Sudan has all the characteristics of an intractable conflict. The roots of the problem run deep into the Sudanese society, heavily influenced by cultural factors, such as religion, ethnicity, ideology, and economics. In this paper, I will describe the major characteristics of this conflict, and use it as a base to suggest and discuss a few recommendations about how an international neutral could go about building bridges among the parties in dispute, especially at the community level. Specifically, I will discuss and comment on Arai’s concept of dialoguing with genuine curiosity, the starting points discussed by LeBaron and Pillay, the ever-present and extremely important concept of framing, argue for the need for a Sudanese Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and applaud the UNESCO-led initiative of providing training in conflict resolution to the local leaders among the populations of the two parties in dispute.
The characteristics of the conflict in Sudan.
The history of Sudan is filled with the wreckage of failed attempts at foreign intervention, be it for conquest, to help suffering people, or to mediate conflict (Sudan Tribune, 2003, p. 1). The present intercultural conflict in Sudan is the longest-running conflict in the world and one of the bloodiest, where “over two million people have lost their lives during the course of the tragic civil war in Sudan” (Sudan Tribune, 2002, p. 4). Sudan is paradoxical, the largest country in Africa (comparable to about one-fourth of the territory of the United States), and also one of the poorest countries in the world.
The two main parties in the conflict (the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA), are both authoritarian and undemocratic and blame each other for not being able to make faster progress in this area. The Government of Sudan, which controls mostly the north of the country, has a heavy concentration of Muslim population and wanted an Islamic state; while the SPLA, which controls the South and is mostly Christian or of traditional African religions, wanted a united and secular Sudan.
The conflict has been made more intractable by the presence of oil in the Upper Nile region, although in a previous and unfulfilled peace agreement, the parties agreed to share the oil resources on a 50/50 basis. The government of Sudan, by selling oil mostly to China, got the necessary financial means to continue the fight, although probably if not China another country such as India or Japan with a great need for oil would have done the same. Therefore, the major obstacles in this conflict are the two internal participants, and some external actors such as China for indirectly cooperating to the perpetuation of the dispute, and the international community, until relatively recently, for paying little attention to what was going on in Sudan.
A tragic example of what has been going on has occurred in Darfur, a remote region in western Sudan, which covers about half a million square kilometers, and which roughly is composed of three zones inhabited by different tribes. The population here is overwhelmingly Muslim, about 6.6 million in 2004. Since the 1970s, the vulnerability of non-Muslim minorities has been exacerbated by ethnic polarization, militarization, desertification, and socioeconomic crisis (Minority Rights, 2008, p. 4), and the situation has been getting worse by the year, or by the minute. In September 2004, the US declared that “genocide” was occurring in Darfur. By this time, thousands of people had been killed and hundreds of villages had been burned down.
The conflict expanded, at least in part, because the international community was not involved in its early beginnings the way it could and should. Morrison & de Waal, (2005) mention that “it is hard to escape the conclusion that the principal parties, regional powers, and main mediators, were comfortable with the ongoing war in Southern Sudan” (Morrison & de Waal, 2005, p. 180). However, in the last couple of years, the international community has finally admitted that it has to do something about the conflict. The US has finally moved in this direction by allocating $ 42 million for a development program focused on agricultural production, education, and local community projects (Sudan Tribune, 2002, p. 3). However, the first American peace proposal was characterized as “arrogance plus ignorance” by the North Sudanese authorities (ESPAC, 2002, p. 1). The government of Sudan expressed its disgust by saying that “a more explicit example of confused, distorted, and poorly-informed legislation would be hard to find” (ESPAC, 2002, p. 2).
