Western nations now on the sidelines at Sudan talks

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 6, 2011 

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ALI SAFI — Ali Safi/MCT

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Last week, while African leaders toiled behind closed doors at a luxury hotel to try to prevent renewed war between Sudan and South Sudan, U.S. and other Western diplomats huddled in the lobby waiting for updates.

The negotiations over Sudan's contentious breakup increasingly are becoming an African-only affair, a sharp departure from just a few years ago, when the United States, South Sudan's most powerful ally during its long civil war struggle, played the key role in brokering the 2005 agreement that set the stage for the country's independence.

The relegation of the United States to the back seat reflects the more multilateral, behind-the-scenes approach the Obama administration favors and the iciness between Washington and Khartoum, but the result is that the Western nations that had dominated Sudan policy for years are mostly peripheral observers of the negotiations today.

The talks at Addis Ababa's Sheraton hotel have been led by the African Union and overseen by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. Also at the table is the United Nations' special envoy to the two countries, Haile Menkerios, from the African country of Eritrea.

The talks failed to produce any agreement on how to split South Sudan's all-important oil revenues, but African diplomats' growing role in the latest chapter of the Sudanese conflict seems to match the continent's increasingly assertive approach to Somalia, another long-running trouble spot on the continent. In both cases, while Western money continues to bankroll regional negotiations and policies, it's the African governments and not their patrons who appear to occupy the driver's seats.

That African leaders are taking greater responsibility for two of the continent's most chronic conflicts could mean that the oft-heard refrain, "African solutions for African problems," may become more than just a slogan.

Britain, Norway and the European Union _which also helped broker the 2005 deal — sent senior envoys to Addis Ababa but were excluded from the meeting rooms. They and their aides spent most of the time in the Sheraton's palatial lobby, sipping macchiatos and sparkling water, waiting for the meetings to recess. When the negotiations paused, the envoys sought out participants and members of Mbeki's team for briefings on what happened.

Western envoys say that although they weren't at the table, their presence at sideline meetings helped raise the pressure for peace.

The United States, the U.K. and Norway released a statement Tuesday that urged both sides to reconvene for further talks "as soon as possible" and said they fully supported Mbeki's role as facilitator.

The U.S. special envoy, Princeton Lyman, wasn't in Addis Ababa, although he's participated in previous rounds. A young American staffer served as the sole U.S. representative who was allowed to observe some meetings, though not those concerning oil, the most crucial part of the talks.

Phaedra Gwyn, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Juba, South Sudan, said Lyman was in Washington for meetings with senior White House officials but was following the negotiations through his representative and African Union contacts.

If Lyman had been present, observers said, he wouldn't have been in the negotiating rooms either, because of the African Union's increasingly assertive stance as well as the Sudanese government's desire to keep the West from the mediation table.

That's a major shift from several years ago, when the U.S. drafted baseline text for parts of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, ending nearly two decades of Sudanese civil war.

Officials who attended the recent talks, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely, said the United States had lost most of its leverage with Khartoum. Sudanese officials are deeply bitter about the internationally backed agreement that shaved off a third of their territory but left the regime of President Omar al Bashir — who's been charged with crimes in the Darfur region — as isolated as ever.

U.S. officials counter that Khartoum has only itself to blame. Twice, American offers to improve ties with Sudan fell apart after Bashir responded brutally to internal challenges.

In 2005, after the peace deal, the Bush administration refused to relax sanctions on Sudan because of the atrocities that were taking place in Darfur.

Then, earlier this year, moves by the Obama administration to begin normalizing ties halted as renewed fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states — areas that also fell under the 2005 accord — prompted more reports of widespread human rights violations by Bashir's government.

U.S. officials say they won't normalize ties with Khartoum until the fighting stops and restrictions on humanitarian aid are lifted. Gwyn said Lyman was focused on those issues.

The result, close Sudan watchers say, is that moderate elements within the regime who'd argued for engagement with the U.S. have now been sidelined or silenced.

Thanks to a rising Asia and Africa's new eagerness to tackle its own problems, Sudan no longer may feel compelled to accept the United States' mediation.

On Monday, Beijing announced that it was sending its top Africa envoy to Sudan and South Sudan to press for a deal after the breakdown in talks last week. China, which has much at stake due to its oil deals with Sudan and South Sudan, has been "conspicuously absent" from the talks, Said al Khatib, a senior Sudanese negotiator, said last week.

But when Sudan — which hosts the main pipeline and port through which South Sudan's oil is sold — recently halted a shipment of South Sudanese oil meant for a Chinese firm, Beijing broke its silence, with its Foreign Ministry urging both sides to exercise "restraint" and "flexibility" to keep the oil flowing.

The African Union is still searching for a diplomatic success story, apart from Sudan's semi-peaceful partition earlier this year. The African style of diplomacy has its critics: It's deferential and consensus-oriented, lacking the coercive tools that often are necessary to close big deals. It also has struggled to be taken seriously on major issues: Its opposition to NATO intervention in Libya largely was ignored, and its efforts to end the post-election crisis in Ivory Coast failed to gather momentum.

The talks between Sudan and South Sudan aren't going much better. They've yet to produce a major breakthrough since South Sudanese voted overwhelmingly for independence in January, and tensions have risen steadily. Still, some observers credit Mbeki's diplomacy as the only thing that's keeping the two old enemies talking at all.

(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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