Sudanese security forces attacked Khartoum’s central protest site on Monday, killing at least 35 civilians. The transitional military council (TMC), the junta which in April toppled Sudan’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir, oversaw the forces responsible for the attack. Despite regional and international calls for the installation of a civilian government, the TMC still rules, and the latest violence illustrates just how difficult a peaceful transfer of power will be. But the challenges to transition are not confined to Khartoum. In Darfur, the ongoing withdrawal of the long-running United Nations–African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID), may, if managed incorrectly, further tip the scales in favor of the military. At this moment of grave uncertainty in Sudan, international actors should not risk hampering the prospects of Sudan’s already tenuous transition.

Nigerian soldiers with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur prepare to head out on patrol from their base in El Geneina, Sudan, on Feb. 26, 2008. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)
Nigerian soldiers with the United Nations peacekeeping force in Darfur prepare to head out on patrol from their base in El Geneina, Sudan, on Feb. 26, 2008. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

Seven weeks after al-Bashir was removed in a coup d’état, the latest bloodshed on the streets of Khartoum has precipitated further statements of condemnation and outrage. Concurrent with the violence in Khartoum, repression of protests in other towns across Sudan, including Damazin, Gedaref, Kosti, Port Sudan, and Sinjar, has been reported, as protesters attempt a general strike and civil disobedience.

Even before Monday’s violence, negotiations between the military and civilian, opposition forces had been slow. And even those points where agreement had been reached, were, in the absence of a commitment to quickly relinquish meaningful power, effectively irrelevant. On Tuesday, the TMC went further, annulling a previous agreement with protesters on the length of the term of a future transitional government, instead calling for elections to be held in early 2020.

Outside Khartoum

Although Khartoum grabs the headlines, the situation across Sudan’s 17 other states should also be of serious concern. In all states, governors have been replaced by military appointees. In many states, the reconfiguration of security actors—the army, the paramilitary National Intelligence and Security Service, and affiliated state security forces, such as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which played a leading role in the violence in Khartoum on Monday—may be the most important long-term change in Sudan in years, in what has long been one of Africa’s most heavily securitized states.

Nowhere is this reconfiguration more acute than in Darfur, where an imperfect peace deal, and a near-moribund peace process, stumble on. The 2010 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) has seen minimal implementation. Important rebel groups never signed on to the deal. Bashir’s government accepted the agreement, but never did much to implement its provisions. In the intervening years, government forces largely quelled the opposition, and today, most serious violence is confined to Darfur’s mountainous, central Jebel Marra region.

Well before Bashir was removed, the U.N. and AU had begun to drawdown UNAMID, once the world’s largest peacekeeping mission, responsible for an area as large as the states of Colorado and Oregon combined. As then U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, told the U.N. Security Council in April 2017, “[A]s the situation changes, the tools to prevent violence must change too. We need to ask if the mission to Darfur’s current force structure and size are still appropriate.”

It was correct to adapt UNAMID to the changing security context in Darfur, although it is notable that the mission has never had a consistent presence, nor access, throughout the Jebel Marra region. So, assessments that Darfur is “stable” must always be read with significant caveats.

UNAMID’s Withdrawal and Sudan’s Future

But today, post-Bashir, UNAMID’s withdrawal has significance beyond the local dynamics in any Darfurian town or locality. To continue to hand over U.N. bases previously scheduled for closure to today’s state authorities effectively legitimizes the TMC. Handovers implicitly demonstrate that the international community recognizes the sovereignty of the TMC and its role as a legitimate counterpart in the U.N. mission’s departure. Such an action would be grossly inconsistent with the efforts of interlocutors in Khartoum who are pressing the military to not just simply carry on in office, no matter the cost.

Although the political reality is that UNAMID, in the day-to-day conduct of its essential activities, must engage the TMC and its local appointees, belief that the TMC will automatically honor the previous government of Sudan’s existing commitments to use former U.N. sites for exclusively civilian purposes is naïve. The past record is instructive, and the U.N.’s own reporting has found that past site handovers have been problematic. For example, U.N. bases in Al-Malihah and Tulus, which were turned over to the government in 2017 and were respectively pledged to be converted into a school and a local community center, remain occupied by security forces. Reportedly, the RSF has occupied other former U.N. bases in Darfur. As bad as this situation is, it could get even worse: A May 13 decree by TMC head Abdel Fattah al-Burhan explicitly states that the regime plans to give remaining U.N. bases to the RSF.

In truth, there’s little that can be done to guarantee the appropriate, future use of a U.N. base or equipment left behind in the long term. But continuing the UNAMID drawdown plan initiated prior to Bashir’s fall—with as many as eight of the mission’s 13 remaining sites scheduled to be handed over to Sudanese authorities in the next year—would only benefit the de facto, military regime, and contribute to the internal competition between the rival, and constitutionally illegitimate, security agencies.

There should be no illusions about UNAMID’s performance, nor its troubled record. Nor should any U.N. peacekeeping mission last forever. But the violence perpetrated by the military regime should bring into sharp relief that international fatigue with a mission is no excuse to contravene a cardinal principle of peacekeeping: UNAMID’s withdrawal should first do no harm.

Therefore, in its upcoming mandate renewal deliberations, the U.N. Security Council should direct UNAMID to halt any further handovers of its bases while the TMC remains the de facto political authority in Sudan. Even if a transitional civilian government eventually comes to power in Khartoum, it is far from certain that the security actors now dominant in Darfur will respect a new government’s authority or accept to leave power. A further period of pause, perhaps of six months to a year, while the transitional government finds its feet and consolidates its authority, may therefore be necessary to ensure that UNAMID’s withdrawal does not strengthen military spoilers active in the region.

There should be no illusions about UNAMID’s performance, nor its troubled record. Nor should any U.N. peacekeeping mission last forever. But the violence perpetrated by the military regime should bring into sharp relief that international fatigue with a mission is no excuse to contravene a cardinal principle of peacekeeping: UNAMID’s withdrawal should first do no harm.

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