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Sudan Needs An Inclusive Peace Agreement

The international community must learn from the mistakes it made in South Sudan to deal effectively with the current crisis in Sudan.

Words: Mike Brand
Pictures: Abdulaziz Mohammed

If we want to forecast what to expect in Sudan as the country is on the brink of civil war, we should look to South Sudan for what may be coming. Sudan may be doomed to follow South Sudan’s playbook. However, if the international community is able to learn from its mistakes, a better result may be possible.

There are a lot of similarities between what is happening in Sudan today and what happened in South Sudan ten years ago. In both conflicts, there were two strongmen with heavily armed and loyal forces at their disposal, with neither side seeming to care about protecting civilians or violating international law. In both situations, the two sides repeatedly signed and broke several ceasefires and peace agreements. And in both situations, the international community seemed to have only one relatively unsuccessful strategy: negotiating power-sharing agreements between the two main belligerents.

To avoid the same mistakes, international actors must recognize that durable peace in Sudan cannot be achieved by empowering the same bad actors that are tearing the country apart.

A Look Back At South Sudan

Similar to Sudan, political tensions between the two most powerful men in the country, President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, eventually boiled over into a full-scale civil war in 2013. The ensuing war resulted in the deaths of approximately 400,000 and over four million displaced.

For years, the Troika (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Norway, three countries that have partnered to support South Sudan through diplomacy and development since before independence) continued to help prop up South Sudan’s government while working to bring the two leaders back together in a forced political marriage. A pattern emerged where the Troika, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development would secure promises from Kiir and Machar only for them to break the agreements. A constant sticking point was how the opposing militaries would be reconstituted into a national army.

To avoid the same mistakes, international actors must recognize that durable peace in Sudan cannot be achieved by empowering the same bad actors that are tearing the country apart.

Eventually, in 2015 a peace agreement, known as the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan — also called ARCSS — was signed. This peace agreement included the creation of a Transitional Government of National Unity, a permanent ceasefire, and Machar returning to his previous role as vice president in April 2016. But three months later, the country was at war again, and Machar was on the run. Finally, in 2018, an updated peace deal called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan or R-ARCSS, which mostly mirrored the 2015 version, was agreed to, and in 2020 Machar was sworn in, this time as South Sudan’s first vice president.

While the worst of the hostilities were ended, five years after that agreement was signed, violence still persists. Full implementation of the peace agreement continues to face delays, justice for the atrocities committed by both sides remains elusive, and South Sudan’s first elections were once again postponed. Because many of the root causes of the conflict have yet to be addressed, when elections finally take place, they may be a flashpoint of violence that drags the country back to war. Due to poor governance, South Sudan continues to have multiple humanitarian crises, and there is no clear plan for the millions of displaced South Sudanese to return home.

Fast-forward to today, where tensions had been rising in Sudan for months between the head of the Sudanese Armed Forces General Abdel-Fattah Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group that grew out of the militias responsible for mass atrocities in Darfur. The two men were close to finalizing an agreement that would restore the transitional civilian-led government following their joint coup of the government and arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in 2021.

Instead of finalizing the agreement, fighting broke out between the two sides in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, on Apr. 15, 2023. The clashes have already led to the deaths of over 400 people and forced thousands to flee the violence. Many civilians are sheltering at home and struggling to access food, water, or electricity. The United States, and many other countries, have evacuated their embassy staff. However, the US government has not yet made plans to evacuate the estimated 16,000 American citizens still in Sudan. According to the AP, most of the Americans in Sudan are dual nationals and may not want to leave the country.

A ceasefire that was agreed to a week into the conflict was almost immediately violated. A new temporary ceasefire was announced on Apr. 24, 2023. It remains to be seen if it will hold and what happens next.

Correcting Past Mistakes

The international community should learn from its mistakes in South Sudan and realize that negotiated agreements focused solely on giving power to the two main belligerents are doomed to fail. We have already seen Burhan and Hemedti break multiple agreements.

One of the main impediments to implementing the peace agreements in South Sudan was security-sector reform, specifically integrating the armed forces into one national military. Unsurprisingly, this has also proven to be a major point of contention in Sudan. More pressure is needed to ensure they follow through on their promises.

To stave off a protracted conflict, international actors should not delay employing all the tools at their disposal to pressure Burhan and Hemedti to stop the fighting. The Biden administration has been reluctant to institute new targeted sanctions on Burhan, Hemedti, and other members of the two warring sides despite a House Resolution which called for sanctions following the 2021 coup. On Apr. 19, 2023, Foreign Policy reported that the Biden administration was planning on issuing new sanctions, but a week later those sanctions have still not been issued. Several human rights organizations are urging the Biden administration to not delay any longer.

For sanctions to affect the current crisis in Sudan, they must come from several sources beyond the United States, and they should target governments and individuals assisting Burhan and Hemedti. A collective effort must be taken to ensure the belligerents cannot profit from war.

Sanctions, however, are only a tool, not a policy. A short and long-term strategy for Sudan is needed. Once the fighting stops, any peace negotiations by international actors must ensure civil society has an equal seat at the table. Sudan can only reach a durable peace and transition to civilian rule if the people are involved in the process. International governments should not endorse any transitional agreements that do not include civil society.

Representation is needed from across the periphery, which has historically been marginalized. For example, youth and women’s groups must also be represented. Civilian-led resistance committees, who have led frontline protests since 2019, should be included in future talks. While mediators may struggle with their stance of “no negotiation, no partnership, no legitimacy” with the military coup leaders, there may still be a path forward. A multi-track diplomatic effort, coupled with strong pressure on the armed actors, may accomplish a civilian-led transitional negotiation that sees an exit for the armed forces from political affairs. The harsh reality is that the men with guns cannot be ignored but that doesn’t mean they need to be rewarded for their bad behavior.

Any future agreements must come with clear benchmarks and established consequences for failing to implement key provisions. Governments that support peace in Sudan must not delay holding violators accountable. The same paper tiger threats employed in South Sudan, and in Sudan thus far, cannot be repeated.

Sudan’s strong civilian pro-democracy movement that led the original calls for democratic change in 2019 is one key area where Sudan differs from South Sudan. It may be the deciding factor in Sudan’s future if the international community does not sideline their voices and their demands going forward.

Mike Brand

Mike Brand is an adjunct professor of human rights and genocide studies at the University of Connecticut, a Senior Fellow at George Mason University’s Raphaël Lemkin Genocide Prevention Program, and an atrocities prevention and peacebuilding advocate.

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