For over four months now, the warring parties in Sudan have inflicted significant harm on civilians and have all but destroyed key services such as healthcare and education. International and regional actors talk about mediation and ceasefires, humanitarians navigate the technicalities around aid delivery, and numerous online experts draw war maps. But in the middle of all of this, critical voices of pro-democracy groups, including those of protesters and families of victims, are silenced or sidelined.
Both leaders of the warring sides—General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the army leader, and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti—are now fighting a war for power, if not survival. Their ever-constant hunger for power has taken a brutal toll on Sudanese people: they violently dispersed the sit-in in Khartoum on June 3, 2019; they pushed back on reforms, aborted a fragile political transition, silenced dissent, and now are displaying utter disregard to human lives as their forces fight across the country.
Despite all of that, international actors who constantly pledged to stand with the aspirations of the Sudanese people failed to genuinely do so. When protest groups said a democratic transition cannot coexist or be led by the most responsible of the abuses, the world preferred a shortcut of political convenience. Over and over, this has backfired. Despite how many times these generals showed their ability to con, maneuver, and betray commitments, domestic, regional, and international actors have not shown much willingness to learn from their mistakes.
Peace-making or status-quo keeping?
In the words of a Sudanese lawyer years ago, the amount of peace agreements in Sudan can easily fill a bookshelf. From agreements dealing with the civil war in South Sudan and Darfur to those establishing transitional power-sharing periods, such political developments have been constant. And political actors—domestic, regional, or international—operated from a troubling assumption: focusing too much on justice would irremediably sabotage the chances of peace. This problematic juxtaposition of justice versus peace as being mutually exclusive has not only never worked, but has also facilitated the repetition and reproduction of violence.
There is no need to return further back in history to reflect on this. Just following the October 25 coup in 2021, two political projects were shaping up until the start of the conflict: one spearheaded by the steering committee of the Sudan Bar Association (SBA), which later became key in driving the proposals of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the civilian alliance that formed the upended transitional government along with the military. The second project was the culmination of grassroots efforts of different resistance committees in Khartoum and elsewhere.
Both seized upon the need for accountability. However, the SBA project, adopted by the FFC and hailed by Western diplomats, envisioned accountability as part of another power-sharing arrangement with the same leaders responsible for the repression. On the other hand, the project put forward by resistance committees made clear that calls for accountability cannot be achieved if those most responsible of the abuses had any power, believing that they could derail any progress.
The process so far only involves the warring parties with no civilian participation, particularly those of resistance committees, civil society, and professional trade unions
Since the outbreak of the conflict on April 15, 2023, mediators, especially those who are part of the Jeddah Process, have been heavily focused on brokering a ceasefire. The process so far only involves the warring parties with no civilian participation, particularly those of resistance committees, civil society, and professional trade unions. Moreover, this peace process does not address the need for holding perpetrators of violence and human rights violations to account. Once again, it appears that peace has been chosen while excluding justice.
To be clear, accountability is not a luxury. If mediators want to deliver on sustainable solutions, they need to address the root causes of the conflict, including how the military leaders who waged this war should pay a price for what they did. Otherwise, mediators will risk keeping the status quo, which as reality shows, feeds into the cyclical nature of violence, wars, and repression in Sudan.
Justice as popular, everyday politics
Resistance committees and other groups, at their end, made it clear that there could be no stable and democratic Sudan without breaking with the country’s violent past. For the resistance committees, justice is the only way to transform the Sudanese state from the inherited legacy of repressive dictatorship into one that respects rights.
These same civilian groups now are working tirelessly to provide needed aid and support to their communities, or facilitating safe evacuations from affected areas, while at the same time facing direct threats and intimidation. Again, international actors remain largely silent on these abuses.
Throughout the upended transition, between 2019 and 2021, these groups took to the street regularly reminding the government at that time the need to put justice up in their priority list. The level of mobilization, from protests, petitions, to public workshops and seminars, made very clear that accountability is no longer a technical issue, but gradually became an integral part of what many Sudanese feel. To put simply, justice became a political project that allowed many, including those who suffered violence and repression, to play a part in shaping what remedies they would wish to see and how politics, for long an elite trade, is now part of the everyday conversations.
Initiatives such as Missing or Witness Protection in connection to the killing of protesters are apt examples of that. During 2019 and 2021, these initiatives were an organic response to the failure of transitional authorities to address justice and reform in a meaningful and impactful way. These initiatives also represented a space for collective actions among different parts of the society. They kept the pursuit of accountability alive, through protests, petitions, and events. However, both initiatives did not receive any adequate support from both domestic and international actors.
