Tension continues to mark peace negotiations in Juba between Sudan’s transitional government and rebels in the east and south of the country.
The third round of talks, which are being mediated by the government of South Sudan and kicked off last week, were postponed for a day to make room for more direct consultations.
However, Sudan’s Sovereign Council announced that, while indirect talks between the parties would continue, direct talks would be postponed until February, which comes at the end of the six-month window to strike a peace accord set out in the August 17 constitutional declaration.
The declaration was signed by military and civilian representatives to form a transitional government after months of negotiations in the wake of the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. According to the power-sharing agreement, the transitional government was mandated to resolve the war in Darfur and conflicts in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile within six months.
Ahead of the start of the latest round of talks last week, several actors maintained hope that a breakthrough might happen.
“The government has a real will to remove all the problems that caused the war in Sudan,” Sovereign Council member Mohammed Hassan al-Taishi told media outlets before heading to the talks in Juba. “This present opportunity has not existed before in the country’s history.”
Sudan’s largest rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement-North, led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, also declared its desire for “the two sides to achieve a genuine breakthrough.”
However, with this latest round of talks postponed, the negotiations have accomplished little by way of tangible results so far.
What exactly has stymied the optimism that prevailed in September, when the first round of talks were held, leaving little to show four months into the six-month mandated period?
Sources close to the negotiations and several actors involved who spoke to Mada Masr paint a picture of the military wing of Sudan’s transitional government, led by Vice President of Sudan’s Military Council General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti,” as leveraging its position over rebel groups to derail talks and extend divisions within the opposition camp, an aim that might work to forestall the formation of a new Parliament. Meanwhile, the military wing’s actions and those of regional capitals, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, both of which have sided with Sudan’s military leadership since Bashir’s ouster, have eroded South Sudan’s already weak position to effectively mediate the talks by pushing to move the talks to Cairo and Dubai.
Fragile agreements and a bid for control by Sudan’s military faction
The transitional government’s negotiations with rebel groups are proceeding along two axes.
The first includes the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a union of five armed movements: the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Movement (al-Nur) and the Sudan Liberation Movement (Minnawi), all of which were active in Darfur, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (Agar), which operates in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The second axis sees the government negotiating with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North faction led by Abdelaziz al-Hilu, which is considered the strongest armed faction in the country after Sudan’s Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces militias led by Hemedti.
The government walked away from the first two rounds of negotiations having agreed to a ceasefire with the SRF in both rounds, despite the fact that a ceasefire has already been in place for two years. The “political declaration” also included “confidence-building” measures such as the release of prisoners of war. The results of talks with Hilu’s faction were more limited, as the two sides only agreed on an agenda for the negotiations.
The frail terms of the SRF’s agreements with the government underline the wide gap in leverage between the two axes.
The SRF, which includes civil and militant actors, has repeatedly announced declarations of a ceasefire over the last two years. However, several factions of the SRF have been militarily weakened by successive strikes against Darfur movements carried out by the Hemedti-led Rapid Support Forces over the last few years. Many of these factions were forced to retreat inside Libyan territory, fighting alongside Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army, an ally to Egypt, according to a report by the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan.
The power of the SPLM-North, the faction of the group controlled by Malik Agar and which is part of the SRF, has declined after most forces joined the faction of the group under Hilu, with its Nuba Mountains stronghold, according to sources who defected from the movement.
These sources think that the SRF needs to sign an agreement in order to bring together its factions, which have been weakened militarily and are suffering from internal divisions and fragmentations. The urgency to come to the bargaining table is only exacerbated by the fact that the SRF’s closest ally in the government of South Sudan is also in political turmoil and in need of a political victory to improve its image amid political uncertainty.
Sources close to the negotiations tell Mada Masr that the agreement between the government and SRF in October was “more of a favor” to the South Sudan government and its mediation efforts, so as to give an impression that a breakthrough in the peace process happened under Juba’s aegis. Meanwhile, Juba itself is facing unprecedented difficulties in actualizing the peace agreement that was to end its own civil war — an agreement that was signed more than a year ago in Khartoum and was sponsored by Bashir.
