Both warring factions in Sudan, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), promised that it would only take two weeks for the war to end and for one of them to achieve “victory.” It has now been over six months since the outbreak of war on April 15. The war has claimed thousands of lives and over 5.4 million Sudanese people have been displaced inside and outside Sudan, according to UN reports. Yet, there are still no signs of a military victory for either of the belligerents, all the while fighting keeps escalating in the country amidst a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and horrifying war crimes. The continuation of the war risks dragging the country, and possibly the entire region, into a full-scale civil war, as the UN Secretary-General warned.
Whilst a decisive military victory appears to be unattainable, the war has also been prolonged by a diplomatic impasse and a political stalemate. Various regional and international actors have offered to mediate to end the war in Sudan, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, these diplomatic overtures appear to be at odds with one another, making it difficult to kickstart a unified and credible resolution process. In such a context, it is crucial that any process aiming to end the war in Sudan is led by Sudanese civilians, who can play a role in managing these competing interests and biases, and prioritize the needs and demands of the Sudanese people.
It is crucial that any process aiming to end the war in Sudan is led by Sudanese civilians, who can play a role in managing these competing interests and biases, and prioritize the needs and demands of the Sudanese people
The US–Saudi initiative is the only diplomatic effort to have succeeded in bringing the warring parties to the negotiating table in Jeddah in early May, but it still could not make the belligerents commit to a ceasefire. The Jeddah platform could have served as a wide mediation umbrella that brings onboard all international mediators and Sudanese civilian actors, yet it excluded them and created room for other forums to emerge. The IGAD joined the mediation efforts, but it lacked the membership of Egypt and Chad, who responded by organizing the neighboring countries’ initiative in Cairo. The African Union also launched a separate initiative focusing on convening Sudan’s civilians in Addis Ababa, with no success so far.
Why does inclusion in peacemaking matter?
Sudan’s post-colonial history has been plagued with a series of protracted conflicts and short-lived peace deals, making it clear that traditional top-down approaches are not effective in achieving sustainable peace. Such processes tend to overlook the voices and needs of the people most affected by these conflicts. This is particularly relevant to complex landscapes like Sudan due to deep-rooted conflicts and intricate dynamics. While the ongoing conflict in Sudan initially appeared as a fight for power between two generals, several complex intertwined issues were further uncovered, including the involvement of the former regime, ethnic tensions, and structural issues among civilian groups. Hence, it cannot be resolved without meaningfully including all relevant Sudanese stakeholders and genuinely addressing all root causes through an inclusive and participatory peace process.
This approach transcends traditional, elite-led negotiations and seeks to embrace diverse perspectives, ensuring that the outcomes of peace processes are comprehensive, legitimate, and sustainable
Participatory peace processes, which emphasize inclusivity and empowerment of a wide range of actors, have emerged as a potent framework to foster sustainable conflict resolution. By engaging stakeholders at all levels of society, participatory peace processes enable a collective effort to address root causes, build trust, and pave the way for lasting peace. They revolve around the idea of involving all relevant stakeholders in the negotiations, decision-making, and implementation stages of peace-building initiatives. This approach transcends traditional, elite-led negotiations and seeks to embrace diverse perspectives, ensuring that the outcomes of peace processes are comprehensive, legitimate, and sustainable. So far, none of the initiatives aimed at ending the war in Sudan have adopted such a participatory approach.
Lessons learned from relevant processes in the region highlight the pivotal role of inclusion in forging lasting peace. For instance, the ongoing conflict in Yemen since 2014 and its troubled peace process, as well as the frequent resurgence of conflict in South Sudan since 2013 and its fragile peace agreement, act as tragic reminders of the perils of non-inclusive, top-bottom peacemaking approaches. On the other hand, there are examples of processes and mechanisms in the region that have afforded increased participation in political processes. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, born after the Tunisian revolution in 2011, allowed for an inclusive dialogue process that was instrumental in preventing widespread violence, despite deep political polarization and tensions. Additionally, the Syrian Civil Society Support Room (CSSR) established in 2016 under the leadership of the third UN Special Envoy to Syria is a useful and novel approach to making political talks more inclusive, through formal and structured mechanisms. Although the war in Syria is far from finding a resolution, the CSSR showcases how even bureaucratic institutions like the UN can find ways to include civilians in peace talks and political processes.
What would inclusion look like in Sudan’s current context?
