Could joint AU-UN mediation break Sudan’s stalemate?

Lessons must be learned from previous negotiations that reactionary responses and subdued diplomacy don’t work.

Mediation in Sudan’s broken political transition is yet to bring stability to the country. Attempts by the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) have failed to restore the transitional civilian-military partnership following the 25 October 2021 coup. Will their recently announced joint efforts yield better results?

The coup effectively ended Sudan’s transition and created further dissonance between civilians and the military, pushing both entities into a zero-sum position. When protesters resisted the coup, military crackdowns led to at least 87 civilians being killed and thousands injured.

Since October, several international and regional mediation efforts have sought to break the deadlock. But grassroots movements and political parties have hardened their positions against the military, distributing slogans such as ‘No negotiation, No partnership, No compromise.’ Civilians and the military have previously resisted mediation, while they forum-shop for intermediaries who can advance their interests.

The critical fault line in negotiations is the intransigence of the parties involved. A pro-democracy faction calls for a civilian-only government, while an old guard made up of military and paramilitary groups refuses to loosen its grip on power.

The AU favours quiet diplomacy and hasn’t divulged much about its mediation efforts in Sudan

Coup leaders continue to govern a collapsing economy, liberalising the Sudanese pound and attempting to compensate for foreign aid losses. Rising food and fuel costs are likely to exacerbate ongoing protests. Resolving the impasse between groups with fundamentally different stakes will be difficult.

Both the AU and UN have already attempted mediation. Their special envoys used methods ranging from visits and consultations with different Sudanese stakeholders to condemnation and suspending Sudan from the AU’s Peace and Security Council.

As the special representative for Sudan and Head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), Volker Perthes played a crucial role in briefly restoring the transitional agreement in November 2021. However, it was precisely this institutional push for a return to the status quo that led to the UN’s mediation efforts being rejected.

For the pro-democracy faction – made up of resistance committees, the Sudanese Professionals Association and the Forces for Freedom and Change – the UN’s pleas to restore an inherently faulty transitional arrangement legitimised the coup. It also overlooked accountability for the military’s human rights abuses. And so the UN now has to rebuild its credibility in Khartoum.

The bilateral effort combines the AU’s legitimacy with the UN’s capacity for resources and mobilisation

Correcting these perceptions of bias depends on UNITAMS’s approach to an inclusive intra-Sudanese process that can achieve democracy and peace. A recent UNITAMS report on the outcomes of wide-ranging consultations with more than 800 participants representing state and non-state actors could shift perceptions and ensure the support of diverse stakeholders. The verdict is still out on whether this process would cement and strengthen the UN’s role as a credible mediator.

For its part, AU mediation in 2019 was instrumental in setting up the transitional agreement. It defused the crisis and secured the power-sharing accord between civilians and the military. The deal was easier to facilitate among more flexible parties at the time. The AU seems to favour quiet diplomacy and hasn’t divulged much about its mediation efforts in Sudan.

The AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security Bankole Adeoye visited Khartoum in mid-January to explore the positions of Sudanese stakeholders. Yet until recently, the AU hadn’t publicly announced if and how it would develop a mediation strategy. Whether or not this quiet diplomacy is a tactical choice, the outcomes are yet to deliver favourable conditions for both parties.

African-led mediation would highlight the AU’s role in effectively managing conflicts on the continent. It would also incorporate East Africa’s Intergovernmental Authority on Development as the regional peace and security bloc. Aligned to the principle of subsidiarity, this approach would curate African solutions to solving African problems.

To break the stalemate, the objective should be to constitute a new political dispensation

The value of joint AU-UN mediation is that it can build on existing processes and networks since both bodies have established inroads with leading political actors. A common approach would reduce rivalry and contradiction among mediators, as competing agendas often extend the conflict.

To achieve the best transitional outcomes for Sudan, lessons must be learned from previous mediation processes. Reactionary responses and subdued diplomacy have hindered the process thus far, and joint negotiations could be just what the country needs.

The bilateral effort combines the legitimacy of the AU with the UN’s capacity to provide resources and mobilise stakeholders. The joint process could leverage UNITAMS’s current consultations and strengthen capacity for applying and monitoring potential accords. An enforcement mechanism with oversight from both entities is paramount, given the trust deficit between civilians and the military.

To break the stalemate, the objective should be to set up a new political dispensation in Sudan. A rush to restore a civilian-military partnership will be counterproductive.

Joint mediation needs to create a power balance between civilian leaders and the military on crucial areas such as constitutional arrangements, elections, security sector reform and justice and accountability. Mediators and Sudanese stakeholders must agree on an inclusive roadmap that sets out goals and how to achieve them.

Maram Mahdi, Research Officer, Office of the Executive Director, ISS Pretoria

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Image: © AFP

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