An armed conflict that erupted in mid-April, pitting the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a de-facto parallel army created by the former president Omar al-Bashir, against one another, has opened a new chapter in political violence in Sudan. The official reason given for the fighting: a dispute over the timeline for the integration of the RSF into the SAF, agreed upon with the pro-democracy opposition as part of a plan to transition to civilian rule. The likely motives: guarding political positions and kleptocratic networks.
Warring commanders: from allies to enemies
The two generals at the center of the conflict – SAF commander Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF commander Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (a.k.a Hemedti) – are former allies turned bitter rivals. They worked together when Burhan was a mid-ranking, army liaison officer, and Dagalo was a prominent Janjaweed leader in Darfur in the early 2000s, and both served in former president Bashir’s security committee. They both overthrew Bashir after mass protests erupted in April 2019. A few months later, their forces massacred peaceful protesters. And in October 2021, they staged a coup together. However, divisions were already visible following the 2021 coup, when Dagalo sought to distance himself from the overthrow, claiming it was engineered by stalwarts of Bashir’s Islamist regime who were paving the way for their return to power. Tensions continued to rise as the integration of the forces into a single, reformed, and professionalized army were pushed for during negotiations for transition to civilian rule.
While local opinion leaders and diplomats warned about a possible conflict for months, the scale and ferocity of the violence is truly shocking. The intense gunfire and aerial bombardments in heavily populated urban centers such as Khartoum are a marked shift away from the rural insurgency and counterinsurgency tactics that have dominated the country’s civil wars to date. Hundreds have been killed; thousands wounded; and many more caught in the crossfire, as Sudan plunges into a humanitarian crisis. Thoughtful and coordinated diplomatic action, that gives greater weight to civilian actors, rather than powerful military and political leaders, is urgently needed.
Diplomatic power struggles between mediators
Several diplomatic efforts aimed at bridging divides between military and civilian parties have been initiated since October 2021. These efforts initially were quite scattered, leading to the formation of the Tripartite Mechanism, made up of the United Nations, the African Union (AU), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The Mechanism was set up to avoid a duplication of efforts and to ensure some level of coordination, especially with the mediation mandate of the United Nations Integrated Transitional Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) that was established in April 2022. However, the regional actors within the Tripartite Mechanism were more inclined to favor the military and political leadership, and were less attentive to the aspirations of the Sudanese people for democracy and accountability for past atrocities and human rights violations. The mechanism was particularly criticized for its policy of inclusion of political actors that supported the coup d’etat, which was viewed as undermining a genuine path to democratic transition. This created an incoherence in mediation efforts and led to the emergence of ‘the Quad’ – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States – in negotiations in 2022. The AU was unhappy about this parallel mechanism and complained to its Security Council (PSC) that the Quad was favoring the opposition prodemocracy Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and applying double standards. The FFC called on both parties to increase pressure on the junta to transition to civilian rule. In the end, however, it was the political muscle of the Quad that was able to shepherd the parties back to negotiations under the banner of the Tripartite Mechanism. The process was guided back to the Tripartite Mechanism largely because the UN has been a facilitator that has been accepted by all local parties, and other goodwill mediators, and has had the needed financial resources and logistical capacity to carry out meetings.
Political Framework Agreement failed to address key drivers of conflict
This process facilitated direct contacts between the military forces (SAF and RSF) and the main pro-democracy opposition groups of the Forces of Freedom and Change-Central Committee (FFC-CC). Some civilian forces, including the Communist Party and the community-based resistance committees, refused to join the process. These produced a Political Framework Agreement (PFA) signed on December 5, 2022, committing the coup regime to hand over power to civilian institutions by mid-April. To facilitate this, civilian and military actors agreed to reach supplementary agreements on issues requiring broader consensus, including on a Security Sector Reform (SSR) program.
Although the Tripartite Mechanism ultimately produced the PFA, it failed to address some of the core drivers of the conflict – such as combatting the corruption that incentivizes armed actors, promoting SSR, and ensuring genuine inclusivity. Although, the FFC-CC kept the door open for the signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement and some of the political parties included in the opposing camp of the FFC-Democratic Bloc to join the PFA, a comprehensive strategy to increase inclusivity was not developed.
