The Problem with Peacekeeping
The Problem with Peacekeeping
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

The Problem with Peacekeeping

After a decade of dramatic failures in the 1990s—in Somalia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone—peacekeeping operations are coming back into fashion as a primary international tool for protecting civilians in Africa. The United Nations and the African Union (AU), sometimes supported by the European Union, are increasing the number of peacekeepers on the continent this year, with new missions in, among other places, Sudan’s Darfur region, Chad, the Central African Republic, and Somalia. Four other peacekeeping missions were already in place before this latest surge of operations—in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Sudan. This expanded activity is a direct result of the UN Security Council’s finally accepting the need to challenge state authority and explicitly mandate peacekeeping missions to protect civilians under imminent threat. This should be good news, right?

Recent peacekeeping operations have indeed achieved notable successes in Africa. Yet, paradoxically, their success has not been in the area of civilian protection. The UN mission in Congo (Monuc) efficiently supported the peace process in the DRC and deserves considerable credit for the successful organization of Congo’s 2005 constitutional referendum and 2006 general elections. Yet in its efforts over the past five years to save lives in eastern Congo, it has performed abysmally.

Likewise, Unamid (the UN–AU mission in Darfur) is unlikely to provide much relief to Darfurian civilians under attack from the janjaweed militia, Khartoum’s bombardments, or rebels. And the current pressure on the UN to take over Amisom (the AU mission in Somalia) and deploy a peacekeeping operation in that country—in the absence of a viable peace process—is completely ill-conceived.

Conflicts such as those in Sudan, Somalia, Chad, and the DRC are mostly extreme manifestations of power struggles over resources, land, and political representation, combined with problems of ethnic marginalization and state collapse. Their resolution or settlement can only be found in negotiated political agreements that tackle the roots of the conflicts. The protection of civilians must be part of a political strategy that reduces short- and longterm risks for the population while addressing the need for immediate life-saving actions. Yet, tragically, peacekeeping missions dispatched to “protect civilians” have in the past lacked, and still today lack, the support, courage, and/or means to address the political rationales behind the violence.

The military component of a peacekeeping mission is only as effective as the mission’s political masters make it. When asked last year if the 26,000-person force approved for Unamid by the UN Security Council were sufficient, Salim Ahmed Salim, the AU’s Special Envoy for Darfur, rightly responded that what matters is “not how large a force it is but what they have come to defend,” since “without an agreement on peace, even a force of 50,000 can’t change the situation here radically.” A UN Security Council peacekeeping mandate with civilian protection provisions can only be implemented in the context of a political agreement. And the implementation of a mandate depends on the will to interpret it politically and to enforce it with the means provided.

This might seem obvious. Yet the international community is still advancing humanitarian and military efforts as quick-fix solutions to combat abuses against civilian populations in the absence of a proper political framework. Currently neither Chad nor Somalia nor Sudan’s Darfur region have viable peace agreements to implement. And when such an agreement has been established, a peacekeeping operation still cannot fulfill its responsibilities unless political pressure and engagement are sustained.

The Congo Confrontation

The August 2006 military confrontation in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, is a good example of what happens when the international community aban- dons the implementation of a peace process in favour of bilateral interests and at the expense of civilian protection. Following the announcement of election results that showed President Joseph Kabila ahead in the first round of voting, his presidential guard clashed in the capital over several days with forces loyal to his principal opponent, Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. It was well known in the diplomatic community that the presidential guard was an oversized praetorian force involved in human rights violations wherever it was stationed. Yet Kabila adamantly refused to discuss reining in these forces, and international political actors either ignored the problem or dismissed it. The presence of Bemba’s troops was also ignored during the transition to elections, even though they too were a potential threat to civilians in the capital.

The failure to demobilize these troops or to integrate them into the army as part of the political transition permitted the confrontation that caused hundreds of civilian deaths. For months the international community treated the faceoff between the military forces as a technical problem of army integration and disarmament. Neither Monuc nor the diplomatic corps managed to engage the conflicting parties in political discussions to resolve the issue. Partly as a result, another military clash occurred in March 2007, killing hundreds more people, mostly civilians.

Meanwhile, the problem posed by renegade General Laurent Nkunda in eastern Congo is partly the result of five years of failed peacekeeping in that region. This situation, too, could and should have been tackled politically during the transition. Several plans to address the problem comprehensively have been suggested to Monuc and the transitional Congolese government. Instead, the crisis in the province of North Kivu intensified in 2007 because the government, Monuc, and international donors were not interested in dealing with—or refused outright to deal with—the issue politically. They put all their hopes for resolution in the electoral process and in Kabila’s victory, and addressed the Nkunda insurgency with a military containment strategy.

The reason for giving priority to military engagement in the name of—but, in fact, at the expense of—civilian protection was simple: The UN mission, the EU, and all major embassies were unwilling to decisively pressure the Congolese actors, Kabila in particular, to structure and sustain a reliable and successful political negotiation process, which ultimately is the only way to end such deadly insurgencies. The same mistakes are being repeated in other African theaters of intervention.

The Darfur Dilemma

In Darfur in particular, public pressure has drawn attention to the international community’s inability to protect civilians. The consolidation of initiatives under the AU–UN banner will only bear fruit over time if negotiations go beyond the superficial sticking points—such as compensation for crimes committed, and janjaweed disarmament— and deal with the root causes of the conflict. That means establishing greater and more equal representation of Darfurians at local and national levels, and greater sharing of wealth. Despite the humanitarian effort on the ground, civilians in Darfur continue to suffer because the international community has put insufficient political pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to ensure that the government adheres to its past commitments. Addressing the root causes of the problem, and providing international support, will also be crucial if Unamid is to make a difference on the ground and avoid becoming a new scapegoat, blamed for its impotence in the effective protection of Darfurian civilians.

Finally, military operations usually create a void that needs to be filled by reformed government structures. Any peacekeeping force engaged in forceful disarmament of militias and area domination can only carry out these activities for a few days. Once a vacuum is created, it has to be filled by agreed state structures. If not, the same or other armed groups will quickly regain or expand their territorial control. The protection of civilians can only be successful operationally in partnership with the state. There is no way around that.

Sadly, in Darfur and beyond, the world seems more willing to contribute money to humanitarian efforts than to tackle the causes of conflicts. Peacekeeping missions are often used as a Band-Aid for complex conflicts, and are rarely equipped to do the political work that is vital to addressing the causes. In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.

Contributors

Former Program Director, Africa
Former Deputy Director, Africa Program

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.

Background

By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
     
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
     
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
     
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
     
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
     
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

The October 25 Coup and Its Aftermath

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.

Recommendations

The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
     
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
     
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
     
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.


Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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