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“The Press, Transformation, and Lasting Peace in Sudan” Keynote Address by Ambassador Princeton N. Lyman

Ambassador Lyman and Lauren Mackler give the award to Faisal Mohamed Salih at the National Press Club on October 24, 2013. Photo: AFP

Ambassador Lyman and Lauren Mackler give the award to Faisal Mohamed Salih at the National Press Club on October 24, 2013. Photo: AFP

Washington DC, National Press Club, October 24, 2013 – It is truly an honor to deliver the keynote address at the ceremony honoring Faisal Mohamed Salih. His determination to deliver the truth and the news to the Sudanese people, in the face of severe repression, sends a message to his country and to the world.

Allow me though first a personal digression. I grew up in San Francisco during World War II. In those days we had four – yes four –daily newspapers: one in the morning, two in the afternoon, and one in the evening. And my father read all four from cover to cover every day. All day long in our store, we also listened on the radio to commentators and news casters. They represented the spectrum of opinion of the day – New Dealers, and anti-government opponents who detested FDR (whom my parents loved), internationalists, isolationists, and all the rest. Some I thought even slightly deranged. Nevertheless, my parents listened to them all. They had come to America, fleeing a land of pogroms, religious oppression, and dictatorships. They loved America passionately. And they savored this copious freedom of press with its outpouring of information and viewpoints like a precious gem.

Sometimes, perhaps, we take that freedom too much for granted. In much of the world, it is under attack. So far in 2013 as told to us by Reporters Without Borders, 40 journalists have been killed and 184 imprisoned around the world. Citizen journalists and those operating on the net have been similarly oppressed. In Sudan newspapers have been censored, printed issues seized, some papers shutdown altogether, and journalists like Faisal charged, jailed, and sometimes forced to flee the country. On its index of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders ranks Sudan terribly low, 170th out of 179 countries.

We are rightly here tonight to honor Faisal Mohamed Salih and other journalists like him for their courage, commitment, and determination. But I would like to focus on the loss to Sudan from not allowing this freedom to flower. For Sudan needs now as much or more than ever the means for a free and full national dialogue about its future. And that requires a free and active media.

Since its independence in 1956, Sudan has passed through a long period of civil wars, leading most recently to the independence of South Sudan and thereby to the loss of one-third of the country and 70% of its oil wealth. Currently it faces an economic crisis, more regional insurgencies, and only a fragile peace with South Sudan. At the heart of this dire situation is the need to define a new national identity around which it can build national consensus, a more effective political system, and a stable and prospering country. But the dialogue needed to address this need has been absent, blocked by government pressures on the press, academia, and civil society, and to an extent by denial.
I became engaged most recently with Sudan in August 2010 as the country prepared for South Sudan’s referendum on whether to remain within Sudan or form a separate nation. By then it was become clear that the South Sudanese were going to vote overwhelmingly for independence. Yet I was struck by how little debate there was in Sudan, in the press or elsewhere, on the full significance of this development. It could not help but be traumatic, politically, economically, and socially, for a nation to lose a third of its territory and the bulk of its recent oil wealth. What would be the Sudan that remained? What would be its nature? How much would it have to change and what would persist?

Yet there was almost a state of denial or unreality. The president at one point stated that the loss of the south would have the advantage of the nation being free, once and for all, of the burden of diversity, that it could now be all Arab and Muslim. But Sudan without the south is not all Arab, and while largely Muslim, is not entirely so, nor are all Muslims in agreement on how that relates to the role of the state, or to issues of economic and political justice. The trauma, if I can call it that, only now seems to sink in, a realization that there must be debate about the nature of the new Sudanese state, of Sudan as a social and political identity, and of how to fashion a new economic future. This reality has begun to sink in as Sudan experiences a new set of insurgencies and economic crisis. On the eve of South Sudan’s independence in 2011, armed rebellion broke out in the Sudanese states of Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile – the so-called Two Areas — where long standing political grievances had not been addressed. In the embattled region of Darfur there has been an upsurge in violence. Despite an agreement with South Sudan that will compensate somewhat for Sudan’s loss of its oil fields there, and claims that gold and other sources of wealth would soon replace the oil resource, Sudan has in fact been required to undertake a severe austerity effort, leading most recently to lifting a popular fuel subsidy that led to tens of thousands demonstrating against the government.

The need for transformation is however even more fundamental and in reality long overdue. From independence in 1956 Sudan has been ruled by the riverine elites — military, political, and business. Through patronage and sometimes brutal military repression, the center has defended its control. This strategy was employed throughout the long wars with the south. Ultimately it failed there. Another example was the government’s response to the uprising in the Darfur region in 2003-2004. Khartoum employed Arab militia along with its own forces to destroy villages, attack civilians, cause the death of possibly 300,000, and displace two million people. The International Criminal Court subsequently indicted Sudan’s president, the current Minister of Defense and another senior official for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Repeated efforts to bring peace to Darfur have nevertheless failed.

