Why the African Union must lead Peace Talks in Sudan

Questions about who mediates in a conflict – and when – are crucial. Mediation is about trust, an awareness of regional realities and insights into complex politics. It should happen before conflict reaches a mutually damaging stalemate. This spares lives and political disintegration of the kind seen in Libya and Somalia.

Who’s likely to be the most successful as a mediator is a question that needs to be addressed urgently in the ongoing Sudan civil war.

Based on our research on continental integration and conflict management in war situations, we believe that an African Union-led mediation process promises a better and more stable peace agreement than a non-African mediation process.

The African Union’s mediation would bring on board Sudan’s immediate neighbours (Chad, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and South Sudan). This would give these countries an opportunity to address their concerns and interests in the conflict for a lasting peace agreement.

The African Union successfully mediated in 2019 in Sudan after the military overthrew president Omar al-Bashir. This intervention helped, at the time, to prevent the country’s descent into a military dictatorship. It also helped align the demands of the Sudanese people in anticipation of a transition to civilian rule.

As a continental body, the African Union has the legitimacy and the authority to sanction member states into compliance.

The warring parties in the ongoing conflict have also shown an openness to the African Union’s mediation. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led a coup in October 2021, sent a team to the union’s Peace and Security Council in February 2023. The team lobbied for the lifting of sanctions on Sudan. The African Union suspended Sudan in 2019 from participating in the organisation’s activities until it sets up a civilian-led government.

The African Union has refrained from taking a position on the conflict, which makes it a suitably neutral negotiator. Additionally, it’s working on measures to ensure that Sudan gets back to transitioning to democracy and civilian rule.

We’re not against the ongoing US-Saudi Arabia-mediated initiative in Jeddah. But these negotiations are primarily about opening humanitarian corridors for civilians. They’re not for negotiating an end to the fighting.

In our view, this is a process that the African Union is best placed to lead. This doesn’t exclude the participation of other countries. Three reasons favour the African Union as the lead mediator in Sudan.

Trust, regional realities and insights into complex politics

Firstly, the African Union has the trust of Sudan’s warring parties after its successful mediation in 2019. This intervention was in line with the union’s policy to provide “African solutions to African problems”. This policy resonates with the union’s 55 member states. It played out in Ethiopia in November 2022 when the organisation helped negotiate a cessation of hostilities agreement between prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Secondly, regional realities, dynamics and the interests of Sudan’s neighbours are crucial to the resolution of the conflict. Take Chad, with which Sudan shares a 1,403km border. Chad is just emerging from decades of sustained conflict. It shares strong historical, economic, cultural and religious relations with Sudan. But these relations are strained.

Sudanese rebels have previously attacked Sudan from hideouts in Chad’s territory. Chadian rebels have done the same to Chad from Sudan’s territory. Both countries have accused each other of launching these proxy attacks through their respective rebel groups. This has led to clashes between their militaries along their common border in the past, straining stability.

The fallout of conflict in Sudan extends beyond Chad. Sudan’s seven neighbours have an interest in Sudan’s stability. None wants to host Sudanese refugees as the situation degenerates into a humanitarian crisis. Fighting in one country easily causes cross-border flows of people. This threatens regional stability.

These threats to stability are best understood and resolved by the African Union. The union is a leading and active mediator in African conflicts and has a generally successful mediation track record. Mediators from outside Africa are either not cognisant of – or ignore – these sensitive African elements to conflict.

Thirdly, the war in Sudan is driven by complex politics. In our view, only mediators who have been involved in helping the country solve its tensions before can possibly help both sides stand down.

The armed conflict in Sudan between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces was inevitable because of pre-existing instability.

One reason for this was the 2019 overthrow of Bashir. The military subsequently established a transitional military council. But the Sudanese people demanded civilian rule.

The African Union mediated a settlement between the military and civilian representatives. This helped establish a three-year power-sharing Transitional Sovereign Council in 2019. However, Burhan’s 2021 coup undid this agreement. This led to a political deadlock and civilian protests.

The African Union understands this context.

As a continental body, the union has legitimacy and the authority to sanction member states into compliance. It also desires a satisfactory outcome for citizens of a state for which it is an umbrella organisation.

Continental interests

International actors like the US and Saudi Arabia engage others because they’re driven by national interests. The African Union’s participation would serve continental interests. The union has the goal to silence the guns and boost African integration and peace. It’s aware that continental development is at stake. It should continue asserting its role in addressing the situation in Sudan.

Prof. Chris Changwe Nshimbi is the Director & SARChI Research Chair: Political Economy of Migration in the SADC Region, University of Pretoria. Nelson Alusala is a senior research associate in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.

First appeared in The Conversation.

Photo by AMISOM via Iwaria.