Working against Violence in Sudan

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April 2011 | News Feature by Thomas Omestad

In the past year, Sudan has successfully passed two milestones established by its Comprehensive Peace Agreement: national elections in April 2010 and a referendum this January on independence for the country’s south. Many analysts and commentators feared, in both cases, that an eruption of violence could block the path to a peaceful resolution of the north-south conflict laid out in the historic 2005 accord.

Despite significant problems, the elections were accomplished. And the more recent referendum surpassed expectations, prompting relatively little violence or disruption—with the disputed Abyei region the primary exception. The impressive overall process got a helping hand from a number of governments, the United Nations and international nongovernmental organizations. One key supporter has been the United States Institute of Peace, which has run programs to foster peace and stability in Sudan for two decades.

In the run-up to the country’s national elections and then its referendum, USIP conducted unique workshops with Sudanese civil society representatives—and a few security officials as well—to understand and head off signs of election- and referendum-related violence. “There were predictions of gloom and doom,” says Jon Temin, director of the Institute’s Sudan program. “We think our workshops contributed to the prevention of violence.”

USIP’s Electoral Violence Prevention (EVP) workshops—10 in all—ran from January 2009 to February 2010. Carrying that model forward, two Referendum Violence Prevention (RFP) workshops were conducted in October and November of last year in the future southern capital of Juba and the town of Rumbek. With their USIP training, the EVP participants went on to run another 20 workshops of their own. Both sets of workshops were funded by the State Department-based Office of the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan.

The training in both programs built on case studies of elections and independence referendums elsewhere that were written for Sudanese participants by Senior Program Officer Dorina Bekoe and other researchers. The case studies described how elections in countries like Kenya and Ghana and referendums in Ethiopia, East Timor and elsewhere did or did not spawn violence.

The 10 EVP sessions were conducted around Sudan, drawing political figures, tribal and religious leaders, non-governmental activists, students, teachers and journalists in each locale. “It took off like wildfire,” says Linda Bishai, a senior program officer who led the training effort on the ground in Sudan. In the conflict-torn western region of Darfur, rebel leaders sat next to officials from the ruling National Congress Party involved in security matters. In the capital Khartoum, a dramatist was moved by the USIP effort to convert some of its instruction into a Sudanese play, which was performed in the courtyard of a local college. The play used humor to illuminate sensitive issues of racism, prejudice and women holding different views from those of their husbands.

A broad theme of the workshops, says Bishai, was that “elections are another way of non-violent conflict resolution. They offer ways to resolve your problems without guns.”

The workshops sought to help the participants understand how elections and referendums can devolve into violence and what sorts of triggering events or tensions to be on alert for. More broadly, the sessions emphasized that a trip to the ballot box is only the beginning of the responsibilities of good citizenship. “We discussed how to mediate and not to fight with families and schools…the nuts and bolts of being a peacebuilder,” Bishai says.

The two sets of workshops illustrate USIP’s style of fusing academic work on peacebuilding and conflict management with practical programs on the ground—“the marrying of the ‘think’ and the ‘do,’ says Temin.

It also reflects the Institute’s ability to operate more flexibly than the policymaking agencies of the U.S. government can typically do—in this case, with USIP positioned to bring together Sudanese from across a wide political spectrum complicated by mutual suspicions and a history of violence. “We’re very careful to be inclusive in these workshops. We have the agility and the connections to engage people on all sides of the issues,” says Temin.

The USIP workshops revealed the degree to which police-community tensions remain a major potential trigger for violence. With State Department funding, the Institute is planning to launch a series of up to eight training sessions aimed at improving relations between police and local communities in the south, where efforts to fashion a new, national police force are proceeding urgently given the approach of the south’s formal independence on July 9. Says Bishai, “It’s important for someone to break the cycle of distrust.”