Sudan’s ability to manage these challenges in the same old ways is in fact now diminishing. Oil money since the 1970s was especially important in financing the patronage to coopt local chiefs, to pay militias, and to coerce regional leaders into agreements that were well short of their demands. That resource is now not there. Meanwhile, the armed groups from the Two Areas and Darfur have formed an alliance, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which enables them to hit the government more aggressively, in more areas, and with more coordination. More and more, there is a growing recognition that the challenges Sudan is facing cannot be handled piece-meal, by efforts to solve problems that arise in the Two Areas or in Darfur, or in the east, but only in the ways by which Sudan is governed overall.

The question is whether the ruling party, the NCP, is able to accept and enable a real transformation of the historic pattern of governance. Truth be told, however, we know from recent experience elsewhere, that the transformation from autocracy to freedom can be destructive as much as invigorating and in the end fail to achieve democracy or stability. This is surely not an easy path to follow. Many in Sudan even so inclined are well aware of this and concerned.

To its credit, there is a vigorous debate under way about such transformation within the ruling party. One of the leaders of this debate is Dr. Ghazi Salahuddin al-Tabani, a former Senior Advisor to the President and Islamic leader in Parliament. He has called for a significant shift toward greater democracy, tolerance, and defense of individual liberty. In his critique he addresses head on the issue of diversity:

The most dangerous threat which Sudan faces today is the use of tribalism as a tactical and political tool at the expense of the nation, tearing apart the social fabric. ….We should be celebrating Sudan’s diversity and pluralism as a blessing and strength from God, and believe that they are the source of wealth and power that should be protected and strengthened. … While peace is protected by force, the path to it needs to be paved by a stable political ground agreed upon by everyone…National consensus is in turn based on justice, rule of law, and removing any sources of inequities and economic injustice.

There are others, from within the party, the government, and the military who are similarly questioning the viability as well as the justice of the current system. This debate is going on internally with some vigor.

But the NCP has at the same time cracked down on civil society closing off discussion there of constitutional reform and human rights. It has as we are discussing here tonight, come down hard on the media. It has scarcely widened this debate even to the more traditional opposition parties like Umma and the DUP, and not at all to the armed groups in the SRF. To the latter it has offered no more than to discuss “local” grievances, leaving them out of the issues of central governance.

This form of closed debate cannot succeed. There must be a national dialogue, one carried on vigorously from all sides and with much debate and indeed soul searching. The need is as great for those opposing the government, like the SRF, as for the ruling party. For the SRF also must grapple with its diverse visions of religion and the state, federal and central governance, and systems of justice and democracy.

This debate will thus need time. Consensus will be not easily or perfectly reached. To rush to a new constitution, or into elections without such a dialogue, would not solve the underlying problems. On the contrary, a new constitution should develop out of this dialogue not precede it. So too the formation or reform of the parties and coalitions that would compete in future elections. Transformation is indeed hard, and the danger of disintegration of the state and of further misery is real. The experience of countries around Sudan is testimony to that.

But the means to avoid the unfortunate experience of some of its neighbors comes from greater freedom, not less. And there is where the media, the freedom of the press, is the best ally of peaceful and transformational change. The press is not only a medium of debate, but it can channel the views of academia, civil society and various actors into the public square. The debate may well be raucous. But better it be raucous in the press than in armed clashes in the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan, or Jeba Mara in Darfur, or in the beating and shooting demonstrators in Omdurman.

Ironically, and this is perhaps one of the most important messages, this freedom can be the ally of those in power who now fear disintegration or instability. It can be an ally of those now in power who would want to continue to be part of the future governance, not be pushed aside. This is the only viable path to a new unity in Sudan.

I have been going in and out of Sudan for thirty years. It is a country of great learning whose institutions of higher learning attract scholars from the Middle East, Africa and around the world. It has had periods of great national pride. Its people are known as much for their tolerance and gentility as for those terrible acts of violence that have marred its recent history. There are interlocutors on all sides with great insight and wisdom, and love for their country. Sudan can surely succeed. It can be an island of transformational stability in a region of worrisome unrest. It can be a model of transformational governance that leads to true freedom and democracy. This is what people like Faisal, and so many of his colleagues strive for, and take risks for, and what they deeply believe is possible. They are the allies of change, and of stability, of freedom and justice. If only those who fear those outcomes will stand aside and allow them to do their work, Sudan can succeed. There is no better alternative.