Conflict in Sudan The Invisibility of the African Union

The African Union’s diplomatic efforts in Sudan are evidence of the difficulties faced by the continental organization with regard to its autonomy and credibility. But its efforts, despite not solving all the problems, are not completely insignificant.

Every time there is conflict in Africa, the efficacy and utility of the African Union (AU) is called into question. Such criticism is made against the backdrop of resistance to overreaching interventionist policies by global superpowers (think the fairly recent anti-MONUSCO and anti-MINUSMA protests which were against United Nations operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mali respectively)—a policy which both civil society actors and political science researchers say has often been counterproductive to Africa’s development. Africa’s desire for greater autonomy is what led to the creation of the AU in the first place, with a mandate to find ‘African solutions to African problems.’ Many will agree that this mandate is not currently being fulfilled. The conflict in Sudan, tragic but not entirely unexpected, is another case where the African and Sudanese populations in particular would have expected swift action by the AU, starting with the negotiation of a ceasefire between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary group Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

However, the ceasefire agreement reached on 24 April 2023, was coordinated by the United States (US) and Saudi Arabia. In the official announcement of the agreement, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, referenced the coordination between the US and regional partners i.e. the AU and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to enforce the permanent cessation of hostilities. The US, cautious of criticism over its interventionist foreign policies, referred to the AU’s decisive leadership in resolving the conflict. However, when one reads between the lines, it is clear that the status quo remains in place; with the US leading African actors by the hand. The peripheral part the AU played in the ceasefire has attracted fresh criticism. 60 years after its formation, the AU (initially called the Organization of African Unity) seems often unable to take a leading role in matters regarding the African continent.


Between 23 and 25 of April 2023, Comorian President (and AU Chair) Azali Assoumani led talks between leaders of the two rival factions involved in the conflict. However, the ceasefire was announced between those days, on the 24 April, which suggests that the agreement to stop hostilities was not directly related to the AU’s efforts (especially since the brief on the outcome of the talks came only a few days later, on 28 April). As for the peace negotiations that began in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 6 May, while there was public praise for the AU for the signing of the Declaration of Commitment to Protect the Civilians in Sudan, there was no clear indication of how the AU’s interference was relevant to the agreement. The US and Saudi Arabia once again emerge as (more or less) successful mediators, in spite of their questionable neutrality. Both appreciate the geostrategic relevance of Sudan–US’s mediating role which diminishes potential responses from other key rivals such as Russia and China. Saudi Arabia has economic interests in the territory and a close relationship with the RSF, which supported the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.


Despite several announcements of a ceasefire throughout May, the warring factions never strictly adhered to the agreed terms. In fact, violence flared up during this period, showing that none of the Sudanese parties had any real interest in a possible agreement, but only agreed to negotiate in order to court the favour of the two foreign actors, for whose approval as legitimate representatives of Sudan they are competing.

There are further issues to be noted regarding the AU’s action to stop the conflict in Sudan. Five days after the outbreak of the conflict, the AU established the Expanded Mechanism on the Sudan Crisis, to coordinate regional, continental and international efforts in support of a peaceful resolution. The AU has since held three coordination meetings of this mechanism, on 20 April, 2 May and 31 May. The mechanism’s working group held an inaugural meeting on 2 June, which defined the implementation plan for the Roadmap for the Resolution of the Conflict in Sudan. The AU also established a group to coordinate the efforts of the international community, stressing that an uncoordinated approach could undermine the peace process being led by the AU, IGAD, the League of Arab States and the UN, with the collaboration of external partners. But the efforts are not only short-term. The organization has already begun the work of preparing and planning negotiations for a political process that goes beyond security sector reform (which led to the outbreak of the current conflict), addressing systemic inequalities and the historical grievances of various sectors of society (an aspect that was completely excluded from the Jeddah negotiations, which did not include any civilian voices—and admittedly not even political, as the two Sudanese factions involved are military, not political actors).


Progress is often slow, but, looking at previous cases, the AU has already achieved some important results (albeit sometimes late and insufficiently). For example, in the peace negotiations in 2022 between the warring factions in Ethiopia (when it finally called for the withdrawal of Eritrean militias from Tigray), and, in addition to its role in promoting peace and security, in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the AU has also shown good coordination and leadership capacities (as I had the opportunity to explain at the last European Conference on African Studies). An organization with mainly a normative role, with constant constraints on its action, starting with the limitations posed by its own Member States, as well as with clear external dependencies (financial and otherwise), will certainly be handicapped. There is a willingness on the part of the AU to become progressively more involved in the development of continental policies, aware that its autonomy and self-sufficiency are fundamental. However, the AU has been instrumentalized several times, both by its Member States (some of which still cherish, in practice, the principle of non-interference in a number of issues and sectors) and by external actors as well—like the United States and Saudi Arabia seem to be doing now, as if ignoring their contribution to the failures of the international diplomatic action after the October 2021 coup d’état.

In this as in other conflicts on the continent, the AU has admittedly taken a back seat as a peace mediator and negotiator. Nonetheless, while acknowledging that external dependencies cannot justify inaction, it is important to understand that an organization like the AU, with permanent blockages in its capacity to deliver, can only move slowly. It is true, though, that reactions on the part of African civil society organizations influence AU’s action. The importance of an international actor largely depends on its external recognition and its legal legitimacy to represent its member states through its own institutions. Nonetheless, we must remember that the acceptance and strengthening of an organization like the AU comes also, above all, from within; from the African people it purports to represent rather than just member states. With this in mind, Africans’ criticism of the continental institution is vital for strengthening the organization

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