Basic Sudan: The quiet scramble to broker the peace

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Friday, 19 May 2023

The Horn’s geopolitics are increasingly shaped by rich Gulf hegemons who view the region as a theatre for their competing interests.

Dual roles: IGAD executive secretary, Workneh Gebeyehu meets Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on 22 Nov, 2022 during an IGAD Council of MInisters meeting. Al-Burhan is also chair of IGAD and chair of Sudan’s Transitional Council – roles that complicate current mediation efforts. Photo courtesy: IGAD.

On 16 April, a day after the fighting broke out in Khartoum, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), held an emergency Heads of State summit. It was attended virtually by the presidents of South Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti. At the Summit, convened by IGAD’s executive secretary, the leaders called for a cessation of hostilities, opening of humanitarian corridors and a ceasefire to allow Sudanese citizens to peacefully observe the holy month of Ramadan.

In December last year, IGAD – alongside the other members of a Tripartite Mechanism constituted in June 2022, namely the UN and the African Union – brokered the Political Framework Agreement. The FA, as it is known, is the roadmap meant to take Sudan to civilian rule. It is a deal in which the generals agreed to relinquish power to civilians. According to the FA, a civilian government was to be formed by 11 April 2023. This didn’t happen. Four days later, the SAF and RSF were aiming guns at each other.

Formed in 1986 to tackle drought and desertification, twin preoccupations of the region’s developmentalist states, IGAD is composed of eight member states drawn from the Nile Valley, the Great Lakes and the Horn. Revitalised in 1996 with a specific mediation mandate, IGAD has been, for better or worse, the Horn’s conflict arbiter and its peace and security enforcer.

A difficult job in a tough neighbourhood, IGAD’s core strengths are its proximity to the region’s theatres of conflict – its conflict early warning mechanism, CEWARN, was designed to enhance this capability – and its accessibility to belligerents. But accessibility sometimes leads to paralysis, the most glaring example of which is the war in Tigray.

Peace-building in a tough neighbourhood

When IGAD has mediated successfully, it has done so because of the commitment of its dominant members – Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda – to stay the course: in Somalia over two decades, and in the Sudans, first midwifing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Omar al-Bashir’s NCP government and John Garang’s SPLM in 2004, and then intervening in South Sudan’s civil war between 2013 and 2018. And now in Khartoum, since the second coup in October 2019.

In Tigray, IGAD’s strengths became its major drawbacks. Bullied by Addis Ababa, it could not act without the approval of the Ethiopian state – a state of paralysis it shared with the Addis Ababa-headquartered African Union. In the end, secret arms deals between Gulf States and the Ahmed Abiy regime changed the course of the war. It was drones supplied by the Abiy’s Emirati and Turk friends that strafed the overstretched Tigrayan Defence Forces column advancing towards Addis Ababa, forcing them back into Tigray where a year-long siege forced them to the negotiating table in Pretoria.

The peace deal was eventually crafted under US tutelage, marginalising IGAD’s role in resolving the conflict. The same rings true for Somalia, where Qatar, Turkiye, the UAE, the US and the UK hold the most leverage over Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, the current president.

Similarly, IGAD’s mediation of the civil war in South Sudan (2013-2018) came with the added complication of balancing the region’s oscillating positions, which were often influenced by Washington behind the scenes, or other members of the Troika (that is, Norway and the United Kingdom), against those of the dominant regional powers, who were themselves often interested in cutting backroom deals with individual members of the troika to advance their own narrow interests. However, it was ultimately IGAD’s commitment to the peace process that delivered the breakthrough agreement in September 2018.

A history of competing cartographies

But the Horn’s geopolitics are now increasingly shaped by rich Gulf hegemons for whom the region is a theatre for their competing commercial interests and ideological positions. In the ongoing conflict in Sudan, Saudi-Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) appear to hold the most leverage over the feuding generals, alongside Washington and London – the so-called ‘Quad’. More than anything, it is the growing influence of the larger Muslim world on the Horn of Africa that has become a determining factor in conflicts in the region.

Separated from the Middle East by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden by as little as 60km, the colonial, cultural, religious and kinship ties between the old Ottoman Empire and the Horn of Africa are often overlooked, obscured by more recent readings of the Muslim world that privilege the colonial cartography of France and Britain. Consequently, while old-fashioned geopolitical analysis remains preoccupied with China’s growing influence in the region – as a counterweight, usually presented as problematic, to the West – Middle Eastern countries, especially the axis of Saudi-Arabia and the UAE on one side, and Qatar and Turkiye on the other, still operate below the radar of serious analysis.

