Sudan’s five-week war has killed or wounded over 5,000 people, uprooted a million more — and reignited understandable frustrations over how U.S. and international policies can better prevent or respond to such upheavals. Amid heated policy debates, we should step back briefly to pinpoint lessons from this crisis that can improve our responses in Sudan and across the Sahel’s web of coups, insurgencies and extremism. Indeed, that task is urgent — both to address the complex evolutions in the region’s crises and to build support for smarter, steadier engagement, rather than a self-defeating retreat from the Sahel by global partners seeking democracy and stability.

Sudanese who fled their country’s latest violence camp just over the border in Koufroune, Chad. Sudan’s new warfare has forced tens of thousands to flee into neighboring countries that are riven by their own violence. (Yagazie Emezi/The New York Times)
Sudanese who fled their country’s latest violence camp just over the border in Koufroune, Chad. Sudan’s new warfare has forced tens of thousands to flee into neighboring countries that are riven by their own violence. (Yagazie Emezi/The New York Times)

Violence has spread through Sahel countries for more than a decade, rooted in poor governance that failed to meet the needs of populations. Local conflicts in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger have expanded, fueled partly by deepening poverty and climate changes that sharpen competition for water and productive land.

Tragically, Sahel governments and security forces themselves fuel the violence by relying on overly militarized responses that include killings, disappearances and other atrocities against civilians in Burkina Faso, Mali and other states. The overuse and poor governance of security forces has fueled extremist recruitment and weakened the public legitimacy of states.

Five Recent Lessons

U.S. and African policy analysts have drawn five key lessons from the Sahel, and the United States has begun applying some of them to improve its engagement in the region and across the Global South:

  • Address the root problem: poor governance. The 2019 Global Fragility Act (GFA) takes a giant step in recognizing and addressing the taproot of extremism and related violence: poor governance that leaves populations unable to meet basic needs — safety, food, incomes and hope for their futures. Such basic failings erode people’s trust in their governments, opening the way for extremism. The GFA’s implementation, recently delayed, should help America build a more realistic, long-term response. Specifically, it will focus on stemming the spread of Sahel-style violence in Coastal West Africa.
  • Work with African partners to reverse democratic setbacks. The Sahel’s own assets for building better, democratic governance include the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States; the hard-won experiences in democracy-building in Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and other neighboring states; and the seven-nation Accra Initiative, devoted to reversing the spread of extremism and violence in the region. Disparate analysts, both U.S. and African, stress that more distant partners, such as the United States, France and U.N. institutions, can achieve more impact and trigger less politicized backlash by leveraging “peer power” — that is, working through African institutions, governments and civil society to bolster their support for democratization.
  • Overhaul security assistance to improve the governance of Sahel security forces. U.S. and allied security assistance for years has strengthened security forces’ “kinetic” counterterrorism capacities, rather than focusing on their provision of security for communities that strengthens the state’s legitimacy. Tragically, these same forces have sometimes been used in army coups. Reforming our security assistance to emphasize human security is vital, according to both counterterrorism specialists and Sahel experts.
  • Build post-coup transitions around better governance, not just speed. When international responses to coups focus on deadlines for militaries to hold elections for new, civilian governments, we risk setting those governments up to fail. This courts a deeper risk: erosion of people’s faith in democracy altogether. Building a stronger democracy requires everyone to focus also on the content of transitions. Post-coup transitions must respond to the underlying problems that caused the failure of the previous democratic systems and set clear, achievable milestones for better governance in the next ones. Another reason to modulate our insistence on speedy transitions is this simple reality: Building consensus among civilian groups, while maintaining a democratic plurality of views to underpin an effective transition, often takes time. Rushing the process may put the civilian polity at a disadvantage relative to military structures with their top-down command structures.
  • Promote national dialogues and inclusion. Building stronger post-coup democracies generally requires concrete steps to pull in communities that were marginalized or excluded from previous regimes. These groups may include ethnic or other minorities, and almost always include women and youth — two constituencies central to preventing extremism. Sudan offers strong assets for this approach, perhaps most critically its disciplined democracy movement of the past four years.

