Sudan is bleeding to death and its state failure is approaching the point of no return. The question is bigger than a civil war, more than a humanitarian calamity — it’s whether there can be any life in the Sudanese state for the coming decades.
Yet diplomats at the U.S. State Department, Saudi Arabia, the African Union and the United Nations still treat Sudan as a containable conflict susceptible to a package of off-the-shelf inducements and castigations. They are producing yesterday’s treatments for yesterday’s ailments — which didn’t succeed then and have zero chance today.
The formulae of ceasefires and humanitarian aid simply don’t do justice to the reality of state collapse in a country of 45 million people.
Strong statements from, among others, African heads of state and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have stressed that the future of Sudan lies with civilian leadership. But there’s no practical plan to make this happen.
It falls to Sudan’s civilians to set the agenda. The civilian parties have the legitimacy to claim what is theirs — the government — and demand recognition, funds, and the authority to convene. It’s bold, better than the worn-out options on the international table, and could change the political landscape. The U.S. should change its nickel-and-dime policies towards Sudan and put its weight behind civilian institutions of state, independent of the warring parties.
Sudan’s most recent war erupted on April 15, pitting the Sudan Armed Forces, headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against his erstwhile deputy and head of the Rapid Support Forces, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemedti. Seven weeks of intense combat in the national capital Khartoum have seen hundreds dead, massive damage to the infrastructure of the city, the emptying of that city of most of its middle class, and an escalating humanitarian crisis. The 100,000 who have fled abroad — thus far mostly to Egypt, to South Sudan and Chad — are but a small harbinger of what is to come as the national economy collapses. In the crisis before the crisis, there were already 13 million people — almost one third of the population — in need of food assistance to meet basic needs. That number is climbing by almost one million every week.
Ten days of intense U.S.-Saudi pressure on the two warring parties produced little. In talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah, the SAF and RSF signed a seven-day ceasefire that began on May 22, and which was renewed for a further five days. The stated rationale was to enable humanitarian aid to get in. The truce was partly respected — mostly because the two sides couldn’t sustain high-intensity combat. Last week, the mediators publicly castigated the warring parties for their failures and made it clear that their effort had run its course. At the time of writing, the war is set to escalate. The SAF appears set on a big offensive to drive the RSF out of its strongholds in Khartoum, while the RSF is mobilizing to attack other cities.
The U.S. announced targeted sanctions on four business conglomerates linked to the belligerents, two on each side. This included the main Hemedti family business, al-Gunaid Multi-Activities Company, and the sprawling Defense Industry System, run by the SAF. The sanctions could either be read as a sign that Washington is finally getting tough, or as a gesture of despair. Either way, sanctions will have an impact only with the cooperation of the generals’ foreign business partners, especially the United Arab Emirates, which buys most of Hemedti’s gold. Sudan’s generals have decades of experience in sanctions-busting. Both sides have links to Russia, which isn’t in favor of the war, but is viscerally opposed to American sanctions.
Sanctions are a tool, not a solution. Until the mediators have fastened onto a strategy, they are only a means of punishing people we don’t like.
The mediators in Jeddah faced three main problems. Most important, Hemedti and al-Burhan each hoped to land a knockout military blow on the other and didn’t want to forgo that chance. Second, the SAF side is a fractious coalition of army and paramilitary units and Islamists, united in opposition to Hemedti’s RSF, but not much more. The SAF delegates to the Jeddah meetings didn’t have the authority to make concessions on a ceasefire, and still less over any political issues.
Most important is that the battlefield is only the tactical arena. The strategic contest is financial — which side will have the resources to expand and consolidate their fighting coalition and to obtain the war material they need. The Sudanese call it “political finance.” Any mediation strategy that doesn’t revolve around political finance is a waste of time.
If Jeddah was the triage station before the emergency room, the duty doctors didn’t diagnose the patient before setting to work.
Much store was put in a meeting of the African Union Peace and Security Council on May 27, in large part because the 15 members met at heads-of-state level. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was in the chair. He and several others, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, called for the setting up of a panel of high-level facilitators — implying current or former heads of state — to deal with the crisis. This would have allowed the AU to seize the initiative, in part because others would have deferred to the seniority of the panel members.
The AU has no material leverage over the warring parties. What it has is the legitimacy that derives from its principles and the fact that all the major powers — including China and Russia — will defer to an African consensus position, if articulated by a credible African leader. It knows exactly how to do this.
There were positive elements in the AU PSC communiqué; for example, its stress on the need for a humanitarian response that maintains and restores basic services such as electricity and telecommunications.
But the key decision at the summit was to maintain the status quo. The same actors will focus on the same agenda as before. The chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki, kept his own chef de cabinet, Mohamed el-Hacan Lebatt, as special envoy to Sudan — a post he will supposedly fill alongside his other assignments, which already include the Democratic Republic of Congo and Libya. Opinions are divided over Lebatt’s record since he was given the Sudan file four years ago. He insists that he is personally responsible for the August 2019 Constitutional Declaration and every other triumph. With remarkable unanimity, Sudanese actors condemn him as vain, biased, and inept. Democratic activists say he hijacked their revolution to side with the military.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General António Guterres is sticking with his Special Representative, Volker Perthes — in part because SAF said they wanted him out, and Guterres didn’t want to be seen to be caving to pressure. And, reportedly, Faki didn’t want Guterres to appoint a new envoy — such as a former foreign minister — who would outrank his own staffer.
Sudanese blame Lebatt and Perthes for the failures that led to the crisis. Whether this assessment is fair or not is beside the point. A basic precept of conflict resolution is that the mediator shouldn’t be a problem, and the AU and UN are violating that.
In short, the AU-UN diagnosis of Sudan’s affliction hasn’t changed. The AU’s “roadmap” is a carousel of consultations with Sudanese parties and neighboring countries. It has working groups on security (headed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia), humanitarian issues (headed by the UN), and the political process (under the AU). In short: nothing new, nothing commensurate with the stakes.
If the Sudanese state is to be saved, Sudanese cannot count on the lethargic junior diplomats assigned to their case. Sudan’s civilian democrats need to seize the initiative themselves. The only card they have to play is their legitimacy. They need to play it now, before they get trapped in pointless talking shops.
The chance to be seized is speaking for the state. When al-Burhan’s delegation signed the Jeddah ceasefire, they did so as SAF—i.e. as a warring party co-equal with the RSF. They didn’t sign as the Government of Sudan. This means no one is representing the state.
The civilians could declare an interim government right away. That’s more than a symbolic act. They could take charge of the financial institutions of the state and bring material leverage to the table.
Similar things have happened elsewhere. In Libya, for example, the central bank remained independent of the warring militias, receiving dollars from the sale of oil and paying salaries across the country. Sudan’s independent banking institutions would need technical, diplomatic and financial support from the U.S. and other donors. This would be a test of Washington’s seriousness in halting state collapse and supporting democracy.
Sudan needs bold thinking commensurate with the scale of its crisis. The ideas are there. What’s lacking is leadership to make those ideas real.