Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution
What’s new? Since Omar al-Bashir’s 11 April ouster, Sudan’s military leadership and opposition alliance have appointed a new prime minister, formed a cabinet and assembled a supervisory council to oversee a power-sharing deal concluded on 17 August. If honoured, the deal could pave the way for elections and civilian rule.
Why does it matter? Sudan faces a crushing economic crisis, insurgencies and political polarisation, with a security establishment bent on keeping power and an opposition movement determined to instal a fully civilian administration. The 17 August agreement represents the best pathway both to achieving reform and to averting spiralling violence.
What should be done? The AU, U.S. and EU, together with Gulf states, should push the generals to respect the power-sharing deal. They should encourage Khartoum to make peace with insurgents in peripheral areas. The U.S. should rescind Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation while maintaining pressure on the military in other ways.
Sudan has swung between hope and despair since 11 April, when the most sustained civilian protest movement in the country’s modern history swept Omar al-Bashir from power. Many Sudanese celebrated Bashir’s ouster, seeing him as responsible for economic ruin and severe rights abuses. But the generals who sought to placate the demonstrators by deposing Bashir have shown reluctance to cede power. The security forces’ brutal 3 June attack on protesters in Khartoum repulsed the world and galvanised support for mediation that yielded a power-sharing agreement on 17 August. Still, more outside support is needed to keep the transition on track. The African Union (AU) should appoint an envoy to help bridge the gap of mistrust between parties. For their part, Western powers should signal willingness to open the taps of badly needed financial support, encourage Khartoum to make peace with rebel factions on Sudan’s periphery, and sustain pressure on the generals’ Gulf allies to ensure that all sides abide by the deal Sudan needs to move ahead after Bashir’s rule.
In Sudan’s lopsided, patronage-driven economy, the top brass has a clear interest in clinging to political power.
There have been encouraging steps since the military leadership and civilian opposition signed a constitutional declaration sealing the power-sharing agreement at a ceremony by the Nile in Khartoum. The parties named representatives to an eleven-member sovereign council that is to steer the country to free elections over the 39 months following 17 August. A widely respected economist, Abdalla Hamdok, became prime minister four days after the ceremony, and a new cabinet took office on 8 September. But the generals continue to wield enormous influence, and they have shown few signs that they intend to respect the Sudanese people’s demand for a civilian-led administration. In Sudan’s lopsided, patronage-driven economy, the top brass has a clear interest in clinging to political power.
That is just one challenge among many. In addition to being a potential spoiler, the security establishment is fragmented, unaccountable and subject to dangerous internecine rivalries. The once-dominant army has lost its primacy to the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group formed from the remnants of the Janjaweed militia of Darfur infamy and run by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, who may be the most powerful man in Sudan. The country’s primary military and paramilitary organisations should be unified under one command, but that project will require patience and encouragement from outside powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Forcing the issue could result in confrontation at a time when the last thing Sudan needs is more conflict.
Then there is the challenge of maintaining the unity of the extraordinarily broad civilian coalition – named the Forces for Freedom and Change – that has been at the vanguard of the uprising. Comprising professional associations, civil society groups, unions, political parties and armed groups, the coalition has had its own internal struggles. It will need to deftly manage them lest the security establishment use fissures in its unity to peel off constituents and weaken it politically.
There are also wars on the country’s periphery – in the Blue Nile, Kordofan and Darfur regions – that tear at national cohesion. The transitional government should focus on ending these conflicts.
Yet for all the challenges standing in Sudan’s transitional path, there are reasons for hope. For one thing, the protest movement’s strength and increasing sophistication set it apart from anything in the country’s recent history. The generals have already seen that strong-arm tactics of the sort used to quell prior movements – for example in 2013 – are not likely to work here. For another thing, a botched transition could stymie prospects for a surge of desperately needed international support and investment in Sudan’s flailing economy. That is an outcome for which the security forces will almost certainly not wish to be blamed.
Against this backdrop, there is a good deal that outside actors – including African powers, Khartoum’s backers in the Gulf, Western states and multilateral organisations – can do to help the power-sharing arrangements succeed and nudge Sudan along the path of transition.
Diplomatically, regional actors (especially Ethiopia and the AU) played a key role in unlocking talks after the 3 June massacre and should continue to stay closely involved. The AU should dispatch to Khartoum an envoy to support the transition by mediating between the two sides and helping guard against the possibility that the security establishment (with all its structural advantages) will steamroll the civilian opposition if there are disputes over the deal’s details. The deal will be all the stronger if Western powers, including the U.S., keep up the pressure to honour it and press Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – all with close ties to the generals in Khartoum – to do the same.
