The Muddled Diplomacy of Sudan’s Tripartite Mechanism

The international community was largely unprepared to deal with the fallout of Sudan’s October 2021 coup, organized by the country’s military with the support of both rebel groups and Islamists from the era of former President Omar al-Bashir who were seeking to stage a comeback. Though the timing of the coup was a surprise, the clumsily orchestrated pretext for it—the inability of the civilian political coalition the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) to unite diverse political actors and deliver on promises—was openly and widely circulated by the putschists for months leading up to the coup. In the end, not even the entreaty of then US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman the night before the coup could allay the Sudanese generals’ fears around accountability, or stop them from unconstitutionally acting to seize power.

Following the coup and the state of emergency that was enacted immediately thereafter, nearly all international aid to the country ceased, as did any substantive international engagement with the regime of securocrats. Eight months later, both aid and engagement remain essentially halted. Unfortunately, so do effective and novel strategies aimed at building on the momentum of the 2018-2019 protests that ousted then President al-Bashir from power and creating a more positive path forward for Sudan. Coups are not a rare occurrence in the country, but this is the first that has been experienced alongside revolution and has thus led to a political impasse between pro-coup and pro-democracy groups.

Following the Sudan coup and the state of emergency that was enacted immediately thereafter, nearly all international aid to the country ceased, as did any substantive international engagement with the regime of securocrats.

All hope to end this political impasse has been pinned on a tripartite mechanism (TPM) made up of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the African Union (AU), and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). But after a first meeting on June 8, talks were postponed due to the refusal of the FFC, the Communist Party, and popular resistance committees to participate in what they consider an attempt to legitimize the military coup.

The TPM has faced several other challenges that together practically guaranteed the talks’ lack of success, including Sudanese General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan threatening to expel the Head of UNITAMS Volker Perthes, and intense interpersonal conflicts between Perthes and the AU representative in Sudan Mohamed El Hacen Ould Lebatt. But the TPM itself has also made significant missteps that threaten to foreclose any possibility for positive, pro-democratic change in the country. Unless the TPM broadens the network of support for its efforts, both in Sudan and among the international community, its efforts will only serve to further benefit the military putschists who are currently in control of the country.

Asking vs. Mandating

One central challenge facing the TPM is that it lacks an essential aspect of mediation: “the ask.” In order for parties in a mediation to buy into the process, they must have first asked for said mediation, or must otherwise trust that the process will deliver what they need. However, neither UNITAMS nor the TPM as a whole has been able to obtain an ask from either pro or anti-coup parties thus far, or to sufficiently articulate what it plans to deliver for them. UNITAMS maintains that it is not mediating—which falls outside of its mandate—but is rather merely “facilitating.” This distinction, however, may not mean much to the parties involved, and in the end may scuttle the entire attempt.

From the outset, UNITAMS has been working with a credibility deficit. Created to support Sudan’s transition after protestors deposed al-Bashir, the mission suddenly found itself without a transition to support once the 2021 coup took place. Wanting to get the transition back on track as soon as possible, the United Nations and its representatives in Sudan hastily backed a controversial agreement to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok after his arrest and dismissal by the generals responsible for the coup. To compound matters, UN Secretary-General António Guterres condescendingly told Sudanese pro-democracy forces to exercise “common sense” around the deal that ultimately proved to be costly and unworkable.

Wanting to get the transition back on track as soon as possible, the United Nations and its representatives in Sudan hastily backed a controversial agreement to reinstate Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok after his arrest and dismissal by the generals responsible for the coup.

Despite not having secured an ask, UNITAMS still has a mandate to at least facilitate a way out of the post-coup impasse. However, this mandate is externally imposed by the international community, and has consequently hamstrung the TPM’s ability to become locally relevant. In addition, AU’s Lebatt has been criticized by Sudan’s activists as biased toward the Sudanese military because of his work on the 2019 political arrangement that benefited the generals, a fact that impacts his ability to act as an honest broker in the current standoff.

Despite, or perhaps because of this unconstructive political interplay between the UN and the AU, the TPM as a whole possesses little unified political leverage. Take, for example, the state of emergency that was imposed by the leaders of the coup, and that witnessed acute state repression, an increase in violence across the country, and the granting of extralegal powers to security operatives. Despite months of calls by UNITAMS and later the TPM to end the state of emergency and release detainees, it was ultimately visits from western envoys and a UN special rapporteur on human rights that precipitated the lifting of the state of emergency and the release of some detainees in May, 2022. However, the extralegal powers granted to Sudan’s security forces remain in place, and many detainees are still in prison.