Perhaps the military wing of the transitional government’s strongest card in the talks is its proximity to South Sudan’s opposition leader Riek Machar, who has been residing in Khartoum since before Bashir was ousted. The refusal of Machar, who has been based in Khartoum since he fled South Sudan as clashes erupted in Juba in 2016, to facilitate smooth discussions in South Sudan’s own peace negotiations would only further harm Juba’s international image.
Machar’s visit to Juba, which coincided with the launch of the first and second rounds of the negotiations, can be considered a message from Khartoum’s generals to President Salva Kiir’s government that Sudan is willing to pursue “mutual cooperation” in achieving a breakthrough in each country’s peace process under the right conditions.
South Sudan’s rival factions agreed to extend the pre-transitional period in order to “to make further progress on critical benchmarks, including security arrangements and the number and boundaries of states, to allow for the formation of an inclusive transitional Government of national unity.” Machar refused to participate in forming a new cabinet in November, despite the pressure deployed by the UN Security Council delegation during its visit in October when the delegation met with all actors in South Sudan.
At the center of all this is Hemedti, who sources close to the South Sudanese government say has used his political, military and economic clout to put himself forward as the arbiter able to speak to armed groups on the ground and bring about peace far better than a civilian figure. The sources add that Hemedti has provided financial support to South Sudan during its pre-transition period, to prop up the perilous process.
Analysts previously told Mada Masr that Hemedti has tried to open inroads for rebel groups to participate in the transitional government, a position that the Sudanese opposition umbrella group, the Coalition for Freedom and Change, hasn’t been as open to.
While the SRF and Freedom and Change Coalition held talks in Ethiopia in August, the outcome of the negotiations did not make its way into the August power-sharing deal, leaving the SRF on the outside of the transitional government.
For the analysts who previously spoke to Mada Masr, Hemedti is trying to use the peace negotiations to pit armed rebel groups against the Freedom and Change Coalition in a bid to weaken the structures set up in the August constitutional declaration, which would allow the Sovereign Council to take more unilateral action in the absence of a parliamentary body, the formation of which is conditional on the conclusion of peace talks.
For Salah al-Doma, a professor of political science at Omdurman Islamic University, Hemedti is speaking to the ambitions of rebel groups to gain inroads into the power-sharing in a bid to cause splits among the former allies in opposition to the military and Bashir.
“By declaring that they may postpone the formation of the transitional parliament and the appointment of the governors until the conclusion of the peace talks, the military component is working to divide the civilian and armed components of the revolution and to deepen their dispute over the power-sharing agreement,” Doma tells Mada Masr.
In the last week of talks, the conflict between the two opposition groups rose to the surface again, when the subject of the FCC’s inclusion in the negotiations arose.
Mohamed Hassan, the spokesperson for the Sudan Liberation Movement (Minnawi), a faction of the SRF, told Mada Masr that they totally rejected the participation of the FFC in the talks. Hassan said that the SLM (Minnawi) has already tried to pursue power-sharing with the FFC, but the opposition group failed to live up to its promises.
“You know the FFC hasn’t committed to the power-sharing agreement we achieved last August in Addis Ababa, and they formed the government without our participation. So we rejected their participation in the talks, and we even put it clearly that we may withdraw from the talks if their delegation comes to Juba,” Hassan said.
Secularism or the right to self-determination
Like the SRF talks, negotiations with Hilu’s faction have failed to make much progress in the first two rounds, but for different reasons.
Despite a rocky start to the second round of talks that saw Hilu’s faction pull out of talks after SPLM forces were attacked by government forces, the two sides reached an agreement on the content of the negotiations agenda, which prioritized political and humanitarian issues over security arrangements, a concession Khartoum’s delegations had refused to offer during Bashir’s era, causing the failure of more than 18 rounds of negotiations.
