Could African peacekeeping forces deploy in Sudan?

6 min read
20 July, 2023

With the Sudanese conflict entering its fourth month, calls have begun to emerge for an African-led peacekeeping force to stop the escalating tide of fighting in the 'Land of the Two Niles'.

Around 5,000 people are thought to have been killed since fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group in April. More than three million people have been displaced.

Proposals for the military deployment were raised on 10 July during a summit of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development in Eastern Africa (IGAD) Quartet Group in Addis Ababa.

"African leaders are worried about a 'clear political vacuum' in Sudan which could mean there is no Sudanese government representing the country"

The Quartet committee, consisting of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Sudan, issued a statement following the meeting detailing a proposal for the East Africa Standby Force (EASF) to deploy to “protect civilians and guarantee humanitarian access”.

The group also called for the involvement of civilian groups in talks.

The Sudanese Armed Forces delegation boycotted the meeting, accusing Kenya of supporting the RSF. The paramilitary group, led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, sent a representative.

Sudan’s army rejected any deployment of any foreign forces in the country and said it would consider them “enemy forces”. The RSF welcomed the decisions of the summit, without addressing military intervention.

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Power vacuum

Dr Mahamat Ali Kalyani, director of a Paris-based monitoring group focused on conflicts in the Sahel, says the calls for a regional peacekeeping force came after the failure of Saudi-US mediation efforts in June.

Over the weekend, Sudanese government officials said representatives had arrived in Jeddah to continue talks with RSF officials. Neither Washington nor Riyadh confirmed their resumption.

African countries are concerned about the expansion of the conflict in Sudan to other regions, Kalyani said, as well as the abundance of different parties in the war.

"There is concern about the collapse of the army, which lost, with its Islamist allies, the battle inside Khartoum, as well as in the states of Darfur and Kordofan,” Kalyani told The New Arab.

The Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), led by Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu, has also advanced and wrested control of several areas from the army.

More than three million people have been displaced since fighting broke out in April. [Getty]

African leaders are worried about a “clear political vacuum" in Sudan which could mean there is no Sudanese government representing the country. Such a reality, Kalyani says, could require international or regional intervention.

Following the Quartet Group summit, Kenyan President William Ruto said a “new leadership” capable of resolving the humanitarian disaster was necessary, while Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said there was a vacuum in national leadership. Ahmed also called for the imposition of a no-fly zone.

While Sudan’s conflict undoubtedly impacts the security and stability of the region, some analysts take a cautious approach to the Quartet Group’s recommendations.

Mohammed Torshin, a Sudanese political analyst, points to Ethiopia’s contentious issues with Sudan, including a border dispute in the Al-Fashqa region and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Ruto, meanwhile, is accused of receiving funding from Dagalo, an allegation claimed not only by the Sudanese government but also by opposition groups in Kenya.

The IGAD propositions, and those of Kenya and Ethiopia, intend to achieve “personal interests or, in the most extreme cases, the interests of their countries more than Sudan," Torshin told TNA.

"The calls for a military deployment come in the context of remarkable political activity around mediation in Sudan's conflict"

Is it possible?

ESAF is one of the five regional peace support operations (PSOs) of the African Standby Force, which is made up of military, police, and civilian components. It is the regional operational arm of the peacekeeping components of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA).

"Very possible," is how Mahamat Ali Kalyani described the potential for an African-led military intervention in Sudan.

"Imposing a no-fly zone in the Khartoum region is very possible too with political and military calculations, as the army's air force launches regular attacks on residential neighbourhoods in Khartoum, killing and injuring civilians, which prompted the Secretary-General of the United Nations to condemn the aerial bombardments and the killing of civilian victims," he added.

For Torshin, however, it is less feasible. "The intervention of the ESAF takes place only with the approval of the Sudanese government, and it needs a specialised committee, followed by a meeting of the chiefs of staff of the ESAF countries, followed by a meeting of defence ministers and even heads of state, and the intervention should be agreed unanimously by the participants, including Sudan”.

Given the current position of Sudan’s government, support for intervention would not be unanimous or by consent and may even be a “matter of disagreement and conflict” within IGAD, Torshin added.

The UN Security Council, meanwhile, has not alluded to the possibility of any external military deployment.

Shafa Omar, a political analyst specialising in African affairs, says calls for military intervention are “unthinkable”, saying that Sudan’s crisis differs vastly from the case of Somalia, where there was regional support for a regional peacekeeping force.

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Many initiatives but no 'maestro'

The calls for a military deployment come in the context of remarkable political activity around mediation in Sudan’s conflict.

Days after the Addis Ababa summit, Cairo held its own summit with Sudan's neighbouring countries, emphasising full respect for Sudan's sovereignty and unity, non-interference in its internal affairs, and the importance of dealing with the current crisis and its humanitarian consequences in a serious and comprehensive manner.

However, the intensification of battles on the ground raises questions about the ability of these initiatives to make a breakthrough in the crisis.

Journalist and political analyst Ibrahim Salih, however, is optimistic, explaining that both initiatives intersect, which could increase the possibility of a lasting solution.

"The Cairo initiative addressed the shortcomings of the IGAD initiative and pushed for the demands of the Sudanese army, which sees itself as the main representative of the Sudanese state," he told TNA.

The closing statement of the Quartet Summit alluded to the concept of “parallel tracks” whereby regional and international efforts could overlap, provided they do not conflict with one another.

But for Ammar Yassin Ali, a researcher in peace and conflict studies, there requires a serious desire for both parties to the conflict to avoid escalation, demonstrate goodwill measures, and for a neutral “maestro” to set the rhythm for regional and international mediation efforts.

"The Peace and Security Council of the African Union could play this role, given that it is the original reference for everything related to peace and security in Africa, and in view of its positions on the ongoing conflict, which were generally characterised by the highest degree of restraint and rationality," Ali said.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli