Over the last month, a series of cease-fires in Sudan have yielded minimal results. Fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has continued and even intensified in some places. While the capital Khartoum and areas surrounding key infrastructure remain the core battlegrounds, the clashes have spread into other parts of the country.

A demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan. January 24, 2022. (Faiz Abubakar Muhamed/The New York Times)
A demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan. January 24, 2022. (Faiz Abubakar Muhamed/The New York Times)

Meanwhile, the stakes could not be higher: Sudan is on the precipice of humanitarian collapse. By the latest estimates, 700,000 Sudanese civilians are now internally displaced — with millions more grappling with inconsistent food, water and government services. Continued violence will only further complicate the fraught humanitarian situation in Sudan and risks spilling over into the region.

The latest attempt to stop the violence came last week when the United States — in partnership with Saudi Arabia — convened talks in Jeddah between the SAF and RSF. These “pre-negotiation” talks were held behind closed doors and culminated in the signing of the Jeddah Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians of Sudan.

The agreement affirms several obligations of the SAF and RSF under existing international humanitarian law and human rights conventions. It also contains commitments to discuss a short-term cease-fire, facilitate humanitarian aid and pursue an eventual permanent cessation of hostilities.

It remains to be seen whether the talks in Jeddah might yield momentum toward future negotiations. What is clear is that since the ink dried on the deal, the SAF and RSF have shown little seriousness about their willingness or ability to uphold these renewed commitments. Heavy fighting has continued, and reports indicate a troubling increase in conflict-related sexual violence while civilian infrastructure continues to be targeted. 

But the SAF and RSF are not the only actors capable of influencing the course of the conflict: Sudanese civilians have shown time and again that they possess the organizing capacity to affect change in their country.

Sudanese civilians — resistance committees, civil society, academic leaders, the private sector and political parties and alliances — have spoken resoundingly to reject the violence that is being perpetrated, to condemn the resulting human suffering and to call for political dialogue as the means to chart the country’s future. It’s therefore notable that civilian representatives are not involved in the talks, nor are any women or young people represented in the delegations in Jeddah.

There needs to deliberate, structured engagement with Sudanese civilians to define concrete, measurable steps to operationalize the commitments. And just as importantly, there needs to be a platform for civilian dialogue to forge a pathway toward long-term sustainable peace in the country.

Why Are Civilians Not at the Table?

In the context of Sudan, civilian is used to refer to a broad set of people, organizations and associations. It could easily be confused for civil society — but it encompasses any entity outside of the security forces and structures, from formal political parties to neighborhood resistance committees. Concretely, civilian includes political parties that served in the government following the 2019 revolution and those that have existed since Sudan’s independence. Civilian encompasses the Forces for Freedom and Change, which emerged as the coalition of political entities that negotiated the terms of the interim government in 2019, and the Democratic Block, which joined the cabinet following the October 2021 coup.

At the same time, civilian points to the neighborhood resistance committees — community structures that emerged during the 2019 revolution. These committees have been the front-line response for civilian protection and, in some cases, service delivery. Following the October 2021 coup, resistance committees negotiated local charters that governed their activities. In many cases, those charters also articulated citizen expectations for the military and security to exit politics.

Civilian also includes more traditional civil society organizations with varying mandates, from service delivery and humanitarian response to advocacy and human rights defense to dialogue, conflict resolution and civic education. Universities have and continue to play active roles in Sudan’s civic life, and religious-based organizations are part of society’s fabric, as well as the private sector.

If we look around the globe, it’s not the first time that civilians have been excluded from ostensibly technical pre-negotiations on security matters. In some instances, it has been argued that silencing the guns is the work of those who hold them and those who have expertise on military affairs.

This approach obscures the reality that civilians are the most impacted by security decisions and how the violence will play out. It also ignores the evidence that excluding civilian representatives hurts the talks’ likelihood of success. Conversely, we know that inclusive peace discussions are more effective and more durable.

In other instances, it has been argued that it is too difficult to identify or select a person or people for talks who can credibly represent civilian views, particularly when the table is small. Some arguments have gone so far as to admonish civilians for their lack of unity.

Civilian engagement in Sudan — as in any country — is complex, political and necessarily contested. Indeed, politics and civic spaces in Sudan have been polarized, particularly since and because of the October 2021 coup.

But this polarization should be expected in any transition environment where the stakes are high and politics are framed as “win or lose.” Any critique of polarization should be made very carefully, lest a call for “unity” be misunderstood or misused as justification to quell debate and dissent — the very foundations of democratic governance. In Sudan, the systems of political pluralism, competition and opposition were either yet to be established or yet to be trusted.

Any tensions among Sudanese civilians should not belie their near-unwavering unity on a foundational principle: A commitment to democratic politics and debate, however messy. That commitment stands in stark contrast with the persistent behavior of senior officials in the SAF and RSF, who use force indiscriminately to settle their differences.

From Obligation to Operationalization

While the Jeddah agreement contained obligations that applied prior to the agreement (as international humanitarian law and human rights conventions apply to any belligerent in any conflict), the agreement provides a clear articulation and point of reference for those pushing and advocating for implementation.

Next up is building mechanisms that can monitor the commitments and de-escalate flare ups if a period of quiet is achieved — and Sudanese civilians have insight into how those mechanism could work in practice.  

Front-line Sudanese responders point to several specific needs, starting with protecting civilian infrastructure. Right now, electricity, water and telecommunication are unreliable, leaving vital services on the verge of collapse. Only 16 percent of hospitals in Khartoum are fully functional, and food prices have soared amid shortages. In the short term, shielding these services from further disruption and restoring those that are disrupted must be a priority. This is true in Khartoum and across other urbans centers from Darfur to el-Obeid.

Front-line responders also say financial systems need to be opened so that people can purchase the food that is already in the country. Restoring, maintaining and protecting cellular networks is a critical element in this, as is ensuring that platforms are not subjected to any intentional blockages. For people to use mobile apps, they must have regular, predictable access to electricity and confidence that money in these systems will be available to them for trading.

In addition to infrastructure, the SAF and RSF must refrain from further attacks on civilians, including doctors. There have already been an alarming number of reports of hospitals being hit by airstrikes and shelling. And there are concerns that the SAF and RSF are targeting medical and other service personnel over perceived allegiance to one side or the other, with doctors receiving death threats.

These sorts of attacks need to be prevented. Implementation mechanisms must also facilitate free movement for civilians to evacuate Khartoum and other areas by establishing humanitarian corridors so that fewer civilians are trapped in active combat zones. And for those who make it to Sudan’s borders, cooperation is needed from neighboring countries to facilitate a safe, dignified passage.

In the medium term, front-line responders warn that the planting season is fast approaching, and Sudan needs to ensure that fields are planted so that the food supply is not further jeopardized by a missed harvest.

A Different Form of Cease-Fire

To date, peace efforts have focused on securing a general cease-fire that would apply to the entire country. But given the indications that violence will continue, a different approach may be needed.

In other wars, time-defined cease-fires that are activated on a rotating basis across different neighborhoods and cities have been effective. In that case, the immediate objective is not to end the war. The objective is to halt the fighting in a specific place for a specific period so that critical supplies can flow in and people can move to safer locations. Sectoral cease-fires also offer clear, concrete commitments that can be negotiated and monitored. They require detailed, on-the-ground knowledge and are often negotiated by front-line responders.

No one would dispute that a sustained, nationwide end to violence remains the ultimate and urgent goal — but an alternative approach may offer a path for belligerents to uphold their obligations in a moment when they remain locked in the logic of fighting.

Local Efforts for Peace

As the hard work to protect civilians and halt violence continues in Jeddah, urgent steps are needed to engage meaningfully with and center civilians in decision-making processes going forward.

People in Sudan are not waiting on the talks in Jeddah before taking action to address the humanitarian crisis. But they need more resources, and the United States has the capacity to provide urgent relief. There are extensive resources sitting in existing U.S.-funded programs that can — with swift leadership and appropriate consultation with Congress — be repurposed to provide front-line responders in Sudan with the tools they need.

This approach is an urgent test of the USAID policy on localization, which commits to putting local actors in the lead, strengthening local systems and being responsive to local communities. We know that community structures in Sudan have done the hard work of establishing and sustaining relationships with each other based on consent and rule of law. This means localization is not just effective but also an investment in Sudan’s democratic foundations.

