A year into the civil war in Sudan, mass killings, displacement and starvation wrack the Sudanese people, with cities turned to warzones and very little international support. We republish this analysis from Nada Wanni in the wake of another month of fighting, during which the city of el-Fasher has seen escalating violence from Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces as they seek to win the city from the Sudanese Armed Forces.

This was first published by the Review of African Political Economy, 12 April 2024.

The Peace Agreement, Sudan (17 August 2019). Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On 15 April it will be a year since the war in Sudan started.  Today the country is on the brink of famine. Yet in 2019 the country’s mass uprising was at its peak. Omar al-Bashir had been overthrown and the new political project, conceptualized by Sudan’s revolutionary forces who had flooded the streets for months, were demanding a complete break from the ways of doing politics by the dominant political class, calling for freedom, radical political change, equal citizenship, peace, social justice and fighting against deeply entrenched socio-economic inequality. In many ways, the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) with its conflict over political power, economic resources and control was a war against this project.

There have been calls and efforts by some Sudanese, African and Western actors for a Sudanese civilian dialogue to envision a political pathway for the post-war phase. The proclaimed aim of these calls is to make sure that any upcoming negotiations to end the conflict are not solely left to the belligerents in the conflict and that Sudanese civilians are the ones developing the political roadmap for the ‘day after’.

However, it is important to remember that the concept of a ‘Sudanese-Sudanese Dialogue’ has often been initiated and instrumentalized in different phases of Sudan’s history by both military actors and civilian elites for self-serving political purposes. We need to be wary that current initiatives do not do the same.

For the past months, some Western actors have been technically and logistically supporting certain Sudanese platforms as the main civilian fronts leading these political processes.

One of the main platforms being supported is the Coordination for Civilian Democratic Forces (Taqaddum), a coalition of the main political parties, some armed movements, professional groups, civil society individuals and organizations, and a few resistance committees which was formed in October of last year. The core political group within the platform are the Forces of Freedom and Change-Central Committee (FFC-CC).

In the US Senate Committee for Foreign Relations, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Mary “Molly” Phee, described the members of the group in the following way:

…Sudanese civilians have been meeting in Addis Ababa. And they are working towards forming an inclusive and representative pro-democracy civilian front. It’s an important group of Sudanese. We are actively encouraging those dialogues and we hope that this is the start of a serious process to form the next government of Sudan and to counter … the security forces.

Since then, the platform has been holding workshops on post-conflict issues such as post-war constitutional arrangements, local governance, justice and transitional justice and security and military reform. The coalition is also planning to organize a workshop on the ‘Negotiations Position’ of the platform regarding the war.

The culmination of these workshops is what the platform calls a ‘Foundational Conference’ and what some Western actors refer to as a ‘National Convention’ planned for May this year. One of the strategic goals of this conference, according to sources, is to ‘expand political participation’ of other ‘pro-democracy forces’ on the ‘issues related to ending the current armed conflict’ as well as the ‘civilian democratic future of the country.’ Another key purpose of the conference is to approve the coalition’s political vision at a macro-level in order for that to provide a ‘foundation for negotiations with the warring parties.’ The convention also aims to get participants to agree on a ‘design process’ in order ‘to negotiate an end to the conflict.’

So far, sources say the planned process appears to have around 600 invitees, with reserved places for youth and women. However, numbers and specific percentages, on their own, are a misleading measure when we are talking about genuine political and grassroots participation particularly in the current complex war context.

‘Inclusivity’ and ‘expansion of political participation’

It is important to note here that experience from national dialogues in other parts of the world emphasizes that the ‘Selection Process’ of dialogue participants is an essential factor, since it shapes ‘the legitimacy, dynamics and outcomes of the dialogue’.

However, some Sudanese political elites have mastered the technique of using Western constructs and terms like ‘inclusivity’ and ‘expansion of political participation’ in their documents and current political discourse on war and peace while avoiding explaining what these notions exactly denote, or how they will be meaningfully enacted into a real political dialogue that genuinely embodies the intense plurality of different Sudanese perspectives and voices.

Recently Western actors supporting the platform and the upcoming National Convention have also been using the term ‘digital inclusion’ to refer to efforts to bring in more Sudanese to this convention. It is not clear how the Sudanese actually living in conflict zones will be able to benefit from this ‘inclusion.’ More importantly, the coalition has already begun to work on the selection of its invitees in this planned and internationally supported Foundational Conference.

As has happened historically with national dialogue processes during al-Bashir’s period and the transition, extensive ‘lists’ of broad sectors such as: ‘civil society’, ‘professionals’, ‘experts’, ‘women’, ‘youth’, ‘religious leaders,’ ‘native administration,’ ‘refugees’, ‘workers,’ ‘farmers’, ‘herders’ and other categories are routinely put together. Real ‘inclusivity’ and participation remains a remote element to these conventions.

We should remember that notions of ‘civil society’ and ‘civil society organizations’ have been extensively used by both military actors and the political elite in all of Sudan’s recent political dialogue before and after the war to lend legitimacy and the appearance of having ‘expanded political participation’. This is frequently a political message that some civilian politicians are keen to send both internally to the Sudanese people, and externally to the Western community. However, some of the civilian politicians on these platforms continue to practice subtle, controlled forms of diversification and plurality in these political processes.