Mission Control

The second key challenge facing the TPM is the often oppositional and contradictory ways in which the different wheels of the mechanism have engaged their political mission. The mechanism itself is a hastily cobbled-together joint operation that came into being after tense weeks between UN and AU headquarters. Ironically, UNITAMS, which is a political mission, has not leaned into Sudan’s political complexity, a failure that effectively stops them from better reading and navigating Sudan’s multifaceted and dynamic political landscape. At the launch of the political process on January 8, 2022, six days after Prime Minister Hamdok resigned, UNITAMS had not yet consulted any stakeholders about its new, post-coup operational pivot. It subsequently attempted to play catch-up by means of a six-week consultation process with a variety of stakeholders, the outcomes of which it detailed in a report.

A large proportion of the stakeholders that the UN mission consulted, however, were Khartoum-based groups, many of which consist of political elites, further underscoring the extent to which the mission has failed to reach out to stakeholders in frequently neglected parts of the country.

A large proportion of the stakeholders that UNITAMS consulted, however, were Khartoum-based groups, many of which consist of political elites, further underscoring the extent to which the mission has failed to reach out to stakeholders in frequently neglected parts of the country. By virtue of their position and status, actors with whom UNITAMS consulted already possessed ample platforms to express their positions. As a result, the mission’s report largely served to reiterate elite narratives around the current situation.

Although the report did serve to highlight the overwhelming similarities between groups that were struggling to build a cohesive platform, UNITAM’s initial consultations were devoid of political nuance and thus failed to identify fault lines between and within the groups it consulted, and therefore offered little prospect for supporting coalition-building. Furthermore, the mission ignored power dynamics, placing armed, pro-coup former rebels on equal footing with the families of those killed by security forces since the coup.

A glaring fault in the UNITAMS, and later the TPM process is the ways it both has and has not engaged the pro-democracy revolution’s engine: neighborhood resistance committees. The committees were initially suspicious of a process that primarily advocated a return to the status quo ante of a power sharing government—a scenario few asked for—and as a result, engaged in public disagreements with the UNITAMS head over whether or not their meetings should be made public. This clash underscored a naivete on the part of the UN, and an inability both to recognize the shift in Sudanese politics from partisan to broad-based, coalition-led political change, and to acknowledge who in the country constitutes the more consequential agents of said change. Even though the resistance committees are largely absent from formal mediations today, their steadfast stance of no negotiation, no partnership, and no legitimation vis-à-vis the military has enabled pro-democracy forces to enter into talks with the military from a stronger negotiating position.

Unlike UNITAMS, which has shied away from the political, Lebatt, who is essentially a representative for AU Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat’s political interests in the region, rather than an institutional envoy, has embraced his political objective. The AU was belatedly incorporated into the UN mission’s work, in order to address criticism from General Burhan and others in the pro-coup forces regarding western intervention. It was also meant to constitute an “African solution to an African problem,” which was once a widespread anti-colonial refrain, but has since become co-opted by autocrats for use whenever they are confronted with pressure for change. Lebatt’s addition to the process has resulted in his success in lobbying for the inclusion of (pro-coup) Islamists into direct talks, under tge guise of a “big tent” approach. Meanwhile, fragmented civilian groups, who were wary of the ways in which military actors both threatened and embraced the TPM depending on the direction its decisions took, coalesced around a common stance of rejecting participation in the talks and promising to boycott all future talks, since their participation would have legitimized a wider array of putschists.

IGAD’s impact on the talks has not been significant, except perhaps for the ability of its envoy Ismail Wais in offering a counterbalance to the personalities of the heads of UNITAMS and the AU. As a regional cooperation bloc, IGAD was once the go-to mediator in cases of regional strife. Today, however, IGAD lacks internal coherence, and has become little more than an extension of the regional policy of whichever of its eight member-states is currently in the rotating position of head.

Process over Politics

After months of seemingly schizophrenic rhetoric from putschists over the TPM talks, and following the inclusion of the Islamists, the Sudanese generals finally agreed to attend direct talks, and encouraged others to do the same. The resulting publicly-held meeting on direct talks on June 8 at Al Salam Rotana Hotel in Khartoum—since dubbed “the Rotana talks”—was attended by a constellation of putschists: military and security actors, Islamists, former rebels, and individuals from fragmented political parties vying for position in forthcoming political dispensations. However, both major and minor pro-democracy groups boycotted the talks.

The spectacle of only like-minded actors gathering together at a supposedly inclusive negotiation prompted excoriating commentary on social media, which targeted both the participants and members of the international community who supported the meeting. The absurdity of the talks was made even clearer by the fact that a five-year-old girl was killed by security forces in south Khartoum during the June 8 meeting, a chilling reminder of the repression and violence that still plagues the country, even after the lifting of the state of emergency. In addition, the very next day witnessed particularly brutal repression of pro-democracy protestors.

The TPM mechanism is wedded to the process, regardless of the existence of real changes on the ground.

