Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative
IPTI Peace and Transition Observatory

© Tim Freccia / Enough Project - A South Sudanese man raises a flag in celebration as The Republic of South Sudan achieves independence on July 9, 2011.

Key Points

Based on the comparative evidence from 17 National Dialogue processes, we found that the following points reveal important lessons for South Sudan:

  • Reducing levels of violence prior to a National Dialogue has been critical for enabling inclusive processes.
  • Establishing an inclusive dialogue platform that operates through transparent and representative selection and decision-making criteria and procedures has been important.
  • Elite deals have been crucial for ending violence when they do not contradict the outcomes of any broad-based processes.
  • International and regional partners can play an important role in enabling a conducive political environment for an inclusive process that initiates a long-term and sustainable political transition.


On 22 May, the South Sudanese President, Salva Kiir, officially launched a National Dialogue Process as an attempt to end the country’s civil war, resuscitate the statebuilding process and pave the way towards national unity. However, major national players have distanced themselves from the Dialogue as they fear that it is unlikely to overcome the deep cleavages that run through South Sudan´s political elite and the broader population. Most international partners also have doubts that the National Dialogue will bring lasting peace. The strongest concerns revolve around the Dialogue’s lack of inclusion and limited representativeness. The situation is aggravated by various factors that further diminish the prospects of a broad-based and inclusive National Dialogue: the proliferation of new armed groups that demand to be included in future political settlements, ongoing armed violence, numerous human rights violations, and increasing food insecurity in many parts of the country. In this context, concerns have been raised that the Dialogue’s outcomes might derail existing agreements and thus reduce the prospects for lasting peace in South Sudan.

However, some commentators stress that the National Dialogue currently presents the only viable option to revive the peace process and hope that it will become more inclusive at a later stage. Indeed, the National Dialogue has been initiated at a time when many would argue that South Sudan´s peace process has failed. The Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCISS), signed only reluctantly by conflict parties in August 2015, has hardly been implemented. In fact, efforts to create the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) according to the provisions of the agreement had collapsed in July 2016. International and regional efforts to pressure for, and support, the implementation of the peace agreement have seemingly also reached their limits.

This observatory piece discusses South Sudan’s National Dialogue from a comparative perspective based on an analysis of 17 National Dialogues conducted since the early 1990s.The objective of this comparison is to shed light on several factors that are decisive for the success or failure of National Dialogues. We have identified four factors that could potentially increase or decrease the South Sudanese Dialogue’s chances to contribute to lasting peace:

  • the levels of armed violence at the onset of and during the Dialogue,
  • efforts to enable a broad-based and inclusive process,
  • the parallel brokering of elite deals that may support or undermine Dialogue, and
  • the supporting role of the region.


Dialogues During Ongoing Armed Violence

National Dialogues can play an important role in efforts to prevent or reduce armed violence, but once armed violence has passed a certain level, they are unlikely to be successful. In contexts characterized by incipient violence, related for example to popular protest movements, National Dialogues can serve as an efficient mechanism to bring grievances from the street to the negotiation table. This was the case during many of the political transitions that followed the Cold-War, such as in Mali (1990), Togo (1991), and South Africa (1993-4). National Dialogues were also conducted during the Arab Spring such as in Egypt (2011) and Yemen but did not contribute to lasting peace. South Sudan, however, has been at civil war since December 2013. There exist a few cases in which National Dialogues formed an element of political transitions that aimed at ending multi-year civil wars with high numbers of battle deaths. This was the case for the Borama Grand Conference on National Reconciliation in Somaliland (1993), the National Reconciliation Conference in Somalia (2000, 2002-2004) and the Inter-Congolese Dialogues in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, 2001-2003). These cases suggest that inclusive Dialogues are difficult to carry out – and less likely to be successful - in contexts of ongoing high levels of violence.

The signing of peace agreements or ceasefires before the commencement of the process has in many cases been an important pre-requisite for the negotiations to take place. This was the case in the DRC and Somalia (2002-2004). During the Dialogue in the DRC, levels of violence were high at the initial stages and decreased during the process. However, this reduction required considerable additional effort and international engagement. Indeed, the Inter-Congolese Negotiations took place under the auspices of the South African government in Sun City and Pretoria, which enabled safe access to all conflict parties as well as civil society representatives. While concluded successfully, the process did not resolve all underlying causes of conflict and required additional bilateral agreements between the government of the DRC and the governments of Uganda and Rwanda to end armed violence in the eastern regions of the Congo. In contrast, ongoing armed violence considerably complicates efforts and reduces the prospects of a successful dialogue. For example, the National Reconciliation Conference for Somalia (2000) was carried out during ongoing armed violence, with no ceasefire or peace agreement signed. The conference was not able to reduce levels of violence, nor did it bring a lasting political solution to the conflict.