However, at the end of a perilous path, a peace agreement was signed and implemented with the aid of UN peacekeepers. In May 2006, the government of Sudan and the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement signed the Darfur Peace Agreement (Srinivasan, 2008, p. 1). Under the peace agreement, Islamic law applies to all residents of the northern states regardless of their religion, but the southern legal system, which is still in the process of development, will not apply Sharia to the Christian populations. The UN took control of the Darfur peacekeeping operation from the African Union on December 31, 2007, but at the time this paper is written, those forces are still struggling to stabilize the situation, which has become increasingly regional in scope (CIA Factbook, 2008, p. 2). Armed conflict, poor transport infrastructure, and lack of government support have continued to obstruct the provision of humanitarian assistance to the affected populations. As recent as April 2007, the “forty eminent mediators actively involved in peace processes were brought to Zanzibar for three days to focus their attention and energy on challenges and solutions” (Press Release Newswire, 2007, p. 1).
A few recommendations to deal with an intractable intercultural conflict
Dialoguing with “genuine curiosity”
Dialoguing with “genuine curiosity”, according to Arai, is to step out of the limitations of our culture and ask the participants about the way they see and make sense of their world. Each individual in this conflict is embedded in his/her own culture, which limits “all possible options available” for the resolution of a problem or conflict. Arai explains that “there is an unknown cultural terrain outside their boundaries” (and the mediator’s boundaries as well), which can only be reached if one is able to dialogue with genuine curiosity, trying to interpret the situation from the other’s viewpoints. In American parlance, the mediator should try to walk in the other person’s shoes.
Although this principle seems intuitively obvious, it is not. In order to understand the viewpoint of one of the parties in the conflict, it is necessary to see the problem from that person’s perspective, which is colored by this person’s culture, and this is discovered only by asking questions guided by genuine curiosity, with the desire to learn from the other person. If the mediator is able to do the same with all parties in the conflict, the mediator will understand what is dividing or separating them, and see through their eyes how they perceive the situation – in a different light because of their different cultures. Then, armed with this new knowledge, comprehending what is pulling the two parties apart, he or she can reach into this unknown cultural terrain which otherwise would not be seen – the place where a mutually satisfying resolution to the conflict may be possible.
Culture provides a framework for the way we see and interpret things. The same author mentions that if a Japanese person is in the hospital it is a very bad taste to bring him or her the presence of a potted plant; because this means that the person is expected to be in the hospital for a very long time. If a person from a different culture –unknowing the manner in which the Japanese interpret this gift- sends a potted plant to a hospitalized patient, this may reduce the relationship rather than improving it, because the two parties will look at the same act with different lenses and make different interpretations. The same is true for northern Muslims and southern Christians in Sudan.
Dialoguing with genuine curiosity brings to light aspects of a person’s culture which are affecting the manner in which he or she perceives the problem, and makes possible the exploration of potential solutions to the conflict.
The Starting Points: The Dimensions of Culture
It would be unthinkable that an international neutral or mediator is not aware of the
dimensions of culture, described by LeBaron and Pillay (2006) as starting points, which are like lenses that we could use to make sense of other people’s cultures as well as of our own. These are:
• High context – Low Context
• Low Power Distance – High Power Distance
• Individualism – Communitarianism
• Universalism – Particularism
• Specificity – Diffuseness
• Sequential time – Synchronous Time
High context cultures are those where people have been interacting for a long time and they have learned to understand the small nuances of their language and behavior which is only understood by them and escape outsiders. The Sudanese societies, both in the north and the south, are high context cultures. In such societies, for example, it may be rude to look at an adult in the eye when he is speaking, because this demonstrates respect and attentive behavior. An outsider from a low context culture, such as the United States, will perceive the same behavior as disrespectful because the person is seen as not paying attention to what he or she is being told. In low context cultures people make relationships of a shorter duration (unfortunately maybe even in marriages sometimes), they move frequently, and communications need to be very specific and to the point. In a high context culture, the manner in which the communication is expressed; what is said or not said, where it is said, and so on, have specific meanings which are understood by people within the culture but not by others.
In a high-context culture, a potential groom comes to ask permission to marry the daughter of a powerful individual. He responds: “I will think about it” rather than saying no, which is considered rude in his culture. However, the potential groom understands that his request has been rejected and there is no need to say it indefinite words.
