Safeguarding Sudan’s precarious peace agreement

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A comprehensive peace agreement with rebel groups will be a major achievement in Sudan’s political transition.

Sudan’s transitional government is expected to sign a comprehensive peace agreement with armed rebel groups of the coalition Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) on 3 October 2020.

Local, regional and international actors have hailed the initial peace agreement signed on 31 August in Juba, South Sudan as an important step towards ending Sudan’s protracted conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

A comprehensive peace agreement will be a major achievement in the transition period, which has set sustainable peace as the first goal of Sudan’s political transition. Many other processes depend upon the peace agreement, including the formation of the transitional Legislative Council, the appointment of civilian state governors, transitional justice, and security sector reform (SSR).

A comprehensive peace agreement will be a major achievement in Sudan's political transition

This is not the first peace agreement signed by the armed groups. The previous agreements, reached before the transition, have all failed to end Sudan's civil wars. This is mainly because not all armed groups signed the agreements and their provisions were not fully implemented.

Given the challenges facing the implementation of the peace agreement and the goal of comprehensive peace, the African Union (AU) should be more engaged in the process, not only as guarantor of the peace agreement but also by providing political and technical support.

The AU can provide technical support in the process of consolidating the various peace agreements, resolve disputes over the interpretation of the agreement's provisions, reconcile the competing positions of different actors, and support further negotiation with holdout rebel groups.

Unresolved issues

Two armed rebel groups -- the Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- North (SPLM-North), led by Abdelaziz El-Hilu, and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), led by Abdelwahid el-Nur from Darfur -- have refused to sign the latest agreement, on the grounds that the peace process has not addressed fundamental conflict drivers. This is a major setback in reaching comprehensive peace in Sudan.

Historical drivers of Sudan's civil wars have been the marginalisation of peripheral regions in the socio-economic and political sphere, and issues of citizenship related to the 'Arabisation' and 'Islamisation' policies of successive Sudanese governments.

In a bid to address these grievances, the latest peace agreement includes a power-sharing arrangement at the national and state level to ensure equitable political representation of the different regions. It allocates seats to armed rebel representatives in the Sovereign Council, the executive and the transitional Legislative Council, as well as state governorships. It also provides for the integration of these groups into the Sudanese Armed Forces. The wealth-sharing component of the peace agreement prioritises resource redistribution and restitution.

It will, however, be difficult to implement these provisions as long as armed groups in Darfur and the two regions are not part of the peace agreement.

While the SLM is refusing to take part in negotiations, El-Hilu is engaging with the transitional government. The two parties signed a joint agreement on 3 September on including discussions on the relationship between state and religion in the peace negotiations. The peace talks will resume after informal consultations with various Sudanese political parties on how religion and politics can be separated.

Previous peace agreements with rebels failed to address this relationship, leading to the secession of South Sudan and continued fighting in the southern regions of Sudan.

Unity of the rebel coalition

The implementation of the latest peace agreement will also depend on the continued unity of the SRF, a coalition of armed rebel groups from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and political groups from northern, central and eastern Sudan.

The SRF have taken part in peace negotiations in five different peace processes (tracks) that have led to multiple peace agreements. The immediate test of its unity will be the process of consolidating these agreements into one comprehensive deal, with competing positions and provisions arising from fundamental differences.

While the rebel coalition has so far demonstrated its ability to work together, it has in the past been plagued by political and ideological disagreements. Its unity may still be threatened by major differences about citizenship issues, the state/religion relationship, governance structure, states' autonomy and legal provisions for the possibility of states' secession.

Sudanese rebel groups and coalitions have a history of splintering. Most recently, the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) announced its withdrawal from the SRF in May 2020. In the past, such divisions have led to splinter groups' rejecting peace agreements, resulting in continued fighting.

In addition to fundamental political and ideological differences, the SRF faces internal disputes arising from personal ambitions, ethnic competition and regional tensions. These may come to the fore as the different groups vie for political representation through their ethnic constituencies.

Without continued unity, the rebel coalition will be unlikely to achieve the change it fought for in Sudan's political arena as the transition into political parties begins. The rebels' ability to see through the implementation of the peace agreement will depend on the strength of their alliance.

Reconfiguring the balance of power

The SRF is a signatory to the Freedom and Change political accord of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the civilian component of the Sovereign Council currently leading Sudan. Armed rebel groups are therefore part of the revolutionary forces that helped bring about the political transition in Sudan.

However, the ability of the armed groups to continue working with members of the FFC has been tested during the transition period.

The rebel coalition accused the FFC of disregarding the provisions of an informal agreement between the two parties concluded in Addis Ababa on 25 July 2019. Consequently, the FFC has only been marginally involved in the peace negotiations. This will create serious challenges in implementing the peace agreement in the post-transition period, when political actors, most of whom are currently part of the FFC coalition, take over government.

Allocating top political positions to the SRF, including in the Sovereign Council, the transitional Legislative Council and state governorships, will significantly alter the dynamics and power relations between major transition actors.

Unless the SRF and FFC overcome their differences and work together to implement the peace agreement, the power shift will be to the disadvantage of the FFC, in terms of the military. This will have serious consequences not only for the implementation of the peace agreement but also for the goals of the entire transition period.

Support for the peace process

The United Nations (UN) and AU should support the peace process going forward, especially as the implementation of the peace agreement and the outstanding negotiations face considerable challenges.

The Implementation Matrix for the peace agreement has been finalised and the technical committees have signed the document. It includes timelines for the rebels' returning to Sudan, signing of the final agreement, beginning the major processes of reshuffling the government and power-sharing agreement, and implementing the quotas in the Sovereign Council and the transitional Legislative Council.

SSR and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of rebels have been scheduled for the next 16 months. This will be preceded by further negotiations and training on the SSR and DDR processes, as per international standards.

While the UN has issued a mandate to the newly established Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) to provide support for the implementation of the peace agreement, the AU is yet to issue a mandate for the peace process. This is despite requests from the negotiating parties for the AU to 'issue a new mandate on Sudan peace negotiations'.

Going forward, the AU should clarify what technical support it will be providing the implementation of the peace agreement and the outstanding peace processes

The AU was instrumental in brokering the political agreement that led to a peaceful transfer of power from the military to the hybrid civilian-military Sovereign Council. Without a clear mandate, however, it has since been only marginally involved in the peace process, through the UN--AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Going forward, the AU should clarify what technical support it will be providing the implementation of the peace agreement and the outstanding peace processes, before the end of UNAMID's mandate in 2020.

The AU should also finalise as soon as possible its Sudan Peacebuilding Strategy, currently under development. The strategy will help to provide direction on its engagement in Sudan's peace process.