Takeaways from a Webinar – August 10, 2023
Sudan has been in crisis for the last nearly five months. The long-standing political struggle among different political groups in Sudan degenerated into armed conflict between two parallel military institutions, the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Force (RDF), commanded by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
In spite of an early assumption that the armed conflict would be over in a few weeks’ time, the warring groups do not show any sign of softening their positions for compromise. In effect, the fighting that was largely confined to the capital Khartoum spread to other provinces, particularly Darfur. In the process, the conflict has caused massive human causalities, economic disaster, displacement of millions of people, and related humanitarian crises.
Efforts of different actors to bring the warring groups to a negotiation table have not yet been successful. Regional organisations like the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and individual states such as the US, Saudi Arabia and others tried to exert pressure on the warring parties. However, all such attempts have been to no avail as yet. Unless the political upheaval in Sudan is not resolved peacefully and soon, it has the potential to spill over to neighbouring countries and affect the already fragile regional peace and security situation, worsening the humanitarian crisis. If neighbouring countries are drawn into the conflict in support of one or the other party, there is a high potential for the region to be embroiled in a civil war mainly as communities in the border areas invoke ethnic, linguistic and cultural affinity.
Good Governance Africa-Eastern Africa (GGA-EA), a regional think-tank primarily concerned with improving governance through research, dialogue and advocacy, has been following the political developments in Sudan. It published assessment papers on the recent political dynamics of the country.[i]&[ii] As a follow-up to previous assessments, GGA-EA organised a webinar that analyses the genesis and dynamics of the conflict, peace initiatives so far and the potential impact of the conflict on the Horn of Africa. Panellists in the webinar included Prof. Munzoul Assal, professor of social anthropology at the University of Khartoum; Dr Yacob Arsano, associate professor of political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University and Dr Abdeta Dribssa, a regional analyst and Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation (CDRC). The webinar was moderated by Dr Asnake Kefale, associate professor of political science and international relations at Addis Ababa University.
The genesis and escalation of the conflict
Sudan experienced a short-lived democratic exercise for a couple of years right after independence. Such overtures were also repeated in the mid-1960s and mid-1980s, again very briefly as interludes in the longstanding tradition of dictatorial rule marked by cyclical coups d’état. Hence, over the past nearly seventy years of independence Sudanese politics has been a dictatorship on the main. The military has always been central in Sudan’s politics. Among all others, it was the coup d’etat of 1989 led by General Omar al-Bashir that saw the seeds for today’s crisis as it was supported by forces with radical Islamic religious agenda.
The rule of the former regime started to crumble immediately after the secession of South Sudan in 2011 since the country was heavily dependent on oil revenue. As of 2013, the country began to face serious economic difficulties. This boiled up what unfolded in December 2018 when people took to the streets to demand change. The protests spread to major towns in the country and eventually brought about the fall of the regime in 2019. What followed was the formation of a military council mainly composed of members of the security committee of the al-Bashir regime. There was also negotiation between the military and civilians sponsored by IGAD and the African Union (AU) which led to power sharing and the establishment of a civilian government by the end of August 2019.
In spite of this, the military which was part of the transitional arrangement enjoyed the upper hand. For instance, the military reserved a veto right with regard to the appointment of some cabinet members such as the ministers of the interior and of defence. From the very beginning, given its past and its entrenching in Sudanese politics, the military was not ready to relinquish power. On the other hand, there were problems among the civilians. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), composed of political parties, trade unions and civil society networks, had their own differences. However, they took the constitutional declaration as a minimum point to agree assuming that it would allow a smooth transition given the fact that people were tired of the situation.
As per the agreement, the military took the reign for the first two years of the four-year transition period. Even then the military sabotaged the transition politics and suffocated the government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. A follow-up of this was the dissolution of the civilian government in October 2022 and the prime minister was put under arrest. Although he was reinstated later, he resigned after two months because there was little the prime minister could do given the fact that the military wasn’t sincere about the agreement it entered into. Ever since, for nearly two years, until the time when the war broke out, the military has not been able to form a government.
The trilateral mechanism formed by the UN, AU and IGAD made attempts to put the transition back on track. By the end of 2022, a framework agreement was signed between the military and civilians. The agreement stipulates that there will be a transition period, a civilian transitional government will be formed, the military will return to its barracks and elections will be held after two years. Some of the important elements in this agreement include the dismantling of the former regime’s structures, the need for transitional justice, outstanding issues related to eastern Sudan, the Juba peace agreement as well and security sector reform. Though it could be said that progress was witnessed with regard to many of the issues, security sector reform became controversial as the military objected to some of the issues associated with it.
Particularly the timeframe for integrating the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the military and the chain of command emerged as bones of contention. The military wanted the integration to be complete in a two-year period, while the RSF demanded that the process spread over a span of 10 years. With regard to the chain of command, the RSF preferred to be under a civilian government, while the military opted that it be under the Sudanese armed forces. These are the key issues that sparked the disagreement. Though both parties are signatories to the agreement, when the time for the establishment of a civilian government was very close, supporters of the former regime did not want the deal to go forward and, as a result, the war broke out and they are fighting alongside the army.
