Former Vice-President of Sudan Abel Alier’s 1990 book, Too Many Agreements Dishonoured, chronicles the history of Sudan’s first major peace treaty, the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement. Brokered by the World Council of Churches and Emperor Haile Selassie, the agreement was the first long-term deal to bring peace to a country that had been at war since 1955. Holding for 11 years, the treaty was consistently and continually undermined until a full scale return to hostilities was inevitable.

Describing the period of negotiations, Alier notes, “the resolutions were quite satisfactory on paper and could have gone a long way to meet some of the complaints of the South...[b]ut none of the parties believed they would be implemented!”

“[There was] a wealth of reasons to justify being cautious. Historical experience with past agreements in the country; a tendency to ignore, quite casually and irresponsibly, their mandate and to act against the interests of the very electorate they represented.”

Without context, it would be difficult for any historian (even a historian of Sudan) to know to which era Alier’s comments pertained. Perhaps more than any other comparable country over the same period of time, Sudan’s history is littered with agreements and declarations, treaties and testimonials. And while the Addis Ababa Agreement may be long consigned to the archives, today’s Sudan again faces a similar moment, where past paradigms of peace are on the verge of being discarded.

The most prominent of these is the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which will be popularly remembered for allowing Southern Sudan to become an independent country. But the CPA was, and is, much more than one vote for independence. It is itself a series of other agreements, agreed at different times: a Protocol on Power Sharing; a Protocol on Wealth Sharing; a Protocol on the Resolution of Conflict in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile; a Permanent Ceasefire and Security Arrangements. Only partially implemented, its provisions will likewise be only partially remembered. No matter their detail, much of the 241 pages of text of the CPA will suffer the same fate as the comparatively sparse 13 pages of the predecessor Addis Ababa Agreement.

Abyei deserves a special mention. This mere spit of land still disputed by both north and south has been a source of continued instability and violence. Agreement after agreement has failed to resolve the conflict. The Addis Ababa negotiations did not settle Abyei, nor did another chapter of the CPA, the 2004 Abyei Protocol, although the latter remains legally in force. The report of the Abyei Boundaries Commission was rejected, the Abyei Roadmap was violated, the judgement of the Permanent Court of Arbitration unimplemented. The latest attempts to manage, if not solve the conflict, January’s Kadugli Agreements, were respected for mere days before they were undermined.

Then there is the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). This attempt to end the conflict in Sudan’s western provinces was rejected from the start by all but one rebel movement, and thus destined to fail. And while even the United Nations African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) peacekeeping force which ultimately emerged from the DPA process privately concedes that the agreement is long dead, formally, the signatories, including the Government of Sudan, treat the agreement with great solemnity. It is the DPA which calls for a referendum on the administrative boundaries of Darfur, which the chief government negotiator has announced will proceed, no matter that the war continues, millions remain displaced and other political movements currently in negotiations with the government in Doha completely oppose the referendum vote. And in that, one of Sudan’s key lessons of treaty making emerges: that sometimes, selective implementation of an agreement is even more dangerous than complete abrogation.

Little need be said for the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement, the ugly sister of Sudan’s many peace agreements – hardly anyone knows what it says, nor recalls what was supposed to be done. From the government’s point of view, the most important objective – reconciliation with Eritrea – has been achieved, and that is enough.

Still a figure in Sudanese public life, Abel Alier’s reputation has been tarnished by his association with the flawed 2010 national elections, for which he served as a reluctant commission chairman. He has rarely commented publicly on Sudan’s contemporary politics outside of the strict duties of his chairmanship; while he could easily compile a second volume for his 1990 book, one is not expected; he has served his country and has earned the right to a quiet retirement. Time and circumstance bound his experiences may be, his observations remain revealingly astute. As Sudan heads towards a two state future, those that seek change from the politics of old could do worse than to once more peruse the words of a wise old man.

Aly Verjee was Deputy Director of the Carter Center’s international election observation mission in Sudan. He is currently a senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute and a contributing author at the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s Security Sector Reform Centre.

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