Paradoxically, at the same time, there is an ongoing debate among these platforms about the ‘political parties-civil society’ composition and the balance within these bodies. Some politicians believe that the presence of civil society within such platforms is at the expense of the traditional role of political parties. This is currently being debated with percentages being used for participation.

It is essential to note here that there are voices and groups within platforms like Taqaddum, particularly from youth groups, resistance committees and some civil society organisations, who have been pushing against the control of these bodies by political elites, and for genuine, uncontrolled political dialogue. It remains to be seen if they will succeed.

At the same time, other civilian entities comprising political parties and civil society organizations who are not happy with the current political direction of Taqaddum or who have been excluded from its processes will likely organize themselves into new alliances. Regional countries with a stake in the war could support such new ‘parallel’ coalitions for political influence and leverage.

It is imperative that the Sudanese do not allow the political ambitions of certain individuals to jeopardise real political dialogue and negotiations by reducing the Sudanese people’s credible political leadership to attendance lists, percentages, and a managed plurality. They need to define for themselves what credible political participation looks like.

National dialogues in other regions of the world have shown the ‘role of elites’ is the most pivotal factor impacting the process before and during negotiations, as well as in the implementation phase.

At the same time, efforts by regional and western bodies continue to play a decisive role.

This month the African Union plans to bring certain Sudanese actors to Addis Ababa for discussions. Similarly, a seminar for Sudanese civil society is planned for  15 April by France, Germany, and the EU in Paris. There are already differences between several of the organizers about the ‘list of participants’ and its ‘inclusivity.’

These efforts by regional and Western governments and interests to get Sudanese civilians to talk and agree on their agenda prior to any negotiations cannot and must not replace Sudanese-led and owned processes.

Another key question is whether to include Islamists in these upcoming processes. Some Western actors have recently been exploring the possibility of engaging certain Islamists in the process. Others have been holding meetings with Islamist figures. The US Special Envoy for Sudan, Tom Perriello, has also asked politicians if they thought Islamists had significant presence within Sudanese society, i.e. if they had social weight.

For some Western governments, the rationale of including Islamist groups is to prevent them becoming spoilers in any upcoming political process. The problem is that most of the Western community do not have a nuanced understanding of the complexity of the Sudanese Islamist movement. Their reductionist analysis of ‘Hardline Islamists’ versus ‘Less hard-line Islamists’ is overly simplistic, and highly problematic.

Western and regional roles

Most of the Western community and African regional partners are only able to engage with the Western format of ‘organized Sudanese’. This is what Sudanese politicians have understood very well. However, it is critical that other international bodies support Sudanese groups already working in the  war context by developing unconventional, adaptive, context-specific mechanisms to bring them visibility and incorporate their thinking and positions into any dialogue, and political negotiations. This will be difficult given that most Sudanese inside and outside the country are fighting against violence, economic insecurity and livelihood challenges on a daily basis. But it needs to be done. The current traditional INGO-format (International non-governmental organisations) workshops practiced by these Western actors cannot be the only method to get the Sudanese to talk to one another.

Conversely, any attempt to drown the upcoming dialogue  in technicalities using a box-ticking project-management approach will lead to an output of workshops, papers, presentations and recommendations which hold no relevance to most Sudanese and around which no consolidated, credible civilian agenda can crystallise.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that Sudan has a long history of external mediation and facilitation processes with decidedly mixed outcomes. Some mediation mechanisms and facilitators have been criticized in the past for being biased, not transparent or consultative. These include African mediation bodies. During the current conflict, a number of regional and international actors including Sudan’s neighbouring countries, the African Union, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the US and Saudi have come up with different mediation initiatives.  Any new mediation process for it to be meaningful must be aware of the mistakes of previous ones.

Recently the US Special Envoy for Sudan has been talking to Sudanese political actors about the importance of including the UAE and Egypt to the US-Saudi Jeddah Platform. This could provide much-needed missing leverage to the process. However, sources say that Saudi Arabia is reluctant about bringing new mediators – particularly the UAE – to the process, which it feels it owns. US pressure would probably succeed in making that happen.

There are plans to hold another Jeddah Forum session this month in which it is hoped that a ceasefire will be agreed upon to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to get through. However, without stronger, targeted and coordinated international pressure on the warring parties and the countries militarily supporting them, there will be no reason to commit.

Final thoughts

Sudan is facing a famine. Ending the war, a real Sudanese dialogue and carving out a new political course is a matter of life and death. Any Sudanese dialogue and political processes will be intensely contested particularly at this time of war.

However, a controlled, manufactured process, run by a political and economic elite will fail in the long term – even if technically progressing – and will reproduce the conflict and political crisis in different forms. This will bring neither peace nor stability to Sudan or the region.

Sudanese people need to take full control of these processes, and they should not allow the great hope, courage and vision they demonstrated in overthrowing the Bashir authoritarian regime, their deep aspirations and strong will to create new, different forms of direct democracy to be co-opted by national elites and international actors.

Nada Wanni is an independent researcher focusing on conflict analysis, peacebuilding, governance, and democratization processes. She has worked in academia and civil society and as a consultant to the UN, a number of INGOs, international development organizations, and policy and research institutes

Some more info on the conflict in Sudan can be found here.

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