The benefits of a successful transition are potentially enormous, and the cost of state failure would be vast.
There is also much to do on the economic front. Rescuing Sudan’s anaemic economy will require broad international support through a major multilateral donor initiative. Hamdok has estimated that the country needs a $10 billion infusion over the next two years. Donors, including the U.S., the EU and its member states, and Gulf countries, should begin taking steps to support this request. The U.S. should also move expeditiously to rescind Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which forbids international financial institutions from issuing loans and impedes other foreign investment, thereby hobbling Sudan’s private sector. Lifting the designation would help the newly appointed, civilian-led cabinet by giving it an early win and would be an important step toward Sudan’s qualifying for debt relief. External partners should couple these supportive measures with stern warnings that spoilers in Khartoum who impede the economic and political reforms necessary for Sudan’s successful transition will be subject to targeted sanctions on the part of the AU, EU and U.S.
Sudan is one of Africa’s most important countries, sandwiched between two major powers, Ethiopia and Egypt, abutting the Red Sea and located in a region scarred by instability. The benefits of a successful transition are potentially enormous, and the cost of state failure would be vast. Until recently, it was hard to imagine a moment of opportunity like the country now faces. It would be a mistake to squander it.
Khartoum/Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Brussels,
21 October 2019
Mass protests and a military coup have ended the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. The same events have also released centrifugal forces in Sudan that could spark renewed violence if not contained by a coherent transition to civilian rule. The civilian opposition that mobilised in the street yearns to bulldoze the former president’s corrupt, repressive legacy and hold fair elections. But the security establishment, dominated by paramilitary forces once at the vanguard of state-sponsored slaughter in the Darfur region, now controls government arsenals as well as the country’s major revenue streams. It is disinclined to relinquish these assets; thus, it could stymie reform. The generals continue to receive backing from powerful Gulf monarchies and Egypt, which view them as a bastion of stability in the Horn of Africa and a source of manpower for military ventures in Yemen.
Negotiations between the civilian opposition and a military council representing the security establishment over a transitional agreement were fraught with tensions over the division of power. The standoff culminated in a violent crackdown on 3 June, when paramilitary forces killed up to 120 protesters in the capital Khartoum. The killings met with international opprobrium, with the UN and African Union (AU) issuing swift condemnations and the AU suspending Sudan’s membership. The U.S., EU and UK then engaged with the Gulf states and Egypt, which corralled the junta into signing a power-sharing agreement on 17 July and accepting a constitutional declaration that was formally adopted one month later on 17 August.
The deal contemplates a transition to elections at the close of a 39-month period of reforms overseen by a civilian-dominated cabinet and legislature. It also lays out the terms for forming the institutions that will see the country through the coming period.
At the centre of the arrangements is a “sovereign council” tasked with steering the transition.
At the centre of the arrangements is a “sovereign council” tasked with steering the transition, which consists of five opposition representatives, five members picked by the security forces and a civilian jointly nominated by both parties. The Council moved swiftly to name a prime minister – economist Abdalla Hamdok – and a cabinet (with the military assigning the interior and defence portfolios). The cabinet will report to a legislative council, two thirds of which the civilian opposition will appoint, and which is expected to fashion a constitution pending elections. A general will head the sovereign council for the first 21 months of the transition before handing it over to a civilian for the remaining eighteen months pending elections.
But while critically important to guiding the country through a smooth transition, the deal reached over the summer goes only so far toward addressing some of the country’s most pressing needs. These include the urgent task of transforming a deeply dysfunctional economy and bringing an end to long-running rebellions in areas that Khartoum has historically neglected. The country’s bloated and fissiparous security machinery is a near-fatal drag on the state and needs restructuring. Meanwhile, segments of the army and security services appear to resent the more powerful paramilitaries, which could easily spark feuding among the generals themselves.
This report describes Bashir’s fall from power, the power-sharing deal’s emergence and the challenges that Sudan’s transitional leadership will face. It argues that the deal offers the best – and only viable – framework for addressing these challenges, steering the country toward reform, and avoiding the very real possibility that the country is instead pulled toward spiralling violence. It is based on interviews conducted since January in Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Abu Dhabi, Washington, Brussels, London, Nairobi, New York and Juba. It also builds on Crisis Group’s past work on Sudan’s long-term crisis.
