As the war in Sudan approaches the three-month mark, there are still no signs of any progress in ending the fighting between Sudan's army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, or RSF—former allies turned enemies battling over a country they see as their own fiefdom. With the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, now warning of "a full-scale civil war, potentially destabilizing the entire region," the international community should abandon outdated strategies and embrace new and innovative approaches to prevent Sudan's collapse.
The fighting is still escalating despite several attempts to broker a cease-fire—most recently this week with regional talks hosted by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-country East African trade bloc, in neighboring Ethiopia. But Sudan's army boycotted the talks since they were being chaired by Kenya's president, William Ruto, whom the army claims supports the RSF. Egypt, which strongly backs the Sudanese army, is also hosting its own talks this week with regional countries. Meanwhile, a delegation from the Forces of Freedom and Change, the civilian bloc that once shared power in Khartoum with the military following the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019, has been roaming neighboring countries, calling for civil involvement in comprehensive negotiations to stop the war and revive a democratic transition in Sudan. But the FFC delegation has also been criticized for being unrepresentative of the country's wider grassroots movement.
These latest attempts at diplomacy, like the others before them, have consistently sidelined Sudan's civilian voices. This is not a recent development. Sudan's civil society and civilian grassroots have been largely ignored throughout Sudan's halting democratic transition following the fall of Bashir, through the aftermath of the October 2021 coup that the army and the RSF hatched together, and leading up to the current war. Unfortunately, international engagement with Sudan remains unchanged, legitimizing warring parties while casting aside civilian groups on the ground, especially those who do not fit Sudan's conventional mainstream politics. This recurring pattern of exclusion has failed to deliver peace and stability in the past, and it will continue to do so in the future.
The latest attempts at diplomacy, like the others before them, have consistently sidelined Sudan's civilian voices.
- Hamid Khalafallah
The first initiative to end the fighting was the so-called Jeddah platform, sponsored and facilitated by the United States and Saudi Arabia, which hosted Sudan's army and the RSF for direct talks in May. Despite the announcement of several humanitarian cease-fires through the Jeddah platform, none of them was honored by the warring factions. The U.S.-Saudi initiative was destined to fail as it disregarded other regional and international actors—including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the strongest backers of the Sudanese army and the RSF, respectively—and completely excluded any Sudanese civilian representatives.
The talks and agenda that came out of Jeddah have also lacked transparency. "We think we've given them every shot," a senior U.S. State Department official was quoted saying about the army and the RSF. "We've given them this venue to try and come together and try and find a way forward that doesn't involve achieving an outcome that's based on violence or military dominance." Yet despite the failures of the Jeddah platform, there is no sign of any substantial changes in U.S. policy and strategy regarding the war in Sudan and how to end it.
Other initiatives by the African Union and the IGAD bloc in East Africa are struggling to find their direction and appear to be competing rather than coordinating. They have also yet to establish mechanisms for meaningful inclusion of Sudanese civilian voices. Although the AU and the IGAD may exert some influence over the warring factions, they lack sufficient leverage as regional institutions. These initiatives will be rendered ineffective without the involvement of member states that have more leverage, like Egypt; of influential regional actors like the UAE and Saudi Arabia; and of global powers like the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union.
But in all these talks, Sudanese grassroots movements, civil society organizations, trade unions and political parties should have a bigger voice. Many of these civilian groups were warning that Sudan was on the road to war following the October 2021 coup, given the volatility of the situation and how international diplomacy had empowered and rewarded the army and the RSF, while essentially forcing civilian politics in Sudan to pick a side. The resistance committees—neighborhood-level groups that organized early protests against Bashir and have led Sudan's pro-democracy movement from the grassroots—consistently criticized the flawed, so-called political processes aimed at restoring Sudan's democratic transition advocated by the international community, and instead emphasized the need to rein in the many competing armed groups in Sudan.
Unfortunately, these voices were often dismissed as unrealistic. Over the past four years, international support for the pro-democracy civilian movement in Sudan has largely remained superficial. Whether it is the U.N. or countries like the U.S., the international community should embrace stances that align with the genuine aspirations of the Sudanese people—not of rival generals and warlords. The only successful political process for Sudan is one that is led by Sudanese civilians and responds to their demands for democracy.
A prospective peace process could follow the example of various local initiatives that have been successful in bringing peace to their communities. Local groups and civil administrations have brokered peace agreements and cessation of hostilities in several parts of Darfur, as well as South Kordofan, since the fighting erupted in April. International diplomacy must learn from these local initiatives and accommodate them in future talks with the warring parties.
Whether it is the U.N. or countries like the U.S., the international community should embrace stances that align with the genuine aspirations of the Sudanese people—not of rival generals and warlords.
- Hamid Khalafallah
Following the popular uprising against Bashir's regime, Sudan's mostly young revolutionary forces were urged to moderate their demands, with warnings that their call for radical change in Sudan's political system would lead to further conflict and even drive the country into war. The revolutionaries' demands included the complete withdrawal of the Sudanese military from politics and the dissolution of the RSF. Yet it is now evident that undermining these popular demands, under the guise of preserving peace and stability, has actually contributed to the ongoing war. This serves as a harsh lesson for everyone involved in addressing Sudan's crisis and highlights the need to support new ideas for radical change.
In the current devastation in Sudan, civilian and pro-democracy forces need spaces and platforms to discuss and articulate their vision for the way forward. The international community should support these efforts and enable Sudan's civilian grassroots to convene freely, without the expectation that they will necessarily come up with a unified and homogeneous vision for Sudan on all levels. Sudan is a large and fractured country with numerous actors from diverse, often rival backgrounds; they each have valid and legitimate agendas and demands that should be meaningfully accommodated.
Still, there are no quick and easy fixes for ending Sudan's war, so cosmetic solutions through hurried talks between elites will not suffice. The situation is more severe and precarious than simply tolerating yet another unsuccessful attempt at achieving a cease-fire with the false prospect of peace, stability and an actual civilian-led, democratic transition. If international stakeholders want to draw valuable lessons from the past and present in Sudan, they must re-evaluate their current strategies and abandon their rushed, ad-hoc approaches that appease the warring parties and ignore Sudanese civilians.