Unfortunately, as it is the case with many other opportunities, that window was squandered for the sake of appeasing abusive military leaders. Key international donors, such as the United States and European Union, did not show a willingness to invest in justice, leading to a slow, inefficient justice sector that did not fully transform to be in line with the goals of the 2018-2019 uprising. This took place in addition to a lack of political will among the civilian actors in the process, the FFC.
This also could be seen when it comes to Darfur, the site of long decades of atrocities, as non-Arab communities continue to be at the crosshairs of attacks by the RSF and allied Arab militias. Just shortly before the termination of the joint UN and African Union peacekeepers (UNAMID) in late 2020, groups representing displaced communities warned against it, in the face of an evident uptick in violence. They also rejected the possibility of having their safety guaranteed by violent government forces, including RSF, which have been involved in their suffering for years.
The last few years, especially since April 2023, have shown all too starkly how displaced communities paid a hefty price as a result of these decisions. For these communities, impunity remained largely pervasive, fueling and renewing cycles of violence. Abusive forces of the past were not just ghosts lurking in the dark but are living reminders of the horror that we are once again forced to live through.
Justice as compass, not a box-ticking exercise
The case for justice and accountability should be at the start of the peace process, not an afterthought. For Sudan, it is clear that these generals will not be the guarantors of a transition that respects human rights.
If the generals, who dragged Sudan into this senseless war, know that there will be no consequence for their actions, they will continue fighting to ensure some political wins
Brokering a cease-fire for the sake of the civilian population should be a genuine and needed outcome. But, if the warring parties repeatedly ignore their commitments for peace, the Sudanese people should not be the guinea pig of failed experimentations. If the generals, who dragged Sudan into this senseless war, know that there will be no consequence for their actions, they will continue fighting to ensure some political wins. We will continue to see people get killed, homes shelled, families displaced, services disrupted, and the future will keep looking grimmer and grimmer.
Therefore, the case for accountability needs to be pronounced, beyond text, to be actionable plans and benchmarks. It is clear that the next question should be: What can this project look like? While there is no silver bullet, to have the question asked is already a good start. It allows Sudanese actors to feel there is a process that will give them the space and possibility of seeing a holistic response to Sudan’s endemic instability. The focus will be more on what modalities for accountability would fit, more than indulging the usual shortcut of “let’s not be too harsh on the generals.”
In 2006, I recall attending a discussion on transitional justice following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). That was a time when this topic was everywhere, in almost every single workshop or event. At the end of that event, a friend who was a member of the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SPLM/A), the party to the CPA, said to me: “people keep talking about justice. If both parties have no interest in that politically, it will not happen.” His thoughts rang in my head as I watched the signing of the 2019 constitutional document, with different actors and times, but with the same outcome: seeing hopes for a better Sudan vanish at the will of few powerful men.
More is needed: What should be next?
Sudan needs more justice not less, and the world has to jump to action to help make it happen. First, if world leaders who for years kept saying they stand with the Sudanese people are willing to finally commit to that, they should ensure effective civilian participation in the peace process, in a manner that would allow justice to be prioritized.
Sudan needs more justice not less, and the world has to jump to action to help make it happen
This requires a policy overhaul, starting with recognizing resistance committees and other groups as relevant, key stakeholders in influencing the future of their country, acknowledging their demands, and creating venues to amplify their voices while ensuring that they are an integral part of any incoming peace and political process. Donors from the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, or the European Union should equally allocate funding to support all local efforts working to document atrocities committed during this current war. Documenting serious violations is not only about allowing affected communities to have a voice but should go far in making sure that these abuses and their perpetrators will be named and identified, making it more difficult for the world to ignore.
More justice should be an actionable policy. It means to see international actors publicly naming and shaming, initiating, and supporting regional and international action that would allow accountability efforts against perpetrators. This involves having them adopt targeted punitive measures to curb the abilities of warring parties to inflict further harm to the population.
Sudan’s history is often seen as a vicious cycle, almost a fated one. From short-lived democratic transitions to long-term catastrophic dictatorships, the people of Sudan have borne the brunt of turmoil, violence, while continuing to fight with the hope for a prosperous future. But this cycle is not a sealed destiny. It is an intentional outcome of political processes and peacemaking that actively puts justice at the backseat.
There are so many lessons learnt that domestic and international elites should reflect on. One of them is that those powerful leaders, who continue to harm and then ask to be off the hook, cannot be entrusted to build a democracy that respects human rights and the dignity of its people.
Mohamed Osman is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on governance, accountability, and justice in Sudan.