Sudan: Strong African Mediation Needed to End Disastrous Conflict

While the Global North, and some African nations, are intensely engaged with the latest outbreak of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, relatively little attention is being given to the massive suffering caused by the current conflict in Sudan – where since April this year more than 10,000 people have died, more than 5.7 million have been driven from their homes and 25 million, more than half the population, need humanitarian assistance.

A determined democracy movement, which drew thousands of people across the country to near-daily demonstrations – in the face of beatings and killings by security forces – succeeded in dislodging an autocrat, ushering in a civilian-led transition government. When military leaders overthrew the civilian administration, demonstrations resumed, until rival military factions faced off against each other, bringing the capital Khartoum and other major cities to ruin, cutting telecommunications, destroying hospitals and water supplies, and resuming ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Darfur region, which international agencies are calling genocide.

In an interview with Wilder Semans, for AllAfrica, peace and security analyst Dr. Ruth Namatovu sketched the background to the conflict and assessed the prospects for peace.

What are the underlying causes of the current conflict?

Following the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, who came to power as a military officer and ruled until 2019, the military and civilian leadership of Sudan shared power. But after two years, the military overthrew the civilian transition government, blaming its leaders for failing to enact reforms or to jumpstart the economy. In my view, the Sudanese coup was only a struggle for power. After the military had ruled for 30 years, it was hard for them to accept a civilian government without having a say in how the nation and economy are run.

So who is fighting whom at present?

It’s complicated, but forces headed by two men are vying for control: the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti). The RSF acted as the armed militia that collaborated with the Sudanese army to overthrow former President al-Bashir by acting as the force multiplier. The two groups entered into a power-sharing agreement in which the RSF assumed the vice presidency.

Seven months into Sudan’s deadly war, rival military leaders fight for power.

Conflicts between them have centered on who would lead the army and how the RSF would be dissolved into the Sudanese army in the event that civilian authority was restored. This is when the struggle began. Conflicts arose over the procedure for restoring a civilian government and the nature of command between the two military forces. This makes it clear that this is a war for power, negating any chance of a return to a civilian-led administration anytime soon.

How do you view the role of regional organizations like the African Union (AU) and the  Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in promoting peace and stability?

The African Union is essential in maintaining peace across the continent while IGAD, the regional East African bloc, does the same in East Africa. In the framework of the AU, its peace and security architecture includes the peacekeeping activities of this regional bloc, with countries typically located in close proximity to one another. All their peace efforts are engraved in their popular slogan, “African Solutions for African Problems”.

South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti make up the Igad-Quartet, a sub-group formed by Igad with the goal of resolving the conflict in Sudan. Thus far, there has been little progress in this regard. The plan to deploy an East African standby force to protect civilians and permit the flow of humanitarian aid appears to have proven challenging, as military intervention may only exacerbate the conflict.

Maintaining pressure for negotiations between the two sides, with a lead negotiator who is impartial toward both generals, is the only viable course of action. It must be someone the two generals are inclined to hear. The only assistance that the AU can provide is by finding the money that makes negotiations possible.

What can the AU and Igad do differently to enhance their effectiveness?

Theoretically, parties only settle disputes when they are prepared to do so. Someone must be under pressure to end the conflict because it is becoming too costly, and there must be a “mutually hurting stalemate”.

Raised quote A negotiator perceived as ‘neutral’ must make the fighting too costly to the warring parties in Sudan.

At present it appears that both sides in the Sudanese conflict are eager to prove their superiority in combat.  While negotiating for access to humanitarian aid in areas the rival parties are holding, the AU must concentrate on protecting civilians caught in the crossfire and keep upping the pressure for a ceasefire, primarily to lessen human suffering and death.

Could you share your thoughts on the impact of external actors, including global superpowers and regional players, on the political dynamics and security situation in Sudan?

At the moment, the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces are both receiving military backing from external partners and drawing attention from other external actors. Egypt has been Sudan’s longstanding friend and backs the Sudanese army, and maybe other militia organizations. The intelligence services of the United States claim that Wagner is providing weaponry to the RSF; however, Wagner disputes any connection.

These are outside players which are escalating the crisis, not superpowers. We have yet to see how Wagner develops in Africa now that it is at odds with the Kremlin following the passing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the man who led the Kremlin’s security interests in Africa.

To persuade the two sides to cease hostilities, these external actors have to wind up making bilateral concessions, primarily by reducing security aid to the SAF and the RSF. However, by indirectly funding the war, they are actually contributing to its escalation.

