Six months after Sudan’s third civil war erupted on April 15, the country is facing its worst crisis in history. No less than five external mediations have jostled to mediate the titanic clash between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), two rival factions of the Sudanese military junta.
But Sudan is facing a perfect mediation trap. External mediations that exclude critical stakeholders in pursuit of quick wins, propelled by the competing interests of intervenors, and lacking a nuanced understanding of the complexity of the Sudanese crisis or a concise agenda for peace, have failed to silence the guns.
Sudan is crying for a unified, impartial and neutral mediation focused primarily upon the needs and interests of its people. The crisis is testing the African Union’s mantra of “African solution to African problems” in a public and palpable way.
Sudan’s raging civil war precipitated a profound humanitarian crisis: between 4,000 and 10,000 people killed, 6,000 to 12,000 others injured, over 4.1 million internally displaced and more than 1.1 million others sheltering in the neighbouring countries as refugees.
A nuanced understanding of the roots and multiple layers—both past and present—of Sudan’s conflict and its “unfinished Revolution” is central to successfully silencing the guns and restoring normalcy in the country. There is no quick or easy victory in Sudan.
Mediators have to squarely face the demons of Sudan’s vexed history of external invasions, resistance, religious, ethnic and resource-based disputes and failed revolutions. Two civil wars between Khartoum and its southern regions killed 1.5 million people and gave birth to South Sudan. The RSF paramilitary group was itself born out of Khartoum’s “informal” response to the conflict in Darfur, which killed more than 200,000 and displaced two million others.
The trouble with Sudan is simply and squarely that of its military, which has staged more than 15 military coups and has a vice-like grip on the commanding heights of the economy: finance, industries, agriculture, trade and natural resources. Sadly, the world is narrowly focused on the SAF-RSF clash. But the two factions are the targets of Sudan’s unfinished revolution that began in April 2018 and now in its third phase.
In the first phase (April 2018-April 2019), civilian protests forced Omar el-Bashir’s dictatorship out of power. A coup d’etat by the military (both RSF and SAF) in April 2019 ended el-Bashir’s three-decade rule. But the military unilaterally established the Transitional Military Council to replace Bashir. In the second phase of the Revolution (April 2019-August 2019), civilian protests won against the junta which agreed to share power with civilians.
A civilian Prime Minister, Abdulla Hamdok, became the head of an interim civil-military unity government. But the military ousted Hamdok in October 2021. Mediations narrowly focused on the severity of the clash between two genres of Sudan’s criminal violence—al-Burhan’s “formal violence” and Hemedti’s “informal violence”—are eclipsing the need to restore civilian rule in Sudan.
Despite this, it is doubtful that Sudan’s warring parties are ready for mediation. As for now, they have not reached a hurting stalemate. They are busy fighting to clinch a battleground victory, to win power and establish their visions of the victor’s justice.
Moreover, it is not clear that the external intervenors scrambling to mediate the Sudanese crisis fit the bill of a nuanced understanding of the dynamics—past and present—of the conflict, impartiality and neutrality, beyond their geopolitical interests.
The earliest of these mediations is the Jeddah initiative in early May, convened by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the US among others. Hoping to broker a quick end to the crisis, the Jeddah platform limited participants to Sudanese and international power players, leaving out Sudanese civilians and African actors. Propelled by the geo-political interests and calculations of Sudan’s neighbours across the Red Sea, the Jeddah platform created space and reason for the proliferation of other mediations.
Second, Igad proposed a Kenya-led mediation that included Djibouti, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Like the Jeddah Platform, the Igad talks failed the test of inclusivity, neutrality and impartiality. It left out Chad and Egypt, two of Sudan’s most influential northern neighbours who are also bearing the full brunt of the conflict’s humanitarian consequences.
In July, the SAF rejected Kenya’s leadership of the Igad mediation. General Burhan accused Kenyan President William Ruto of having a business relationship with Hemedti, claiming that Nairobi provided a safe haven to the RSF and publicly protesting against a proposal by an Igad committee chaired by Ruto to deploy an African peacekeeping force to Sudan. On September 7, SAF threatened to pull Sudan out of Igad unless Ruto was removed as chairman of the mediation committee. Kenya has dismissed these claims as “baseless”, insisting on its neutrality in the conflict.
Third, left out in the Jeddah and Igad mediations, Egypt and Chad launched the Neighbouring Countries Initiative (NCI) in July. But Like the Jeddah and Igad talks, NCI failed the test of impartiality and neutrality.
The African Union mediation has been dubbed as the “inevitable initiative” largely because of its mandate as the guarantor of peace on the entire continent. The AU has, understandably, gave a pride of place to Sudan’s civilians who have been fighting the dictators and the militaries since 2018. But to gain traction, the AU mediation has to bring on board the IGAD and the neighbouring countries forums.
With the backing of the UN, the Extended Mechanism Extended Mechanism has emerged as a truly “big tent” mediation, including the AU, IGAD, some 25 states and the UN’s Sudan Mission (Unitams). Ultimately, the onus is on the African Union to take the mantle of leadership, break the mediation trap and broker a peaceful end the Sudanese conflict.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is Chief Executive at the Africa Institute (API). This article is an excerpt from a presentation during a conference on the Sudan conflict in Nairobi on September 27-28, 2023