© African Union Political Affairs Peace and Security

Could a new panel steer Sudan away from turmoil?

The appointment of a high-level panel could ramp up diplomatic engagements and end the conflict.

The conflict between Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo has entered its 11th month. Given the sheer number of fatalities, humanitarian outlook and regional implications, this fighting over control of the country is arguably the continent’s worst internal conflict.

Despite Sudan’s immediate neighbours hosting displaced people, the humanitarian outlook remains dire. It has caused more than 12 000 deaths and the largest displacement crisis in the country’s history. At least 10 million people have fled their homes and around 25 million ― about half the population ― need humanitarian assistance and protection. 

The war has also reignited hostilities in traditionally unstable, restive parts of the country, particularly Darfur and Kordofan. Altogether, the situation jeopardises stability in the already-volatile Horn of Africa and central Africa regions

Diplomatic efforts are in disarray, with ongoing peace efforts largely uncoordinated, bureaucratic, elitist and focused on gun-wielding belligerents much to the exclusion of civilian representatives, complicating prospects for an inclusive political transition. The strategic role urged by neighbouring states has come under heavy scrutiny after Hemedti was warmly received between December 2023 and January 2024 in Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. 

Questions have been raised about the AU’s ability to end the war in line with its mandate to promote continental peace and stability. To lead stabilisation efforts, AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki appointed a high-level, ad-hoc panel on Sudan consisting of Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Speciosa Wandira-Kazibwe and Francisco Madeira

Peace efforts are uncoordinated, bureaucratic, elitist and focused on gun-wielding belligerents

The panel is to work with all civilian forces, military belligerents and regional and global actors such as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), United Nations (UN) and League of Arab States. It will ‘ensure an all-inclusive process towards the swift restoration of peace, constitutional order and stability in Sudan’. 

However, given the AU’s approach to the crisis and recent developments, many doubt whether the panel can move the needle closer to ending the war in a complex context. Other AU and development partner efforts have largely failed.

AU barely visible

The panel's appointment is crucial as the dynamics in the country and the war itself have become more dangerous and complex amid the AU’s legitimacy crisis and approach to peace and security. The Roadmap for the Resolution of the Conflict in Sudan and related efforts have not significantly shifted the war's course. Rather, they have increased concerns about AU commitment and capacity to promote peace, security and stability not only in Sudan, but across the continent. 

The AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) has held numerous meetings on the situation. The Council has repeatedly condemned ongoing fighting, called for immediate ceasefire and promoted inclusive dialogue and a peaceful solution. It has also urged the AU Commission Chairperson to continue engaging warring parties to these ends.  

For its part, the AU Commission spearheaded the development of a roadmap that was adopted by the PSC at its 1 156th meeting of heads of state and government. It also established an expanded mechanism on Sudan and a core group to harmonise efforts by all actors to contain the situation. 

The most significant effort has been the Jeddah process driven largely by external partners

While these efforts indicate the AU’s continuous strategic engagement on Sudan, they have not led to concrete engagements with Sudanese partners nor reduction in combat between the warring parties. The most significant effort to date has been the Jeddah process driven largely by external partners. Notwithstanding this process and with the limited contribution of the AU, the conflict has continued to worsen to the point at which Sudan’s future is becoming increasingly uncertain. 

A long rope to pull

In this chequered context, appointing the panel to fulfil the request outlined in the PSC’s 1 156th and 1 185th meetings gives the AU an opportunity to re-engage Sudanese stakeholders to ensure more robust continental involvement and progress in containing the situation. 

The panel brings several strengths to a complex task. With members from three African regions, it maximises regional diversity and addresses perceptions of a lack of neutrality among Horn of Africa actors. This has increased the potential for Sudanese reception and optimism about what the panel could achieve. Secondly, the extensive experience of the chair on Sudan issues ― having been head of the AU-UN Mission in Darfur ― increases the panel’s understanding of the complexities of the crisis.

However, diplomats and observers question the panel's political muscle to bring warring generals to the negotiating table. Some analysts told PSC Report that it is merely another among existing AU attempts to appear to be doing something. An Addis-based diplomat opined that the panel’s weight and convening power could have been enhanced with the inclusion of a sitting or retired head of state. 

Others expect worrying developments to complicate mandate delivery. The battle for supremacy between warring generals and their military factions is dimming peace prospects. Sudan’s withdrawal from IGAD, SAF's decision to leave talks and stage more offensives against RSF, and recent RSF military advances in Wad Madani, Khartoum, and western Darfur could also frustrate panel efforts. Hemedti’s reception by certain African countries could spur Burhan to question African-led efforts such as the panel’s work. 

The panel is crucial in finding a solution for Sudan, but it needs financial and political support

The Addis Ababa declaration signed in January between former prime minister Hamdok’s Coordination of Civilian Democratic Forces (‘Taqaddum’) and RSF further dashes prospects for the panel’s work with the warring parties. While it proposes a roadmap for peace, its sidelining of SAF could easily be interpreted as a de facto legitimisation of RSF amid intense contestation by both factions.

Achieving impact

The panel is a crucial AU-led effort to find a political solution to the Sudanese war, but it requires financial and political support from the AU Commission, AU partners and all stakeholders. This will help it achieve the regional consensus needed to engage with regional and international actors to bring generals and their factions to the table for a comprehensive ceasefire. 

Its constitution is timely given Burhan’s resistance against IGAD and objection to talks with Hemedti. The panel, with other actors, should seize any opportunity signalling a willingness to talk through quiet diplomacy with both generals to re-negotiate conditions for a resolution. It should seek to engage high-level stakeholders rather than rely on proxies and representatives. It could also leverage AU convening power to include broader Sudanese stakeholders to engage spoilers and funders of factions. 

The AU, through the panel and IGAD, should push for civilian participation in the Jeddah talks and focus not only on ceasefire negotiations and humanitarian assistance but on discussions on political issues. Including civilian and political groups could provide a transitional government architecture and implementation plan based on the aspirations of the Sudanese people and avoid repeating past mistakes. 

The Addis Ababa declaration could review the Juba peace agreement, considering the interests of warring actors and civilian and political groups. The outcomes of the talks must be a stable and democratic Sudan that its citizens dared to visualise and on which most are not prepared to give up yet.

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