A way forward on Sudan

Workers unload aid from World Health Organization and UAE-AID from United Arab Emirates at the Port Sudan International Airport, Port Sudan, Sudan, May 5, 2023.
Workers unload aid from World Health Organization (WHO) and UAE-AID from United Arab Emirates at the Port Sudan International Airport, Port Sudan, Sudan, May 5, 2023. (REUTERS/Rula Rouhana)

Amid the deteriorating situation in Sudan, a rare diplomatic bright spot flickered before being extinguished by one of the generals responsible for Sudan’s misery. In an initially promising development, a communique issued from a December 10 summit of regional leaders in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) suggested that the two heads of the main Sudanese warring factions would meet face to face, having reportedly agreed on the need for an unconditional cease-fire. The communique urged restraint on arms shipments to the belligerents and outlined additional steps toward de-escalation, humanitarian relief, and a civilian-led transition. With representatives from the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa present on the margins of the meeting, the communique seemed to create unity on the way forward. The U.S. State Department quickly praised the initiative.

But within hours, the rump Sudanese Foreign Ministry reporting to General Abdel-Fattah Burhan the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) who postures as the head of state, issued an extraordinary denunciation of the communique — about a meeting Burhan had attended. Even as the rival Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti) rampage and loot their way across Sudan, chipping away at SAF-controlled territory, the denunciation suggests that Burhan (or the remnants of the former regime in his inner circle) persists in the fantasy that the RSF will suddenly surrender Khartoum back to him. Only then will Burhan deign to meet with Hemedti, his one-time partner in derailing Sudan’s transition back in October 2021.

Catastrophe in Sudan

When Burhan and Hemedti launched their fratricide in April 2023, grim predictions were unfortunately prescient: Sudan is experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe, with the world’s largest internally displaced population and over 1.2 million refugees in neighboring countries struggling to help them. Outside players, including Iran, have been drawn in, keeping the belligerents supplied with arms. Islamists affiliated with the previous regime, sidelined during the transition, are back. The civilian leaders who should be running Sudan have scattered. Appalling attacks on non-Arab populations, with the RSF back to its Janjaweed roots, illustrate an incipient second Darfur genocide, 20 years after the first.

While the RSF is gaining ground, even if one side prevails over the other, insurgencies will persist. Neither an RSF-led nor an SAF-led regime would have legitimacy in the eyes of Sudan’s civilians, given the depredations they have suffered. A Libya-like division of Sudan, a country of nearly 50 million persons along the Red Sea that carries over 10% of global trade, would pose enormous regional and international security risks. As we have seen in the Sahel, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, transitional criminals, terrorists, Islamists, and Iranian proxies thrive in chaos. Once established, such groups are notoriously difficult to uproot. Swelling migration flows of desperate Sudanese can destabilize neighbors on both sides of the Red Sea and reach Europe.

An inadequate international response

Distracted by the wars on Ukraine and now Gaza, the international response to the catastrophe in Sudan has been grossly inadequate. Initiatives such as the United States and Saudi Arabia’s cease-fire talks in Jeddah, Egypt’s “neighboring countries” process, and the aforementioned IGAD/African Union (AU) mediation efforts have failed to generate momentum. The U.N.’s 2023 humanitarian response plan for Sudan is only about 39% funded, with nearly 55% of that coming from the United States. In echoes of the decision to liquidate the U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur in December 2020, the U.N. Security Council bowed to Burhan’s demand and terminated UNITAMS, the U.N.’s political mission in Sudan, on December 1 rather than adjust its mandate to meet Sudan’s current needs.

At the September U.N. General Assembly high-level General Debate, countries did not follow the precedents used elsewhere after coups (e.g., Myanmar, Guinea-Bissau) in referring Burhan’s presumption to speak as head of state to the credentials committee, where consensus rules would have rendered it unresolved well past September. This would have usefully signaled that the international community concurs with the Sudanese people that Burhan has squandered any legitimacy he once had, leaving no legitimate authority currently in charge in Sudan.

Signs of renewed engagement

Meanwhile, despite the challenges of dislocation, Sudanese political and civil society leaders are discussing Sudan’s political future, including by hosting a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in October. There, participants agreed to form a broadly inclusive coordination body in an attempt to unite the various political factions behind a roadmap to bring civilian rule to Sudan. The civilian talks continue.

