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Mediating Peace in Southern Sudan – Gen. Sumbeiywo’s Perspective

General Lazaro Sumbeiywo took an unscheduled about-turn in his career soldier one day in 1989, when he was summoned by his boss. General Mahmoud Mohammed in characteristic military-style, “thundered” instructions for him to accompany the Sudanese President Gen. Omar Bashir aboard a Kenyan military aircraft from Nairobi to Nakuru for a meeting with the then Kenya’s President Moi. That is the long and short of how Gen. Sumbeiywo became a mediator.

He was simply ordered to mediate. When Moi ordered you to go, you went. Your prior training and personal plans or aspirations were not considered. Your views did not count. You went. Ignorance of the subject matter was an extraneous factor. People are known to have feigned chronic sicknesses and anything but insanity or death to avoid posting. Kenyans who rejected what they considered irrelevant, inappropriate, or demeaning appointments from Moi suffered for it.

Sumbeiywo was thrust into the deep end. His story is captured in his fast-paced, 194-page memoirs, The Mediator by Kenway Publications. The book covers the 15 years from the time Sumbeiywo was appointed to the time the final agreement was signed in January 2005.

The book is a goldmine full of gems and for lessons on mediation, diplomacy, leadership, mentorship, humility, determination, integrity and change management.

The situation in Southern Sudan was in 1980s characterised by the brutality of war, disillusionment, and mistrust following numerous abortive peacemaking initiatives. Lazaro, whose Biblical namesake arose from the dead after three days, brought new life to the peace process.

Being a senior military officer earned Sumbeiywo the respect of the protagonists. Gen. Bashir had in just 6 months overthrown a civilian government and installed a military one in Sudan. He was represented in the mediation by Ali Taha, his First Vice-President, a cool, patient man.

Dr. Garang, a confident, battle-hardened guerilla had fought long and hard. He had nothing to lose. He once kept Sumbeiywo and Taha waiting at the venue of a scheduled meeting for 4 days and had to be prompted to give an apology when he finally showed up.

The key issues in dispute were self-determination for South Sudan, the sharing of resources and sharia law, which Bashir insisted must apply on every inch of Sudan. The combatants had taken hard positions on the three issues.

Having been thrust into the deep end, Gen. Sumbeiywo took the assignment with the focus of a military man with little time for the niceties and double-speak that

accompany diplomatic protocol. What he lacked in professional training as a mediator, he compensated for by sheer determination and hard work.

The memoirs show Moi as the undisputed father of peace in Southern Sudan, with Sumbeiywo as the hard-working traditional birth attendant, who delivers the baby safely with very basic tools to the chagrin of the career midwives, i.e. diplomats, Western-trained career mediators and peace-building experts. Moi believed in African solutions to Africa’s problems. Sumbeiywo accepted the approach easily having seen, as a child, elders in his village mediate land disputes. He also had little choice, given that, he had been relieved of his regular military duties and ordered, by his Commander-In-Chief, to march into the Sudan.

Mediating peace in Sudan was slow and very emotionally draining. At one stage for every step that was taken forward, two were taken back. A power Western state was particularly nasty throughout and at one time accused Sumbeiywo unfairly of holding back the process just to have a job to do.

In addition to hard-line party positions, there was undue interference from helpful neighbours, who felt the heat of the war. Distant members of the global village attempted to micro-manage the process as they could smell the oil. Indeed, the very first meeting between Bashir and Garang was hosted by Moi in Statehouse Nakuru in 1989 which was organised by Tiny Rowland of Lonrho, who had a sugar factory in Sudan and had an eye on the oil. Many Western diplomats attended the negotiations and addressed the parties.

The book is a detailed record of everything from power games, intrigues, intelligent moves, silly hide-and-seek maneuvers, and sideshows played by the high and mighty in 5-star hotels while bewildered South Sudanese cried, “where is the peace?”

Gen. Sumbeiywo needed the cooperation of western nations but was firm, even crude with them, when they tried to manipulate the process. He threatened to shoot an American diplomat and once told a Chinese woman diplomat, “By the time I turn, I do not want to see you here. You must leave and leave now and I do not want ever to see you again!” His patience was tested to the limit.

It is clear that Sumbeiywo was a fair, principled man. He expected very high standards of integrity from his juniors, himself and his bosses. Yet, as a soldier, he respected the chain of command and had little time for foreign “journalists” who kept asking whether the White House had been consulted about this or the other.

Having worked for so hard and long, he was disgusted to see two Kenyan cabinet ministers quibbling over who would be the master of ceremonies during the signing ceremony of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in Nairobi as President Kibaki watched in disbelief. When that housekeeping issue was settled, one of the ministers declared that he would be the one to introduce the dignitaries.

Two Kenyan ministers planted themselves in seats reserved for heads of state and would not move. God save Kenya!  American diplomats, either following the cue or on instinct, grabbed 10 seats including those reserved for heads of state. They had to be in the historic photos! Never mind that their country had defaulted on its numerous promises to finance the process. Americans had even tried to put a “made in USA” label by hosting the ceremony in the White House.

One would have expected Sumbeiywo to have a prominent seat at the high table during the grand finale when the CPA was signed. Not in Kenya. He had to fetch a chair and carry it himself to go and sit in the sun.

The author validates Sumbeiywo’s claims by quoting many people that Sumbeiywo interacted within the military and the peace process. This is very reassuring considering that several Kenyan memoirs have come through as selfserving publicity stunts.

Sumbeiywo’s spectacular success would not have been possible without Moi’s unwavering support of the peace process.  Yet, the problem was so huge and complex that Sumbeiywo could have easily escaped blame if he had failed in this “mission impossible”. So, how did he succeed where angels fear to tread?  The Sandhurst trained soldier per excellence attributes his success to a power higher than his boss: The Commander-In-Chief of the Commanders-In-Chief. God.

This is significant in a world in which references to God are frowned upon while denials of faith and spirituality are viewed positively, if not macho. This comes through when one compares the book and film versions of Louis Zamperini’s war memoirs, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption.  The war brought out Zamperini’s best as a soldier and a human being but it also left him empty-hearted. His redemption came through a religious conversion in a Billy Graham rally. As a result, he spent his later years serving humanity. His dramatic conversion later in life was glossed over in the film for political correctness.

Back to Gen. Sumbeiywo seated in a simple chair in the sun during the grand signing of the CPA. Mediators are not driven by prestige or financial gain. They spend their time and lives solving people’s problems. They believe in humanity’s ability to solve its problems amicably. Facilitating that is their contribution to our shared humanity.