II.From Crisis to Coup, Crackdown and Compromise
Unlike many of his peers, Omar al-Bashir survived the 2011 Arab uprisings relatively unscathed. It was subsequent setbacks that caused his eventual fall: an economic slump; the ensuing street protests in regime strongholds, including across Khartoum; the alienation of core constituencies, including within a regime security architecture beset by schisms between the armed forces and paramilitary units; and eroding support from sponsors in the Gulf.
The spark for the revolution was a rapidly declining economy.
The spark for the revolution was a rapidly declining economy. Bashir had maintained his power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in peripheral areas and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditures that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget. By late 2018, the economy had plunged to new depths, due to mismanagement, corruption and the loss of revenue following the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011. While, in 2017, the U.S. eased some financial and economic sanctions, the impact was modest; because Washington did not lift Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the country remained off limits to many foreign investors.
Protests began in the south-eastern cities of Damazin and Sennar on 13 December 2018 over the tripling of bread prices and rising cost of other staples, as well as shortages of medicine, fuel and cash. Many ATMs in banks had run dry, and queues at petrol stations stretched for kilometres. Opposition parties, professional associations and unions marched and staged strikes. By 19 December, when the snowballing demonstrations reached Atbara, a railway town and historic bastion of unionism in River Nile state, protesters were demanding regime change.
Several factors contributed to the movement’s strength. Previous protests centred in Khartoum, for instance in 2011 and 2013, had struggled to expand beyond student and middle-class youth activist circles. By contrast, the December demonstrations erupted outside the capital and leapt across geographic and class divides. These new protests were also better organised through neighbourhood resistance committees that had learned from the failures of the 2013 protests, which Bashir’s forces put down with brute force, taking dozens of lives.
Of crucial significance throughout the rise of the movement was the participation of Sudanese women, whose position in society had suffered under Bashir’s brand of Islamist rule.
Of crucial significance throughout the rise of the movement was the participation of Sudanese women, whose position in society had suffered under Bashir’s brand of Islamist rule. At several points during the uprising, women outnumbered men at protests. Mainstream interest in women’s roles in the uprising surged when a photograph depicting Alaa Salah, a university student, standing on a car, dressed in a traditional white toub and leading chants, went viral.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a grouping of labour and trade organisations formed in 2014, provided the movement’s backbone. By bringing workers and professionals into the streets, the association evoked memories of previous popular uprisings in 1964 and 1985, also led by trade unionists. Soon, the protests spread into affluent parts of Khartoum, where government officials live. Anecdotes abound of the Khartoum elite’s sons and daughters joining the demonstrations.
On 1 January 2019, the SPA struck an alliance with 21 other organisations in a joint declaration calling for a national transitional government to replace Bashir. The declaration marked the birth of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) opposition coalition, which became the protest movement’s official voice.
As pressure mounted, Salah Gosh, chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), held a meeting on 22 February 2019 with select newspaper editors and reporters to inform them that Bashir would no longer be head of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). He also said Bashir would not run in the 2020 election and that the president would dissolve the government, form a new administration composed of technocrats and launch a national dialogue to address Sudan’s challenges. Officials leaked details of Gosh’s discussion with the journalists shortly after the meeting. Some Sudanese rejoiced, hoping that Bashir would indeed engineer a transition and leave office.
But when Bashir spoke later that day, he instead proclaimed a state of emergency, installed military officers as governors of Sudan’s eighteen states and announced his second cabinet reshuffle in six months. Bashir also formed a security committee composed of loyalists – though many would later turn against him. Among its members were senior officers from the Sudanese Armed Forces; General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), leader of the RSF, the paramilitary group that Bashir increasingly relied upon as a praetorian guard; NISS officials including Gosh, whom Bashir was still keeping close; and a police representative. But the divergence between what Gosh had told the journalists and what Bashir defiantly announced highlighted fissures within the regime. Despite his position on the committee, ruling party figures say, Gosh soon began working in earnest to oust Bashir.
Sensing the regime’s weakness, the protest movement dialled up the pressure, calling for larger and more audacious street actions.