Power distance means the degree of equality between two or more people. In a high power distance such as Japan, India, Mexico, and some Latin American countries, people are very aware of the inequalities that exist in society, and they communicate to each other taking this social distance into consideration. In Japan, there are several ways in which a person can talk to another depending on the status of each person. A Japanese friend of mine told me that when he meets someone immediately he exchanges business cards because this provides him with the necessary information about how to talk to this other person. Sudan is another high power distance culture. On the other hand, a low power distance – such as the United States – is characterized by the fact that although society realizes that there are social differences among people, they do not emphasize those differences because everybody –at least in theory – is perceived as equal.
Individualism has to do with the way in which society views individual accomplishments and aspirations: the role of the individual in society. In the United States, for example, our mainstream culture pays homage to rugged individualism, individual efforts, and what an individual can achieve. In communitarian cultures, such as those in Asia, the collective is the unit that is emphasized, makes decisions, and takes credit for the accomplishments of its members. Sudan, both the Muslim North and the Christian South, has a communitarian culture, where the group and not the individual is prevalent. It is the group that has to be convinced to support any type of meditation leading to reinforcing the peace agreement.
Universalism has to do with the broad application of rules and laws. In particularism, the cultures take into account the exceptions to the rules and laws. Sudan now does not have the same rules and laws for the whole country, and this was precisely one of the issues of the conflict. The North wanted to impose its laws based on the Sharia on the population of the South, which is mostly Christian. However, although an agreement has been reached in this respect, it is still necessary for the parties at the local level not to interfere with the agreement and make sure that this provision is accepted and implemented.
Specificity means that culture has a low tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Diffuseness, on the other hand, means that culture has little concern about ambiguity and welcomes a variety of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas. There is little specificity in Sudan. The laws exist, but they are applied at the whim of government-appointed judges. There is little precedent as to how a judicial case is going to turn out, even when Sharia is applied in the northern territories of Sudan.
In any kind of conflict resolution, but probably more so in international conflict resolution, the mediator needs to give an opportunity to the parties to express their opinions and grievances, but then should frame them in a manner that deprives the communication of any stated or unstated blame, criticism, offense, or toxic language. Framing is presenting the story in a new light, one which is neutral but to which both parties can relate. The frame provided by the neutral party presents the problem as it exists, but deprives it of negativity or culpability. It is something that the parties still recognize as to what has happened between (or among) them, but which has been drained of all its poisonous language and, therefore, is easier to accept and built a solution upon this new frame.
Dr. Sara Cobb has mentioned four tools that can be very helpful in framing (or reframing) what the parties have said. She suggested that the neutral party or mediator should assign positive positions to the participants – nobody is doing something to harm somebody else. Everybody is doing or has done something for a reason which can be defended or justified, that has some claim to legitimacy. And this is what it will look like because each person can present his own story without interruption and listen to it with respect. However, it is important to add new dimensions to the conflict, because all conflicts have a past, present, and future, and by creating a story of how the conflict has evolved it is possible to create a new narrative that incorporates all sides of the story. Dr. Cobb also recommends putting in variations and building circularity, which means to show how each side is responsible for the conflict, but without assigning blame.
Hughes and Papavac (2005) mentioned that the reason why we frame some states as failed or rogue states is to give legitimacy (a better frame) to any intervention against those states. Although this example hinders rather than helps in conflict resolution, it demonstrates that frames can be both positive and negative. The role of the mediator is to substitute the negative frame brought by the participants in the conflict and substitute them with positive frames from where the parties can forge a solution. Obviously, this may be quite difficult to do with parties that have been fighting each other for decades as in Sudan and which have inflicted each other great pain in the process. Still, the mediator needs to make an effort to understand the issues and present them in a neutral manner, basically as a problem to be solved.
