of Nile and there was a relatively sophisticated political structure in place at independence in the north, while in the south there was virtually nothing. But the north has deteriorated considerably. We’ve seen attempted coups, fighting in various parts of the country, and rapidly declining economic conditions. As a result, critical questions of governance are coming to the fore even in Khartoum. These kinds of questions were never considered during the peace process. And thus a decade after the latest phase of the Sudan peace process began, and after enormous expenditures of resources and human capital by the international community, there is very little that can be pointed to in the way of successes and Sudanese in the north and south are still dying.