In addition, there are signs of renewed international engagement, including Sunday’s IGAD summit where leaders unified their positions on Sudan. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Ramtane Lamamra, the former AU peace and security commissioner and someone with credibility and deep experience in Africa, as his personal envoy for Sudan. The United States recently designated the SAF and RSF for war crimes, the RSF for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing, and continues to impose individual sanctions on those perpetuating the fighting. In November, the African Union Peace and Security Council authorized a high-level panel to address the situation in Sudan (although the AU’s principle of subsidiarity rightly leaves IGAD in the lead for action on Sudan).

An agenda for the international community

With civilian actors forging common positions and signs of renewed regional and international engagement, efforts should focus urgently on three areas:

  • Increased, immediate attention to Darfur. Two decades ago, the world reacted in horror to the Darfur genocide. All signs indicate that the RSF is again committing atrocities. The situation today requires a comparable amount of high-level, intensively focused response. What worked 20 years ago in terms of stopping the killing and addressing accountability, and what can be applied today? What can be done now to deter the RSF from overrunning El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur? The outrage provoked by the first Darfur genocide needs to be replicated now, with corresponding reputational risk and more to all who would support the RSF’s genocidaires.
  • A surge in the humanitarian response, to get support to those struggling to address the humanitarian needs of besieged populations. This requires funds but also flexibility, ingenuity, and risk-taking: the decentralized Emergency Response Rooms (ERRs) that evolved out of Sudan’s heroic Resistance Committees (the “street” engines behind the 2019 protests that provoked the security services to remove Omar al-Bashir from power) are delivering food, medicines, and other essential supplies to civilians at great risk and hardship. The ERRs do not have hierarchical structures or experience to complete bureaucratic grant applications. Can emergency humanitarian assistance reinforce links between the EERs on the ground and the civilian actors trying to provide alternatives to the SAF and RSF?
  • Creation of a friends’ or contact group on Sudan, to develop an agreed set of principles among Sudan’s neighbors, regional and international organizations, and countries with interests in, and influence on, Sudan. So far, Russia and the UAE have supported the RSF (which earlier provided troops to the UAE’s military action in Yemen), while Egypt has leaned toward the SAF, which has also received Turkish and Qatari support. All should be included in the contact group. While a broad-based, inclusive contact group would not achieve consensus on issues such as who should lead Sudan — a question that Sudanese themselves should answer — they surely could agree on issues such as: support for Sudan’s unity and territorial integrity; rejection of outside interference in Sudan’s internal affairs; prohibition on those who caused Sudan’s previous isolation (e.g., former regime officials and Islamists) from governing Sudan; the imperative for civilian rule in Sudan; a civilian-controlled government’s monopoly on the use of force; the preservation of sovereign institutions such as the central bank; and the necessity of accountability for current and past crimes.

A framework to save Sudan

By hammering out consensual principles among such diverse actors, such a contact group can create new leverage on the belligerents to demonstrate more flexibility in ongoing processes. A consensual framework would limit the maneuverability of spoilers both inside and outside Sudan.

A contact group, in forging consensus among outside actors, would not replace discussions between Sudanese. Instead, the agreed-upon principles could support the cease-fire and security talks in Jeddah and elsewhere. They could also be linked directly to the IGAD process promoting a political settlement and to the Cairo neighboring countries initiative (which could address the humanitarian needs of countries hosting Sudanese refugees). Such a framework would bring coherence to the different initiatives aimed at addressing the distinct aspects of Sudan’s civil war and also reassure and strengthen Sudan’s political and civil society leaders. Lamamra, the newly appointed U.N. personal envoy, once co-chaired, alongside the U.N., a similar group on Sudan and South Sudan to resolve differences among those with interests there. The strong behind-the-scenes support from the United States and others that he received then needs to be replicated now.

Lessons from Ethiopia

Sudan is now entering its ninth month of civil war (and its 26th month without a legitimate government). Ethiopia, next door, provides a sobering example of what happens when outside actors are divided and at least one of the belligerents was confident of continued outside support to keep fighting. The end of the two-year war between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigrayans most likely could have been concluded much earlier, with far fewer casualties and much less economic damage, had the countries of the region and beyond agreed to use their influence forcefully to stop the bloodshed. We have the opportunity in Sudan to unite in a way we failed to do in Ethiopia, especially as, unlike Eritrea’s malicious military intervention inside Ethiopia, Sudan’s neighbors are not sending combat troops on behalf of either the RSF or SAF to perpetuate the fighting.