This series of events reveals the third central challenge facing the TPM: the mechanism is wedded to the process, regardless of the existence of real changes on the ground. Instead of postponing the talks due to the boycott by Sudan’s most consequential pro-democracy group, the TPM went ahead with them as scheduled, which is detrimental to the process. This commitment to timeframes and objectives that are ill-suited to the political stance of pro-democracy forces has been a common feature of the TPM’s approach so far, and particularly in the lead-up to the renewal of its mandate in early June. Similarly, the TPM’s overreliance on vague, ill-defined terms such as “Sudanese-led process” and “civilian-led government,” both of which could easily apply to putschists, has bred suspicion among those the mechanism most needs to engage.

Most of the delays that have occurred since the release of the consultations report seem to center on conflicting perspectives within the TPM regarding developments in the situation, which are due to its insufficient engagement with the concerns of pro-democracy groups. Chief among these concerns are justice and accountability concerning the ongoing violence that the TPM continues to treat as no more than a backdrop to the process, rather than central to it. The perceived indifference of the TPM—and particularly of Perthes following the May 24 UN Security Council briefing—regarding accountability for the killing of protestors has resulted in the mechanism being seen as supportive of the generals. This perception is certainly not aided by the image of only like-minded groups and individuals sitting around an ostensibly inclusive bargaining table. And although pro-democracy groups have been subject to significant pressure from the international community to engage in the talks, doing so under these circumstances would come with a high political cost.

No Longer the Only Game in Town?

Bureaucratic amalgams like the TPM ultimately possess little political leverage. The Sudanese military junta has recently blamed the TPM for what it perceives as a failure to reinstate international funding after the generals agreed to join the talks. This situation not only exposes the Sudanese generals’ ignorance of international structures and mechanisms, it also highlights the perceived inability of the TPM to guarantee a deal. In truth, any deal struck by pro-democracy forces and the junta will need to be bilaterally guaranteed.

In Sudan, the distinction between democracy and stability has been proven to be a fiction.

This understanding spurred the United States and Saudi Arabia to hold a meeting between a four-member FFC delegation and three representatives from the military. The US and the Saudis maintain that this move does not undermine, but rather complements the work of the TPM, which has agreed to temporarily step back. This seems true but only because the TPM seemingly chooses process over politics, while the US-Saudi initiative seems to do the opposite. However, neither group is seen to be particularly pro-democracy—the United States, for example, has not yet characterized the military’s actions as a coup—seeming to instead prefer stability. In Sudan, however, the distinction between democracy and stability has been proven to be a fiction.

What Next?

For the past eight months, Sudan has been without a functioning government. Food insecurity and famine in the Horn of Africa is certain to further harm the country’s already conflict- and coup-ravaged population before the year’s end. But despite this outlook and the need to end the impasse, moving toward a civilian government must be done in a trustworthy and relevant way. The TPM and other initiatives must therefore articulate a clear vision for their approach, and then both obtain and maintain buy-in from all parties, and particularly pro-democracy forces.

While establishing a process is important, unless the TPM and others lean into the complexity of the political situation and make politically smart decisions, they risk distilling a complex set of issues into little more than the matter of which participants joined or did not join the mediation. A robust array of support for the mediation must be established, including the UN’s Mediation Support Unit and several in-country systems and mediation initiatives, which should work in tandem with the TPM to complement efforts. By staying wedded to the process instead of engaging with the concerns of resistance committees, the Sudanese Professionals Association, and the families of martyrs, the TPM and the member states who support it risk becoming irrelevant to both this and future conflicts and mediations. The TPM should break with tired orthodoxies and instead invest in developing new, more relevant mediation pathways that complement Sudan’s rich pro-democracy movement.

Mediators and facilitators must also build credibility with a broad range of Sudan’s people and “indigenize” their work by co-creating their approaches with stakeholders in order to dispel suspicions around international actors’ motivations. In addition, they must be careful not to reify existing political trends such as center-periphery inequity and the privileging of elite narratives. This will require better and more targeted outreach, particularly to women, young people, and internally displaced persons, all of whom are often entirely left out of such processes.

The TPM alone does not have the political leverage to follow through on mechanisms for accountability. It should therefore compel member states of the UN, AU, and IGAD, as well as special offices from all three organizations, to do more to both support those impacted by state violence and to censure those in the security sector who commit these acts. The international community must come together to build safeguards and guarantees for civilian governance in the face of belligerent anti-democracy groups. Currently the TPM is an expression of the international community’s engagement in Sudan, characterized by insufficient innovation, consultation, and imagination about how to confront the issues facing the country.

The African Union must also heed the concerns of civil society and examine the role and contribution of Lebatt as well as the basis for his engagement. As an institution whose role today is perceived to be that of a tool in support of the continent’s dictators, it must do more to support genuine pro-democracy movements, such as Sudan’s, and regain its founding anti-autocracy ethos.

Finally, if international actors are genuinely interested in democratic transition, they must be wary of presenting false choices. The last time the international community chose between peace and democracy (with the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement), neither Sudan nor South Sudan ended up receiving either. This time around, choosing stability over democracy will likely result in a similar outcome, even though Sudan’s people and its robust pro-democracy movement deserve far better.