"What is the underlying conflict? It’s similar in both countries and can be described as an incomplete social contract"– UN envoy for Sudan and South Sudan

The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Nicholas Haysom.
UN Photo/Kim Haughton
The Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, Nicholas Haysom.

"What is the underlying conflict? It’s similar in both countries and can be described as an incomplete social contract"– UN envoy for Sudan and South Sudan

Peace and Security

Nicholas Haysom has experience in challenging political situations. His service with the United Nations has seen him serve as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s top political advisor at UN Headquarters in New York – but has also involved service in some of the toughest field assignment locations, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

His latest assignment saw him pack his bags after four years in the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he headed the UN political mission there, and head to his home continent, Africa, to take up a new role as the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.

In his new role, he is charged with playing a so-called “good offices” role on behalf of the UN chief to support the establishment and maintenance of good and peaceful neighbourly relations between the two countries. In addition to dealing with the authorities in each country, he also works closely with subregional and regional bodies – such as the eight-country bloc known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) – to resolve differences between the two.

We can’t do it for them – the doctor can’t take medicine on behalf of the patient. They have to find a formula and a process which brings in all the elements. At the moment they are just tremendously strong and increasingly deep fault-lines along ethnic and tribal grounds.

The world body has long engaged in efforts to bring peace and stability to Sudan, which has been marked by decades of political instability and armed conflicts. Secretary-General Ban created the Special Envoy post following the independence of South Sudan from Sudan in July 2011, to assist the two countries – Sudan and South Sudan – reach a negotiated settlement to outstanding and post-secession issues.

While on a visit to UN Headquarters recently, the UN News Centre spoke with Mr. Haysom about his new role, just a few months after he took up his new assignment, based in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

UN News Centre: Mr. Haysom, how would you characterize the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan at the moment?

Nicholas Haysom: As it happens, they’ve recently undergone a degree of rapprochement. It’s a rapprochement which has been based, I suspect, on the vulnerability of South Sudan at the moment and the fact that it really needs support and constructive engagement from Sudan. And they have set about cultivating that support in a set of recent meetings. They have made a number of commitments to Sudan, which Sudan had asked for, and which, in fairness, would form a template of good neighbourly relations. The question is whether South Sudan is going to be able to deliver. I say that because only in the last day or two there’ve been mutterings from Khartoum that there hasn’t been delivery on some of the promises that have been made. But I think South Sudan is acutely aware that it needs Sudan, not only to recognize the new first vice-president they’ve installed, but also to hold off from backing Riek Machar, the previous First Vice President, should his alliance undertake a military campaign in the South Sudan.

UN News Centre: What exactly does your role involve?

Nicholas Haysom: My mandate essentially grew out of unfinished business in the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) when South Sudan gained independence from Sudan on 11 July 2011. There were unfinished agenda items – such as on oil and economic matters, the demarcation of their border, on the status of their citizens, on central banking, and the division of assets and liabilities - which require to be negotiated when there’s a divorce, as it were. But it has become apparent to me that in the process of building stability in the region through the mechanism of bringing these two countries together, the two countries themselves have to be in a stable enough state to engage one another.

And quite frankly both of them are engaged, and have been engaged, for a number of years, in various forms of internal conflict and even civil war. Inevitably, that initial project – which is to create stability in the region, have the countries collaborate together – has drawn me into an engagement of supporting initiatives to deal with the underlying conflicts in each country.

What is the underlying conflict? It’s similar in both countries and can be described as an incomplete social contract. In other words, there are groups who feel disaffected or excluded, both in Sudan and in South Sudan, and in their different ways what is required is a political process in which the countries can craft an inclusive social contract. In Sudan there is a process called the National Dialogue and we’re hoping to help the AUHIP and African Union assist Sudan to make it more inclusive by engaging with opposition parties and armed movements in the conflict affected areas of Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

The situation in South Sudan is more complex. It has undergone a pretty political fundamental rupture and we think it’s at a very delicate moment where at least some of the protagonists are considering military options, we should be helping create an opportunity for a political track in which South Sudanese come together as a nation. At the moment I think if you asked a South Sudanese “who are you?” He or she would define themselves in tribal terms before they defined themselves in terms their South Sudanese nationality. Outsiders can’t do it for them – as the adage says the doctor can’t take medicine on behalf of the patient. They have to find a formula and a process which brings them altogether. At the moment there are increasingly deep fault-lines along ethnic and tribal grounds.

UN News Centre: What are the reports that they are interfering with each other’s internal affairs?

Nicholas Haysom: Well, this is really a challenge across the Horn of Africa. Conflict situations in neighbouring states provides opportunities for exploitation through proxy engagements and proxy armies. And really, looking from the top of the Horn down to the bottom, it’s been a feature of conflicts there for the last 20 to 30 years.

One part of our efforts as the United Nations, should be to constantly work with the region to create a stronger regional organization, capable of acting to promote the stability of the region and, ultimately, the prosperity of the region. At the moment, I think many would say it is a divided region.


In regard to our current efforts in South Sudan – inserting a regional protection force, should be viewed as an enabler, not an end in itself; it’s one of the things that has worried me, that it’s been seen as an objective, while its purpose is to provide space for the essential task to providing a political roadmap for nation-building.

Whenever there is conflict in Sudan, or in South Sudan or in both – it offers not only real opportunities for engagement in the affairs of each other by neighbours, but it also provides the basis for imagined or suspected interference. Either way, internal conflicts are bad for the relationship between the two and that’s why an essential part of building better relations between the two is also building internal harmony within each.

