Mediating in a Time of COVID-19

Photo: Government of the Republic of Sudan
ACCORD Executive Director, Vasu Gounden and ACCORD Head of Research and Interventions, Senzo Ngubane, meet with President of the Sovereignty Council Lt Gen al-Burhan in Khartoum, Sudan on the 11th of March 2021

Mediation in situations of civil conflict are never easy. It requires travel, both air and on the ground, sometimes to far off areas where the terrain may not be easy to traverse. It also requires confidential face-to-face discussions and, when momentum towards an agreement is detected, then time becomes a valuable commodity, and shuttling between parties to narrow differences, and edge towards a compromise, becomes vital.

We found ourselves in just such a situation at the beginning of March 2021 with one difference; it was occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a limited, but crucial mandate that was time bound. It required travelling from Johannesburg, South Africa, to Juba, the Republic of South Sudan, via Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then shuttling between Juba and Khartoum, Republic of Sudan. We had not yet been vaccinated, had to do several COVID-19 tests, navigate several airports with masks and sanitizers, and ensure that we kept a safe distance from other people, which proved extremely difficult.

The search for peace cannot become the victim of a #pandemic.

The context of our mediation was a request by the official mediator in the Sudan Peace Process, the South Sudan Mediation Committee for the Sudanese Peace Talks (SSMC), to assist with trust and confidence building and to unlock the negotiations between the Transitional Government of Sudan (TGOS) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). According to the SPLM-N no official negotiations between the two sides had occurred for over a year and a half. However, a number of informal contact meetings and discussions had been held, but no official negotiations. 

On 03 September 2020, a Joint Agreement was signed by the Prime Minister of the Transitional Government of Sudan, Abdalla Hamdok and the Chairman of SPLM-N, Abdelaziz al-Hilu in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, addressing a number of issues including the principle of “separation of state and religion’’. This agreement did not find complete consensus amongst all the stakeholders. Consequently, the following day, on 04 September 2020 a Joint Statement was issued by both Hamdok and al-Hilu which, inter alia, called for an informal workshop to discuss the “contentious issues under negotiation (issues such as the relationship between religion and state, the right to self-determination and the right to self-protection)’’.

ACCORD was requested by Prime Minister Hamdok and Chairman al-Hilu to bring its facilitation and mediation expertise and to join a team of facilitators to assist to get consensus on these “contentious issues’’. The three-day workshop came close to reaching consensus but broke down at the crucial stage of signing the joint statement. This led to a four-month stalemate in the negotiations, and it was at this stage that ACCORD was requested by the SSMC to assist with measures to build trust and confidence between parties thus, unlocking negotiations.

I was accompanied by our Head of Research and Interventions, Senzo Ngubane, and Programme Officer Savannah Wilmot. Guided by our 29 years of experience in most of the protracted conflicts in Africa, we brought as ACCORD the credibility of an African identity in the context of African Solutions to African Challenges (which was a sentiment appreciated by all the parties to this conflict), and a professional mediation approach. This was known to Prime Minister Hamdok, Chairman al-Hilu and Dr Dhieu Majok of the SSMC which is why ACCORD was an acceptable facilitator in this particular instance.

Using ACCORD’s four-part model developed in 1997 – information gathering; analysis; strategy design; and implementation, we looked at the context as it was in November 2020 and then the changed context in March 2021 and assessed the possibility for consensus that would unlock the negotiations. By March 2021 the context had changed completely in the Horn region –  Ethiopia was locked in a war in Tigray; Sudan and Ethiopia were embroiled in a border dispute in the Al-Fashga region; the ongoing dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was getting increasingly tense; Sudan had accused Ethiopia of supplying weapons to SPLM-N; Sudan and Egypt had signed a defence pact; and alliances were surfacing that looked like it could plunge the entire region into a major conflict for years. Neither Sudan nor Ethiopia, or any of the surrounding countries could afford a war. Consequently, because of all the developments in the region, our analysis informed us that both the TGOS and SPLM-N had, for many reasons, an overarching incentive to reach an agreement, and there were many constraints, as well as opportunities, to change their immediate priorities which could lead to an agreement.

One of the key facilitators said, “we spent months trying to get them to move on these proposals…what did you tell them that convinced them?’’ The answer simply was that we used a tested mediation technique, called the agent of reality, by sharing our views on the changed context and the opportunities it presented and the grave challenges that would confront them if they did not seize the opportunity. Our task was not to push them into an agreement…that was their prerogative…ours was to expand the options they had to consider. 