Making localization real will require brave and bold leadership that activates the decades of USAID experience in Sudan. It will require new approaches to work with local structures and apply creative mechanisms, such as WhatsApp videos, for reporting. Robust support through local structures will also require U.S. leadership and partnership with global humanitarian leaders to set new pathways for humanitarian access and permissions. Fees charged at Port Sudan, for example, could be put into an escrow account that will be available to a future civilian-led government. Locally-led efforts to negotiate access and corridors can be supported and reinforced, rather than reinforcing heavy and often politicized pathways through the military regime’s humanitarian affairs commission or ministries.

Additionally, local peace initiatives have proven successful in the past in Sudan. The fighting in Darfur that started in the first week of the war ended through negotiations by local leaders and the agreement has been held to this day. While this specific process cannot be replicated or even necessarily scaled, similar approaches can be adapted in other locations throughout Sudan and possibly at the national level.

The focus on local-level efforts is even more important amid rising concerns that violence between the SAF and RSF could not just engulf the country, but also reignite other, more localized conflicts in Darfur and elsewhere.

Engage Civilians on Their Time and Terms, Not the Belligerents’

Any talks centered on the SAF and the RSF — even with the deftest mediation — risks creating a logic where the belligerents set the tone, timeline and parameters of an agenda for peace in Sudan. Instead, talks need to be centered on Sudan’s civilians.

Further, the narratives set by the belligerents need to be interrogated and reframed. The urgency of ending the violence should not be conflated with urgency to agree on political decisions, including the selection of a civilian government. Any argument that a unified civilian platform is a pre-condition for ceasing hostilities should be recognized as misdirecting responsibility for ending the war and sustaining power for those fighting. Narratives from the SAF and RSF leadership that they are “fighting for civilians” need to be swiftly and affirmatively countered.

Front-line civilians will have their own perspectives on how things got to this point and what needs to be done differently in the future. Various civilian-led efforts are already underway to define a political pathway forward or to establish mechanisms to relate to the ongoing talks. International partners, including the United States, need to signal an open space for those conversations and urgently establish a dedicated platform for civilian dialogue.

The United States cannot and should not convene a platform for civilian dialogue on its own. As the United States advances its commitments from last December’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, exploring a genuine partnership with and in support of the African Union (AU) and its member states to forge a Sudanese civilian space is an opportunity not to be missed.

The AU continues to lead discussions through the AU Expanded Mechanism with neighboring countries and those with interests in the Gulf and beyond. The AU’s Peace and Security Council has been activated. If there were ever a moment to activate AU’s Silencing the Guns agenda and all mechanisms in the African Peace and Security Architecture, centering civilians in the future decisions of Sudan is the time.

A New Platform for Civilian Dialogue

The structure of this new dialogue should be formulated in cooperation with Sudanese civilians, but there are a few key principles that should be considered:

Connected and connecting: In forming a civilian platform, the temptation may be to establish an entirely parallel mechanism to the talks in Jeddah. But a civilian platform needs to have the status and connection points to shape decisions about the country. This means sustained, high-level and structured engagement between civilians and those facilitating negotiations in Jeddah or elsewhere.

Sudanese-led inclusion: There may also be a temptation to craft a list of those to be invited to a civilian platform. This top-down approach risks replicating mistakes in Sudan’s recent political dialogue. A process to incrementally identify the format and participants in partnership with existing civilian entities — from resistance committees to political leaders — is a practical alternative.

Respect for pluralism and diversity of political views: Unity in the commitment to reach agreements peacefully should not be conflated with a need for unity in political views or priorities. Any civilian platform must be anchored in a profound acknowledgement of the strength of Sudan’s diversity. The Sudanese peoples’ views are not a monolith, nor are those of Sudanese civil society. Offering a platform to a diverse set of voices is the basis of democracy, and if Sudan is going to truly realize the democratic vision of the 2019 revolution, it must start with an open invitation for dialogue rather than an exclusive list of parties. This means multiple forms of consultation that welcome the perspectives of both those who have fled the country and those who remain inside — as well as youth and other populations that are often marginalized.

Safeguard a “third way”: Any platform for civilian dialogue and the broader peace process will need to guard against sustained narratives that civilians have aligned themselves with either the SAF or RSF. Some political leaders will need to answer for their decisions during the political dialogue prior to the war, but the fighting marks a significant break. Civilians should not be put in a position where they feel like they are forced to “take sides” in this conflict. Indeed, a civilian forum can explicitly hold space for those committed to reaching agreement peacefully.

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