Amid these brewing tensions, public unrest put the cohesion of Bashir’s security committee to the test. By April, managing the daily protests had depleted state funds: the treasury had to cover four months of overtime costs for police and other security agencies. Meanwhile, inflation surged to as high as 70 per cent, emptying the pocketbooks of ordinary Sudanese. Sensing the regime’s weakness, the protest movement dialled up the pressure, calling for larger and more audacious street actions. On 6 April, protesters marched to army headquarters in Khartoum, as well as to military installations in other cities, and staged a sit-in. Riot police and personnel from the intelligence services were poised to block the protesters’ advance, a source told Crisis Group, but elements of the security forces led by Gosh held them back.
At this point, Bashir still appeared confident that he could ride out the uprising. While he remained an international pariah – the only sitting head of state ever indicted by the International Criminal Court – he had developed important security and economic partnerships with Gulf states and Turkey, which he may have believed would help him hang on to power.
As Crisis Group has described elsewhere, starting in 2013, the Gulf Cooperation Council developed a common policy of bringing Sudan closer into its orbit. The primary motivation was to peel Khartoum away from arch-rival Tehran. When the Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign in Yemen in 2015, its interest in the partnership intensified, as Sudan was possessed of both potential troops for the venture and a long Red Sea coastline that the coalition wanted, for strategic reasons, to ensure was in friendly hands.
For Bashir, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen presented an opportunity.
For Bashir, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen presented an opportunity. In 2015, short on cash and eager for sanctions relief, he sought to solidify his alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by deploying roughly 10,000 RSF members and some regular army soldiers to fight alongside Saudi and Emirati troops. A year later, Bashir severed ties with the Saudis’ nemesis Iran after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran and Mashhad. Riyadh, meanwhile, worked to keep Sudan on its side with cash and diplomatic support.
But Bashir’s relationship with the Gulf powers was nevertheless on less than firm ground. For one thing, the Saudis and Emiratis harboured suspicions of Bashir, who maintained relations with their rivals Qatar and Turkey. Bashir also alienated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with his refusal to purge Islamists from his political machinery, security services and state bureaucracy. From the moment Bashir took power in 1989, Egyptian authorities, later joined by Cairo’s allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, were spooked by the Islamist bent of his administration and his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Egypt’s security establishment considers its most potent domestic challenger and that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) views as a regional threat.
Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo simply did not trust Bashir, whom they saw as highly transactional.
Fundamentally, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo simply did not trust Bashir, whom they saw as highly transactional, requiring constant cultivation and forever at risk of sliding back in Tehran’s direction. As Bashir’s grasp on power began to slip, the Gulf monarchies saw an opening to replace him with someone more reliable and gave their blessing to the generals planning to move against him. A contact who was one of the last people to speak with Bashir before he was toppled said the president blamed Saudi Arabia and the UAE for his ouster.
The coup against Bashir came quickly and decisively. When Hemedti, the RSF leader, turned against Bashir in the first week of April – as the protesters’ encampment outside military headquarters swelled – the balance of power tipped for good. On 10 April, Bashir’s security committee made the decision to oust the strongman. A member later reported that the committee deliberated for one hour, then disconnected Bashir’s phone and replaced his bodyguards. A period of uncertainty followed as the generals, now a junta, worked to consolidate power. Army officers arrived at the state television and radio stations just after 3am on 11 April, but it was another twelve hours before Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Ouf, Bashir’s first vice president, appeared to announce the president’s arrest and declare a state of emergency.
Ibn Ouf’s stint in power lasted only a day. On 12 April, he appeared on television again to announce that he was stepping aside to make way for General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, an obscure figure who had overseen Sudan’s deployment to Yemen. Before his promotion to army inspector general in February 2019, Burhan had served as the military attaché in China. Many believe it was Hemedti who forced Ibn Ouf’s resignation, partly because he harboured his own ambitions for supremacy and saw the installation of the more pliant Burhan as a way to expand his own influence.
Ibn Ouf’s removal gave confidence to the protesters, who chanted “it fell once, it fell twice, it could fall a third time”.
Ibn Ouf’s removal gave confidence to the protesters, who chanted “it fell once, it fell twice, it could fall a third time”. Within a few days, they began agitating against Burhan. Under pressure to contain the revolt, the junta, now calling itself the Transitional Military Council, embarked on negotiations with the opposition coalition. The two sides announced a framework on 15 May for a three-year transitional government to steer the country to elections and also agreed on mandates for the council of ministers, the legislature and a “sovereign council” to guide the transition.