Sources from the SPLM delegation consider this arrangement of agenda priorities as a victory for their movement since Bashir’s government consistently conditioned negotiations on installing security arrangements first, which would have allowed it to clamp down on the SPLM and evade the political steps required to address the roots of the conflict and achieve lasting peace.
The government’s delegation under Hemedti leadership showed more willingness to engage with Hilu’s aims in the negotiations than it had with those of the SRF, in large part due to the discrepancy in military power between the two groups.
However, this willingness reached a limit when it came to the SPLM’s demands to either abandon the state’s backing of Islam and embrace a “secular Sudan” or allow the right to self-determination in the Nuba Mountains.
According to sources close to the talks, the government’s delegation rejected the proposal for the right to self-determination, arguing that the transitional government does not have the jurisdiction to agree to such critical decisions. The delegation also pointed out that the constitutional declaration governing the transitional period does not mention Islamic rule, and that the process of amending all laws constraining freedoms, citizenship rights, and freedoms of belief and expression is currently ongoing under the supervision of the justice minister and the Cabinet.
While there have been rumors that the SPLM has backed away from its demands in the talks over the last week, Aljak Mahmoud, the SPLM’s spokesperson, told Mada Masr that this is still the group’s primary aim, denying that any breakthrough had been made in the talks.
Regional race erodes Juba’s standing as mediator
The fragility of South Sudan’s mediation, Juba’s inability to enforce peace in the south of Sudan, and the lack of international interest in the negotiations have opened the door for regional interventions, according to several sources close to the talks.
The conflicting agenda of the negotiating parties, regional tensions between Juba and several African capitals, in addition to the conflict between the two Gulf axes represented by Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt on the other, all play a role in exacerbating this competition for influence over the talks.
Several SRF factions held a series of meetings in Egypt, which included a meeting that included representatives of the Freedom and Change Coalition, before an expansive meeting was later held in a resort in Egypt’s Red Sea city of Ain Sokhna, which included armed and civil factions.
A source close to the movement told Mada Masr that the head of the Justice and Equality movement’s delegation Gibril Ibrahim, who earlier welcomed moving the negotiations to Doha in response to a request by the Qatari government to uphold its historical claim to managing the Darfur peace file, left the headquarters of the negotiations to Cairo after intensified communications with the Egyptian authorities, who pushed to halt any movement in Qatar’s direction.
Meanwhile, a source close to the Sudan Liberation Movement (Minnawi) added that Mini Minnawi, who controls the largest faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement, also requested moving the negotiations from Juba to other capitals, arguing that Juba is in a weak financial position to support the negotiations and proposing Abu Dhabi instead.
While Minnawi publicly stated he could not attend the October negotiations for health reasons, the source says that there is a growing distance between Minnawi and his former allies in Juba, adding that he is attempting to avoid signing a rushed agreement with other revolutionary factions that will not guarantee him a fair share of power.
In the same context, Chad’s capital N’Djamena hosted talks between Hemedti and Minnawi, which served as a bridge for Hemedti’s rapprochement with several armed movements, fueling speculation that the military is trying to pull rebel groups away from the civilian component of the transitional council.
Among the competing capitals, Addis Ababa is still strongly present. A few days before the Juba talks kicked off in October, it hosted talks between the Sudanese government and Hilu’s factions, in addition to sponsoring the well-known meetings between the Freedom and Change Coalition and the SRF.
The African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development granted Addis Ababa a delegation to sponsor the negotiations, which was led by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan under the leadership of former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The international competition came to a head at the launch of the second round of talks in October, which were delayed by two days as parties attempted to move the negotiations from Juba to Cairo, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Addis Ababa.
While an intense round of talks was able to bring the parties together in Juba for a second round and again last week, the government of South Sudan’s standing was only further eroded, leaving a vacuum for the strongest actors to assert their will.