The United Nations (UN) warns that Sudan’s bloody conflict could soon seep through the country’s borders and spread. Its Secretary-General António Guterres said the ‘catastrophic conflagration within Sudan … could engulf the whole region and beyond.’
A looming humanitarian crisis is already visible in the number of Sudanese displaced internally or seeking refuge in Egypt, Central African Republic (CAR), Chad and Ethiopia. The implications are dire in a region still recovering from the war in Ethiopia and protracted instability in Somalia.
The current conflict broke out on 15 April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). With two warlords at the helm, urban warfare has claimed over 500 lives in clashes between forces equally balanced in terms of armaments and combat readiness. Repeated claims by both leaders that they will achieve ‘all-out victory’ leave few options for preventing a full-scale civil war.
Regional and international efforts to quell the fighting have been swift but largely ineffective. A day after the outbreak, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council condemned the clashes and called for a cessation of hostilities. East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) responded similarly, appointing the leaders of Djibouti, South Sudan and Kenya to lead a regional peace process.
Along with the UN’s robust demand for a ceasefire has been pressure from the United States (US) and United Arab Emirates (UAE). While these were quick and commendable first steps, they highlight two main challenges in containing the situation and preventing a spillover into the region.
The first is that coherence among the multiple peace processes is vital. Although several factors contributed to Sudan’s stillborn transition and status quo, a major catalyst has been the proliferation of actors and peace processes in the past few years. These include: the UN-AU-IGAD mechanism; the US, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and UAE group; Sudan’s ‘group of friends’ and the Arab League, to name a few.
Each brings strategic interests, approaches and ideas for resolving the transitional crisis. While all aim to resolve the worsening humanitarian situation, consensus and alignment of engagements are urgent to prevent a duplication of efforts and help stabilise Sudan.
In February, Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Director General Abbas Kamel attempted to mediate between Burhan, the Forces for Freedom and Change-Central Council (FFC-CC), the FFC-Democratic Block and some of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement signatories. This ‘Cairo track’ created a separate peace process with deadly consequences.
Set up outside the AU-IGAD-UN mechanism, it favoured the Sudanese military and sidelined the RSF from talks. That sowed further mistrust between the two generals and heightened the risk of confrontation. Such parallel processes ultimately prolong crises and undermine efforts to find lasting solutions.
To move forward, an assessment of the interventions by international and regional actors since 2019 is required. Collective agreement is also needed among global, continental and regional efforts to clarify the comparative advantage of each actor.
The second challenge in stabilising Sudan is how to achieve regional consensus. Since fighting erupted, some countries have been accused of meddling in the conflict. The military claims that two of Sudan’s neighbours support the RSF and have delivered ammunition and supplies to its troops.
Some Ethiopian separatist forces have reportedly taken advantage of the lack of security oversight to try to retake control of the disputed al-Fashaga area on the Sudan-Ethiopia border. Though Ethiopia refutes this, the absence of consensus and common goals has allowed shrewd warring parties to play different political processes against each other. They also arm themselves through neighbouring territories or regional friends, or buy time to reorganise.
Since the 2019 fall of president Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s neighbours have favoured different factions and actors at crucial times in the transition. Given their diplomatic visits, it is no secret that Burhan and Hemedti are close to certain countries. Apart from their trips to Gulf nations, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, African countries such as Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Uganda have received these generals.
While this isn’t proof of support, it shows that both men have regional relationships that could be exploited when needed. In a drawn-out war where international goodwill might dwindle, the chances that such states may lean towards one side or the other cannot be discounted.
Given Sudan’s history of complex relations with its immediate neighbours, it is inevitable that geopolitical preferences and alliances will underlie the choices of bordering states. In the past, proxy influences have prolonged Sudanese crises, making it more difficult for citizens to resolve issues on their own.
Avoiding such power struggles and support for warring factions could prevent an evolution into a full-blown civil war. Engagements that risk reinforcing the hard stance of the warring sides and exacerbating the conflict must be contained.
Peace and stability in Sudan and the region are mutually reinforcing. Unless an effort is made to prevent a further fragmentation of peace initiatives and guard against regional actors tipping the scale, any attempts at building lasting peace could be derailed. Regional consensus is vital.
Written by Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Programme Head and Maram Mahdi, Researcher, Africa Peace and Security Governance, ISS Addis Ababa.