Inclusion and Representation in Dialogues

Limited inclusion is likely to produce limited results. This is particularly the cases where the incumbent government and its loyalists have attempted to dominate the process. In the Sudan National Dialogue (2015-2016) for example, several opposition groups refused to participate in the process, citing ongoing armed hostilities, as well as the need to negotiate security arrangements first. There was also a widespread perception that the President continued to dominate the Dialogue’s agenda. In consequence, the Dialogue outcomes lacked legitimacy among large parts of the population. The legitimacy of Dialogue outcomes can also diminish in cases where the process is formally inclusive at least on paper but not in practice. This was the case with the Loya Jirga held in Afghanistan, which was mandated to ratify the new Constitution. This process was clearly controlled by the President, who, behind closed doors, made last-minute changes to many important provisions. Armed violence continued at high levels in the years after, and the Afghan government is yet to achieve a political settlement with several armed groups.

Moreover, the chances of success will remain limited if the included groups do not have an independent voice. For instance, the Inter-Congolese Dialogues conducted in 2002 involved a range of armed and non-armed groups, including civil society representatives. However, these groups were co-opted by or aligned themselves with, the major conflict parties. The lack of independent voice partly explains why the process failed to address the underlying causes of conflict and stop armed violence, including violence against civilians. In other Dialogues, parts of the country have not been sufficiently represented. Hence, their grievances were not adequately addressed, thus providing grounds for renewed violence. Such was the result of the National Conference held in Mali in 1990. While the conference responded to urban-based popular protests and initiated a transition towards democracy, rural areas were largely excluded from the process. Only two years later, northern Mali witnessed a Tuareg insurrection that only came to an end after a comprehensive peace initiative that involved local-level community leaders in the northern part of the country.

The legitimacy of National Dialogues is also strongly influenced by the selection of participants. Selection criteria influence the representation of different population groups and are a key indicator of the chances of a Dialogue to produce sustainable outcomes. In Yemen, for instance, considerable effort was spent safeguarding equal representation in the National Dialogue, however with mixed results. A Technical Preparatory Committee attempted to ensure an equal geographic and demographic representation, as well as the participants’ independence from the main conflict parties. However, the polarized environment, the insecurity and the deliberate attempts of some armed groups to access negotiations under a civil society banner made this a difficult task.

The decision-making procedures applied during the process have an impact on the ability of the Dialogue to efficiently produce decisions that are timely, relevant and acceptable to all. In many cases, decision-making has taken place through simple majority votes in plenary meetings. However, specific working groups or decision making bodies have also played an important role. The plenary took decisions through simple majority votes in the cases of South Africa and Nepal while in Somaliland decisions were taken by consensus. The National Reconciliation Conference for Somalia (2002-4) and the National Conference in Togo (1991) in contrast had specific decision-making committees. Moreover, informal decision making is widespread, and the legitimacy of Dialogue outcomes has often been undermined through the manipulation of powerholders and political elites.


Elite Deals and Inclusive Processes

National Dialogues are frequently accompanied by prior or parallel efforts to negotiate deals between contending elites, such as in the DRC, Afghanistan, Somalia, Egypt, and Yemen. Elite deals are often crucial for achieving an end to violence and maintaining peace, but they have also undermined inclusive processes. Elite deals can negatively influence National Dialogue outcomes if they are not well coordinated with broad-based processes and do not correspond to the demands of all parties to the conflict. In Yemen for instance, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brokered a power-sharing deal, ousting President Saleh in 2011. The transitional arrangement led to the formation a Government of National Unity. While this power-sharing arrangement accommodated Yemen’s political elites, it excluded important constituencies, predominantly the Houthis. The National Dialogue that followed under the auspices of the UN was largely inclusive but was negatively affected by the pre-existing elite deal. In particular, the efforts to establish a federal system were led by an unrepresentative committee, which ignored essential interests of the Houthi. This aggravated their grievances and contributed to their armed rebellion and a full-blown civil war.

However, parallel, informal negotiations can play an important complementary role during the Dialogue. Concurrent to the Benin National Dialogue (1990), for instance, incumbent President Kérékou negotiated his own resignation in return for immunity from prosecution. With Kérékou´s agreement to step down, the National Dialogue could focus on negotiating the fundamentals aspects of Benin´s transition towards democracy.


The Role of the Region

The success of National Dialogues is often also dependent on the ability and willingness of regional actors to play a constructive role. A politically committed, yet neutral regional party has often guaranteed the success of National Dialogue Processes, including in Mali (1992), Togo (1991), and Benin (1990). In the latter two cases, France, due to its interest in the region and its status as a former colonial power, played an important role in initiating political reform processes. Regional and international partners have also provided means that guarantee that Dialogues are carried out in a participatory and inclusive manner and have played an important role in guaranteeing that Dialogue processes produce binding agreements. For instance, South Africa played a pivotal role in facilitating the Inter-Congolese Dialogue in the DRC (2001-2003), by not only providing a safe venue, but also asserting the political pressure needed to achieve an agreement. Regional organisations have also taken on this role, and can do so successfully if member states agree on fundamental principles and a common agenda. Such was the case in Togo (2006), where ECOWAS helped the push towards the democratic transition.


Written by Dr. Andreas Hirblinger, Researcher, and Dr. Thania Paffenholz, Director