Mediators offered coup makers leading roles in the transition
As noted above, the discussions of the security pillar increased tensions between the military parties, as both fear that reform will threaten their power bases and financial networks. Unfortunately, key mediators have failed to address these dynamics and incentives for conflict. International deals, brokered by the US, the UN, and regional bodies have, at least on paper, sought to address the root causes. However, in practice, this has largely taken the form of negotiating with powerful armed actors. For instance, the international community failed to censure the two generals for their roles in ordering the June 3, 2019, massacre of participants in a peaceful sit-in demanding the restoration of civilian rule. The two were rewarded with leadership roles in a transitional government, which they toppled in October 2021. Mediators again awarded them with recognition in the efforts to restore the civilian-led transition. As a result, these processes and the concessions offered have tended to further reinforce the kleptocratic networks of the parties, rather than confronting them.
Some international actors have also explicitly supported the belligerents. Beginning in 2015, the SAF and the RSF participated in the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthi rebels in Yemen in return for large payments. Both military forces used these payments to improve their fighting capacities and expand their economic and power base. Egypt has also supported the SAF and pressed for them to retain effective control through the transition. Under a 2017 agreement reached by the Bashir regime and Russia, the Russian private security company Wagner Group assisted both the SAF and RSF with security and political influence operations. Wagner Group also partnered with both entities in off-the-books gold production and trade operations.
Since the conflict erupted there has been a greater diplomatic focus on Sudan. The US condemned the violence and prepared plans to roll out sanctions against the belligerents. The UN Security Council, the AU PSC, and the Arab League held emergency meetings. Leaders of Egypt, Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti, South Sudan, and Turkey have offered to mediate. Local civil society groups launched an initiative to persuade the rival political factions of the FFC to sign a joint declaration calling for an end to the war and appealed to traditional leaders to do the same. However, with all these actors, greater coordination and a long-term planning for real reform is needed.
The African Union and IGAD vie for central role in conflict mediation
Diplomatic initiatives have multiplied in reaction to the sudden eruption of the conflict. The UNSC issued a press release on April 15, in which it urged parties to cease hostilities and return to dialogue. Attempts to issue a joint communique by the Council’s 15 member states on April 21 were blocked by the three African members – Ghana, Gabon, and Mozambique – who didn’t want the UN to issue the communiqué independently from the AU. In his address to the April 25 special session of the UNSC, the Sudan representative called on the UN to step aside and allow the AU and the IGAD to lead the mediation to end the conflict. Kenya’s President Willian Ruto issued a statement on April 21, offering to host an IGAD-led mediation. The latest IGAD initiatives made no reference to the Tripartite Mechanism.
Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicated that he made calls to the other three members of the Quad to coordinate their post-conflict diplomacy discussions, and has also contacted the AU to ensure that all efforts are coordinated. Without proper coordination, the competing mediation efforts could prove counterproductive, by making it easier for the belligerents to tailor outcomes that preserve their chances of retaining power in future political dispensations. In a move that likely preempted this possible scenario, the AU called for the representatives of the Tripartite Mechanism, the IGAD, the Quad, the EU, the Troika (US, UK, and Norway) and other Sudan mediators to meet in Addis Ababa on May 2 to coordinate their action and their messaging on the crisis.
For now, mediating officials and heads of state have been prevented from traveling to Khartoum due to the closure of the airport and the prevailing insecurity. In the short term, pressuring the parties to cease hostilities, even momentarily, could allow the opening of humanitarian corridors to evacuate thousands of civilians and the delivery of desperately needed relief supplies. Mediators should not limit their joint messages to appeals for an end to the fighting, but also to signal to the SAF and RSF top commanders that they are consequences for their blatant violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
Mediators should deploy observation teams tasked with separating forces and observing a ceasefire. In the longer term, securing the restoration of the transitional process should be a priority. Furthermore, this transition, should be guided by the Sudanese people’s democratic aspirations, along with values for the rule of law, justice, and the need to establish a military with civilian oversight. Shifting mediation in this direction will require exerting continued pressure on the fighting parties, aligning influential regional actors like Egypt and the UAE, and enforcing financial and other sanctions. The failures of previous mediations and the collapse of the transition, most importantly have demonstrated the feuding generals should be prohibited from playing leading roles in post-conflict political transitions to civilian rule.
Suliman Baldo is an expert in justice, human rights and conflict resolution in Africa and served as the Africa head of International Crisis group, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and has also held human rights and mediation posts in the United Nations. He has provided expert advice on human rights in Mali and Darfur and currently leads the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker.