In Sudan’s war, both the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) initially believed they would crush the other in days. Eight months later, the war continues to destroy the country and uproot its people. As state institutions collapsed, citizens, led by grassroots pro democracy youth and women groups, filled the vacuum firstly by becoming humanitarian responders and secondly playing the role of mediators in local ceasefire and civilian protection arrangements. A broad Alliance of Civil Democratic Forces (Taqaddum in its Arabic acronym) emerged in late 2023 to challenge the legitimacy of the belligerents to have a role in Sudan’s post-conflict institutions and to represent the Sudanese people’s aspirations for democracy.
Ethnically driven clashes continue to emerge
The belligerents and their domestic and foreign allies are far from attaining their objective of imposing unilateral control over Sudan’s power and resources. Instead, the conflict has developed into multiple localized ethnically driven clashes beyond either party’s control. By year’s end, the RSF’s territorial control extended over the western Darfur and Kordofan regions and the capital Khartoum, while the states of northern, central, and eastern Sudan remained in SAF’s hands until the RSF launched a rapid offensive in mid-December that wrestled the central Gezira state from the army’s control and threatened its presence in the White Nile and Sennar states. The war unmasked the SAF as inept as its senior commanders became too steeped in grand corruption practices to pay attention to the decay of SAF as a fighting force. It revealed the RSF to be ethnically aligned, with plunder as the main motivation of its fighters. Independent reporting identified the RSF as a repeat perpetrator of widespread and systematic atrocity crimes.
In its new areas of control, just as in Darfur where it established nearly full dominance earlier, the RSF is proving incapable of providing for the population. On the contrary, RSF soldiers engaged in massive looting of private and public property and civilian killings in Wad Medani, capital of Gazira state and other cities in the region. The RSF criminal conduct triggered massive new waves of displacements from Gezira and White Nile states that served as safe havens and humanitarian hubs for millions of people who fled the capital and other combat zones during the early phase of the war.
The army made of the evacuation of private residences and public facilities a condition for accepting a ceasefire, something the RSF is likely to reject as it would mean giving away its tactical advantage over the army, particularly in Khartoum where the RSF continues to besiege the army headquarters, and its engineers, armored, and air force divisions from surrounding residential areas. Continued fighting would risk causing the collapse of the SAF, and with it what remains of the Sudanese state, rendering the search for solutions to the crisis next to impossible.
A traffic jam of diplomatic initiatives
The conflict created a traffic jam of diplomatic initiatives. The US and Saudi facilitators of the Jeddah talks launched in May with the narrow aim of achieving a sustainable humanitarian ceasefire had to adjourn the talks indefinitely in early December following the failures of the belligerents to abide by their engagements in earlier rounds. Jeddah sidelined roadmaps issued by the African Union and its sub regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) for resolving the conflict in May and June respectively, prepositioning themselves to lead the political phase of the peacemaking. The UN was relegated to an observer’s seat as Sudan unilaterally terminated its political mission, although the mission continued to coordinate humanitarian efforts. Offers of mediation by Russia, Turkey, and a Sudan Neighbors’ initiative launched by Egypt in July failed to generate traction because the RSF declined to cooperate with any.
By year-end, the IGAD emerged in the lead to achieve both the ceasefire and the steering of the civilian-led political process. However, several challenges emerged in the final days of 2023 and early 2024 that risk derailing the IGAD’s role in these processes. SAF commander Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah Al- Burhan accepted in an IGAD’s summit in December to meet with RSF commander Lt.-Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti) within two weeks to negotiate an unconditional ceasefire and the subsequent launch of the political process. Hemeti agreed to the same.
The IGAD process unravels
However, Islamists, who exert considerable influence on the army, rejected the offer. A letter from Sudan’s foreign ministry dominated by the Islamist allies of the SAF described the final communique of the IGAD summit as inaccurate for having left out conditions that Burhan laid out for the meeting to take place, including the RSF’s evacuation of private residences and public buildings, and the return of properties RSF fighters stole. Another challenge facing the IGAD is the official reception that several of the IGAD’s heads of states and government extended to Hemeti when the latter emerged in mid-December from several months of absence from the public’s eyes and conducted a regional tour that took him to the IGAD member states Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya and to South Africa and Rwanda beyond the region. Hemeti’s reception as a visiting dignitary bestowed on him a diplomatic legitimacy that provoked the ire of the SAF, and made less likely that Burhan would agree to meet with him under the IGAD’s auspices after this slight. Last, in a meeting with the Djiboutian President Ismail Guelleh on January 4, the civilian pro-democracy front sought to be included in the meeting between Burhan and Hemeti, thus acquiring recognition as the legitimate representative of the Sudanese people in the peace process. Burhan is unlikely to agree to this and will expectedly insist that the political process is made inclusive of all forces, i.e. of the Islamist backers of the SAF and supporters of its war effort. Burhan affirmed in an address to soldiers and new recruits on January 5th that he was no longer interested in negotiating with the RSF chief.
The unraveling of the promising IGAD process left diplomacy to resolve one of the largest crises in the world in terms of its human rights and humanitarian costs and the risks it poses to regional and global peace and security in a no-man’s land. The AU is at the stage where the ministerial meeting of its Peace and Security Council was still reiterating in its 15 November meeting its requests to the Chairperson of the AU Commission “to setup a High-Level Ad hoc Panel on Sudan, that will work with all the Sudanese stakeholders including women and the youth, in order to ensure an all-inclusive process towards this civilian-led political transition.” We understand that the members panel of eminent personalities have yet to be identified, and their terms of reference approved. The new personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General is on the job for about a few weeks, and it is not clear what the UN could achieve given the limited mandate of the office. The Jeddah Process facilitators have all but admitted that the process had failed to deliver on the simple task expected of it, a sustainable, monitored ceasefire that could allow a window of humanitarian operation to reach the most vulnerable clusters of the conflict’s victims. However, one or the other of these actors would have to rise up to the challenge that addressing this major conflict represents.
Strong risks of regional destabilization
The risks of regional destabilization that the war in Sudan poses for its neighbors cannot be underestimated. The belligerents control different critical parts of the pipeline through which landlocked South Sudan exports its oil production to international markets. There have already been several incidents of serious breaches of the 1,500 km pipeline to the export terminal on the Red Sea that were averted just in time to avoid a total loss of the pipeline, and with it 98 percent of the state revenue of South Sudan were the oil exports to stop. The merger of the crisis in Sudan and South Sudan would come with more devastating human costs to the people in both countries and real threats to peace and security in the East and Horn of Africa region. Chad’s fragile transition is also under much stress because of the war in Sudan. The country’s reported use by the United Arab Emirates for transshipments of military supplies to the RSF is challenged by members of the Chadian military who sympathize with the Zaghawa ethnic group targeted by the RSF at the cost of turning against their own transitional president of the same ethnic group.
Growing weaknesses could force belligerents to the negotiating table
The conflict is depleting the vast financial resources that the belligerents have accumulated over decades, weakening their ability to continue funding their war efforts. The resulting balance of weakness could well force the belligerents to the negotiating table. However, the longer the conflict lasts, the more likely regional powers, such as the UAE’s backing of the RSF and Egypt’s suspected air support for the SAF, are likely to increase their support to their domestic client, compensating for the depletion of their resources. The two parties would only agree to cede to civilians the control of the post-war political dispensation under maximum and coordinated coercive economic measures targeting the wealth they accumulated during the three decades of kleptocratic rule of deposed President Omer al-Bashir. Similar maximum pressures should be applied to regional powers already engaged in supporting their favorite side in Sudan’s destructive war.
Left to its own devices, Sudan’s raging war is on track to lead to total state failure and the permanent uprooting of an entire society whose aspirations for democracy were cut short by the ruthless military actors now engaged in a fight for the finish for one side to assert it control over the country’s future. Both the RSF and the SAF have demonstrated that they are unfit to be in that role. Rather, the international community should actively support the peaceful struggle for democracy and a state of justice and rule of law that civic forces are leading and ensure that it is allowed to prevail.
Dr. 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.