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Will an African-led peace settlement end Sudan's conflict?

Will an African-led peace settlement end Sudan's conflict?
7 min read
10 May, 2023
Analysis: Sudan's intra-military conflict has grave implications for cross-border migration and food insecurity, but it remains to be seen whether the AU can work effectively with African regional actors to de-escalate hostilities.

On 3 May, African Union (AU) Special Envoy to Sudan Mohamed El Hacen Lebatt called for a “complete and unconditional, efficient, inclusive ceasefire all over Sudan”.

Lebatt emphasised that the AU was coordinating with the Djibouti-based Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN) to achieve a peace settlement. Lebatt also pledged to intensify humanitarian support for residents of war-torn Sudanese cities and to neighbouring countries that have taken in Sudanese refugees.

Lebatt’s comments underscored the grave implications of Sudan’s intra-military conflict for fragile neighbouring economies and regional security.

They also illustrated the AU’s commitment to achieving an African-led solution to the Sudanese conflict.

These efforts have been complemented by shuttle diplomacy from regional actors, such as Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Kenya, between Sudan Armed Forces Chief Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) chief Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo.

The Sudan refugee crisis spreads to sub-Saharan Africa

Since hostilities erupted between Burhan and Hemedti on 15 April, concerns about a refugee crisis and a spill-over of the conflict to Sudan’s neighbours have loomed large.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts 800,000 Sudanese could become refugees due to the conflict, while the International Organization for Migration estimates that 334,000 Sudanese have become internally displaced people (IDPs).

The UNHCR has appealed for $445 million in additional funding to Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic (CAR), but has yet to receive enough support to ameliorate this crisis.

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During the first five days of the conflict, between 10,000 to 20,000 refugees fled Darfur to Chad and the UNHCR warned that up to 100,000 Sudanese refugees could settle in Chad. As Eastern Chad already housed over 400,000 Sudanese refugees before this conflict, the new influx added new strains to its already overstretched public services and risks adding to the ranks of 1.9 million Chadians who are severely food insecure.

Although the World Food Program (WFP) swiftly delivered enough sorghum, pulses, oil and salt to feed 20,000 Sudanese refugees for a month, funding constraints have forced the WFP to half its assistance going forward. Pounding rains, which will turn swathes of desert into rivers, will further restrict deliveries of food aid heading into the summer.

The plight of Sudanese refugees who have landed in other neighbouring countries is similarly dire. States that have a long history of experiencing refugee outflows have unexpectedly become safe havens for Sudanese refugees.

South Sudan took in 30,000 Sudanese refugees after hostilities began but has also faced an influx of returning South Sudanese nationals, who fled the civil war that broke out in 2013. CAR, which has taken in 6,000 refugees, risks facing a similar reverse wave of CAR nationals who fled inter-communal violence to Sudan after September 2019.

Refugees from Sudan cross into Ethiopia in Metema, on 4 May 2023. [Getty]

A possible regionalisation of Sudan's intra-military conflict?

As Sudan is situated in a regional community of fragile states, the risk of a broader conflict remains acute.

Eritrea is the most likely potential instigator of a regionalisation of hostilities. Since mid-April, an estimated 3,500 Eritreans who escaped mandatory conscription by fleeing to Kassala, Sudan, have been forcibly repatriated to Teseney, Eritrea. The Eritrean authorities have arrested 95 of these repatriated nationals and the remainder are likely to be forced to enter military service.

While human rights abuses of this nature are routine in Eritrea, this pattern of forced conscription could reflect President Isaias Afwerki’s desire to intervene in Sudan.

Eritrea has long-standing relationships with eastern Sudan’s Beni Amer, Beja, and Rashida tribes, who waged an armed insurrection against President Omar al-Bashir's rule in the early 2000s. There are growing concerns that Eritrea could deploy troops to protect its tribal allies, especially if violence reaches Port Sudan.

An Eritrean intervention could encourage the Sudanese army to mobilise Tigrayans, who reside in eastern Sudan and previously crossed the Sudan-Ethiopia border to fight for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Although the Tigray War ended in November 2022, Eritrea’s alleged massacre of 300 Tigrayans before the Ethiopia-TPLF peace agreement could lead to TPLF fighters crossing into Sudan for a revenge mission.