There is also a regional dimension to the conflict. As the conflict dragged on, actors beyond Sudan’s borders were also getting involved in one way or another. Historically, the Sudanese armed forces have been very close to Egypt. On the other hand, the RSF has been fighting alongside the Saudi and UAE forces in Yemen. There is also the allegation that the RSF maintains economic ventures in the UAE. The Saudis’ role in this regard is not as clear as the rest, especially in light of the role it is playing in mediating the warring parties. Moreover, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Chad are all entangled with the problem.
There have been several peace initiatives that attempted to resolve the conflict in Sudan. Right after the outbreak of the conflict, the Saudis in collaboration with the US offered to broker a peace deal. Though the effort has not borne the desired result, it has not yet died. IGAD has also made two attempts in this regard. First, it established a committee of heads of state led by the South Sudanese president in which Djibouti and Kenya were made members. The committee didn’t achieve much, however. Subsequently, the committee was reformed including Ethiopia and the chairmanship going to Kenya. A quartet meeting convened in Addis Ababa developed a roadmap for the resolution of the conflict. Though both warring parties were invited, the meeting was attended only by a representative of the RSF.
A number of factors explain why such successive peace initiatives fell short of achieving the desired result. One of such factors relates to the leadership style of the former president al-Bashir. He created various layers of security structures in the country which made the conflict in Sudan very intractable. Since the former president was afraid of possible coups d’état, it is widely believed that he undermined formal establishments like the Sudanese armed forces and heavily relied on parallel structures such as the RSF. Perhaps for this reason, several coups attempted against al-Bashir did not succeed as the Sudanese armed forces were weakened. Moreover, the failure of the national dialogue process also contributed to the current conflict. The national dialogue was an attempt to bring together various political and societal actors so as to address the country’s challenges including political, economic and social questions. The failure of the process, therefore, exacerbated existing tensions, deepened mistrust and created an environment conducive to conflict.
The role of some external actors also further complicated the nature of the conflict. These external actors include neighbouring countries, regional organizations, international powers and non-state actors who are involved on the side of either of the warring parties depending on their interests, alliances and goals. Some of the ways in which external actors contributed to the complexity of the conflict include the following.
The first is regional rivalry. Different external actors have their own varying interests and alliances in the region. Countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia have their own long-standing disputes over the Nile which may have a bearing on their position with regard to the conflict in the Sudan.
The second one is proxy support. External actors often provide support to local actors in the conflict. Of course, the parties in Sudan had the capacity to trigger the war. But one cannot be sure that they have now the full capacity to stop the war. This is because external actors that support parties to the conflict would like to make sure that the war ends either in their favour or remains in a stalemate.
The third one relates to arms trafficking. External actors supply arms to the warring parties. Such an influx of weapons can exacerbate violence, prolong hostilities and make it harder to reach a ceasefire.
The fourth factor pertains to the differing agendas of external actors. The agendas foreign actors pursue may not align with the best interests of the Sudanese people. In a nutshell, while external actors may help in resolving the conflict, their involvement may also create further division if their efforts are perceived as biased or driven by personal interests.
Fifth, external actors’ economic interests such as access to resources or investment opportunities also count. Such economic motives may influence their stands on the conflict and complicate efforts to resolve the conflict.
Sixth, fragmented international response in the shape of the involvement of multiple foreign actors has also remained a problem.
In light of the preceding, there are multiple factors that are responsible for the failure of successive peace initiatives. The first one is a lack of trust. The deep distrust between the military and civilian factions and among groups within the military has hampered the negotiation and implementation of agreements. The second one is power struggle and the complex historical context. The desire of the military to continue to retain power and the civilians’ aspiration for democratic governance falls in sharp contrast. Reconciling these interests requires a nuanced approach. The third one is the existence of multiple armed groups and factions with different agendas in various regions of Sudan which makes it challenging to reach a comprehensive agreement that satisfies all parties.
The fourth factor relates to external interests. Foreign powers having differing interests and agendas have complicated the peace process and caused competing initiatives. The fifth one relates to the fact that lack of coordination between international and regional organizations as well as the absence of a unified approach among key stakeholders has led to fragmented efforts and lack of coherence. In conclusion, the failure of peace initiatives stems from a combination of internal power struggles, lack of trust, fragmentation of armed groups, external influence and the complexity of Sudan’s historical context.
Implications for the Horn of Africa
The Sudanese crisis has implications for the peace and security of the Horn of Africa sub-region. Its effects may spill over the country’s borders and affect neighbouring countries in various ways. The spillover of violence can result in the displacement of people, an increase in the number of refugees, the proliferation of arms, and the movement of armed groups, all of which with the potential to destabilize the already fragile situation in the region. As conflicts in countries of the Horn of Africa are interconnected, the Sudanese crisis may cause a more volatile region. This can be more complicated by the existence of ethnic groups that straddle international borders. As a result, tensions with ethnic dimensions inside Sudan can reverberate in neighbouring countries, potentially igniting or intensifying existing ethnic and tribal conflicts.
Moreover, if the crisis in Sudan continues to escalate, it could lead to large-scale refugee influx into neighbouring countries. This influx can strain resources, destabilize host communities and create humanitarian challenges for countries already facing their own developmental and security constraints.