UN News Centre: Syria, Yemen… the world’s plate, in terms of issues to worry about, is full at the moment, so to speak. Are you seeing less engagement from the international community on this issue?

Nicholas Haysom: No, I think there’s quite a sharp focus on South Sudan at the moment, a focus that has been provoked by the events which happened in July. It may well have been that before July the world had indeed turned to other more pressing issues.

The reason there is a certain amount of concern at the moment is that the conflict could get worse, a lot worse. It could take on the characteristics of a civil war with an ethnic or tribal overtone. When that takes place, what you have is a conflict not between warriors but between communities. Accordingly the impact on civilians is that much more destructive, that much more cruel, and that’s what we are concerned to prevent.

UN News Centre: Focussing on the relations between the two countries – what’s the answer? What is needed to repair and improve relations?

Nicholas Haysom: Well, they obviously have shared economic interests. Apart from the ordinary commonalities between neighbours, in this particular case, the oil pipeline which is critical for South Sudan goes through Sudan. So they have to find a way of living together in order to jointly make the most of that resource. But there’s also a very clear need for trade across their borders. They don’t compete economically as some of the other countries in the region do by being, for example, both coffee growers. So it should be possible for them to work together.

We’ve seen recently, some improvement, some commitments by South Sudan to facilitate such trade, to work on border demarcation issues, to work on joint patrols, their commitment to disengagement between the forces. So there are some hopeful signs, but then again we hear the allegation that there hasn’t been implementation by South Sudan. That may arise out of the enormous governance challenges facing Juba at the moment.

Both countries, are also facing quite serious economic challenges. Today, I attended an OCHA-convened conference on the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, and it’s quite clear that what they are facing are enormous threats, from natural disasters. That wouldn’t be threatening if there wasn’t this overlay of the man-made foundation to these disasters. South Sudan is a potentially productive area, agriculturally, it should be the breadbasket of Africa. It’s well-watered, fertile, and largely under cultivated.

UN News Centre: Where do you see relations between Sudan and South Sudan in a years’ time?

Nicholas Haysom: I think both of them are interestingly poised, both in regard to their internal affairs but also in regard to their relationship with each other as a result of this very delicate situation we now find in the region. If things go well, there will be slow but steady progress towards a political resolution of each country’s challenges, and that, in turn, would be reflected in better relations between the two of them. They need each other, actually.

On the other hand, if, and in particular in regard to South Sudan, what we see is an intensification of the conflict, increased militarization of the society, and eventually open confrontation – really, I fear this. I fear for the South Sudanese people, but for the region as well. The impact in terms of refugees, in terms of economic stability in the region, will be awful.

The UN, I think, has to play an important, active and energetic role but not a lead role. It has to walk shoulder to shoulder with the subregional and regional organizations – IGAD and the AU – but it has to support, essentially, their leadership.

UN News Centre: This isn’t your first time dealing with the issue of Sudan and South Sudan, is it?

Nicholas Haysom: I worked largely as the chief advisor to the facilitator employed by IGAD – it was before I joined the UN – and [worked] primarily on persuading the north and south of Sudan (at that time) to come to an agreement on arrangements under which they could live together, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It was signed at the beginning of 2005.

South Sudan was launched in 2011 with such high hopes and a huge stock of goodwill towards the success of the project. To find the country now in a state of humanitarian crisis, and in internal conflict is a tremendous disappointment.

UN News Centre: Given this previous exposure to Sudan and South Sudan’s challenges and as an African, how does it feel to see South Sudan – once so full of hope and promise – in the situation it finds itself in now?

Nicholas Haysom: It is a disappointment. But, I think, maybe we also have to look at the ways in which that good will, which was shown to the country, is part of the problem. There needed to be a more critical engagement and even conditionality, in the support that was given to the country.

UN News Centre: Has your experience since your IGAD days in 2005, which includes service in Iraq, UN Headquarters and Afghanistan, put you in a better position in terms of being able to help the two countries now?

Nicholas Haysom: You certainly learn from every situation in which you engage. And I don’t think you can mechanically transfer lessons. For example, one should not apply lessons from one country to another, as each country presents its own unique set of circumstances and role-players which will determine what’s possible and what’s not.


UN News Centre: On a more personal note, you came to your new assignment after several years in Afghanistan. Were you expecting a much gentler start and ride for NSRHG in terms of what you expected to be happening in the coming month?

Nicholas Haysom: The eruption [of politically-related violence in Juba and other locations in South Sudan] on 8 July, which was a week after I took up my new post, was unexpected. There are some who say: ‘‘No, it should have been foreseen. July the 8th was a replay of what happened two years ago; the root causes hadn’t been dealt with and would play out again.’’

But be that as it may, I expected to deal with a narrow mandate, [focused on] relations between the two countries.

UN News Centre: Does your previous experience as a legal advisor to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in some ways help you in your work?

Nicholas Haysom: I think having been Mandela’s legal adviser always lends me greater stature than I deserve. He is so hugely respected. My comfortable engagement with lead players in this context though largely comes from my earlier engagement in the CPA.

UN News Centre: One last question – you went from living in a heavily guarded and fortified compound in Afghanistan, where you could not safely walk down the nearest street, to living in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where you have the complete opposite experience. What’s that like?

Nicholas Haysom: For me, the biggest bonus is that I get to live with my family again.