The disputed Al-Fashaga region on the Sudan-Ethiopia border is another potential fault line. In June 2022, Sudan accused Ethiopia of killing 7 soldiers and a civilian and retaliated by firing heavy artillery on Ethiopian positions in Jabal Kala al-Laban. Although Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated in March that he was working with Sudan and South Sudan to resolve the border dispute through dialogue, tensions have remained high.

After the Burhan-Hemedti conflict escalated, Sudanese media outlets reported on the “unusual movement” of Ethiopian forces into the Al-Fashaga region. The Khartoum-based Al-Sudani newspaper alleged that the Sudanese army used long-range fire systems to neutralise an Ethiopian military build-up in the Abd al-Rafi sector in Fashqa al-Sughra.

Although Abiy Ahmed strongly condemned these allegations and stated that they “seek to sully the good neighbourly relations between the two countries,” Ethiopia’s potential to capitalise on Sudan’s instability should not be overlooked. 

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Prospects for an African-led peace settlement in Sudan

Since the October 2021 coup, which overthrew civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and restored military rule in Sudan, the AU has worked assiduously on creating a lasting political settlement.

In keeping with its “quiet diplomacy” strategy, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security Bankole Adeoye visited Khartoum in January 2022 to hold private discussions with leading stakeholders. The AU used these talks as a gateway for deeper engagement with IGAD and the UN on conflict resolution in Sudan.

These initiatives did not forestall a return to hot war, but the AU remains undeterred in its commitment to stabilising Sudan. On 16 April, AU Commission chairman Moussa Mahamat Faki vowed to engage both warring parties on a ceasefire and urged them to protect civilians.

After the US announced that it had brokered a three-day ceasefire between Burhan and Hemedti on April 24, Faki coordinated with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on facilitating a “sustainable cessation of hostilities” in Sudan.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) predicts 800,000 Sudanese could become refugees due to the conflict. [Getty]

While the AU’s recent diplomatic efforts have failed to stabilise Sudan, its track record provides glimmers of hope. In July 2019, AU mediation de-escalated tensions between the Sudanese military and opposition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) demonstrators and resulted in a phased civilian transition agreement.

Faki attributed the AU’s success to the unique character of East African mediation, which used religious language and shared customs to facilitate dialogue. Faki also emphasised the AU’s centralisation of mediation initiatives in Sudan under its oversight, which favourably contrasted with the multiple contradictory efforts of external powers in Libya.

To repeat its past successes, the AU needs to rein in the preferential interests of would-be African mediators. In 2019, Faki’s close relationship with Abiy Ahmed inspired Ethiopian Foreign Ministry advisor Mahmoud Dirir to hold ten days of talks with the AU about a civilian transition roadmap. These talks played a pivotal role in constructing a civilian transition agreement.

While Ethiopia continues to harbour mediation ambitions in Sudan, its impartiality has been called into question. Senior Ethiopian officials, such as Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, have cultivated close ties with Hemedti, while Burhan’s pro-TPLF stance during the Tigray War created bad blood in Addis Ababa.

South Sudan has also positioned itself as a prospective mediator since the inception of hostilities. South Sudan’s hosting of the August 2020 Juba Agreement, which resulted in a peace settlement between Burhan and rebel groups in Darfur and South Kordofan, makes it a credible arbiter. However, South Sudan’s close coordination with Egypt, which supports Burhan, could engender doubts about its impartiality.

Other East African leaders, who might be considered more impartial, have been reluctant to take the lead. Kenyan President William Ruto offered to mediate between Burhan and Hemedti on 21 April, but has largely confined his diplomatic participation to its role in IGAD. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who engaged in diplomatic arbitration in the South Sudan Civil War, deplored Burhan and Hemedti’s action as a “misuse of force” but did not play a major initial role in IGAD’s peacekeeping efforts.

As Sudan’s intra-military conflict continues to escalate, its implications for cross-border migration and food insecurity are grave for countries in its regional neighbourhood.

It remains to be seen whether the AU can work effectively with African regional actors on achieving a July 2019-style settlement to de-escalate the conflict.

Samuel Ramani is a tutor of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, where he received a doctorate in 2021. His research focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East

Follow him on Twitter: @SamRamani2