The talks exposed divisions in the military council between hardliners and others willing to compromise. Some of the council grumbled that the deal conceded too much without giving the security establishment sufficient protection from an opposition-controlled legislature. A day later, on 16 May, the Transitional Military Council suspended the talks with the opposition coalition, instead making a show of meeting with less significant political parties. Undeterred, the coalition stepped up the pressure. On 28 and 29 May, the opposition alliance, pushed by elements such as the Communist Party, organised a general strike that shut down much of the country.
The standoff continued until 3 June, when security forces brutally dispersed the ten-week sit-in that had formed outside army headquarters on 6 April. Opposition medics and media outlets documented that the raid killed up to 120 people. In the days following the massacre, forces roamed the streets assaulting civilians and looting – an extraordinary breakdown of order in Khartoum. Video and eyewitness testimony pin the bulk of the attack on Hemedti’s RSF, though other security forces appear to have taken part. The massacre took place days after Hemedti visited the Saudi crown prince as well as leaders in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.
The bloody 3 June crackdown marked a turning point. The attack, coupled with a string of arrests, a total shutdown of the internet and a ban on public events, served to re-energise and reunify the opposition alliance. Indignant that the top brass appeared intent on clinging to power following Bashir’s fall, and outraged by not only the massacre but also a number of other smaller-scale killings of protesters, the opposition marshalled tens of thousands of Sudanese across the country for a “million-man” march on 30 June.
The 3 June massacre provoked ire across the region and around the world.
At the same time, the 3 June massacre provoked ire across the region and around the world. The UN, the EU and AU, as well as various governments – including the U.S., UK and Germany – immediately issued calls for a transition to civilian rule. The AU’s Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan’s membership in an unambiguous show of condemnation. The U.S. also piled pressure on Gulf powers to lean on the junta to reach an accommodation with the protesters. In a rare move, on 4 June, the U.S. State Department issued a readout of a call between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman to discuss “the brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters [by the generals]”. The American asked the Saudis to use their influence with the junta to “encourage a transition to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people”.
This combination of diplomatic pressure and internal protest – particularly the 30 June march – proved critical in drawing the generals back to the negotiating table. The scale of the 30 June demonstration was especially important in making clear to the military council that this situation would not be a reprise of 2013 – when the Bashir government squashed a protest movement in part with promises of a national dialogue that never came to pass; the 2019 movement was simply too strong. In July, the junta resumed direct talks with the opposition under the aegis of the AU and a special envoy designated by the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. By 17 July the two sides had endorsed what they described as a “political agreement” that would be followed by a formal “constitutional declaration” signed a month later on 17 August. The power-sharing deal reached over the course of the summer laid out a blueprint for the transitional government and a roadmap for a 39-month transition to elections. Still, many fault lines remained both between the parties involved in the agreement and within their respective ranks.
III.A Factious Security Establishment in a Time of Transition
The Transitional Military Council that ousted Bashir was an awkward alliance of the competing security forces the deposed president left behind. Under the terms of the power-sharing deal, it dissolved and ceded its authority on 21 August to an eleven-member “sovereign council” that comprises five members each from the security sector and the opposition, with one consensus civilian appointee, and is headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the country has already passed to Prime Minister Hamdok and his cabinet, which manage the civil service, draw up the budget and oversee all state agencies outside the security sector.
The security establishment continues to hold most instruments of raw power in the country.
In practice, however, and though the civilian-led cabinet has wide popular support, the security establishment continues to hold most instruments of raw power in the country. It has control of the streets, a grip on Sudan’s illicit economy, and political and financial backing from foreign capitals, principally Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
This establishment is far from being a cohesive body. At its core, it comprises the Sudanese Armed Forces, Hemedti’s RSF, the intelligence services and allied militias. It is vulnerable to internecine rivalries. Its constituent parts have their own loyalties and political backgrounds. Against this backdrop, the security sector represents a dual threat to the peace process. It is, first and foremost, a spoiler that may try to block civilian oversight of the transitional government in order to preserve the extensive prerogatives it enjoyed under Bashir and has not yet been forced to yield. Additionally, its internal divisions could spur instability if they blow up into armed clashes.