Seen from a regional perspective, since Sudan serves as a transit route for trade and economic activities within the region, disruptions caused by the crisis, including border closures or conflict-related insecurity, can disrupt regional trade and economic interactions, adversely affecting neighbouring countries’ economies. Such a situation can easily be exploited by external actors having interests in the region to pursue their own agendas, exacerbating regional tensions and rivalries.
The involvement of multiple actors with varying interests and allegiances makes it challenging to coordinate and achieve consensus on peace initiatives. The wider and long-term effect of such developments is the adverse impact on regional cooperation initiatives and efforts to address shared challenges, such as poverty, infrastructure development, and security. With regard to the latter, instability in Sudan can create a conducive environment for terrorist groups to operate and thrive. This poses a security threat not only to Sudan but also to neighbouring countries and the broader international community.
The conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is a complex and fluid situation, and predicting the exact scenario is challenging. However, one can anticipate several scenarios given the current dynamics as well as the factors and actors at play.
Accordingly, one of the possibilities could be that the conflict could continue to escalate, with both the RSF and SAF engaging in active fighting and attempting to gain control over key strategic areas. This could result in prolonged violence, massive casualties, and displacement, leading to a worsening humanitarian crisis.
A second possible situation to see could be a state of stalemate. The conflict could reach a stalemate, where neither side gains a decisive advantage and upper hand over the other. In such a scenario, both parties might continue to hold their respective territories, and peace negotiations could stall due to the inability to achieve a clear military victory.
Fragmentation of control could also be a third possibility. Different regions of Sudan could fall under the control of different factions, including the RSF and SAF, as well as various armed groups. This fragmentation could further complicate efforts to reach a comprehensive peace agreement and lead to prolonged instability.
Fourth, the shift of alliances in the current dynamics is still possible. The conflict dynamics could shift due to changes in alliances and the emergence of new actors. If some factions within the RSF or SAF change their allegiances or if external actors withdraw support, it could impact the overall balance of power on the ground.
Fifth, with regard to mediation regional and international actors might intensify their efforts to resolve the conflict. Diplomatic initiatives could lead to a ceasefire and a temporary halt in hostilities, allowing for negotiations to take place.
Sixth, and as a follow-up from the preceding, there is also a possibility that the RSF and SAF could agree to a negotiated settlement to end the conflict. A peace agreement could outline a power-sharing arrangement, security sector reform, and a roadmap for political transition. However, reaching such an agreement would require overcoming significant hurdles, including addressing the root causes of the conflict and addressing the interests of both parties.
To sum up this section, it’s important to note that the situation is dynamic and can change rapidly based on various factors, including military developments, international interventions, and shifts in political dynamics. Ultimately, the resolution of the conflict will depend on the willingness of the involved parties to engage in meaningful negotiations, the efforts of regional and international mediators, and the capacity to address the underlying causes of the conflict.
Conclusions and recommendations
The Sudanese crisis has the potential to further destabilize an already fragile region. The situation underscores the need for a coordinated regional approach to address the conflict and promote peace. Regional organizations such as IGAD and the African Union shall play crucial roles in mediating the conflict, but their efforts are challenged by the complexity of the issues and the diverse interests of the actors involved. To ensure long-term stability, it’s essential for all stakeholders to work collectively to address the root causes of the crisis and promote lasting peace in Sudan and in effect the entire Horn of Africa.
Addressing the effects of the Sudanese crisis on the Horn of Africa region requires a concerted effort by the countries in the region, as well as collaboration with international partners. One of the tools to be deployed in this regard would be regional diplomacy and dialogue. The Horn countries should engage in active diplomacy and dialogue to address the crisis collectively. Regular high-level meetings and consultations can help build a common understanding of the challenges and facilitate joint efforts to find solutions. Regional organizations like IGAD and the African Union can play a crucial role in facilitating these discussions. Engaging armed groups, facilitating negotiations, and supporting peace-building efforts can contribute to stability within Sudan and the broader region.
Besides, the Horn countries need to enhance cross-border security cooperation to prevent the movement of armed groups, arms trafficking, and other illicit activities as well as collaborate on counterterrorism. Collaborative efforts can include joint patrols and operations, intelligence-sharing and coordinated border control measures.
It is also wise to engage external actors who are involved in the crisis to advocate for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, thereby ensuring regional stability. International partners, including the United Nations, can play a role in supporting regional initiatives and facilitating dialogue between conflicting parties. However, external support and initiatives shall be coordinated to make sure that international interventions align with regional priorities and strategies. This can help prevent duplication of efforts and ensure that external actors contribute positively to regional stability. From a humanitarian dimension as well, neighbouring countries should work together to manage the potential influx of refugees from Sudan. Creating reception centres, ensuring access to basic services, and collaborating with international organizations can help provide humanitarian aid and support to refugees while minimizing strains on host communities.
In conclusion, addressing the effects of the Sudanese crisis on the Horn of Africa requires a multifaceted and collaborative approach. By working together, the countries in the region can mitigate the negative impacts, promote peace and stability, and create an environment conducive to sustainable development.