Dangers ahead for Sudan after its suspension from the AU

At its 854th meeting on 6 June 2019, the Peace and Security Council (PSC), chaired by Sierra Leonean Ambassador Brima Patrick Kapuwa, suspended Sudan from the African Union (AU). This means Sudan is not permitted to participate in any AU activities until the Transitional Military Council (TMC) hands over power to a civilian leadership.

The decision to suspend Sudan became necessary after the TMC unilaterally ended talks with the civilian opposition, declared its intention to stay in power until elections in nine months, and violently dispersed a peaceful civilian sit-in at the army headquarters in Khartoum.

The decision to suspend Sudan became necessary after the TMC unilaterally ended talks with the civilian opposition

The AU's decision to suspend Sudan was informed not only by the crackdown on the protestors but also by the Lomé Declaration on the Framework for an OAU Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government. The declaration provides, among others, for regimes resulting from military coups d’état against elected governments to be suspended until constitutional order is restored.

A tough decision

The nature of the atrocities committed principally by the Rapid Response Force (RSF) (a militia that has also been accused of brutality in Darfur) against protestors in Khartoum on 3 June and the resultant international backlash meant that the PSC had to take a strong stand. The pressure on the PSC to act against the TMC's impunity was palpable.

First, China and Russia blocked a United Nations (UN) Security Council position to condemn the TMC’s action in Sudan in the council’s 4 June meeting on the situation. This meant that a strong AU position would be useful in subsequent UN discussions on the country. Second, the military junta disregarded the AU's 60-day deadline by announcing that it would stay on until the elections in nine months. Also crucial was the alleged role of external actors, particularly the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in influencing the choices of the junta.

A tough AU decision was therefore needed both to provide a framework for global action at the UN level and to safeguard the AU's role as the primary custodian of continental norms and frameworks.

A tough AU decision was needed to safeguard the AU's role as the primary custodian of continental norms and frameworks

Prior to this, the PSC had succumbed to Egyptian influence by allowing the recommendations of the 23 April Consultative Summit of the Regional Partners of The Sudan, convened by the AU chairperson in Cairo, to extend the 15-day deadline, which was due to expire on 30 April, to 60 days. The extension bought time for the TMC to consolidate its hold on power with the support of external actors.

Even though the decision to suspend Sudan, in this context, should have been straightforward, not all states backed this approach. Some countries wanted the PSC to give the TMC more time to address the situation. However, once the decision to suspend the country was tabled, it was widely supported.

The dangers ahead

The suspension comes at a time when the drastic turn of events in the country point to a treacherous way ahead. Firstly, the repressive choices of the RSF component of the TMC make it clear that former president Omar al-Bashir's ‘deep state’ structures are still contesting protesters in an attempt to preserve the status quo.  

The suspension comes at a time when the drastic turn of events in the country point to a treacherous way ahead

Secondly, it is clear that the biggest strategic danger in the ongoing clashes between the military and the civilian population is that a rare opportunity for change in Sudan might be missed. This opportunity will be missed due to the use of force, as in the current situation, or a negotiated deal in which the military dominates, or a civilian-led arrangement that has no real control of the elements of power, outside the army. The latter will set the civilian leadership up for failure and create the circumstances for a military takeover in the long run.

The third danger is the risk of civil war. Discontent with al-Bashir in the run-up to the toppling of his regime united many Sudanese, but could not resolve fractures in the army, deep divisions between Khartoum and the peripheral areas, and differing interests within the civilian population.

The RSF has risen to contest the army's control of the security space in post-Bashir Sudan. The existence of remnants of the dreaded National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and the sidelining of the police in security affairs point to extensive divisions in the country's security services. Additionally, the numerous militias operating from the peripheral states of the country, particularly Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, complicate the fragmentation of the control of violence and use of force in the country.

Even the civilian population is not homogenous. Beyond the disparate groups that constitute the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC), the opposition also harbours different interest groups. While some of these groups prefer a softer approach to dealing with the army, the Islamists, for instance, want Islamic laws to guide new legislation. Compounding these divisions are emerging perceptions of marginalisation by groups in Sudan's peripheral states, particularly Darfur, in the DFC's negotiations with the TMC.

Beyond the disparate groups that constitute the Declaration of Freedom and Change, the opposition also harbours different interest groups

Meanwhile, the RSF's excessive use of force against civilians could trigger a militarisation of the civilian front, either through people wanting to protect themselves or by attracting the involvement of militias operating outside Khartoum. An outbreak of war in the capital amid the country's many fault lines will lead to a free-for-all situation that will be difficult to contain, if not ‘somalianise’ Sudan.

Also crucial in the way ahead is the influence of the Gulf powers in Sudan. The AU’s concerns about external meddling in Sudan are bound to persist as long as the country grapples with revenue shortfalls. The influence such a situation might grant to money-wielding Gulf powers in the choice of Sudan's leadership poses a major risk to governance in the country, as well as to its long-term standing in sub-Saharan Africa.

Abiy Ahmed’s problematic entry

As significant as the AU's suspension of Sudan may be, it does not amount to a practical solution to prevent the country’s total disintegration in the short to medium term. Particularly concerning is the fact that no clear strategy backed by a roadmap has been announced by the AU.

Particularly concerning is the fact that no clear strategy backed by a roadmap has been announced by the AU

The mediation by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed – on all accounts his own initiative – makes it difficult to decide who is taking the lead in international action in Sudan. This is particularly the case as initial indications were that the AU was to take on this role.

The collapse of the talks between the TMC and DFC shows that the way forward cannot be left to the two sides without robust facilitation, at least for as long as the Gulf countries are involved on the side of the TMC.

The absence of an AU roadmap has created a gap that, if not closed immediately, will become an avenue for the proliferation of processes. Not only will this make the Sudan crisis difficult to resolve, but it will also place the country on the chopping board in terms of regional and external influence mongering – with serious repercussions.

Policy options

Another issue that the AU will have to brace itself for is when to lift Sudan’s suspension and on what conditions. The AU insists that the TMC hand over power to civilian rule, but the ongoing negotiations between the TMC and the DFC could end up with a mixed civil–military architecture or, in the worst-case scenario, a military-led council. Will such a situation amount to a handover of power to civilian control, even if the opposition agrees to such a structure?

Also crucial is the AU's suspension clause. Will Sudan be reinstated automatically as soon as the TMC relinquishes power to civilian control?

Clearly, the PSC should consider Sudan’s suspension as a first step in addressing a complex political emergency. It has to define a strategy on the way forward. This strategy should be informed by a roadmap that spells out key deliverables and timelines, serving as a framework for tracking progress and an avenue for discouraging a lack of progress. Such a process, however, should not usurp Sudanese efforts but rather underpin a Sudanese-led, AU-backed and internationally supported process that can address the challenges currently on the ground.

Given the difficulties parties are facing in arriving at a consensus on the composition and control of the Sovereign Council, it is time for the AU to consider appointing an internationally-backed mediator capacitated with the necessary leverage and resources to assist partners on the way forward.

Particularly important is the need for the AU and the UN to embark on a process that can facilitate frank discussions on their concerns about external interference in Sudan. Since the impact of external actors is increasingly becoming a major concern on the continent, the theme also requires broader discussions at the level of the AU heads of state.

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