The AU should do more to support Sudan’s political transition

Ensuring a peaceful political transition in Sudan may be one of the most successful mediation efforts yet undertaken by the African Union (AU). The AU played an instrumental role in overseeing a peaceful transfer of power to a civilian-led transitional government, following a military coup that removed Sudan’s 30-year ruler, Omar al-Bashir, from power in April 2019.

The Peace and Security Council (PSC) recognised the military’s removal of al-Bashir as an unconstitutional change of government. The PSC also rejected a plan by the military to lead Sudan during a two-year transition period. Instead, it called on the military to hand over power ‘to a transitional civilian-led political authority’, and suspended Sudan from the AU following an attack on unarmed protesters on 3 June 2019.  

In the three months following the suspension, the AU successfully mediated between the military and civilian actors through the AU Commission (AUC) chairperson’s special envoy, along with the Ethiopian envoy. This led to the signing of a power-sharing agreement and a constitutional declaration. Following the formation of a civilian-led transitional government on 5 September 2019, the PSC lifted Sudan’s suspension.

Yet despite the AU’s mediation success, it has played a limited role since the beginning of the transition period. This is notwithstanding PSC directives and calls by Sudanese stakeholders for the AU to become more meaningfully engaged in the process. Thus far, the 14 June visit to Sudan by the AUC chairperson and the commissioner for political affairs, peace and security has also not resulted in a concrete roadmap for the AU’s support to Sudan’s transition.

A transition plagued by uncertainty

Sudan’s political transition is based on a power-sharing agreement between the military and the civilian coalition that led the mass protests. They selected an 11-member Sovereign Council, composed of five military and six civilian actors, in addition to a civilian prime minister, that acts as the collective head of state during the transition period.

A constitutional document guides the transition period, initially meant to last 39 months. Accordingly, a number of related processes have been prioritised, including peace negotiations, transitional justice, reform of military and security institutions, and economic reform. Yet many of these processes have stalled, including the implementation of a critical peace deal between the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) and the Sudan Liberation Movement of Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM), signed on 3 October 2020.

The successful mediation between military and civilians was led by the AU's special envoy and the Ethiopian envoyThe formation of a legislative council, expected to give the Sudanese people a voice in the decision-making during the transition period, has also been delayed. In addition, the process that was expected to ensure rebel groups are either disarmed and/or integrated into the formal armed forces is facing significant challenges.

At the same time Sudan’s economic situation continues to worsen, leading to increased corruption and crime, as well as regular anti-government protests. Furthermore, the Juba peace agreement and the constitutional declaration are not aligned yet, creating ambiguity about the timeline and mandate of the transition period.

In the uncertainty that is plaguing Sudan’s transition, the military continues to wield significant power as current chair of the Sovereign Council. As a result, ordinary citizens are increasingly feeling that the political transition has not delivered on its promise. This has escalated tensions – not only between the military and civilian actors but also among civilian political actors.

These civilian leaders were expected to safeguard Sudan’s transition into a peaceful and democratic country. The AU’s continued support to Sudan’s political transition is therefore critical at this juncture. 

Requests by the PSC for greater involvement in Sudan

Before the coup, the AU was engaged in Sudan through the AU High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan (AUHIP), the AU–UN Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) and its liaison office in Khartoum. Following the coup, the AUC chairperson appointed a special envoy who, working jointly with the Ethiopian special envoy, helped the military and civilian protest leaders agree on a transition plan.

The AU has supported Sudan’s removal from the List of State Sponsors of Terrorism, without any additional conditions, through successive appeals by the PSC to the international community and the United States in particular. The AU was also involved in the peace process through UNAMID. The head of UNAMID has briefed the PSC on a number of occasions regarding the progress of the peace process.

UNAMID’s mandate will, however, come to an end in December 2021. While the UN has issued a mandate for its newly established Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the AU does not have a strategy yet on how it will continue to support Sudan’s political transition.

This is despite the PSC’s having asked the AUC chairperson to submit a proposal to appoint an AU representative to the peace process and detail the technical support the AU will provide to the transitional authorities.

The process to disarm and integrated rebel groups into the formal armed forces faces major challengesThe PSC has also emphasised the urgency with which the AU should support post-conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD) in Sudan through the AUPCRD Center, in close collaboration with Sudan’s transitional government.  This involves identifying the needs and priorities of the transition, so as to undertake peacebuilding initiatives ‘geared towards tackling the root causes of the conflict, consolidate peace and avoid relapse to violence’.

The importance of implementing disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes and controlling small and light weapons was also highlighted as a basis for other development activities.

The PSC has encouraged AU member states, along with Sudan’s neighbours, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the international community to continue providing support to Sudan. This is aimed at ‘consolidating the gains made with the signing of the peace agreement as well as addressing the dire economic challenges facing the country’.

Furthermore, following its field mission to Sudan from 30 March to 1 April 2021, the PSC requested the AUC chairperson to ensure camps for internally displaced persons have adequate security, in collaboration with the transitional government and the Sovereign Council.

Need for sustained political and technical support

It is therefore imperative that the AU sustains its political and technical efforts to provide multi-dimensional support to Sudan’s transition process. This includes developing a roadmap that involves the AU’s various mechanisms and appointing a dedicated special envoy. It is also important to ensure the participation of members of the Panel of the Wise and FemWise to sustain political and diplomatic interventions at this crucial juncture.

The AU should resource its Liaison Office in Sudan for efficient implementation of the peace agreementsSuch engagements are needed now more than ever, to help build trust and working relations between the military and civilians. This will ensure that this transition is sustained, given the long history of military involvement in the country’s politics.

The AU should also give the AU Liaison Office in Sudan the necessary human and financial resources to play a meaningful role in the implementation of the signed peace agreements. The AU Liaison Office should then designate personnel to serve on the Assessment and Evaluation Commission for the Juba Peace Agreement, liaise with the various AU policy organs and encourage timely interventions to support the implementation of the peace agreement.

The Liaison Office’s interventions could be greatly enhanced through the deployment of military, election, human rights, governance and development economy experts, even if only on a short-term basis. This would ensure that the AU Liaison Office is empowered to cooperate with and coordinate its support to the newly established UNITAMS.

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