An insight for peace in Sudan

Recognition of shared humanity may point a way forward from military rule to democracy.

Pro-democracy protesters rally in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, on June 3.

When countries succumb to military power grabs – there were five in Africa alone over the past year – a common pattern unfolds. The international community cries foul; civil society groups protest; the putschists promise a quick restoration of democracy. And then those promises fade, as they have in Mali and Myanmar, as the generals find excuses to tighten their grip.

Talks in Sudan this week mark the latest attempt to chart the path back to the rule of law following a military coup. That process is still fragile, but it has already offered a hint that civic renewal starts with a recognition of the shared interests of adversaries rather than with hardened demands and punitive measures.

The country’s current crisis stems from the ousting last October of a short-lived transitional government tasked with establishing constitutional democracy after 30 years of military dictatorship. Since then, pro-democracy groups and the military junta have been locked in a battle that has unfolded largely in the streets of Khartoum, the capital, and other regional cities. More than 100 people have been killed by soldiers deployed to break up peaceful marches. Scores more have been arrested and detained.

Western and African diplomats, working through the United Nations, African Union, and a regional trade bloc, sought for months to bring the various factions to the table. But pro-democracy groups have steadfastly refused to accept the junta as a legitimate partner in a transition back to civilian rule.

A breakthrough came when Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, under U.N. pressure, lifted a state of emergency and released all detainees on May 29. Those measures, he said, were meant “to prepare the atmosphere for a fruitful and meaningful dialogue that achieves stability for the transitional period.” On Wednesday, military and civilian representatives met in an opening round of talks.

The main alliance of pro-democracy groups, the Forces for Freedom and Change, remained unconvinced. It refused to participate in the talks due to ongoing violent crackdowns during protest rallies. But that boycott masked deeper thinking. The pro-democracy groups seek a fully inclusive, civilian process of democratic change. That includes restoring the military to its rightful role and purpose.

“We seek radical change with a democratic framework,” said Khaled Omar Youssef, a pro-democracy leader and former minister in the ousted transitional government, last month. He warned, however, that “hostility between civilians and the military ... unites the military establishment against the democratic transition.” He urged his fellow pro-democracy advocates to seek military reform rather than the dissolution of forces deployed by the junta to quash its opponents. “If those forces are dissolved, where will these fighters go?” he asked.

That appeal voices a principle still under construction in Africa – the constitutional norm of militaries under civilian command. But it also includes a recognition that all Sudanese, in or out of uniform, hold a common interest in peace and prosperity. An acknowledgment of shared humanity among adversaries is a strong starting point for peace in Sudan – and elsewhere.

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