Too many cooks could spoil the broth in the Sudan crisis

Saturday May 13 2023
US-Saudi delegations

Representatives of Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) signing an agreement in Jeddah, on May 11, 2023, as US-Saudi led delegates witness. PHOTO | AL-EKHBARIYA | AFP


The Sudanese are conflicted on whether to seek solutions to the conflict from the African Union and regional bodies, the Arab League, or the various countries that have vested interests in the country.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia-led mediation saw the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) sign the first deal since the war began. But it was labelled as a “commitment to protect civilians of Sudan,” focusing on civilian safety rather than a ceasefire.
Whether Saudi’s early fruits for hosting the warring parties can be seen as a neighbour helping another has also become an identity question: Is Sudan Arab, African or both? And who actually wields influence on the political sides?

As mediation went on in Jeddah, sponsored by the Saudis and the US, Dafallah Al-Haj Ali, special envoy of the head of the Sudan Sovereign Council said the talks are focused on opening humanitarian corridors, and the Inter-governmental Authority on Development is likely to play a key role in ensuring final political settlement.

“Our response to the initiative of Saudi Arabia and the United States does not exclude the role of Igad and the role with which (South Sudan) President Salva Kiir has been entrusted,” Ali told a Tuesday press conference in Juba, where he visited as part of Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s latest shuttle diplomacy. “We will never sideline Igad, especially after assigning President Salva Kiir to be at the helm of this mission.”

Read: Sudanese hope on Jeddah talks

On April 17, Igad appointed President Kiir to lead ceasefire negotiations alongside Kenyan President William Ruto and Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh.


But sources said Igad wasn’t invited to the Jeddah talks which have been described by US diplomats as very “difficult.”

Uniquely positioned

Sudan has a unique position in Africa, as the meeting point of the African and Arab cultures, which has resulted in an identity crisis, exacerbated by vested interests due to the country’s resources and strategic location.

Various initiatives emerged to help end the war soon after it began on April 15. Kenya, South Sudan, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia all offered to mediate. But Gen Burhan and his rival Gen Mohammed Daglo Hemedti only sent representatives to Jeddah, after initially agreeing to send some to Kiir’s appointed venue.

Experts on Sudan are concerned that multiple initiatives could lead to confusion as Sudan teeters towards a total breakdown of law and order similar to Libya.

Harold Acemah, a retired Ugandan diplomat who represented the country at the UN for 25 years, says that Sudan’s divided loyalty between African and Arab leagues has complicated the situation, as various players look up to different blocs for solutions. Sudan has been a member of the Arab League since 1956, the year the country gained Independence. Sudan is also a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, AU and Igad.

Since the fighting broke out on April 15, more than 700 people have been killed, about 5,000 wounded, 334,000 internally displaced, and 100,000 have fled to South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and Egypt.

Read: Warning of 'protracted' conflict in Sudan

US-Saudi initiative

The US-Saudi initiative that began on May 6 has been criticised for not being inclusive and seeking to emerge as the only solution at the expense of other interest groups within and outside Sudan.

Amgad Fared Eltayeb, a former chief of staff to the ousted prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, writing in The Africa Report, said that the US-Saudi initiative was riddled with deficiencies and defects, including the absence of serious civilian voices which could only lead to a closed-door deal to share power between the two generals.

He says the initiative tried to legitimise the warring parties as the main political actors in Sudan; and the talks are being used to delay humanitarian response and lack transparency by suppressing security sector reforms. “This may imply that the US involvement in this initiative aims to create a military regime that only advances US security interests in the region, putting a tragic end to Sudan’s revolution and democratic transition,” he wrote.

Mr Eltayeb noted that the two factions sent a low-key delegation to Jeddah, which is a show of non-commitment but also to show their alignment to the two main actors—the US and Saudi Arabia—for whose approval SAF and REF are competing.

Unwilling to engage others

“The US and Saudi Arabia are unwilling to engage other regional and international actors. They are more concerned with full ownership of the process rather than its success,” he said.

The African Union which has been working with the UN and Igad to manage the transition from military to civilian government, appear to be conspicuously absent from the scene as the Arab League and the US-Saudi initiative take centre stage.

Read: Who's backing Sudan's warring commanders?

The US-Saudi joint statement tried to clear the air by stating that the two countries also would like to recognise the efforts of the countries and organizations which supported these talks, including Quad countries (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the League of Arab States, and other partners.

Igad, that on April 17 appointed South Sudan President Salva Kiir to lead ceasefire negotiations in Sudan alongside Kenyan President William Ruto and Djibouti President Ismail Omar, maintains that it is the legitimate body to find a lasting solution.

However, the protagonists are still far from conceding that peace is necessary at this time. Al-Burhan told the media on May 8 that discussions over a lasting settlement can only be held after the parties reach a permanent ceasefire in Khartoum, and that his side is currently not in negotiation with Gen Dagalo.

US approach

The US-Saudi process is being driven by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Molly Phee, who is being seen as having forced the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, and his successor, David Satterfield to resign in January and April 2022 respectively, because they disagreed with the “soft” approach the US had adopted against the perpetrators of the October 2021 coup.

On the other hand, the Arab League has been holding consultation meetings since April 16 to discuss the situation in Sudan, but with no tangible success. Last weekend, the Arab League held an emergency meeting in Cairo, Egypt.

Read: Sudanese fleeing north face arduous crossing into Egypt

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry said that he had spoken to Gen Al-Burhan and Gen Daglo and urged them to protect the livelihoods of people in Sudan, especially since this country is relying on humanitarian aid.

Egypt’s influence over Sudan

Egypt has had major influence over Sudan since the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, the joint British and Egyptian government that ruled Sudan from 1899 to 1955.

Egypt played a significant role in the status of Sudan negotiations that ultimately resulted in the nation’s independence in 1956. Egypt and Sudan have remained close allies in the years since their independence, especially in terms of trade, security, and culture.

Egypt still has a big influence on Sudan today, especially when it comes to infrastructure and energy. Several significant projects, including the building of the Merowe Dam and the expansion of the Khartoum International Airport, are being carried out in Sudan by Egyptian companies. The two countries cooperate closely on issues such as counterterrorism and border security.

Joseph Ochieno, a London-based commentator on African affairs said that Sudan is facing the problem of juggling between belonging to sub-Saharan Africa and Arabs, but Arab nations with vested interests in Sudan such as Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia cannot broker a peace deal on their own.

“Sudan is over-belly of the Arab world hence the interest of Zionist Israel, Arab League nationalists, Anglo-America and more recently the emergent powers of Russia, China and Turkey. Hopefully, the solution will be a combination of the Arab world plus the US, the UK, the EU, the UN and almost certainly Russia,” said Mr Ochieno.

But the neighbouring Eritrea is also keenly watching. In a rare, televised interview conducted by the Ministry of Information, President Isaias Afwerki said insecurity in Sudan should not be taken lightly because it is a threat to the security of the entire Horn.

He argued that when the al-Bashir regime was overthrown in 2019, the country needed to move away from the 30-year-long National Congress Party regime to a new rule. But the movement towards transition did not happen because different groups began to claim the revolution as exclusively their own.