African conflicts are paid little attention by the United States until they escalate to the level of genocide. One reason may be that they are framed as having no economic interest for the US, as fights between tribal groups, or as a product of corrupted leaders fighting among themselves. All these frames convey the image that it is not worth doing anything, or that our efforts are better spent in other places of higher interest. If the African conflicts could be portrayed in the media as they really are, maybe our country and others would be more likely to provide greater and faster aid in resolving such conflicts.
The need for a Sudanese Truth and Reconciliation Commission
The establishment of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission created new frames to deal with the past history of the country and the multitude of abuses and crimes committed against the majority of the South African population. The Commission used frames that it was possible for someone to recognize his mistakes and be forgiven and that it was also possible and honorable for the community to hear the statements and provide closure, some kind of healing, to the social injuries perpetrated over a long period of time. The South African model could be adapted and reformulated to suit the conditions of Sudan. It is unlikely that the deep physical and psychological injuries on both sides will heal unless there is a process to get the community together in an act of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Massive Training of the Population in Conflict Resolution
At the present time, UNESCO is making an attempt to implement post-conflict mediation in Sudan. The objective of this program is “to develop the awareness and intercultural skills of young people, so that they can become cultural mediators, living and practicing cultural diversity and day-to-day dialogue” (UNESCO, 2008, p. 1). Under this program and under the leadership of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports, representatives from ten states of Southern Sudan are participating in a workshop whose main objective will be to draw up a cultural policy framework within the post-conflict context of the country (Cultural Policies, 2008, p. 1). A similar program should also be implemented in the north.
Also, this training should include a discussion of the various factors about competition and cooperation discussed by Deutsch:
1. Effective Communication is exhibited.
2. Friendliness, helpfulness, and lessened obstructiveness.
3. Coordination of the effort, division of labor, orientation to task achievement, orderliness in the discussion, and high productivity.
4. Feeling of agreement and a basic sense of basic similarity in beliefs and values.
5. Recognizing and respecting others by being responsive to other’s needs
6. Willingness to enhance the other’s power.
7. Defining conflicting interests as a mutual problem (Deutsch, 2006, p. 27).
While the conflict in Sudan and many other conflicts in Africa and around the world seems intractable, there is hope that by applying the proper techniques a sustainable peace could be sustained in this part of the world. Those techniques are useful not only to mediate between governments, or between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) but also between members of the northern and southern populations, which have suffered the calamities of the war and which logically have deep resentments against each other.
Arai, Tatsushi. When the Waters of Culture and Conflict Meet. (2006). In: LeBaron, Michelle & Pillay, Venashri. Conflict across Cultures: A Unique Experience of Bridging Differences. Boston: Intercultural Press.
Central Intelligence Agency. (2008). Sudan: Country Report. Retrieved on June 5, 2008, from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/su.html
ESPAC. (2002). Arrogance plus Ignorance: The US “Sudan Peace Act”. Retrieved on June 5, 2008, from http://www.sudan.net/news/press/postedr/197.shtml
Hughes, Caroline & Papavac, Vanessa. (2005). Framing Post-Conflict Framing Post-Conflict Societies: International Pathologization of Cambodia and the post-Yugoslav states. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 6, September, p. 873-889(17)
Morrison, J. Stephen, and de Waal, Alex. (2005). Can Sudan Escape its Intractability? In: Charles A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall. Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, p. 161-182.
Press Release Newswire. (2007). United Approach to Darfur Essential to Peace. Retrieved on June 5, 2008, from http://www.prweb.com/releases/2007/05/prweb525239.htm
Srinivasan, Sharath. (2006). Minority Rights, Early Warning and Conflict Prevention:
Lessons from Darfur. Retrieved on June 7, 2008, from
Sudan Times. (2008). Peace, Conflict, and Mediation in Africa: An Historic Opportunity
in Sudan. January 7. Retrieved on June 6, 2008, from
UNESCO. (2008). Cultural Policies and Post-Conflict in Southern Sudan. Retrieved on
June 5, 2008 from http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-