Sudan’s war needs an African-led solution, says EU envoy to the Horn of Africa

Eliminating civilian suffering and ensuring a long-term ceasefire is critical, Annette Weber tells The National in an exclusive interview

Annette Weber, the EU's special representative for the Horn of Africa. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Sudan’s warring sides must consolidate the current ceasefire and allow for immediate humanitarian access, with the backing of a united African front, the EU’s special representative for the Horn of Africa, Annette Weber, has told The National.

A week-long truce is aimed at allowing for the delivery of aid and is seen as a starting point to end the conflict between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

The agreement came into place on Monday night and appears to have largely held despite several reports of heavy clashes in cities including the capital Khartoum.

The truce was brokered by the US and Saudi Arabia in talks in Jeddah. It includes a monitoring mechanism involving the army and the RSF, as well as representatives from Washington and Riyadh.

Ms Weber expressed support for the role of Saudi Arabia and the US, however, she stressed that there needs to be a wider African role.

“It is clear that we need an African component, we need the African Union to take the lead on this issue,” Ms Weber told The National during a visit to Abu Dhabi.

Ms Weber said the EU fully supported the idea of an African lead orchestrating a political and humanitarian solution to the crisis with a “task force that encompasses the League of Arab States, the EU, the Quad [the US, UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE]".

“If there is a strong negotiator then it would be in our interest to have the African lead and to have someone to bridge the Arab-African composition of Sudan,” she said.

The fragile ceasefire comes after five weeks of intense fighting in Khartoum and outbursts of violence in other areas of the country, including the western region of Darfur.

However, the humanitarian truce is not enough to stop the fighting, she said.

“It was the right approach to have a narrow and pointed negotiation for the humanitarian ceasefire but for the bigger track we need to have an African lead and for the Arab states and others to come in and support it,” Ms Weber said.

“I’m not so optimistic that we will see the end of the war very soon."

The fighting has placed the Sudanese military, led by Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, against the RSF, which is led by Gen Mohamed Dagalo.

The two generals are former allies who orchestrated an October 2021 military takeover that derailed a transition to civilian rule following the 2019 removal of long-time leader Omar Al Bashir.

“We now need to keep an ear to the civilians to understand what is their thinking, we need to come back to an understanding of what we have discussed before the war broke out in April,” Ms Weber said.

A civilian-led government will be critical going forward, she said.

Here's what a Dubai doctor saw happening in Sudan before he escaped

Here's what a Dubai doctor saw happening in Sudan before he escaped

Ms Weber was referring to talks that took place between Sudan's political factions to form a new transitional government.

The country’s military leaders negotiated a deal with civilian political parties, previously in power, aimed at restoring a civilian government, shortly before the conflict erupted.

The parties agreed on a committee for drafting a new constitution that would include nine members of the civilian groups, one from the army and another from the RSF.

Disagreements surfaced between the two sides over the timetable for integrating the RSF into the military, a move called for in a framework deal for the transition signed last December.

It delayed the signing of the accord that was originally set to be sealed in early April. However, the fighting broke out in the middle of that month.

“Part of the framework agreement still holds, we don’t need to re-examine or rewrite the transitional constitution,” Ms Weber said.

She stressed the importance of "a civilian track ... it needs to be more inclusive", rather than a narrow number of civilian actors.

International community must 'silence the guns'

To move a step forward, political will must be shown by the army and RSF. “It requires the political will of the two sides, but it should be possible, we shouldn’t wait for a political engagement, but the immediate of course is the survival of the people,” she said.

“Silencing the guns and survival of the people” must be a top priority for Sudan and the international community, she said.

However, Ms Weber stressed that Sudan’s process must have a more inclusive composition of civilian and political actors.

“We want to come back to supporting this transition and we want to be clear to the two generals that they are not winning anything with this,” she said.

The EU has voiced its strong opinion in wanting to “support the African Union and to have a strong secretariat” in hopes of ending Sudan’s long conflict.

The top priority will be “to consult with civilians", Ms Weber said.

“The war needs to end, I think that is clear, but it also needs to have the voices to make sure that the two generals understand that the prize of this war is not the leadership of Sudan,” she said.

However, Ms Weber said that despite the destruction and suffering caused by the conflict, the generals still believed they could win.

“They believe they have enough power and means and resources to make this a military solution,” she said.

Civilian suffering deepens

Much of the conflict is taking place in urban areas, where civilians have become victims. It seems that some of the RSF fighters have moved into densely populated areas.

The capital is harbouring more than six million people, making it highly probable that hundreds if not thousands will be killed or injured while trying to escape the fighting.

Ms Weber clarified that "Khartoum is a city under siege".

Protecting the population is the responsibility of the warring sides, Ms Weber said.

“This needs to be clear to the different sides, this isn’t about their political future and who is winning Sudan, this is about their responsibility for the population of Sudan,” she said.

The warring parties are not considering the danger they are putting civilians in, she said.

“If you have an urban warfare like in Khartoum, where one side is occupying and shielding behind civilians and the other is bombing, it’s not really taking care of the needs of civilians,” she said.

The increase in violence has left more than half of the population – about 25 million people – now in need of humanitarian assistance.

“People are out of water and food for a long time, they are out of diesel, out of everything. If the fighting continues and the ceasefire breaks then there will be more and more suffering,” she said.

The violence has destroyed essential infrastructure, with markets and energy supplies taking a hit.

Aid agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have not been able to distribute essential life-saving medicine, food and water as they wait for security permits to be able to move around.

“There's too much fighting in Khartoum and the airport is in the middle of town and in the middle of the crossfire, so no one is using the airport and this is key to supplying aid,” she said.

However, she said "the war is not just in Khartoum ... there is a fragmentation of actors ... it feels like everyone is hedging".

Darfur is one key flashpoint that has raised concerns.

Humanitarian workers are considering coming through the Port of Sudan and using roads to distribute supplies and reach civilians, but this “requires humanitarian ceasefire negotiations with everyone who is manning the checkpoints”.

To have a successful nationwide truce, to at least enable the delivery of aid to civilians, “requires at least the understanding of the two sides, that these are their people,” Ms Weber said.

Horn of Africa drought

On the wider issues facing the Horn of Africa, a key challenge is drought, which threatens millions in countries including Ethiopia and Somalia.

Ms Weber said that to tackle climate change in the region "we have to think very differently, very big".

She sees opportunities in the Horn of Africa, which needs a new way of creating work for farmers who can no longer survive on historic means. "In the Horn of Africa, you have the biggest risk from climate change ... and great opportunity in change," she said.

"You need to think bigger. With so much potential, we need to invest, thinking of food production in the region, for the region and beyond.

"You have it all in the region, the water, the soil."

A regional approach would need infrastructure "to protect the farmers to the market to the consumers", Ms Weber said.

Updated: May 25, 2023, 5:53 PM