Whilst diplomatic efforts focused on ending the war in Sudan could follow the models above, Sudan will have to overcome a lengthy history of consistently sidelining civilian voices. It is important to note that this is not a newly emerging issue, as Sudanese civil society and grassroots groups have been largely ignored throughout Sudan’s democratic transition following the fall of Omar al-Bashir in 2019, and throughout the aftermath of the October 2021 military coup. In fact, many analysts have argued that the exclusion of key civilian groups had contributed to the fragility of Sudan’s transition, and laid the grounds for the ongoing war. This recurring pattern of exclusion has failed to deliver peace and stability in Sudan in the past, and will continue to do so in the future. Only in the past two decades, Sudan had at least four key peace agreements; some analysts have argued that all failed due to lack of inclusion, among other reasons.
In fact, many analysts have argued that the exclusion of key civilian groups had contributed to the fragility of Sudan’s transition, and laid the grounds for the ongoing war
Amidst growing tensions and polarization, the inclusion of Sudanese civilians in forthcoming peace talks and political processes will be complex and contested. Hence, it cannot be treated as an afterthought, and it will require proper planning and management. Yet, efforts to include civilians so far have fallen short in establishing such a platform. The main attempt led by the African Union has caused controversy and further fragmentations. Soon after the war erupted in Sudan, the African Union rightly identified the inclusion of civilian groups as a key condition to achieve peace in the country, and proposed convening a meeting of Sudanese civilian actors in Addis Ababa. Four months later, this meeting has yet to be held. Since the initial conception of the meeting, the whole process has been clouded with concerns about credibility and transparency. It is not clear what process’ agenda and intentions are, nor which Sudanese civilian actors are going to be invited. Also, it is not clear if the agenda and participants lists are being developed in consultation with any Sudanese civilian actors. Analysts have argued that if the African Union does not change its current approach, the meeting is doomed to fail.
Other mediators have also spoken about their commitment to engaging with Sudanese civilian actors and including them in the process, but little action has yet been taken. There is a crucial need to move from verbal announcements to tangible action by establishing a credible mechanism that is supported by the international community and has a mandate to convene Sudanese civilian actors and include them in the political process. For this mechanism to work, there must be high levels of transparency at every step of the process. Although Sudanese civilians have different visions on how to end the war in Sudan, the rejection of the ongoing war should be a commonality for participating in the mechanism. The rejection of the war can be understood as opposing fighting in any part of the country, and rejecting the use of violence as a substitute for dialogue and negotiation in resolving political and social disputes and crises. No voice should be louder than the voice of stopping the war and silencing the guns. As such, the mechanism should start with a broader conception of what constitutes civilians or civil society, beyond the traditional political actors. The term “civilian” encompasses various civilian entities, including civil society organizations, trade unions, political parties, youth and women groups, and—most importantly—the resistance committees. Any process should include, and not exclude, any group that is currently standing against the war. In the same vein, there must be appropriate platforms to include the Sudanese people inside Sudan bearing the brunt of the ongoing violence, as well as the Sudanese abroad who fled the war.
The term “civilian” encompasses various civilian entities, including civil society organizations, trade unions, political parties, youth and women groups, and—most importantly—the resistance committees
The humanitarian response to the crisis, and its shortfalls, could help guide the way to engage civilians in the prospective peace and political processes. The delivery of international humanitarian aid to Sudanese citizens affected by the conflict has faced tremendous challenges. One of the main shortfalls has been the delay and deficiency in allocating aid to local actors who can most directly serve the people. While the international response is struggling, local actors have formed “emergency rooms” to coordinate their support to vulnerable citizens. These community-driven mutual aid responses are more than just humanitarian aid. These efforts are building trust and legitimacy, and seeking to prevent further divisions among local communities. Therefore, these local infrastructures can serve as entry points to engage with civilian groups on the ground. It would be reprehensible for the prospective political process to repeat the mistakes of the humanitarian response.
All in all, civilian actors need to be part of the search for peace, and these processes need to be based on their activist, pluralist, and decentralized strengths. Their inclusion must go further than giving them a seat at negotiating tables that are dominated by, and weighed heavily toward, other non-civilian actors. From the very start of the long-anticipated peace process, it has been crucial to formally mandate and design a civil society mechanism that is linked to official negotiation processes, but is valued as a process in its own right. Yet, it is important for this mechanism to avoid pushing Sudanese civilians to come up with a unified vision. It should rather give them space to define their agenda and how and where they see themselves included in political talks. The only common agenda needed is agreeing to end the war and saving the lives of Sudanese from being taken away in vain, in the machine of this absurd war. It is imperative that we recognize and harness the power of an inclusive peace process to build a more peaceful and inclusive future in Sudan.
Hamid Khalafallah is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on inclusive governance and mobilization in Sudan. He is a development practitioner, researcher, and policy analyst.