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Sudanese critical of exclusion of civilians in ceasefire talks

Warring factions in Saudi Arabia to negotiate a ceasefire, but civilian representatives are notably absent from the talks.

(CN) — Five days into diplomatic negotiations on the conflict in Sudan that has led to more than 600 deaths since April, the absence of a civilian perspective in negotiations backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is casting doubt on what measure of peace they can broker.

“We have continued to negotiate with the men with guns, giving them a kind of legitimacy they do not deserve,” said Eric Reeves, a professor emeritus at Smith College who has been studying Sudan for nearly a quarter-century. “The talks themselves are a farce.”

Representatives for the warring Sudanese Army (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary have been meeting since Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to establish a ceasefire and facilitate humanitarian aid. Before stepping in with Saudi Arabia to facilitate the negotiations, however, the U.S. was among Western nations whose efforts to broker a civilian government transition for Sudan unraveled last month into the still-ongoing carnage.

“I don’t think there is any game plan in the State Department or anywhere else in the U.S. government for how to effect a transition to civilian government,” Reeves said in a phone interview. “We’re just giving lip service to it.”

The U.S. largely evacuated its personnel from Sudan almost three weeks ago, as did other countries, and the State Department has facilitated the departure of more than 2,000 people from the country since that time.

Muzan Alneel, a Sudanese activist who fled Khartoum last week for Port Sudan, said the U.S. shares blame for the situation and isn’t supporting a lasting peace by excluding civilian representatives from the talks in Jeddah.

“I’m not following what the international community is doing. I think it’s a waste of time,” she said by phone Wednesday. “The people of Sudan are taking charge of their own resources.”

Alneel said the United States has long failed to adequately support democracy in Sudan.

“We cannot just draw a line and say they’ve messed up since the coup,” she said. “They’ve been messing up for a long time.” 

Mohamed Osman, executive director of Alberdi, a human rights organization based in Sudan, similarly said the negotiations are just “wasting time.” He said it is a ploy for the SAF and RSF to solidify their military positions.

“These parties of the conflict, they are just reinforcing themselves and want time to reinforce themselves so they just accepted the negotiations,” he said by phone Wednesday from Uganda. “I don’t think they just went to that site to get a real ceasefire or a real agreement”

Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, who served as chief of staff to former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok during the transition, wrote in a column this week that the talks “may have been founded on good intentions, but [are] riddled with deficiencies and defects that render it absurd.”

Without civilian leadership in negotiations, Eltayeb predicted the talks could only generate “another power-sharing deal or short-term understanding that was behind the causation of this war in the first place.” 

“The US steered discussions by favouring certain civilian political actors and individuals and giving them the monopoly of representing the civil movement in Sudan,” he wrote. “But upon discovering its grave mistake, its tactic has been to gloss over it, and not engage the civilians at all, without considering for a minute how this approach is handing the country to the realm of the military and cementing it.”

Despite several announced ceasefires that have been touted by the State Department, Osman and Alneel said the fighting has never stopped. 

“If the U.S. government or the Western governments are just trying to connect with these armies, they cannot stop this,” Osman said. “They have to find a way to talk to those civilians who were a part of the negotiations before this war.”


In a statement to Courthouse News, a State Department spokesperson stressed that the Jeddah negotiations are narrowly focused on “ceasing hostilities” and facilitating “humanitarian arrangements.” They said “many Sudanese civilian groups have all issued supportive statements” of the negotiations.

“Separate from the talks, we are engaging Sudanese civilian leaders, Resistance Committees, and civil society on how to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, harmonize civilian and international assistance efforts, and ways to support their efforts to achieve civilian democratic governance in the future,” the statement says. “We are engaging with Sudanese civilian leaders, Resistance Committees, and civil society to work toward the shared goal of establishing civilian democratic governance in Sudan as soon as possible, and to harmonize civilian and international assistance efforts."

Alneel said outside governments have focused only on expediency in peace negotiations, but have continued to prop up brutal military rule.

“I don’t see the way to peace is by rewarding criminals,” she said. 

Mai Hassan, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ahmed Kodouda, a doctoral student at George Washington University, said Western governments need to rethink a civilian transition that doesn’t elevate the generals.

“The past four years have shown that it is foolish to assume that armed actors will willingly cede power. Although domestic civil society groups advocated for a genuinely civilian-led transition, foreign powers subordinated the goal of a democratic transition to the ostensible objective of short-term stability by negotiating with — and thus legitimizing — the generals,” Hassan and Kodouda wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine. “This time around, civil society groups and grassroots movements should steer the transition process from the outset. And as long as civilians are at the helm, Sudan’s international partners should avoid imposing arbitrary deadlines on negotiators.”

The brewing conflict is the latest in a string of foreign policy missteps that can be traced to the Obama administration, Reeves said.

“I’ve seen butchered policies, I’ve seen international incompetence on a grand scale,” he said. “That’s what we’re seeing now.”

Relations between the U.S. and Sudan soured when Omar al-Bashir rose to power in a military coup in 1989. 

Although the International Criminal Court eventually charged al-Bashir with crimes against humanity for genocide in Darfur, former President Barack Obama started to normalize relations with Sudan at the start of his administration. 

Reeves said Obama’s goal was to support counterintelligence work rather than purely human rights concerns. One of Obama’s last acts was to lift a trade embargo on Sudan, which came as the White House commended the country for limiting travel of Islamic State militants.

The Sudanese people have been pushing for democracy, Reeves said, with uprisings suppressed in 2013 and 2018. 

Eventually, a popular uprising in 2019 gained support from the military, and al-Bashir was ousted with the help of the Rapid Support Forces. The army is now led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces are headed by Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan. 

The SAF and RSF shared power with civilian leaders in a transitional government to move Sudan to democracy, but that transition was delayed when the SAF and RSF ousted civilian leaders in 2021. The military leaders had been expected to hand over power to civilian leadership in an internationally brokered deal, but the plan fell apart when a power struggle erupted on April 15.

Alneel said the international community forced civilian leadership into partnership with the generals and ignored warnings that al-Burhan and Hamdan were going to seize power.

“When we asked for a full civilian government they forced those war criminals on us,” she said.

Eltayeb said one of the biggest failures of the West following the 2021 coup is not giving consequences to the military leaders. 

“This fed their lusting for more power and their illusions of legitimacy in the absence of any discourse about political accountability for their actions,” he wrote. “Clearly, the catastrophic approach contributed to the escalating tension and polarisation that has erupted in the current conflict.”

Last week, President Joe Biden opened avenues for the State and Treasury departments to impose sanctions on anyone deemed complicit in the current fighting, undermining a civilian government, attacking civilians or committing human rights abuses. Despite that, none have been announced against the generals.

Reeves, who is highly critical of the U.S. approach to Sudan, doesn’t see a lasting peace on the horizon.

“You can’t have two armies, two generals in one beleaguered country that is under extreme economic distress, and not expect chaos,” he said. “It’s not going to end in Jeddah, and it’s not going to end anytime soon.”

Alneel said the best hope for peace will come when the generals realize they don’t enjoy popular support. 

“It only makes sense that as this process moves on, they will see that they are losing control over the public,” she said. “People have power.”

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