military meeting

IGAD mediation in Sudan crisis hinges on generals meeting, says Djibouti minister

By Soufiane Khabbachi

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Posted on June 23, 2023 07:47

 © File photo of Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.
File photo of Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, Djibouti’s minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation.

Can the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) succeed where so many others have failed on Sudan? On 12 June, at its 14th summit in Djibouti, leaders from the regional body moved to restructure the mediation team charged with finding a way out of the war that is tearing Sudan apart.

The three decision-making countries (Djibouti, Kenya and South Sudan) now have a new member: Ethiopia, now forming a quartet that will have to come up with ways of putting an end to a conflict that, since 15 April, has already claimed nearly 1,800 lives and displaced 2 million people.

At the beginning of the week, the IGAD adopted an ambitious roadmap, which includes the opening of a direct channel of discussion between Generals Burhan and Hemeti – who have never spoken directly to each other since the start of the violence. Is this realistic? What role can the IGAD play? Djibouti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mahamoud Ali Youssouf explains.

The Africa Report: Isn’t the recently-adopted 12 June roadmap too optimistic?

Mahamoud Ali Youssouf: IGAD’s leaders are aware of the complexity of the situation in Sudan, and the difficulty posed by the ongoing fighting in Khartoum and other regions. We must not say that we are going to do everything at once; we must implement the plan that has been drawn up gradually. To do this, we must first achieve a ceasefire and to achieve this, we must ensure that the two military leaders concerned can meet.

This is the whole point of this newly formed quartet – to set up a special envoy, whose actions will be coordinated by Djibouti – which has just taken over the rotating presidency of the IGAD. The aim is to organise this meeting between the two military leaders within two weeks. If we succeed, we will then be able to talk about respecting ceasefire conditions. Their representatives have already met in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where truces have been agreed to but not been respected.

But how do you bring together two generals who don’t want to talk to each other?

There will, of course, be a preparatory phase to this meeting, which will not necessarily take place in Sudan, and representatives of Generals Burhan and Hemeti will be able to meet our own representatives beforehand. I insist on this because Sudan needs a truce that doesn’t just last 24 or 48 hours, and that will enable it to move towards the other points in the plan prepared by IGAD.

The absolute priority is to protect and save the civilian population. The plan I’m talking about includes the creation of a 50-km perimeter away from urban areas, so that soldiers can be positioned as far away from populated areas as possible.

The political aspect is also very important. There can be no ceasefire or negotiations if the political process is not put back on track. Structures were set up to promote the transition of power to civilians, and we need to get them up and running again.

If the conflict gets bogged down, could the IGAD consider adopting sanctions against the belligerents, as the Americans recently did?

For the moment, we want to give the IGAD mediation and the de-escalation plan adopted by the African Union (AU) a chance. The president of the African Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, was also present at the IGAD summit. We need to combine the AU’s plan with our own to move quickly towards the objectives we have set ourselves.

So far, however, the main attempts at mediation have come from Saudi Arabia and the US. Do you welcome these initiatives?

Whether it is the US, Saudi Arabia, or the AU, which is the main body involved, IGAD has welcomed all these mediations and recognised their importance in its most recent statement. The most important thing is to create a coherent action plan on behalf of the Sudanese people.

There needs to be a single channel of communication, and we believe that it is up to the IGAD to take the lead in ensuring that the objectives set, which are the same as those of the other mediations, are achieved on the ground: achieving a ceasefire, opening humanitarian corridors, and getting the political process back on track.

The 12 June summit was also marked by Eritrea’s return to the organisation after a 16-year absence. What was it that broke the deadlock?

When Eritrea suspended its membership, it did so in a sovereign manner. It made its own decision. Through an official letter sent to its secretary general, Eritrea informed the IGAD of its wish to re-join the organisation. Its request was favourably received, and this is normal: a multilateral platform is designed so that all the problems affecting the region can be debated and discussed.

The IGAD is the main driving force behind what we collectively want for the region: peace, greater economic and social integration between the member states, and the ambition for our region to be a cornerstone of African society.

Last March, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh declared on our platform that there had been no improvement between him and his Eritrean counterpart Isaias Afwerki. The Eritrean foreign minister was in Djibouti for the IGAD summit. Have bilateral relations improved?

No, they are at a standstill, but we are doing our part. The IGAD is an intergovernmental organisation that belongs to all the member states and, as such, Eritrea has every right to take part in the meetings, whether they are held in Djibouti or elsewhere. Bilaterally, however, there has been no progress for three years.

Did you talk to your Eritrean counterpart at the summit?

We always talk, but the obstruction comes from their side, never ours. We have always taken the first step. Djibouti is known as a country of peace, in favour of good neighbourliness, and always consistent in its foreign policy. The world knows who is making the effort and who is not.

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