Princeton Lyman continues to be troubled by the question of whether he could have done more to foresee and prevent a recent conflict that broke out in Sudan and says he will be for a long time. The U.S. special envoy to the country stepped down from his post in January — an assignment he began in 2011 — but the fighting in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions has been going on for more than a year, displacing over half a million civilians and killing hundreds as separatist rebels fight for autonomy from Khartoum. The soft-spoken 77-year-old veteran diplomat told TIME that the conflict “has been a terrible, terrible impediment to the process of peace.”
That will sound like an understatement to his critics, who suggest that Lyman did not apply nearly enough pressure on Khartoum to cease military action in these areas. Though he oversaw the independence of South Sudan from the regime in Khartoum, Lyman may also regret his decision to step down before the two Sudans have successfully become fully functioning, independent entities. The relationship between Juba and Khartoum is volatile — north and south fought a bitter civil war for decades, and, today, each still waves evidence of the other’s support for local rebels. Though both signed on to several agreements in September last year, nothing has been implemented, raising concerns that the economies of both countries will collapse, and war between them will erupt once more.
Following South Sudan’s official secession, in 2011, border disputes remain. Despite an accord to demilitarize the contentious areas, little progress has been made. Lyman said this is one of his biggest concerns and a major risk for a return to all-out war. “The longer the armed forces are right up against each other, the potential for armed clashes is very great, so I think that delay is particularly worrisome.” Khartoum is insisting on even further assurances from South Sudan that Juba’s forces are not assisting rebels fighting the Sudanese government in South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. Those rebels, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), took up arms in July 2011, following what rebels claim was a fraudulent election. They allege that Khartoum rigged the vote in order to appoint Ahmed Haroun as South Kordofan’s regional leader, say activists. Haroun has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. “This is not the way to go about things,” says Lyman of Khartoum’s continuing demands. “The way to get at it, and the extent to which it exists, is to both demilitarize the border and hold talks with SPLM-N to stop the fighting, that would stop the security problems on the border.”
Since the agreements were signed last September, representatives from the two sides have met for talks several times in neighboring Ethiopia, but little progress has been made. Lyman sees the huge mistrust between the two sides as a continuing obstacle. “You cannot just assume these people will just come to the table and embrace each other and love each other and say we trust you,” says Lyman. “You have to get agreements which are sufficiently verifiable, that they build confidence, and for whatever pragmatic reasons, the two will agree to live side by side. And that’s why the border demilitarization process is so elaborate.” Lyman believes that an oil agreement will eventually be the key to moving things forward — Juba has the petroleum but Khartoum has access to the sea. “The oil agreement has various mechanisms built in to deal with disputes and verify the figures and the returns. And that’s the way you do it, you develop agreements which have controls, and verification methods, and then they have to trust each other enough to start down those paths. Then you hope over time, that leads to much better relations.”
The situation is not helped by indications that the governments of both Sudans have been politically weakened. South Sudan is showing signs of epidemic corruption. Meanwhile, Khartoum recently arrested several senior officials in what it called a “failed coup” against President Omar al-Bashir. Lyman does not see the unsuccessful overthrow as a sign that the regime was crumbling, but rather that there were serious “issues to debate within the government: how to get out of this war in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile that is draining the country so badly, and how to move on to a political dispensation, which is more inclusive.” Lyman added that he felt regime change was not necessary to halt the fighting in South Kordofan or to solve Sudan’s problems. “I think you can stop the conflict, I think you can get a cessation of hostilities for humanitarian assistance, and you can go from there to a series of political talks, which should lead to internal political reform.”
He said that despite Khartoum agreeing in principle to a humanitarian corridor in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, he believes there will be little progress unless the fighting comes to a stop and the two countries talk directly rather than through the international community. Lyman, who was the first U.S. ambassador to South Africa postapartheid and no stranger to difficult transitions, believes that neither Sudan nor South Sudan wants to return to war, and that they should both be focusing on internal political reform. “It is not going to be achieved overnight, but with the right pressure and framework, both countries have the ability to get there.”