Following the military coup that was staged in Sudan on October 25, 2021, multiple international and regional mediation initiatives have been working on ending the country’s political deadlock, with little success. None of these initiatives have managed in gaining enough traction to break the stalemate and put Sudan in the track of a civilian democratic transition. Among many other factors, rivalries among mediators themselves and problematic stances by the involved actors, have affected the credibility of these initiatives. Accordingly, key political actors in Sudan, namely the resistance committees, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), have shown little trust in these processes. Nonetheless, the role of international actors in ending the coup remains crucial, given the complexity of the situation and the widening gulf between Sudanese actors.
The main initiative, where most of the international community’s support and hopes are anchored, is the tripartite mechanism, which consists of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the African Union (AU), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD, an eight-country trade bloc in Eastern Africa). However, the tripartite political process and other international initiatives could benefit from rethinking their approach and agenda in order to achieve positive results. This piece will look into how these mediation initiatives are structured, what they have achieved so far, in addition to investigating the challenges they encountered and how they could possibly enhance their interventions in the future.
An overview of the initiatives
In November 2021, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok signed a pact, which entailed reversing the coup by reinstating Hamdok as a prime minister and going back to pre-coup arrangements, ignoring all the underlying issues that allowed for the coup to take place, and without consultations with civilian actors or buy-in from the Sudanese people. After the failure of the pact in restoring constitutional order and the resignation of Hamdok, the UNITAMS—a UN mission that was established in June 2020 to support Sudan’s democratic transition—kicked off its political process with an initial consultations phase in January 2022.
Consultations were conducted with various stakeholders to draw a roadmap for restoring the democratic transition and to map the areas of convergence and divergence between different actors. The consultations phase was wrapped up by the end of February without any major breakthroughs, focusing mainly on Khartoum-based actors and without succeeding in adequately including the opinions of crucial actors like the resistance committees and the Sudanese Professionals Association. Nevertheless, UNITAMS released a report summarizing the findings of their consultations. The report did not necessarily present any new information but was useful in showcasing that most actors broadly held similar opinions on a wide range of transitional issues, such as demands for the installation of a civilian cabinet, considerable reduction of the role of the sovereign council, the immediate establishment of a transitional legislative, and the importance of transitional justice and accountability, among other things.
As UNITAMS consultation sessions were in action, tensions between them and the African Union were mounting, as the union’s officials felt they should be playing a leading role in solving the political deadlock in Sudan. This position was also supported by the Sudanese military, as they felt that UNITAMS was intruding in the country’s national affairs beyond their mandate and eventually threatened to expel UNITAM’s head Volker Perthes.
On the back of these pressures, the tripartite mechanism was established, as a joint mediation initiative led by UNITAMS, the African Union, and IGAD. The tripartite mechanism had engaged in another round of consultations with various actors and planned for the first round of direct talks between Sudanese actors to take place in June 2022. The first meeting had failed as most anti-coup actors boycotted the meeting, given that it included actors with clear affiliations with the military, as well as the former Islamist regime. Anti-coup actors labeled the process as disingenuous and an attempt to legitimize the coup. This rather floundering beginning made it difficult for the tripartite mechanism to gain traction.
One week after the unsuccessful direct talks organized by the tripartite mechanism, a mediation initiative by the US Assistant Secretary of State cash today loan for African Affairs and the Saudi Ambassador to Khartoum had succeeded in bringing the FFC leaders and the military junta leaders to hold informal direct talks for the first time. Although the meeting itself did not have any tangible results, it presented an opportunity to end the stalemate in the political process and potentially end the coup. However, this process did not move forward as it was criticized by actors like the resistance committees and the Sudanese professionals association and was eventually shut down by the military’s announcement that they are withdrawing from political talks, to allow civilians to discuss among themselves and form a transitional government. The military’s announcement was described by most actors as a ruse and an attempt to change the rules of the game to preserve their interests, by framing the political crisis in Sudan as a result of civilian-civilian disagreements rather than a military coup. Following the military junta’s leader announcement, the tripartite mechanism has suspended the direct talks as it was based on a civilian-military setup and stated that they would continue to engage with actors to agree on a new structure for the talks.
Challenges encountered by different mediators
Without exceptions, all international actors have been struggling to meaningfully engage in post-coup Sudan. In particular, actors involved in mediation initiatives have faced serious challenges as individual institutions and as joint initiatives. The tripartite mechanism, as the primary initiative, has had a good share of challenges. The internal disagreements between the three institutions leading it—UNITAMS, the African Unions, and IGAD—and the interpersonal conflicts resulted in the mechanism being contradictory, without cohesion or a unified strategy. Furthermore, it had allowed the military junta to co-opt the process and agenda, by allowing the participation of pro-coup actors that have been pushing for outcomes that would serve the military’s interests. Thus, it was not a surprise that the tripartite process had failed in presenting itself as a credible platform that pro-democracy actors could trust.
Although UNITAMS has been present in Sudan since June 2020, they have made several missteps which indicates that they have not managed to fully grasp the context of the country. Designing a process and moving ahead with it, without the inclusion of the main actors mobilizing the Sudanese streets, such as resistance committees, was one of the key lapses. Another misreading of the context was the unsound definition of the situation, where the head of UNITAMS suggested that “the crisis facing Sudan is entirely homegrown,” which undermines the significant relationship of regional and international actors with the coup, such as Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Russia. Furthermore, UNITAMS hastily supported the Hamdok-Burhan pact that eventually failed, which was entirely against the wishes and aspirations of pro-democracy actors. In addition, the credibility of the United Nations as a whole was in question when the UN Secretary-General stated that pro-democracy forces should exercise “common sense” around the Hamdok-Burhan pact, in a way that was considered to be condescending by implying that the demands for democracy by the streets in Sudan are insensible.
As for the African Union, its role has been quite problematic. From one end, the AU’s positions have been clouded by its leadership’s political interests, rather than the interests of the Sudanese people. In addition, the AU’s envoy has been widely criticized by activists for serving these regional political interests and clearly leaning toward the Sudanese military, since the 2019 political agreement. Various pro-democracy actors suggest that the AU was incorporated in the process due to pressures from the military junta and other pro-coup actors, particularly that African Union representatives have been adamant about including groups that are with the former Islamist regime and supportive of the military in the process, which eventually resulted in pro-democracy actors boycotting the direct talks.
Despite its limited role so far, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) had great potential to play a bigger role in counterbalancing the different interests within the tripartite mechanism, as they have less vested interests and have led relatively successful mediations in the aftermath of previous conflicts in the region. This role was impeded by internal institutional weaknesses, as well as lack of adequate operational funding. Moreover, IGAD has also risked its reputation and respect of the Sudanese public, by organizing an extraordinary summit early in July, on the basis of a request from Sudan’s military junta leader. Sudan is the current chair of IGAD, after former Prime Minister Hamdok was chosen as chair back in November 2019. Despite the military coup and the absence of a legitimate government in Sudan, General Burhan chaired the IGAD summit, which implies that he is a legitimate president and undermines the struggles of the Sudanese people.
Moving forward, what can international actors do?
The role of international and regional institutions, as well as foreign governments, in ending the political impasse in Sudan is crucial and in fact welcomed—with caveats—by significant actors like resistance committees and the FFC. However, there have been numerous disappointments in the international community’s role. Decisions that were not grounded by in-depth political economy analysis of the context have sometimes resulted in doing harm. One key example of this is, is their design of political processes that did not adequately consider the changes in the political landscape in Sudan after the revolution and after the coup. International actors operating in and on Sudan need to establish mechanisms that would help them to build a robust understanding of the context and on-the-ground developments, by consulting pro-democracy actors early in the process and depending on advice from credible local actors.
Furthermore, to build trust and credibility, international actors need to realize the mistakes that they made and introduce reforms to have effective interventions. Some of these mistakes include tone-deaf statements, where international actors have been deferential to the military junta. On many occasions, the international community believed and commended the military’s ungenuine promises to protect citizens’ right to assemble and protest and to transfer power to civilians. Moreover, the international community has repeatedly equally blamed the civilian actors and the military junta in their statements, for the stalemate of the political process in Sudan or for the violence witnessed at demonstrations, undermining the fact that the military is the one that had orchestrated a coup and continues to use excessive violence against civilians.
The international community should stop pinning all their hopes solely on the tripartite mechanism. While it might have some potential, this political process in its current format is dysfunctional and requires substantive reforms in its structures, approaches, and agenda.
Some of the merits of the tripartite mechanism include having access to both military and civilian camps, as both FFC leaders and military leaders have expressed—conditional—readiness to cooperate with the tripartite process on several occasions. Moreover, the tripartite mechanism has the advantage of being able to build on experiences and networks from previous UN, African Union, and IGAD interventions in Sudan. Nevertheless, mediators with problematic history in the country must be replaced to strengthen the mechanism’s credibility and to reduce internal rivalry and contradiction between representatives of the three organizations. Moreover, the umbrella of the tripartite process should be widened to enhance its political leverage. It is evident that all the minor improvements that Sudan witnessed since the coup, such as the lifting of the state of emergency, were direct results of interventions by senior foreign diplomats. Therefore, member states of the three organizations need to refrain from staying in the background, and rather become an essential part of the process and increase the level of direct senior-level officials’ engagement. In addition, a clear and unified strategy for the mechanism should be articulated, where sustainable democracy agenda are at the forefront of the strategy.
No political process can gain traction without the genuine inclusion of the resistance committees, as well as marginalized groups like women groups, internally displaced people’s organizations, and others. This would require innovative changes to the format of the process in question. Mediators would need to consult these actors, specifically resistance committees, on the design of the process to ensure it accommodates the values they are advocating in terms of transparency and abolishing closed-room political processes. Also, in order to further encourage the participation of resistance committees, mediators should put an end to the notion of favoring stability over democracy. It is evident that stability and democracy cannot be separated in the context of Sudan. Any political process that seeks stability in isolation from democracy will be set to fail.
In the grand scheme of things, international mediations in Sudan cannot be sought without considering global critiques around inherent structural issues associated with peace talks and political processes; particularly on their elitist approaches and lack of popular support. With that in mind, the lingering political stalemate caused by the coup in Sudan has dangerous consequences internally, regionally, and globally. Should the coup continue, the political, economic and humanitarian costs will be catastrophic. Among many others, one of the transnational implications of the coup is jeopardizing the security of a very vulnerable region, with frequent hostilities on the Eastern and Western borders. Another implication affecting global security was recently highlighted by a CNN report stating that gold smuggled from Sudan to Russia, with collaboration of the coup leaders, ends up funding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although the international community have been playing positive roles, employing soft diplomacy in support of the demands for a civilian democratic transition in Sudan, they need to intensify their efforts to end the coup and advance pro-democracy agenda. The bravery of the Sudanese people in resisting the coup for the past 10 months is nothing short of legendary, hence they deserve more daring interventions by international actors.
Hamid Khalafallah is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on inclusive governance and mobilization in Sudan.