The transitional government of Sudan started peace talks in September 2019 with armed groups in parts of the country with longstanding conflicts, particularly in the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur.
The African Union (AU), which was instrumental in mediating between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and civilians following the removal of then president Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, should continue to play a critical role in the peace process. It has a role as both mediator and guarantor of the agreement that will emerge from current negotiations.
According to the three-year power-sharing deal signed in August 2019, the transitional government has six months to complete peace agreements with all armed groups in Sudan.
The September peace talks were hosted by South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in Juba and resulted in a declaration aimed at building confidence among negotiating parties. The so-called Juba Declaration also provided a framework for further negotiations.
The declaration revoked criminal charges and lifted travel bans imposed by al-Bashir against several leaders of armed groups. It also bound signatories to a ceasefire and the exchange of prisoners. Armed groups in turn agreed to create a ‘humanitarian corridor’ for the distribution of aid.
Further talks in October between rebels and the transitional government identified core issues for negotiation, which will be discussed when negotiations are expected to resume in mid or late November.
Who will lead the mediation?
A successful peace agreement with armed groups in Sudan has the potential to provide a roadmap for subsequent peacebuilding and state-building processes in the country. If this is to be achieved, continued commitment to the peace process by all stakeholders is critical.
As part of its mediation role, the AU has been asked by the signatories of the Juba Declaration to ‘issue a new mandate on Sudan peace negotiations’. The Peace and Security Council (PSC) at a meeting on 10 October subsequently asked the AU Commission’s chairperson to submit a proposal in this regard as soon as possible. The proposal should clarify who will lead the mediation process, and detail the technical support the AU will provide to the peace process going forward.
The lead mediator should make confidence building a priority to overcome mistrust among conflicting parties, which might impede negotiations. The PSC should closely follow up on the peace process, with regular briefings from the AU’s lead mediator.
Agenda items up for discussion
Among the issues that armed groups have tabled for negotiation is how to address the root causes of the conflict. These include political and socio-economic marginalisation, lack of freedom and justice, hegemony of the centre over the country’s peripheral areas, and the failure to manage ethnic and religious diversity.
The second major issue tabled for discussion is a power-sharing arrangement. The transitional government has postponed the creation of the Transitional Legislative Council and the appointment of state authorities in a bid to include armed groups in the formation of these state structures.
Armed groups are expected to call for the reconfiguration of the cabinet, with three positions allotted to appointees from the peripheries, their inclusion in council positions and their nomination for governorship positions in their respective regions.
The third issue for discussion is the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of all armed groups, including paramilitary forces such as the Janjaweed militias and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Negotiations will also address security sector reform (SSR) and the creation of a united, professional army.
Armed groups expect the SSR process to disband the National Intelligence and Security Service and reintegrate their soldiers. Rightsizing the army, civil–military relations and democratic oversight are additional issues to be agreed upon.
Economic provisions are also tabled for negotiation. Notably, the equitable sharing of revenues from the extraction of natural resources such as gold, uranium, iron ore, copper and petroleum, which are found in high deposits in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, will be negotiated.
The peace talks are also expected to address the administration of transitional justice in accordance with the Draft Constitutional Charter. A number of armed groups have demanded that al-Bashir and others accused of crimes against humanity be handed over to the International Criminal Court, and an independent investigation be conducted into the 3 June attacks on protesters.
Opportunities for peace
A number of opportunities for peace emerged during the uprising that ousted al-Bashir from office.
A key opportunity is that the civilian resistance forces, currently part of the transitional government, and armed groups began to cooperate during the uprising. This created a working relationship that has allowed them to meet for negotiations despite reservations on the part of armed groups on the provisions of the Transitional Constitutional Declaration, and civilians on the Juba Declaration.
Another opportunity for peace is the current process of negotiation and peacemaking between armed groups that have in the past undermined and at times fought each other.
The major political changes in Sudan have made the conflict ‘ripe’ for negotiations. Currently, there is substantial pressure from within and outside Sudan on armed groups to end the conflict. If they fail to do so, they risk losing political legitimacy and face additional punitive sanctions from the AU.
The PSC has warned that it will impose sanctions against spoilers and those who fail to take part in the peace process.
Immediate threats to peace
The current peace process faces numerous challenges, which will emerge as negotiations continue. The most immediate challenge is the lack of trust among major stakeholders, who do not believe their counterparts are negotiating in good faith.
A number of rebel groups have accused the transitional government of being dominated by the military they have been fighting against for decades. Thus, they are not convinced that the current peace process is any different from a number of previous agreements that they say the al-Bashir government failed to implement.
There is also deep-seated mistrust within and between armed groups. Historically, armed groups and coalitions have split, and splinter groups have signed separate deals with the government.
In addition, there is apprehension among civilians that armed groups may not be pursuing peace as a primary objective. Civilians fear armed groups will drag the peace process out in a bid to maximise their narrow political and economic gains.
Lack of trust at this stage of negotiations has the potential to hinder consensus building on substantive issues that should be addressed through the peace process.
Confidence-building measures should be inclusive
Peace talks are expected to resume in November with almost all of the signatories of the Juba Declaration expected to participate.
Armed groups that signed the declaration include the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) led by Malik Agar from Blue Nile; SPLM-North, led by Abdelaziz El-Hilu from South Kordofan; the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM); the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), led by Minni Minawi; the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), led by Abdelwahid Nur from Darfur; the Kush Liberation Movement (KLM); the Beja Congress; and the United People’s Front for Liberation and Justice (UPFLJ), from eastern Sudan.
Before and during the next phase of the peace talks, AU mediators should undertake confidence-building measures that address the immediate challenge the peace process is facing, namely the lack of trust between conflicting parties.
Confidence-building measures will help conflicting parties to make political concessions and advance the process to address the root causes of the conflict. In addition to political elites, confidence building should also be inclusive of wider constituencies.