Updated Lessons from Sudan

Sudan’s war foretells a new complexity to the Sahel’s conflicts. Both belligerent parties have outside supporters, which escalates the conflict and its costs. While the U.N. Security Council, African Union and League of Arab States have called for an end to the violence, other actors may take sides. Sudan’s new war pits Sudan’s military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against a paramilitary force headed by General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as “Hemedti”), who also controls gold mines and other businesses in Sudan. Egypt has an abiding partnership with the military, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has partnered with Dagalo-linked business entities — and Dagalo deployed troops in support of the UAE in the conflict in Yemen. Dagalo’s force also has links in Libya, where faction leader Khalifa Haftar and his outside backers rely on funds from trade, investments and smuggling facilitated by Dagalo’s paramilitary. Russia’s Wagner Group has provided protection to Dagalo-controlled mines and may be collaborating on military matters in Sudan and beyond. With neither Sudanese leader inclined to compromise in their struggle for primacy, Sudan’s crisis underscores some specific steps for U.S. and international policies:

  • Exert influence through multi-layered diplomacy. In the Sahel, America’s peace diplomacy seeks to buttress the international rule of law through multilateral institutions, notably the peer influences of the African Union, ECOWAS and other African bodies. Yet a world of competing great and regional powers increasingly requires a more multilayered approach. Notably, as Russia and other powers offer wider support for often authoritarian or violent clients in Africa, peacemaking diplomacy will need also to use selective bilateral engagement to assemble allies in the solution of crises. Sudan is offering an example: This month’s negotiation of a short-term ceasefire was brokered jointly by the United States and Saudi Arabia. The United States also sent senior representatives to engage the African Union and regional countries. U.S. diplomacy continues to state the critical leadership of the African Union, particularly for the expanded phase of negotiations to decide deeply political matters.
  • Broaden and deepen U.S. and international engagement with security institutions. Sudan’s crisis underscores the need to engage as deeply and continuously with generals, colonels and military communities as we do with government ministers, political parties, civil society and grassroots communities. While the United States has deep relationships with the senior-most military leaders of Sudan’s factions, a lack of relationships at lower levels provides too few interlocutors for U.S. officials to fully analyze, and exert influence, in the conflict. Across the Sahel, the United States needs to build and sustain stronger relationships within security forces — and to prioritize improvements in security sector governance. When coups or factional warfare erupt, those relationships are critical to understanding and responding to those crises.
  • Work with civilian pro-democracy forces as early and as long as possible. This need, not new, is dramatically emphasized by Sudan’s crisis. Sudan’s resilient, nonviolent democracy movement is not simply an asset but arguably the critical one for the country’s future. U.S. practice across the Sahel has tended to acknowledge, but insufficiently fulfill, a need to engage civil societies, political parties, business communities and networks of civil servants. Escalating that engagement into fuller support for nonviolent prodemocracy movements such as Sudan’s offers hope for civilian alternatives to military rule in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali. Of necessity, we must engage those seeking power with guns. But engaging and strengthening nonviolent pro-democracy civilian groups and movements for better governance must become a central pillar of our efforts to move the Sahel from a chapter of crises to one of more effective, peaceful and sustainable democracy.

The Urgency of Now

We need to act with deliberate speed in using Sudan’s new agony, and the recent years’ lessons from the Sahel, to refine our insights and improve our policies and practices. That focus is vital partly to respond better to Sudan’s crisis, which is spilling refugees into neighboring countries struggling with their own conflicts and displacement crises. These include South Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad.

But continued improvements in our Sahel policies also are vital to protecting international stability and national security from what is now by far the world’s biggest locus of extremist violence, spread across a region far larger and more populous than Afghanistan or Iraq. The United States and its partners will need in coming weeks to respond to new turns in the Sahel crises. In Mali alone, these will include the continued violence, accountability following this month’s U.N. report on recent atrocities, a controversial constitutional referendum on June 18 and renewing the mandate of U.N. forces in the country by June 30.

America has been shaping vital improvements to its roles in and around the Sahel — through the administration’s declared new partnership with Africa and its emerging new strategy to prevent extremism and violence worldwide. Over coming months, it must continue refining these improvements and building on them through concrete steps in the field.

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