Sudan SPLM leaders are learning how to build a political party
CAN PEOPLE in a country ravaged by civil war and governed by a terrorist-aligned regime establish their own democracy? I returned, on Aug. 4, from Yei, Sudan, situated near the Ugandan border in the southern part of the largest country in Africa, and I believe it can be done.
The trip was part of a program with the International Republican Institute (IRI) of Washington, D.C., to provide training for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) — the largest opposition political party in Sudan — on party building, the role of political parties, message development and effective communications strategies.
The IRI is a non-governmental organization, not affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party, but draws on experienced professionals with Republican backgrounds to conduct campaign and election training in emerging democracies throughout the world. The IRI was selected by the U.S. State Department to begin a program of training for opposition political parties in southern Sudan after Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to there in early July.
Many of President Bush’s critics claim he is trying to force his will on other countries throughout the world. I think promoting self-determined democracies with open elections, multiple political parties, free speech, freedom of religion and a society based upon the rule of law should be applauded, not dismissed. Preventing Sudan from becoming another Afghanistan is a top priority of President Bush and his administration.
The SPLM is transforming itself into a viable and thriving political party from being an opposition rebel army fighting the brutal, radical Islamist regime in the capital city of Khartoum.
The Sudan government is led by President Umar Al-Bashir, who gained power through a military coup in 1989. The war has been the longest civil war in Africa. More than 2 million Sudanese have been killed, with millions more displaced from their homes and families.
Just outside the compound where we conducted our training was a burned-out tank left by government military forces, which fled after the SPLM armed militia regained control of the village of Yei.
An entire generation of Southern Sudanese has grown up knowing only war. They have seen the infrastructure of their communities destroyed and decimated. There is no running water. Portable generators are used for electricity. Conventional phone systems do not exist.
The SPLM is building its political base in the southern part of the country, which is predominantly comprised of black Africans who are mostly of Christian faith. The regime in Khartoum is primarily Arab African and has long been a haven for international terrorists. Osama bin Laden lived there for many years in the early 1990s with the support of the Bashir regime; Al-Qaida was formed in Khartoum during the same period.
With the support of many Western countries and organizations, the SPLM has forced the Bashir government to the peace table. In June of this year, a cease-fire was agreed to at talks held in Kenya and a formal peace treaty is supposed to be signed within the next two months.
The treaty contains several protocols that give the SPLM control of the government operations in the southern part of the country and a certain number of seats in the national parliament. A referendum will be held to validate this in three years and full-fledged free and secret ballot elections will be held in six years.
I introduced myself to the leaders of the SPLM participating in the training sessions as coming from a state in America that has a motto of “Live Free or Die.” Gen. John Stark’s famous quote about the colonial troops’ victory at the Battle of Bennington in 1777 captured the spirit of a people fighting for freedom and liberty against an oppressive and tyrannical regime.
I shared with them the pride the people in New Hampshire have in supporting freedom, democracy and individual rights. It was in New Hampshire that I began my career, starting as an aide to Judd Gregg when he was still a congressman.
The training we provided to the SPLM political leadership was focused on how to build a political party, how to keep the party separated from the government offices, forming a party based upon ideas and principles and not on a personality, the importance of transparent financial record-keeping and documentation, developing key messages, and an effective communications strategy.
One of the most fascinating discussions we held was in a question I posed about whether they would be willing to risk losing an election by doing the “right thing” vs. attempting to cheat or do something unethical in order to win and gain power.
Being proud of your beliefs and accepting the judgment of others must be embraced, not feared. I asked what they worry about as they proceed on this historic endeavor. One of their top leaders replied he feared renewed war resulting from the violation of the peace treaty by the Khartoum regime. Another fear was how will SPLM leaders respect power once they have won elections.
This noble and healthy acknowledgment of recognizing the integrity of a sound form of government based upon the will of the people was truly impressive to me. Continued training and support is needed and will be provided by the United States and many organizations dedicated to democracy and freedom. I have great faith and hope for the SPLM.
Steve Edwards served as chief of staff for former New Hampshire Gov. Stephen Merrill and as an aide in Judd Gregg’s governor’s and congressional offices. He successfully managed three campaigns for governor in New Hampshire. He also has consulted with the International Republican Institute in Latvia, Lithuania, South Africa and Ukraine. He lives with his family in New Richmond, Wis.