In addition, we were very careful to make sure that we stuck to our limited mandate to build trust and confidence between the parties and unlock the negotiations by attempting to get a compromise on the crucial issue. We were very mindful that our role was to compliment the role of the SSMC, and therefore we constantly briefed them on our ongoing initiative. We also had regular contact with Dr Aleu Garang, the Head of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Mediation Support Unit (MSU). Our intervention was financially supported by the Government of Norway, through the Office of the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Endre Stiansen, who proved to be invaluable in the advice he gave us in the numerous discussions we had with him.  We also had regular contact with the Foreign Minister of Finland, Pekka Haavisto, the European Union (EU) Envoy for the current developments in the Horn of Africa, among others. We also had very valuable consultations with Khalid Omar Ali from the World Food Programme (WFP) and Advisor to the Executive Director of WFP, Gavin Gramstad. In all these consultations we were careful not to compromise our duty to observe confidentiality, but the inputs and advice we got from all those we consulted were crucial to test our approaches, views, instincts, and options. 

Sequencing was important and timing was crucial, however, we knew that the COVID-19 restrictions were going to delay us. Therefore, the protocol assistance from the SSMC and the South African Embassy in South Sudan assisted us greatly to navigate the COVID-19 restrictions. This allowed us to consult with the SSMC which was crucial to ensure that our efforts were complimentary and aligned; then we proceeded with a long meeting with the SPLM-N Negotiation Team.  Thereafter we had to take another COVID-19 test and again the assistance from the South African Embassy, and the very professional and friendly South Sudanese health workers, and the excellent testing facilities in Juba, made the experience tolerable.

A two-hour flight brought us to the very busy and traffic congested city of Khartoum, a city our own liberation fighters from South Africa passed through in the 1960s. I mention this because we recalled this assistance in the high-level meetings we had and sincerely thanked our Sudanese friends for their assistance and indicated that our assistance was mere reciprocation. This was highly appreciated and set the tone for frank and open discussions.

As in Juba, our shuttle diplomacy was made all the easier in Khartoum where the TGOS, through the Offices of Lt General Shamsuddin Kabashi and the President of the Sovereignty Council, Lt. Gen Burhan, extended diplomatic and security courtesies so that we could move easily to all our meetings. We once again needed to take another COVID-19 test, facilitated by the protocol officer in the President’s office. We were also appreciative of the strict COVID- 19 protocols observed by the TGOS. 

In the High-Level meetings with the President of the Sovereignty Council, Lt Gen Burhan, Prime Minister Hamdok and Sovereignty Council member Lt Gen Shamsuddin Kabashi, we shared the views and concerns of SPLM-N and attempted to clear any misunderstandings. The Government then facilitated meetings for us with legal experts from the government and, being a lawyer myself, we debated the finer nuances of the issues around the separation of state and religion and, I believed, we had consensus on some interpretations that would unlock the negotiations.

Prior to our return to Juba for further consultation with SPLM-N and the SSMC, the Office of the President of the Sovereignty Council arranged a press briefing with Sudanese television, where we clearly stated our optimism that an agreement would be reached within weeks. We agreed to the press interview in order to give the Sudanese public hope and confidence that their peace process was on track.

We then made the two-hour flight back to Juba, where upon landing we proceeded directly to Chairman al Hilu’s residence where we met with him and SPLM-N Secretary General (SG) Amar Amoun Deldoun. As usual the meeting was very cordial, and we expressed our optimism and, as we did with the TGOS, we again cleared some of the misconceptions held by both sides. After a short caucus Chairman Abdelaziz and SG Deldoun emerged with a view that we knew, given our discussions in Khartoum, would unlock the negotiations. Chairman al-Hilu, always a hospitable and gracious host, treated us to lunch.

We proceeded to take yet another COVID-19 test facilitated by the South African Embassy, and then we had another anxious wait, one of many, for the results. We then proceeded to the hotel where we communicated immediately with the TGOS the compromise on the ‘’contentious issue of the separation of state and religion”, which then appeared in the final agreement that was signed on Sunday 28 March 2021, three weeks from the date we landed in Juba.

Our job having been done we left, and we were not surprised, but pleasantly satisfied, that the parties reached an agreement which paves the way for negotiations towards a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The search for peace cannot become the victim of a pandemic!

Dr. Vasu Gounden is the Founder and Executive Director of ACCORD.

Article by:

Vasu Gounden
Vasu Gounden
Founder & Executive Director

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.