(Mis)understanding and (mis)managing the Sudanese crisis

The African Union’s peacemaking efforts in Sudan are doomed to failure if it does not change its approach to the conflict.

Bankole Adeoye (3-L), African Union (AU) Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, and Moussa Faki Mahamat (2-R), Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), attend a meeting of the Extended Mechanism on the Sudan Crisis at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on May 2, 2023. (Photo by Amanuel Sileshi / AFP)
African Union officials attend a meeting of the Extended Mechanism on the Sudan Crisis at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa on May 2, 2023 [File: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP]

As the United States-Saudi-sponsored ceasefire negotiations between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) ground to a halt at the end of last week, the African Union (AU) stepped in. Its proposed Expanded Mechanism on the Sudan Crisis, a body made up of AU officials and experts conceptualised in April, is preparing to take charge of negotiating a solution for the conflict in Sudan.

There is a positive angle to this development, indicating a regional proactiveness that has characterised the AU and regional bodies, such as IGAD in East Africa and ECOWAS in West Africa, in recent decades. They have spearheaded peacemaking and peacekeeping on the continent and worked to foster and safeguard democracy

But there is also another angle to this development: “international dumping”. The international community usually champions peacekeeping when it seems promising and “delegates” to a regional body when things do not look so good.

It appears that this is now happening in Sudan. After the conflict broke out, Saudi Arabia and the US – part of the self-constituted “Quartet” (along with the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom) – took charge, trying to negotiate a ceasefire. Their intervention came from nowhere as did the suspension of the talks last week.

Thus, the AU is stepping in amid an obvious “dumping”, which was made even more obvious by the recent exodus of diplomats and other foreign nationals from Khartoum and which underlines the failures of previous initiatives by the international community.

The recent conflict was precipitated by an abortive UN-led process that sought to return the country to civilian rule after the October 2021 coup carried out by SAF. The UN sponsored December’s shaky Framework Agreement between the army and civilian forces, which failed to put the country back on the transition path.

Volumes can be dedicated to the ineptitude, hubris and desire for short cuts that turned the promised “civilian rule” into competition for supremacy among military factions. That is the legacy the fleeing “international community” left to Sudan and its people.

Both the UN and the AU have shown a tendency to allow their desire for quick success and personal glory to push them towards shoddy deals that generate instant applause but precipitate long suffering for the countries involved. The flawed power-sharing deal between the military and civilian factions included in the Constitutional Declaration of August 2019, which the AU sponsored, is a case in point.

It left many important issues unaddressed, including the investigation of the June 2019 massacre, the assignment of roles to rival military outfits and the inclusion of constituencies that were left out of the deal.

Like the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and paved the way for South Sudan’s independence, the August 2019 agreement was marked by “gradualism”, which involved papered-over commitments to incompatible goals and agendas and which results in “war by other means”.

The AU’s recently announced Roadmap for the Resolution of the Conflict in Sudan has similar inbuilt problems that need to be tackled. It has four main objectives: an immediate unconditional ceasefire, a well-coordinated humanitarian response, the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and an inclusive political process.

But the steps outlined in the roadmap seem to misconstrue the most pressing problem. The Sudanese capital, Khartoum, has become uninhabitable, and the Sudanese state has lost control.

While the problem for civilians at first was the inability to leave home because of the fighting, assaults on homes have now forced residents onto the streets, often at gunpoint.

Hundreds of thousands have left for the countryside or the periphery of the capital. Those who could afford the exorbitant cost have found their way to Port Sudan or the Egyptian border, seeking refuge abroad.

The RSF is the main culprit in reported incidents of rape, kidnappings and home violations. It is also guilty of raiding and occupying hospitals, power stations and water-pumping facilities and attacking universities and cultural sites, such as the National Museum.

Apart from Khartoum and the western region of Darfur, the rest of the country has no RSF presence, or it has been contained; in those places, people feel safe to go about their business.

In this context, the characterisation of the Sudanese crisis as a fight between too equally legitimate or equally evil parties is certainly misleading. That is why the demand for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire would not achieve any of the AU’s other objectives, including a successful humanitarian response, the protection of civilians and infrastructure, and the resumption of any political process, whether inclusive or not.

In fact, an unconditional ceasefire would leave civilians completely at the mercy of RSF barbarism. Speaking of a political process in an atmosphere of terror, and with almost the whole of the professional, intellectual and political elite on the run, is unrealistic.

What is needed is strong international pressure on the RSF to vacate hospitals, private homes and other facilities it has illegally occupied and to desist from robbing banks, stealing private property, intimidating, detaining, raping, torturing and killing civilians.

Credible threats must be used and not just meaningless punishments, such as visa denials. War criminals are not that eager to obtain visas to New York in their real names. The threats should include providing assistance, including intelligence or equipment, to the Sudanese state to protect civilians and civilian facilities, private property, embassies and international missions.

The Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan signed on May 11 has committed SAF and the RSF “to vacate and refrain from occupying, as well as to respect and protect all public and private facilities, such as hospitals and water and electricity installations, and refrain from using them for military purposes”. This must be a condition for any future ceasefire.

The lawlessness promoted by the RSF has practically precipitated a temporary paralysis of the state that could soon descend into total collapse, leading to the fragmentation of the country and breakdown of law and order. The cost of such a scenario would be staggering, not only for the Sudanese people, but for the region and the world.

Lessons from past AU and UN failures in Sudan and elsewhere should be learned and applied to the negotiations process. This means excluding from the process inept AU officials and UN bureaucrats, especially those who have a record of serial failures. There is no need to “recycle” the blunders of one mission in another.

As it is proposed, the fuzzy Expanded Mechanism threatens to be more of an obstacle than a facilitator. It is led by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki, supported by a couple of AU officials and a Sudan Task Team of African experts.

However, the cumbersome structure prioritises interstate diplomacy and appeasing potential rivals. There are at least 28 parties to engage, including regional states, UN Security Council members, organisations and regional bodies. The potentially conflicting agendas makes consensus difficult to achieve and may constrain flexibility if achieved. The suffering Sudanese population cannot afford the anticipated haggling.

In this regard, the AU has to rethink its cumbersome Extended Mechanism and assign only a handful of competent officials to a lean and efficient team that can go directly to work on an effective de-escalation process.

They should focus on sending monitors on the ground to observe and report on violations, recommending remedies and intensifying international pressure on the RSF to withdraw from civilian areas.

This would pave the way for mediating a credible ceasefire that would confine the RSF to defined locations outside metropolitan Khartoum, thus permitting the Sudanese state to restore a semblance of law and order.

The police, medical staff and civil servants could then resume their duties, and businesses, banks, shops and markets would be able to function properly again. Schools and universities should open again. This is the first time in Sudan’s recent history when not a single school is open in the whole country!

The next step would be a sustained international effort to restore services, rehabilitate hospitals, and permit Khartoum residents to return to their homes and resume their lives.

Finally, the Sudanese should be supported in organising an inclusive national conference with representatives of all political and civil society groups to debate and resolve key issues about the political future of the country. The process should be Sudanese-led. It should exclude the military and ensure that no single political faction or coalition can monopolise it. Foreign meddling, including UN and AU interventions, should also be minimal.

The tasks of the national conference should include the election of a national unity government that oversees a two-year transitional period with a focus on passing a transitional constitution, appointing an electoral commission, passing an electoral law, and conducting free and fair elections to restore democracy and peace to the country.

If the AU decides to keep going down the well-trodden path and repeat the same mistakes of the past, its efforts in Sudan would be doomed to failure. For the Sudanese people, this would mean only more suffering, death and destruction.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.