Over the past two decades, however, Middle Eastern countries have been quietly building their influence in the Horn through bilateral military support and public infrastructure projects. In countries such as Somalia, Muslim states’ investments far outweigh Chinese capital. In the Horn, the UAE-based port logistics company, Dubai Ports World, has not only won 30-year concessions to develop and operate ports at Berbera in Somaliland and Bosaaso in Somalia’s semi-autonomous, federal state of Puntland, but it is negotiating a similar deal at the port of Kismayo in southern Somalia. A potential deal with Kenya to run the port of Mombasa leaked in 2022, causing a public outcry. The UAE government also has plans to establish military bases across the Horn. In sum, the Middle Eastern print in countries such as Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan is widening, with important consequences.

In Sudan, Saudi-Arabia and the UAE have long sought to shape events, seeing the transition from the disastrous three-decades long rule of Omar Ahmad al-Bashir as a way to roll back Islamist influence and stabilise the region. Investors from both Saudi-Arabia and the UAE have a range of interests in Sudan, from agricultural enterprises to an airline and strategic ports on the Red Sea coast. In this way, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have maintained a relationship with the feuding generals since they took power in 2021.

The return of al-Bashir’s Islamist crew

It is now known that the recent public appearance of Ali Karti, former foreign minister in the Bashir regime and currently the Secretary-General of the Islamic Movement, who has close relations with Islamists in SAF, irked both Saudi-Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, another rich Gulf state with geopolitical ambitions in the Horn of Africa, is known to be supportive of Islamist movements across the region. On learning that Bashir-era Islamists may be rising again under the SAF, the RSF, supported by Saudi-Arabia and the UAE, increased its deployments in Khartoum, intensifying tensions between al-Burhan and Hemedti.

Egypt, one of the few African countries holding some influence in Sudan, especially with Al-Burhan, successfully negotiated a ceasefire during the first week of the conflict, but only so that it could evacuate its 177 troops, based mostly in the northern town of Merowe, after which fighting resumed. At its southern border with Sudan, through which many civilians are fleeing the intensifying conflict, Egyptian officials seem reluctant to let in refugees, causing a serious humanitarian crisis at the border.

Libya, the other African country seemingly involved in the conflict, has denied its role in fanning the rift between the SAF and RSF. While Hemedti has accused Egypt of supporting Al-Burhan by sending soldiers and fighter jets to help the SAF – allegations that Egypt has denied – Libyan warlord, Khalifa Haftar, has reportedly sent military supplies to Hemedti’s RSF, which he also denies. Russia’s Wagner Group, suspected of supporting Hemedti, has denied that it is involved in Sudan. The US, the other instrumental actor in Sudan, has focussed most of its attention on evacuating its citizens, a request granted by Al-Burhan a few days after the fighting began.

Strange bedfellows

South Sudan, which exports its oil outputs of 170, 000 barrels per day via a 1,600-km pipeline through Sudan, its northern neighbour, has reported a disruption of logistics and transport links between its oilfields and Port Sudan. Its diplomats and military generals have offered to negotiate a truce between Al-Burhan and Hemedti, but this request, coming from an IGAD member that has itself endured conflict for several years, was derided in some quarters.

But it would be a mistake to ignore its significance, not least because of the history between Khartoum and Juba and a strong sense of reciprocity. Both Al-Burhan and Hemedti helped negotiate the 2018 peace deal between South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit and its current first vice-president, Riek Machar Teny. When Al-Bashir was ousted in 2019, South Sudan staged the Juba Agreement for Peace in Sudan, between the Transitional Government of Sudan, headed by then Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, Al-Burhan and other rebel movements in Sudan.

The Juba Peace Agreement considered various transitional justice issues, including the structure of government of a future Sudan and the parameters of absorption of the various armed movements into government forces. It was overtaken by the 25 October 2021 coup. Universal condemnation of the coup, including a suspension of Sudan from the AU, opened room for the beginning of the Tripartite Mechanism.

The FA sought to remove any formal role for the military in Sudan’s politics. The Tripartite  mechanism that facilitated the FA also involved more than 40 civilian entities in the deliberations, including the Forces of Freedom and Change-Central Council (FFC-CC) – the only one of the three factions of the splintered 2019 protest movement willing to negotiate with the military – and a number of political parties and CSOs, notably including the Call for Sudan’s People Initiative, and former armed movements, all allied to the military.

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