Ten Lessons in Peace Mediation from Sudan

I sat in the middle of a conference room at the Windsor Hotel on Nairobi’s outskirts, the luxurious venue being far from the city’s temptations that would distract the warring sides I had brought together. They were the Government of Sudan (GOS) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and I was the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator. It was 2003 and Sudan was still a single country – Africa’s largest – in which raged the continent’s longest-running conflict, more or less continuously since its independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956.  With millions displaced and widescale poverty, malnutrition, and disease, it was undoubtedly the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis of that time.

My job was to foster peace through mediating humanitarian co-operation. Specifically, by allowing the World Food Programme (WFP) to send food by barge from north to south down the mighty Nile, reducing dependence on horrendously expensive airdrops under Operation Lifeline Sudan. At stake were the lives of millions of starving southerners.

Five days of negotiations in a five-star hotel 

The atmosphere in that Windsor conference room was as gloomy as its dark wood panelling, with the sworn enemies refusing to look at each other. Thus passed the first day.

Day two started with a shouting match necessitating the mobilisation of hotel security in case of fisticuffs. Still, it was progress: at least they glared directly at each other, and not me. 

I declared day three to be for rest. The hotel’s bars were open for informal conversation with the bill picked up by the United Nations, thanks to generous underwriting by the supportive troika of Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. From the snooker table, where I established my office, I could hear the laughter and tears as stories about separated friends and family were exchanged.

On the fourth day, we switched to an intimate roundtable with random seating. There were no opposing delegations now. That night everyone ate together while arguing over the language of the agreement. The bar remained open for negotiating the most contentious clauses.

On the fifth day, they signed, and I affixed my own seal as UN guarantor.

Lesson One: Hold off on the ‘family photos’

Despite the progress made, a “family photo” would have been a step too far because of the optics with hardliners back home.  I declined a press conference. After all, what was there to boast about – can hungry people eat paper?  I did not want to over-promise – our disappointed stakeholders would not rally around when needed again. This is a lesson ignored by today’s Sudan negotiations, who seem to be merely performing for the media.

Lesson Two: Spoilers must be neutralized

Peace does not come from paper.  It must be built starting with neutralizing the “spoilers” – those with a vested interest in continued fighting because this brings them power and profit. And so, I embarked on shuttle diplomacy between President Omar Al-Bashir in Khartoum and the SPLM leader John Garang at his New Site HQ in the southern Sudanese bush (with Khartoum’s promise not to bomb – at least while I was there).  I signalled the UN’s protection for the courageous delegates made vulnerable by signing “with the enemy” and deployed all my credibility to sell the agreement to sceptics.  

Unfortunately, today, the current Sudan mediation efforts underway are not exerting sufficient pressure on the spoiler states that support the opposing Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who continue to devastate the country.

Lesson Three: Maximise the carrots

Effective mediation entails win-win. I had to maximise the carrots: the crossline humanitarian deals had to help northern people who also suffered. That meant re-casting the traditional Sudan humanitarian appeal that was strictly limited to life-saving relief, to wider sectors such as education, health, de-mining, and agriculture.

This move was unpopular with Western powers but was necessary as our Windsor agreement would be jeopardized without delivering a dividend in advance of peace. And so followed intense travels to the UN centres of New York and Geneva, and key capitals Washington DC, London, Paris, Brussels, Oslo, The Hague, Copenhagen, and Rome. A corollary of my diplomatic salesmanship was that the half-a-billion-dollar “UN Sudan Consolidated Appeal” – the world’s largest aid request at the time – got   funded, benefitting both north and south. And WFP could ship, for the first time in decades, hundreds of thousands of tons of food down the Nile.

In contrast, today’s peace processes are attended by much mistrust, many conditionalities, and remain grossly underfunded with little chance to prove themselves before frustrated protagonists return to war.

Lesson Four: Also use sticks

Sticks are also vital. My stick was not sanctions which had been applied already for some time with little impact but the message implied by the US war on Iraq. That concentrated Sudanese minds, the US having already bombed a target in Khartoum, however mistakenly.  

Nowadays, there is little prospect for international military intervention, and people can fight with impunity, as they currently are in Sudan.

Lesson Five: Timing is everything

Timing is crucial.  My mediation worked because both sides wanted to make a deal at that moment. This contrasts with the current Sudan situation when neither the SAF nor RSF feel the imperative to cease. 

