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AU’s failure opened door to non-African peace mediators

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Picture: Supplied – Smoke can be seen rising near buildings in Sudan’s capital City, Khartoum amid deadly infighting between the country’s armed forces.

By Dr Sizo Nkala

It has been more than a month since fighting broke out in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary structure, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on April 15.

The clashes were sparked by the struggle for power between two prominent personalities: General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the SAF and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo of the RSF who led the country after the October 2021 coup.

The coup undermined the dem- ocratic reform process which started after the ousting of the country’s long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

An estimated 500 people have since lost their lives although the number could be much higher. More than 150000 people have been forced to leave Sudan, while about 700000 have been displaced internally.

Millions of Sudanese people have been left without access to basic needs such as food and water and have been cut off from essential services such as health and telecommunications due to the damage to critical infrastructure such as hospitals, power cables, roads and water systems.

Should this conflict rage on, the country will be plunged into a catastrophic humanitarian crisis of an enormous magnitude. Even more concerning is that the conflict is threatening to assume a tribal and ethnic dimension in the West Darfur region between the Arab and Masalit groups aligned with the RSF and the SAF.

About 100 people are reported to have been killed in the inter-ethnic clashes with thousands more displaced. Combatants on both sides have been accused of violating international law through enforced disappearances, attacking unarmed civilians and sexual assault.The efforts to restore peace and bring the two parties to a ceasefire deal have so far hit a snag, with both parties violating a series of ceasefire agreements.

Negotiations are under way in the city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to try to bring the warring parties to a ceasefire agreement which will give the people of Sudan a much-needed respite and pave the way for long-term peace.

The negotiations, which began on May 6, are being mediated by Saudi Arabia and the US. This has again brought into focus the ability, capacity and role of the AU in maintaining peace and security in the continent which is one of the fundamental pillars of its founding mandate. Since the beginning of the conflict, the AU’s calls for a ceasefire have fallen on deaf ears, having been ignored by the leaders of both factions.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council – the continental body’s arm for intervening in conflict situations – also issued a statement two days after the outbreak of violence calling for a ceasefire. In its statement, the Peace and Security Council strongly rejected “external interference that could complicate the situation in Sudan” and further promised to undertake a Field Mission to Sudan with a view to engaging with all stakeholders in that country.

AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat has also pledged to visit Sudan in an attempt to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution. However, neither the Peace and Security Council’s Field Mission to Sudan nor the chairperson’s visit has taken place.

The delayed visits mean that the AU has not been on the ground in Sudan and it’s not clear if the continental body has made any real efforts towards the restoration of peace other than issuing statements.

It is rather disappointing that non-African countries (the US and Saudi Arabia) have taken the lead as mediators in trying to find solutions to the conflict.

The US and Saudi Arabia are not uninterested mediators. The US attaches geo-strategic importance to Sudan in the context of its geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia. It may use its mediation role not necessarily to bring lasting peace in Sudan, but to regain push-back against its main geopolitical rivals. Saudi Arabia also has extensive economic interests in Sudan and had the RSF fighting alongside its forces in Yemen. This brings its neutrality into question.

Perhaps the suspension of Sudan from both the AU and the Peace and Security Council structures following the October 2021 coup has complicated the situation and made it difficult for the AU to act.

However, if this conflict is left un-addressed it is likely to destabilise the region and thus create an even bigger problem with disastrous consequences for Africa’s economy. This conflict, therefore, falls firmly within the mandate of the AU.

Having the US and Saudi Arabia as the lead mediators in the Sudanese conflict undermines the policy of “African solutions to African problems”. As recently as February, the AU was instrumental in brokering a peace deal between the Ethiopian government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Ethiopia and helped bring the two-year civil war to an end.

One would have hoped that the AU would assume a similar role in the Sudanese conflict. While external actors may bring vital resources, their interests may not be compatible with durable peace and thus inconsistent with the AU’s Agenda 2063.

*Dr Sizo Nkala is a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies.