Sudan: A Fragile Opportunity for Peace in Sudan

The long-suffering country of Sudan caught a glimpse of peace late last month. General Mohammed Dagalo (aka Nemeti), head of the paramilitary Rapid Security Force (RSF) whose conflict with General Abdel Fattah al Burhan’s army tore the country apart, issued a statement with a peace plan offering democratic elections and the merging of two armies.

This proposal came after the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Ambassador Molly Phee, travelled to Sudan in August with the intention of encouraging a deal to bring the country back to civilian rule. While General Dagalo’s proposal is a positive sign, my experience as a diplomat in the region tells me that securing lasting stability for the Sudanese people will be a dire challenge, requiring a steady hand at the wheel, deep knowledge of the landscape and, perhaps, further support from the U.S.

Sudan’s fragile ceasefires and civilian governments have repeatedly dissolved into violence. I am deeply familiar with this, because as a 38-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, I was there. After May 1989, when the country’s civilian regime was overthrown in a military coup led by General Omar al Bashir, I traveled to Khartoum. Along with other members of the diplomatic corps, I met with Bashir outdoors on the palace lawn. Whenever he was asked a question, army officers whispered the answer into his ears.

A short time later, it was revealed that the individual behind the coup was Hassan al-Turabi. Under Al-Turabi’s authority, all elements of democracy were abolished, including most of civil society, all other political parties, and Sharia Law was established. But the peace established by Al-Turabi’s regime would not last.

The imposition of Sharia Law created political resentment in the southern third of Sudan, where the population is Christian. In 1986, another civil war erupted as an anti-government militia under the leadership of a former Sudanese army colonel named John Garang fought against government forces.

Four years into the conflict, I had to postpone my official swearing in as Assistant Secretary of State to rush to Khartoum to talk about food shipments from Port Sudan down the Nile to South Sudan. Sudanese authorities had decided to stop the flow of food and medical supplies. I informed the authorities that their action was unacceptable, and they rescinded the order.

Al-Turabi would eventually be deposed as Speaker of Parliament in 1999, effectively ending any possibility of the adoption of Sharia Law.

The war itself ended in 2005 with a “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” through the mediation of the United Nations with the assistance of Egypt.

South Sudan was recognized as an independent nation.

Garang won the presidential election in June 2005, but was tragically killed in a helicopter crash only one month later. There was much speculation about the crash not being an accident.

The following era would see the country continue to suffer from civil instability and corruption, but I think we can draw valuable lessons from the history of the conflict as peace talks again seem to be a possibility. It’s commendable that Dagalo’s proposal contains some important ideas, such as merging existing combatants, including the RSF, into a unified Sudanese army.

This is particularly meaningful as the previous transitional civilian regime under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok espoused all of the right policies but was unable to exercise real power against the armed forces. Hamdok was ultimately unable to stay in power.

If peace talks move forward, we must recognize there are major obstacles to overcome. The situation is pessimistic. Consensus for national reconciliation appears to be absent among the people with guns. Burhan has not, to this point, expressed interest in coming to the table for peace talks.

Additionally, the brutality and atrocities of the RSF under Dagalo during the civil war mean that he cannot be a part of any future government. In an ideal ceasefire scenario, the general would go into internal exile in the far west province of Darfur, where he can be watched, the RSF merged with their former opponents in the national army, under former prime minister Hamdalla Hamdok, who is still the most legitimate of Sudan’s politicians. Fortunately, Dagalo realizes that his RSF cannot defeat the national army, and is likely in need of a safe off-ramp from this conflict.

The obstacles ahead, both for the Sudanese and for any mediators involved in trying to find peaceful resolution, are formidable. And the stakes are high.

The humanitarian cost of this latest civil war is significant, and the destabilizing effects widespread. For the remainder of 2023, into the first half of 2024, large numbers of Sudanese civilians will be escaping as refugees into neighboring countries, all of whom have significant sociopolitical problems of their own.

And the possibility of an intervention from a hostile foreign power like Iran, while unlikely, is a grave enough risk that the issue continues to demand U.S. attention.

Continued disruption in the region will have harsh consequences both for the Sudanese people, and for the world at large. But once again history educates us on why it is important for the U.S. to offer a supporting hand to any potential peace process in the Sudan to establish a civilian government that will secure lasting stability for the Sudanese people.

As an ambassador, advisor to Presidents, and a 38-year veteran of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Herman J. Cohen has devoted his entire professional career to African and European affairs.

Over the years, Cohen grew to know every first-generation African leader – from Mandela, to Mobutu, to Muammar Gaddafi.

During his tenure as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the first Bush Administration, and through his role at the NSC in the Reagan White House, Cohen worked to bring about peaceful transitions of power in South Africa and Namibia, and helped to end conflicts in Angola, Ethiopia, and Mozambique.


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