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Sudan: How the Conflicts were born, and will they’re ever be peace?

The people of Sudan have suffered immensely, and this revolution will not be complete unless we recognise the immense grievances of those who have been systematically targeted by those who were responsible for their protection”. The peace process with the Sudanese armed movements is the “main priority” for the transitional governmentaccording to Abdalla Hamdok’s recent words, filled with strong symbolic and political meaning. One year ago, the end of Omar al-Bashir 30-year rule nurtured expectations for a lasting peace in a country pervaded by conflicts, which exacerbated instability for a long time.

The armed insurrections in South Kordofan and Blue Nile have their roots in the decades long war in opposition with the Khartoum government and the Southern regions which ultimately lead to the secession of South Sudan. First, at the heart of the North-South divide in the country there are ethno-linguistic and religious cleavages between Arab Muslims in the North and the predominantly Christian Sub-Saharan peoples in the South. Arab-Muslim élites have historically exerted political and economic power; the projects of Arabization and institutional Islamization of the state, which the Sudanese political authorities tried to implement at different times fed the resistance of the Southern communities, which have been harshly repressed by the central power. In addition to the ethnic and religious cleavages, a socio-economic rift separated the more developed North from the marginalised South.

The war between the central government and the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), armed wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), was fought from 1983 to early 2000s’: under John Garang’s leadership, the SPLM/A insurgents de facto nationalized the political demands that gave rise to the fight. Impulses towards independence and separatism were put aside in favour of claims for a ‘new’ secular, democratic and equal Sudan. In 2005, the leaders of the rebellion and al-Bashir signed a peace deal, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), defining the political, economic and security arrangements for a peaceful cohabitation between North and South Sudan. The peace agreement ensured the Southern regions a broader autonomy, enabling them to hold popular consultations for self-determination. Garang’s death, in July 2005, undermined SPLM/A’s political prospect for a ‘new Sudan’, fostering the rise of a secessionist faction in the movement, led by Salva Kiir Mayardit. In January 2011, South Sudan declared independence.

Despite South Sudan’s secession, severe tensions have continually destabilized the ‘new south’ of the country. The role played by Nuba and Dinka fighters in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in the struggle of the SPLM/A against Khartoum earned the two territories the recognition of a special economic, political and security status from Khartoum; the state committed to a different distribution of resources and revenues. The ‘Protocol for the resolution of the conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile’, that was signed the year before the entry into force of the Navaisha agreement (CPA) aimed to redefine the centre-periphery relationships: however, deficits in the implementation of the protocol exacerbated the tensions in the two areas.

Consequently, the SPLM/A-North (SPLM/A-N) inherited from the SPLM/A the reasons for opposing al-Bashir’s regime: political and socio-economic marginalisation of ethic and religious minorities, expropriation of lands, lack of democracy and centralisation of power in Khartoum. Clashes between the government and the SPLA-N rebels in the Southern regions broke out in early 2011, when the Sudanese armed forces entered in South Kordofan to disarm and dismantle militias, and soon expanded to Blue Nile.

In the Western region of Darfur, instead, a new rebellion erupted in 2003. The roots of the Darfuri crisis are, on the one hand, related to the limited development in the region and the competition over the access to natural resources: desertification processes in North-Western areas of the country fed conflict dynamics opposing nomad herderspushed southward in search for pastures and water, and sedentary farmers. On the other hand, the ethnic dimension stands out as well as an important key to understand the crisis: since the ‘80s, conflicts over the access to fertile lands and water have increasingly opposed Arab communities in the North to non-Arab groups (Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit) in the South.

The ethnically diverse Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), alongside with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), mainly composed of Zaghawa fighters, launched the rebellion to reverse the conditions of marginalisation of the Southern-Darfuri ethnic groups. After a number of successful military actions by the rebel forces, the government response saw the adoption of a counter-insurgency strategy through the mobilisation of the ‘Janjaweed’ Arab-based militias, largely made up of Northerner fighters often recruited among criminals and bandits, rejected by their own communities. The regime armed the militias and left their hands free to use violence against civilian populations accused of supporting the rebels. The massacre of Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa communities in Darfur earned Bashir charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In 2011, a few months after the beginning of the government’s repression towards armed movements in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, the SPLM/A-N and the SLM/A joined forces and established the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), an alliance of rebel groups, giving their claims a national dimension centred first and foremost on the demand for inclusive participation in the political processes. The conflicts between the government and the insurgents in the South and in the West of the country have stretched over an extended period of time, together with ethnic-based violence, tensions among the rebel actors – leading to a split within the SPLM/A-N – and failed attempt to politically resolve the crisis.

The fall of al-Bashir’s regime, however, opened new perspectives for the peace negotiations. In September 2019, during a visit in South Sudan, the newly appointed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok agreed with the Sudanese rebel forces on a roadmap – the Declaration of Principles – to lay the foundation of a peace deal rooted on a trust-building process. The negotiations, under the South Sudanese president’s mediation, started on October 14, in a context further complicated by the adoption of different positions by the two SPLM/A-N factions: while Malik Agar’s group demanded greater autonomy and self-government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Abdel Aziz al-Hilu’s faction – out of the SRF coalition – claimed that the Sudanese constitution would not be based on the Islamic law, the demobilisation of the armed militias established during al-Bashir’s regime, a greater local control over political and military power structures and a broader involvement of local communities in the dynamics of exploitation of regional resources.

In January 2020, the breakthrough in the negotiations seemed imminent. Abdalla Hamdok’s visit to the rebel leader al-Hilu in the SPLM/A-N stronghold of Kauda was greeted with popular enthusiasm, sending out a signal of confidence. Only a few days later, a framework agreement was signed between the Sovereign Council and the SRF.

In spite of the progress, though, the pacification of the country has not yet been achieved so far.

Peace talks with the al-Hilu faction of the SPLM/A-N and some armed groups in Darfur – where the violence of armed militias and community conflicts keep going on – are in a deadlock: the armed group affirmed the will to include self-determination in the agenda of the talks if the government refuses the idea of establishing a secular state.

Moreover, the consequences of the health emergency have slowed down the negotiations between the government and the SRF, pushing them to agree a sine die deadline extension to tie up lose knots related to security situation, power-sharing arrangements and wealth distribution in the two areas of the South and in Darfur. Particularly, the SPLM/A-N Agar demands the setting up of a religious freedom council to prevent discriminations based on religious affiliation in the country and calls for special regional autonomy for Blue Nile and South Kordofan, with the possibility to vote special laws by the two state parliaments, while Khartoum is encouraging the SRF representatives to accept a federal system with large power to the regional authoritiesA roadmap for peace talks has been finally fixed, according to which a peace agreement between the transitional government and the SRF should be signed on June 20.

The path towards the stabilisation of the country remains a rough one. Nevertheless, mutual trust and good political will could make peace a more concrete prospect than ever before in Sudan.

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