Since conflict broke out in Sudan on April 15, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has monitored the security situation carefully to ensure the safety and well-being of our team in the country. IFES Board member Jeffrey Feltman provides context on the conflict and what it means for Sudan’s hopes for democracy. Feltman served as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa for the Department of State from April 2021 to January 2022.
Is there a path to de-escalate the fighting between Sudan’s military factions?
Without question, de-escalation and a ceasefire must be the top priority. Tragically, Sudan’s citizens are the collateral damage in the generals’ lust for exclusive power. Clearly, the world has recognized the dire implications for Sudan and beyond this conflict—notice, for example, the number of institutions and national leaders calling for an immediate ceasefire. Remarkably, this includes the United Nations Security Council, despite the polarization in the Council because of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine.
That said, getting to a ceasefire will be hard. Generals Burhan and Hemetti, and their respective services, have long had bureaucratic, institutional, and ethnic rivalries and jealousies. But with the fall of Omar Bashir in 2019, they entered into a marriage of convenience over shared goals—shared goals of protecting the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under General Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Security Services (RSF) under Hemetti from accountability and from ever having to report to civilian authorities. They were postured as partners to Sudanese politicians and to the international community as being with the transition program, but they never were truly committed to this. In October 2021, they cooperated in jailing the civilian prime minister, his cabinet, and others, effectively derailing the transitional civilian-military partnership that was supposed to oversee Sudan’s transition to democratic elections in 2024.
But left unanswered in this uneasy partnership was which of the two generals would prevail if those civilians could be sidelined. Now we have what the SAF and RSF both see as an existential threat. That the stakes are so high for the generals makes de-escalation extremely difficult. Regional leaders may have the credibility and influence, and desire to facilitate a ceasefire, as an emergency session of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) suggested. But with the airport now contested territory, it is hard to see how the Kenyan, Djiboutian, and South Sudanese presidents, assigned by IGAD as facilitators, meet with the belligerents.
The best case scenario in the short term, I believe, is a humanitarian ceasefire to allow evacuations and for Sudanese civilians to get essential supplies. The regional leaders and others might find ways to extend the humanitarian ceasefire and build upon it. But even this kind of de-escalation will be extremely fragile, I fear.
What consequences will this conflict have for the region?
What happens in Sudan will not stay in Sudan. Egypt is not going to sit by idly while its soldiers and military assets in Meroe (northeast of Khartoum) are in RSF custody. Saudi Arabia must be observing Sudan with great unease, knowing that, if this evolves into a full-scale civil war, refugees will not just flow into contiguous land neighbors but also across the Red Sea. Chad is enduring its own difficult transition, and having Darfur in flames again will surely spill over there and even in Libya. Russia’s Wagner group is entrenched in Sudan, in gold smuggling schemes that have enriched Hemetti, and having a swath of territory from Bangui in the Central African Republic to Khartoum would pose geopolitical challenges beyond the Horn. While I think that the Ethiopian government already has its hands full, I expect that there will be hardliners among the Amhara who will want to exploit Sudan’s woes to assert control over the disputed Fashaga farmland area along the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. And Isaias Afwerki, the longtime autocratic ruler of Eritrea, would be all too happy to see internal divisions in larger, more powerful neighbors, leaving him relatively more influential.
What does this situation mean for longer-term prospects for democratic governance in Sudan?
Members of the heroic Sudanese Resistance Committees that were the primary engine behind Bashir’s ouster may be sheltering in place at the moment, but I find it unlikely they are going to surrender their aspirations for democratic, civilian rule to either Burhan or Hemetti or their would-be successors. Street pressure on both security officials and the political class will at some point resume—brute force under Bashir or around the October 2021 coup did not end the Resistance Committees’ protests. In fact, attempts at suppression just heightened the civilians’ demands.
But here’s the problem: Let’s assume—and let’s hope—that a ceasefire is obtained and endures sufficiently to re-open a window for a political process. What politician is going to be able to sit down with a SAF or RSF general after this violence? Perhaps this was never stated explicitly, but the status quo ante in terms of a political process assumed that, one way or another, the SAF and RSF and their leaders could somehow be cajoled or brought along a path that would ultimately lead to democratic elections and civilian control over the army and RSF. That implicit assumption is another casualty of this internecine struggle.
Even before the current clashes, the Resistance Committees were already skeptical of the generals’ commitment to the December Framework Agreement that was designed to establish a civilian government in early April. Re-starting a political process is going to require new thinking on the parts of the Sudanese and their regional and international supporters. I frankly, at this moment in the fighting, do not have creative ideas myself on how the Sudanese and others should deal with Burhan, Hemetti, and their fellow generals, should they remain standing after these fights. I do not myself subscribe to the theory one often hears that Burhan is the relatively “good” general and that Hemetti is the “bad” one—both have demonstrated contempt for the aspirations of Sudanese citizens.
What should the democracy-support community be paying attention to in this conflict, and what, if anything, can we do to address these difficult circumstances?
Let’s watch the region. Will regional actors in the Horn, Egypt, and the Gulf play a constructive role, or will they exacerbate the situation, and pour gasoline on the flames? Can the welcome and stated unity of Sudan’s neighbors and the international community in calling for a ceasefire be turned into something tangible? Unified backing behind the regional leaders’ attempts to facilitate a ceasefire? Perhaps for now, the most important task for all of us is to keep Sudan on the agenda internationally. There is a risk that, if the war continues, the media will turn to other stories, leaving the Sudanese feeling abandoned. And we need creative thinking now on what is possible if there’s a ceasefire (whether through mediation or either the SAF or RSF defeat the other): How to use this awful violence as an opportunity to reset Sudan’s transition on a more promising, civilian-led course to well-prepared and well- timed elections?