I would guess Omar al-Bashir gives more speeches than vice-president Ali Osman Taha, but I usually find the latter’s statements provide more insight into the thinking of the Khartoum regime. Recently, I got to see Taha perform live in Doha: noting his eloquence is nothing new, but it was striking to see him speak a sight better than his Arab contemporaries.
Naturally, there’s more to Taha than good rhetorical speaking. Depending on the audience, his speeches usually feature at least one of six elements. The first is to float policy trial balloons, often reflecting internal debates and sometimes disputes within the NCP. The second is to either set the stage for a future policy announcement by al-Bashir, or reinforce one already made. The third is to provide an alternate characterization of a situation, event or policy, which while not in direct contradiction to his president or other senior figures, is typically better nuanced. The fourth is to shore up the party’s Islamist credentials. The fifth is Taha as conciliator, whether to the West or to domestic opposition. The sixth is as hardliner and regime enforcer.
So how to judge Taha’s widely reported speech of March 26, in which he called for talks with the SPLM-N? The speech had at least three of the characteristics above. Taha sounded conciliatory. He offered the political opposition new constitutional talks, which foreshadowed Bashir’s more comprehensive offer in his speech (AFP, Reuters) to the national assembly on April 1. But I’m particularly interested in Taha’s trial balloon, particular to South Kordofan and Blue Nile: an offer to restart the ‘popular consultations (PCs),’ the CPA’s promised mechanism to resolve outstanding issues in the Two Areas of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. (For more on the PCs, see: Why Sudan’s Popular Consultation Matters, Jason Gluck, USIP, 2010; The Significance of State Elections and the Popular Consultations for Peace, Saferworld, 2010; and Unfinished Business: The May 2011 State Elections in Southern Kordofan, Aly Verjee, 2011.)
Malik Agar, the once elected governor of Blue Nile and now chair of the SPLM-N was quick to dismiss the Taha offer: “The popular consultation got buried with the end of the CPA,” he said. But at least measured by current international policy, PCs are far from dead. UN Security Council resolution 2046 requires the Government of Sudan and the SPLM-N to “reach a negotiated settlement on the basis of the 28 June 2011 Framework Agreement on Political Partnership between NCP and SPLM-N.”
The June 28, 2011 Framework Agreement states:
“3. i. The Popular Consultations Process is a democratic right and mechanism to ascertain the views of the people of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile and shall be completed and its outcomes fully implemented and fed into the constitutional reform.
5. c. Without prejudice to the bilateral discussion between the two Parties on issues to be addressed through the process of popular consultation, the Popular Consultation process shall be extended beyond 9 July 2011 through an agreed amendment by the National Assembly.
d. Development of appropriate arrangements or mechanisms to ensure that the goals of the Popular Consultation process as per the CPA are achieved.”
On July 20, 2011, the National Assembly did amend the Popular Consultation Act as per article 5.c. of the Framework Agreement, providing a further six months for the process to conclude. SPLM-N parliamentarians boycotted that vote.
New negotiations between the SPLM-N and the NCP might drop the idea of resuming PCs. But given Taha’s recent statement and the earlier 2011 agreement by the SPLM-N and Malik Agar himself to continue with the PC process, burial announcements seem premature.
Agar is right to be wary, though: there were many difficulties with the ill-defined, vague process. It is, though, an interesting thought experiment to consider how PCs might work if and when a new peace is negotiated. A few key questions:
1. Begin again, or continue from where the last PC stopped?
The delayed electoral process in South Kordofan delayed the start of the state’s PC. War put the process on hold indefinitely. But in Blue Nile, preparations for the PC were already underway in 2010, and by the time war broke out there, the PC had sufficiently advanced to hear written and oral testimony from almost 70,000 Blue Nile citizens in more than 100 separate hearings across the state. However, by August 2011, the PC in Blue Nile was, in the words of the Carter Center observation mission, at a “stalemate,” beset by both technical disputes over the means by which the PC continued, as well as more fundamental political difficulties.
Continuing from where the Blue Nile PC stopped in the CPA era means an asymmetric process continues, with South Kordofan again delayed behind Blue Nile. Starting again probably means re-negotiating every element of previous agreement reached in Blue Nile.
South Kordofan has particular difficulties in even starting: given that members of the PC commission are appointed from the state legislative assemblies, agreeing the membership of the body would be complicated, given lingering problems from the contested state elections of May 2011.
2. Allow a genuine consultation, or play the same old games of manipulation?
Again to quote the Carter Center, in its March 2011 assessment:
“While the Center praises the [PC] commission for conducting efficient, well-attended citizen hearings, it is worrying that what appears to be coaching by the NCP and SPLM undermined the overall goal and spirit of the popular consultations.
There have been reports that the parties’ campaigning amounted to coaching, pressure, or intimidation. In some areas, this reportedly included bringing individuals to a nearby location for a last-minute information session before taking them to a hearing. In other areas, Carter Center observers heard accusations of bribery and threats, though none could be verified. Both major parties accuse the other of manipulating the process and inappropriately influencing participants. At the very least, the parties’ mobilization calls into question the popular nature of the views expressed during the hearings.
The SPLM and NCP’s apparent orchestration of people’s statements in the popular consultations undermines the intent of the process…”
Perhaps it is naïve to expect either party to be really interested in a genuine consultation of ordinary people. Perhaps it is just politics for both parties to use whatever tools they have to obtain the best dispensation they can get. But this is an approach that only further devalues the PC process.
3. The governors: accept Haroun, reinstate Agar?
State governors are not formally part of the PC commissions. But it is inconceivable that a state-level PC process could take place without the substantial involvement of the state’s most powerful official. Malik Agar was elected as governor in April 2010; he was dismissed by President al-Bashir in September 2011. Ahmed Haroun was declared elected in the May 2011 elections in South Kordofan; notwithstanding his disputed victory, Harun’s subsequent role as lead prosecutor of the war in South Kordofan has made him an even more polarizing figure. Sacking Haroun as part of a peace deal is an option, but brings its own political difficulties for the NCP. Both Haroun and Agar will need to be accommodated, whatever deal is reached. If either is in power and PCs take place, their roles will be crucial: state governors may have limited budgets, but power brings influence money can’t always buy.
Aly Verjee is senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute.