Ending the war in Sudan: How to support a viable civilian-led political process

Authors: Thania Paffenholz and Nick Ross

Violent conflict in Sudan continues to escalate with the country teetering on the brink of fragmentation. While attention within and outside of Sudan is understandably focused on the disastrous armed conflict between the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the roots of violence run deeper. This blog outlines pathways to a civilian-lead peace process in Sudan that focus on addressing the root causes of the conflict. 

The 2019 civilian revolution testified to the powerful democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people and brought an end to decades of authoritarian rule. However, the civilian political transition was short lived as the military staged a coup  in 2021. The attempts by many international actors to form a coalition government between military and civilian forces failed, and mainly further empowered the armed actors. The conflict between the RSF and SAF is a consequence of this failed model of peacemaking as it further reinforced the message that the pathway to power, either in Khartoum or in the regions, is through violence. 

A comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that aims to persuade the RSF and SAF to end their war in exchange for the chance to share in lavish rents extracted from natural resources, control of key infrastructure, export concession, or the treasury, has a compelling humanitarian logic in Sudan. Every day the war continues, more lives are lost, more people are displaced, and more vital infrastructure is destroyed. But, a settlement of this type – a CPA that centers around the two major armed forces – inadvertently strengthens the prevailing notion that violence is the primary means for achieving political legitimacy in Sudan. How long will it be before this deal breaks down? How long before another ambitious general in the SAF or the RSF, or in one of the regional militias, tries to capture a share of this wealth through a new rebellion or coup in Sudan? Sudan’s own history, and the history of similar kinds of CPA elsewhere, tells a rather foreboding tale. 

The African Union’s (AU) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s (IGAD) recent announcement offering support to a civilian-led Intra-Sudanese dialogue has the potential to change Sudan’s trajectory. These parties recognise that the only path to prosperity and stability is through supporting an inclusive, democratic process in Sudan. The primary challenge to such a process is how to ensure that the armed actors will not spoil or control the process. For the RSF and the SAF much is at stake: their own security if they demobilize, and the potential loss of control over a major part of Sudan’s national wealth. So, the key process question is, how can the armed actors be ‘tamed’ in such a way that the civilian led process can be viable and durable? 

Considering this, the civilian led process cannot be influenced by the logic of the 1990s international peacemaking model. This approach has persistently involved bringing armed factions to the negotiating table to broker a CPA (often based on a power-sharing deal among these same armed actors) to quell violence and establish a new government. Civilian actors have usually not been part of these processes or at best, have been added to the process in extra spaces without decision making power (despite the accumulation of normative commitments to inclusion of women, youth, alongside longstanding rights to political participation).

The so-called ‘inclusion challenge’ for many mediators has been how to best include and support civilian actors without harming the process with the “guys with the guns”. The current, AU/IGAD suggested, civilian led process can turn this problem on its head.  From numerous lessons learned, such a process must start from the premise that only a civilian-led, all-inclusive process can lead the country on a pathway to peace and political transition. The ‘inclusion challenge’ thus becomes how to include the  armed actors in a way that they will not harm the process. 

Comparative experience on parallel and inclusive negotiation formats suggests a few modalities for such a “composite” process that can integrate the concerns of the RSF and SAF, with the need for a democratic outcome and an ultimately civilian political order. First, the US/Saudi led negotiations with the RSF and the SAF must be committed to and focused on ceasefire, security, and humanitarian access: setting political questions aside for a more legitimate forum. These negotiations could continue to serve as a parallel security track, the results of which would be fed into the civilian-led process, the Intra-Sudanese dialogue. Second, a focus should be placed on strategically engaging the armed actors in such a way that they do not dominate the Intra-Sudanese Dialogue process? The dialogue should be run by civilian actors and strategically focused on identifying and discussing the key priorities for the country to get back onto a pathway towards a democratic transition.

There are several options for how to best engage the armed actors in the process. One option is to engage armed actors each or jointly in a separate delegation that would be bound by the same rules and procedures applied to all other delegations (e.g., inclusion representation quotas along gender, age, and geographic lines). This would mitigate the risk of armed actors dominating the process. Decision making procedures would be thoughtfully established so that no delegation would have special privileges over another. Another option would be that the armed actors only take part in the Jeddah process as a separate security track,  the results of which would contribute to the political process, possibly supported by SAF/RSF having observer status in the Intra-Sudanese dialogue. Another option could be a proxy representation at the Intra-Sudanese Dialogue via political actors that are close to the armed actors as seen in the Northern Irish peace talks with Sinn Féin acting as proxy for the IRA, the armed actor. 

The proposed options could only work with the support of the states and regional bodies within the region including Egypt, the AU and IGAD, as well as the Gulf states and the United States. Of course, there will be many opportunities and challenges along the way – what counts now is that the new peacemaking model that puts the civilian-led process at its centre will be whole-heartedly supported by all relevant regional and international actors. Creating consensus among these actors will be a diplomatic balancing act that must happen as soon as possible to ensure lasting peace in Sudan while generating broader stability in the region.