As I learnt earlier from working alongside the sagacious Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Special Representative in Afghanistan who brokered the Bonn Agreement, sending negotiators prematurely squanders valuable political capital that brings their backing institutions into contempt.   Subsequently, Brahimi wisely resigned from his UN role in Syria when it was clear he could do nothing to improve the situation. Meanwhile, the UN is often pressured to attempt peace when there is no will to make it and gets scapegoated for inevitable failures.

Lesson Six: There must be a global consensus

My good fortune was to be backed by all the world. It was the immediate post 9/11 era, when the UN Security Council functioned, and the African Union and the League of Arab States cooperated.

These conditions don’t prevail in today’s fractured geopolitics. The warring Sudanese parties benefit from global discord, as do a myriad mercenaries and terrorists finding opportunities amidst the chaos. It is hard to see how a Sudan-focused peace mediation process can succeed when the country is at the centre of a band of instability from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.  No one can be at peace in the Sahel until all are at peace. A wider, strategic approach is needed.

Lesson Seven: Mediators must be heard not just seen

I learnt humility knowing that my efforts were just a sideshow.  My Windsor talks simply piggybacked  on the bigger game  played 100 km away in Naivasha where the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) hosted intra-Sudanese  talks on a Comprehensive Peace Agreement,  under the awesome Kenyan General, Lazaro Sumbeiywo

Unlike him, today’s mediators forget that they must be heard, not seen. But this does not come easily to ambitious politicians from member states craving recognition when appointed to UN special representative roles. I was shocked to hear corridor talk in Naivasha on who would get the Nobel Prize for bringing peace to Sudan.

Lesson Eight: Balancing humanitarianism and politics is tricky

The humanitarian-political interface is tricky. Whether my Windsor humanitarian progress came out of General Sumbeiywo’s successful Naivasha peace-making or the other way round, is debatable. Especially, as we avoided coordination so as not to contaminate or compromise each other’s mediation tracks.

In those days, we believed in the sanctity of humanitarian principles.  But with brutal atrocities and humanitarian law violations normalised in today’s war-making, relief provision has become a bargaining chip. We see that in current failures to get humanitarian corridors in Sudan. 

My observation from many war contexts is that confounding humanitarian objectives with peace-making leads to failure on both fronts, as so-called humanitarian ceasefires rarely lead to conflict resolution. We see that in Sudan today. 

Lesson Nine: The UN doesn’t hold the weight it once did

A further insight derives from above. Although I was a constant thorn in the side of the Government of Sudan, I punched above my weight because of the respect I commanded – not personally – but for my trusted platform as the UN Humanitarian Coordinator. This was bigger than its incumbent.

Nowadays, with widespread inconsistencies in UN conduct and performance, its platforms are ignored or actively disrespected. Under the circumstances, UN mediation is at an impasse and must be “contracted out.” And so, major negotiations nowadays require a powerful member state to lead.  Syria, Yemen, West African coups, Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine-Russia grain deal are a few examples apart from Sudan itself. The UN’s role is still vital but more as a conference concierge or officiating priest at a ceremony. Today’s UN mediators must now possess mindsets and skills somewhat different from that of their predecessors.

Lesson Ten: Expect and accept failure

This is my final and most difficult lesson: expect and accept failure. I never saw the fruit of my Sudan labors, as I was forced to leave my post in 2004. That happened  when I spoke against the Darfur genocide and  was rewarded by death threats from agents of President Al-Bashir whose indictment by the International Criminal Court, I helped facilitate.

Since then, Sudan has remained conflicted despite numerous mediations.  Any peace is always provisional and never sustainable unless the conflict’s root causes and grievances are addressed, including accountability for crimes against humanity and war crimes suffered along the way. That happens rarely and even less so when impatient, glory-seeking negotiators take short cuts by disassociating justice from peace.  Thus, most mediation processes achieve temporary fixes that unravel, sooner or later.

UN negotiators often confront a huge challenge: they are duty-bound to stand-up for the norms of the United Nations Charter, but successful mediation entails pragmatism and potentially unprincipled compromises. 

That leaves a final thought: if compromising UN principles as short-cut to peace does not work, should standing more firmly behind those principles – come what may – be given a chance?

Professor Mukesh Kapila was a senior official in the British government, United Nations, and International Red Cross and Red Crescent. He served as the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan in 2003-4. He has extensive experience in and writes regularly about international development, humanitarian affairs, conflict and security issues, human rights and diplomacy.

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