Does Sudan need AU boots on ground?

An intervention force to accompany ongoing peace processes is necessary to resolve the country’s crisis.

On 16 April, a day after clashes began in Sudan, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) held an urgent briefing on the situation and released a communiqué strongly condemning the armed confrontation and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Since then, the AU has held several important meetings. The main outcomes have been the strong call for an end to hostilities and a ceasefire by all parties involved in the conflicts and the formal establishment of the expanded mechanism. In addition, the PSC’s 1156th meeting, which convened the council’s heads of state and government, adopted the AU Roadmap for the Resolution of the Conflict in Sudan.

Alongside the AU, the United Nations (UN), Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), United Arab Emirates and the United States (US) have also been working to prevent the situation from worsening. The most notable initiative has been the Jeddah process led by the US and Saudi Arabia, but its negotiated temporary ceasefires have been tenuous and hardly held.

While these diplomatic engagements indicate some efforts to contain the Sudan crisis, the heightened levels of violence perpetrated on civilians, looting and destruction of critical infrastructure paint a different picture. Despite numerous announcements, statements and communiqués from regional and international actors, progress in ending the violence and resolving the humanitarian crises has been minimal.

The humanitarian situation calls for a different approach as mediation attempts have been unsuccessful

Furthermore, there has been no indication of a shift by the conflicting parties to end the violence. On the contrary, the military’s recent suspension of its participation in the Jeddah talks has raised fears of an ensuing escalation in fighting. General Burhan’s acknowledgment in a media statement that the army is ready and willing to deploy its full force if the Rapid Support Force (RSF) does not heed calls to surrender signals further provocation and protraction of the conflict.

Burhan's statement, made amid ongoing diplomatic efforts and recurrent failure of negotiated ceasefires, highlights the inability of efforts to achieve their intended goal. It also underscores the limited influence of regional and international actors over the warring parties. The humanitarian situation in Sudan calls for a different approach as current mediation attempts have been unsuccessful and may take too long in a country of rapidly changing dynamics.

Forcing AU intervention

With Sudan appearing to be on the brink of a protracted civil war, an action-oriented de-escalation strategy is needed to coalesce regional and international actors around a common cause. To achieve anything, such an approach must be tougher than current efforts.

Considering the escalating destruction of the conflict, the need is urgent to end hostilities, establish a humanitarian corridor and protect civilians and infrastructure. The international community should seriously consider a complementary AU-mandated and -supported intervention force. While the expanded mechanism aims to bring parties back to the negotiating table, an intervention force could maintain the ceasefire and support the transition. Such an intervention force should clearly reflect in any continental roadmap meant to resolve the conflict in Sudan.

The AU’s peace support operations doctrine and the African Standby Force concept provide relevant scenarios that underline the value addition of such an intervention. A force with a quick reaction capacity would allow the AU to respond swiftly to Sudan’s current crisis, which has so far been challenging to contain.

An intervention force with a quick reaction capacity would allow the AU to respond swiftly to the crisis

While some African diplomats may already be contemplating deployment, crucial factors such as funding shortfalls may cause hesitation. However, the principles, purpose and relevance of the AU call for a more proactive response that reflects a commitment to safeguarding human lives and upholding the continental ideals of non-indifference.

Deployment decisions

If African policy actors are to deploy in Sudan, several factors must be taken into account to achieve meaningful impact and establish peace for the Sudanese people. First, a well-defined entry and exit strategy is essential and should focus primarily on preventing further escalation of the conflict, safeguarding human lives and protecting civilian infrastructure. Clear benchmarks should accompany this strategy to enable assessment of progress and determination of the conditions for withdrawal.

Secondly, the primacy of politics must be prioritised. A major criticism against regional and continental peace operations is the disconnect between them and political objectives. Without the comprehensive peace framework agreement of December 2022, any intervention force should aim to help create conditions to restore and/or establish a primary political framework to underline Sudan's long-term political solution.

This is both indispensable and urgent. However, careful sequencing is paramount and de-escalation must be timed to allow for the concurrent implementation of political processes. This will significantly influence the long-term success of the peace process and have a lasting impact on post-conflict reconstruction and development.

The partnerships involved are also important. Given the multiplicity of actors involved in the search for peace in Sudan, the inability to identify the appropriate partnership to anchor the deployment will undermine its success. Currently, the trilateral IGAD-AU-UN mechanism would be a suitable framework for a Sudan deployment.

The trilateral IGAD-AU-UN mechanism would be a suitable framework for a Sudan deployment

The mechanism was established in 2021 to leverage institutional strengths and reduce rivalries in mediating Sudan’s political transition. Hence, a deployment within its framework would combine the legitimacy of the AU and IGAD in line with the principle of subsidiarity. It would also benefit from the UN’s capacity to provide resources and ensure the longevity of the intervention.

Although IGAD does not have the institutional frameworks to deploy, its ability to harness the goodwill of major regional powers would be indispensable. However, competing regional interests and misalignment of external actors could easily undermine intervention efforts. Thus, drawing troops from outside Sudan’s immediate neighbouring countries, such as Kenya and Burundi, would be an added advantage.

Way forward

The PSC was founded on AU member states' willingness to take additional steps for peace and security in Africa. Its creation demonstrated intent to take risks and provide action-oriented responses to continental threats. The ongoing crisis in Sudan is precisely the kind of situation that prompted the AU’s transition from non-interference to non-indifference and the concept of the African Standby Force.  

Whether the AU will act depends on the PSC's decisiveness. However, if the AU is to make an impact, its approach should be speedy action and deployment in line with Constitutive Act Article 4(h) to maintain continental peace and security as the situation in Sudan requires.  

Image: © ATMIIS Photo/Mukhtar Nuur

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