Can the AU and UN Maintain Common Ground in Support of Sudan’s Transition?

A Sudanese protestor waves the national flag during a demonstration in Khartoum on August 1. (EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP/Getty Images)

Developments around Sudan’s transfer of political power demonstrate why a more strategic partnership between the African Union (AU) and the United Nations, especially at the council levels, matters. The recent volatility shows both the fault lines and the significant opportunities for the two bodies to work together in their efforts to stabilize Sudan.

On July 5, a preliminary power-sharing agreement was reached between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition. The agreement was elaborated into a draft document called the Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Transitional Period, which the two sides approved on August 4. The UN Security Council and AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) now have a significant opportunity to forge a joint strategy to support the Sudanese people. Both councils have unique political entry points to support the Sudanese efforts to resolve their political and security instability.

The provisional arrangement and Constitutional Charter were partly facilitated through AU mediation efforts and others spearheaded by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. They followed months of civil unrest, a coup d’état, atrocities committed against civilians by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, and a breakdown in communication and trust between civilian protesters and the military junta.

Throughout the latest crisis, the PSC has been responsive to developments on the ground. It has issued at least four key communiqués since April 19 condemning the Transitional Military Council’s actions and calling for power to be vested in a transitional civilian-led political authority. On June 6, Sudan was suspended from all AU activities. The continental body’s credibility was further bolstered by the PSC’s rejection of a Transitional Military Council decree calling for the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to hand over its assets to the Rapid Support Forces.

Importantly, the three African member states (A3) on the UN Security Council—Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and South Africa—have remained united in their support of positions stemming from the PSC, and a joint media stakeout on June 6 was one of the first times the A3 provided such an assertive statement on a country-specific situation. This collective approach is encouraging given the generally weak historical institutional links between the A3 and the PSC.

However, numerous fault lines have emerged within the UN Security Council since April, demonstrating how more meaningful cooperation with the PSC can help achieve collective impact. One key challenge was how both councils understand the relationship between Sudan’s current political crisis and the scheduled withdrawal of UNAMID. While some Security Council members (including the co-penholders) advocated for a more cautious drawdown in light of the developments in Khartoum, other members advocated for maintaining the schedule of UNAMID’s transition. This position was largely informed by their deference to the views of the Sudanese government, and their general adherence to principles of state sovereignty and non-interference in member states’ internal affairs. These Security Council divisions were reflected in negotiations leading up to UNAMID’s mandate renewal on June 27.

Prior to the PSC’s suspension of Sudan on June 6, the A3 took a cautious approach that leaned slightly towards continuing the drawdown as scheduled. However, the PSC’s strong position following the suspension gave the A3 a clear mandate and political backing from Addis Ababa. This shift in favor of a temporary pause helped break the Security Council deadlock and ultimately align the body’s resolution more closely with the position taken by the PSC. Through this process, the A3’s bridging role between the two councils has been much more apparent on the Sudan crisis than on any other recent council matters.

The compromises that had to be made within and between the two councils are evident in UN Security Council resolution 2479, which extends UNAMID’s mandate for four months as opposed to the standard practice of one year. Nevertheless, the resolution does underscore a prevailing, albeit fragile, consensus that Sudan’s fluid and tenuous political environment necessitates a temporary pause on UNAMID’s planned drawdown.

The next few months provide a vital window of opportunity for the two organizations to collectively address instability in Sudan. Resolution 2479 asked UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the AU Commission to provide the Security Council with a joint AU-UN political strategy for a follow-up mechanism to UNAMID by September 30. But beyond the UNAMID transition, this joint political strategy needs to articulate how the two organizations and their member states will support efforts to re-engage the peace process for Darfur.

While significant attention has been paid to the agreements between the TMC and the FFC, it is important to consider how they may impact the future of the peace process for Darfur. While the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition initially approved of the provisions to include in the draft Constitutional Charter, the text was allegedly not reflected in the August 4 agreement and led the SRF to reject it. A prominent coordination body for displaced persons in Darfur similarly rejected the draft charter. The next few months become all the more critical as the draft charter identifies one of the immediate priorities for the transitional government as the completion of a comprehensive peace process for Sudan within six months of its ratification.

The onus is therefore on the AU and the UN to clearly articulate their complementary advantages and resulting division of labor for supporting both the transitional government and the envisioned comprehensive peace process. The AU’s prominent role in the Khartoum mediation process will likely give the body some role as a guarantor to the agreement moving forward. And while the UN Security Council has been reluctant to pronounce on Sudan’s national political dynamics, much of UNAMID’s underlying impetus has been to support Darfur’s peace processes, therefore giving them a clear but narrower angle for engaging.

Moving forward, both the AU PSC and UN Security Council will need to carefully monitor the adoption and implementation of the Constitutional Charter. Each council will approach the issue from slightly different perspectives, and both will need to work together to chart the next stages of UNAMID’s immediate future. Addressing these issues won’t be easy, but the chances of success will be greater if the Security Council and PSC work together. It is already clear that when the PSC stands firm on principle, the A3 is better able to serve as a bridge between the two councils, and promote greater institutional coherence.

A scheduled council-to-council working visit in Addis Ababa in October is an important occasion to strengthen this critical working relationship and offset challenges caused by power imbalances between the two bodies. Sudan presents a key opportunity for both sides to harmonize their efforts, based on a mutual understanding of how to manage the crisis. This window of opportunity cannot be squandered, least of all by concerned multilateral actors. 

Priyal Singh is a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria. Daniel Forti is a policy analyst at the International Peace Institute (IPI).

This article is published as part of a series on the UN-AU partnership in peace and security for a joint project between IPI and ISS. An earlier version of this article was published on the ISS Today platform.