China’s interest in Sudan is mostly financial. It wants to protect its interests in Sudan in relation to the oil fields it has built, so it is favor of a smooth political transition. Russia intends to establish a naval facility in Port Sudan, where it has been a longstanding partner of Sudan. That said, it’s unclear if they are involved in the ongoing dispute directly or are working through the Wagner mercenaries.

The fact that there are two army generals involved in the current war adds to its complexity. Any superpower finds it challenging to publicly back a side, as it’s unclear how this will turn out. Superpowers typically support the winning side because they believe the leader will advance their interests once they win the war. Aside from sanctions imposed by the United States, it’s hard to tell right now what stance the superpowers will take.

What are the key benchmarks that should be met to measure progress in peacebuilding efforts?

To begin with, state actors such as the United States ought to abstain from the Sudanese conflict. Let them leave this to the AU and Igad. The U.S. sanctions imposed on the RSF alone and not on the Sudanese military – which bears equal responsibility for crimes being committed – are already escalating the conflict. Groups employing Wagner mercenaries have figured out how to deal with U.S. sanctions by primarily depending on adversaries like China and Russia for security assistance.

African negotiators must take the lead.

Additionally, it’s not a good idea to ban Sudan from AU activities due to the overthrow of a civilian transition government. This is because it makes it harder for the AU to enforce its demands when a country has already broken away and is surviving without AU membership. Take the example of Russia; it is still a member of the UN Security Council and other world organizations, despite having illegally invaded a sovereign state.

Banning Sudan appears to be a weak diplomatic tool for conflict management. The AU needs to change its diplomatic approach to maintain the possibility of further negotiations. You need to have channels of communication with an actor in order to meet with them and discuss the issues at hand, rather than kick them out to find support elsewhere.

Considering the delicate balance between military and civilian power in Sudan, what insights can we draw from similar transitions in other nations that have successfully navigated this challenge?

I am not sure there is a military regime in Africa that has voluntarily transferred power to civilian rule, unless their leaders retire from the military and continue as civilian leaders. In nearly every nation where there has been a military coup, the constitution is first dissolved, then a transition phase is declared, either without specific dates for a transition being set, or – if they are – they are set over time. Subsequently, the coup leaders declare that any military official is eligible to run for president, so it becomes impossible to impose a civilian transition on a military regime.

After decades controlling Sudan’s economy and violating human rights, military leaders are loath to cede power.

The Sudanese military has controlled the country’s economy for over three decades. Due to their violations of human rights, it will be exceedingly difficult for them to cede control and go back to the barracks, then to start facing penalties and arrests by the International Criminal Court. They will want immunity to ensure they are not held responsible for any crimes.

Therefore, unless military leadership decides to become a civilian government, moving from military to civilian authority through a fair democratic process is rarely successful in Africa.

The issue of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) is important in post-conflict settings. What lessons from other peace processes can Sudan draw upon to successfully implement DDR programs?

It is unlikely that aggrieved parties will support DDR initiatives as long as a ruling government poses a threat to their security. In order for DDR to be successful, there must be an end to hostilities, an agreement between the warring parties, a willingness by former combatants to reintegrate into the military, and an ability for the parties to be reconciled and disarmed.

But such arrangements between warring parties are not honored in contemporary armed conflicts like the one in Mali or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. DDR and Security Sector Reform (SSR) operate in tandem, but if you don’t solve the issues that caused the security sector to collapse in the first place, you won’t be able to complete the necessary reforms.

External actors who intervene in support of such programs often do not address the underlying causes of the conflict. Even the widely regarded DDR program in Bosnia caused anxiety, unpredictability and a security quandary. The international forces implementing the program succeeded in demobilizing the war criminals, but they did not disarm them or attend to their concerns, which allowed for the resumption of violence. DDR will be successful provided you have a well-thought-out plan for accommodating all rebel or militia groups, honoring existing agreements, and ensuring that they are unable to bring back the grievances that led to the conflict in the first place.

Looking beyond Sudan, how do you perceive the broader trend of civilian uprisings and protests shaping political change in Africa and other regions? What opportunities and risks do these movements present for democratization and governance reform?

The 2011 Arab Spring upheavals in Tunisia and Libya, as well as the one in Sudan that toppled Omar al-Bashir, may have brought about changes in leadership, but regrettably, they are a temporary solution to disputes involving power struggles. This is because the people have the voice but not the guns.

The majority of African leaders have a strong desire to hold onto power, and in the course of abusing it, they cause economies to collapse through carelessness or corruption. Sadly, many politicians depend on military protection rather than establishing democratic structures to protect government systems. To turn the situation around, I hope the African Union finds the means to impose term limits throughout the continent.

Dr. Ruth Namatovu is a graduate research assistant at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in the United States.




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