A.Key Players and Power Centres
1.Burhan and the military
Sudan’s professional military weakened so drastically under Bashir that it is now just one power among many in the security sector. The reasons for the Sudanese Armed Forces’ decline are many. Bashir lost trust in the military following his 1999 falling-out with Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s leading Islamist, who had hand-picked much of the top brass. Bashir’s suspicion of the generals hardened after the military failed to prevent the stunning assault on Khartoum by the Darfuri rebel Justice and Equality Movement in 2008. Also, the lengthy insurgencies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile largely precluded the army from recruiting soldiers from those regions, eroding its claim to be a unifying national institution.
Rather than rebuild the military, Bashir increasingly opted to fund and arm local paramilitary groups.
Rather than rebuild the military, Bashir increasingly opted to fund and arm local paramilitary groups, leading to the proliferation of groups such as Hemedti’s RSF, which, as discussed below, started out in Darfur and has grown more powerful than the army itself.
General al-Burhan, now head of the Sovereign Council, was a little known but senior officer. In his current role, he acts as a bridge between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Hemedti, who was his deputy on the Transitional Military Council. Like most high-ranking army officers, Burhan is from central Sudan, the bastion of Sudan’s political elite, in contrast to Hemedti, who comes from Darfur.
Burhan has broadly aligned the army with the RSF. He is a known figure to the security forces of the junta’s two Gulf allies, the Saudis and Emiratis, due to his role as a commander in the Yemen campaign, to which Hemedti has also contributed men and resources. Additionally, as a professional officer, Burhan is acceptable to Cairo, which wants to make sure that the military establishment, rather than Hemedti and others whose power derives from militias, is in charge in Khartoum.
Notwithstanding Burhan’s position atop the Sovereign Council, many in the army resent what they see as Hemedti’s increasing dominance. They also take exception to the lucre that the RSF gleans from smuggling across Sudan’s borders (which the RSF controls), the artisanal gold market (which the RSF has cornered) and its position as the primary conduit of support from Sudan’s allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Some of the army’s generals also have illicit sources of income, due to their privileges in a country where corruption is rampant, but in recent years the RSF have become the main actor in a rigged economy. Many in the armed forces see the RSF as an ill-trained, undisciplined provincial militia.
Many low- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces seemed to share some of the protest movement’s grievances.
The army’s rank and file have also had a different perspective on the protest movement than their counterparts in the RSF and intelligence services. From the beginning of the uprising, many low- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces seemed to share some of the protest movement’s grievances – especially with respect to the collapsing economy – and to have more sympathy for the movement’s demands. In contrast to the RSF and intelligence services, which were persistently brutal in their treatment of protesters until their leaders shifted their stance in April, members of the armed forces sometimes sought to shield the protesters from harm.
Some within the armed forces would like to restore the military’s prestige and dominance. Hemedti, however, resisted suggestions by army generals during negotiations leading up to the power-sharing deal that the constitutional declaration outline the need to unify Sudan’s security forces. For now, the military and RSF maintain an awkward alliance; however, as the transition progresses and with Hemedti seemingly intent on entrenching the RSF’s position and acquiring greater political power, some military officials could seek to halt his rise, which would likely trigger clashes between two powerful and well-armed organisations.
2.Hemedti and the Rapid Support Forces
General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, the boyish head of the RSF, is the most powerful man in the security forces. Hemedti draws his strength from three primary sources. First, he directly oversees much of the RSF, the pre-eminent paramilitary force among the many that Sudanese authorities spawned during Bashir’s three decades in power. The RSF now appears to control Khartoum, as well as other towns and regions of the country, notably Darfur. Secondly, he has acquired significant wealth, including proceeds derived from stakes in major gold mining operations, which he wields to extend his power and influence in Sudan’s transactional politics. Thirdly, he has curried favour with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which see him as an accommodating strongman who – unlike Bashir – can be relied upon to serve as a bulwark against Islamist sympathisers in the military and bureaucracy.
Hemedti’s rise exemplifies the proliferation of non-conventional security “entrepreneurs” who have eclipsed Sudan’s conventional military.
Hemedti’s rise exemplifies the proliferation of non-conventional security “entrepreneurs” who have eclipsed Sudan’s conventional military. Born to Chadian migrants, Hemedti dropped out of primary school but thrived as a trader. The Darfur conflict gave him his entrance into Sudan’s power politics. He joined the Janjaweed militia, then led by Musa Hilal, his maternal cousin and a prominent leader of the Mahamid tribe, a sub-group of the Rizeigat. In 2009, Hemedti received his first government post as a security adviser to the governor of South Darfur. There he served until 2011, when Bashir helped him set up the RSF, a rebranding of the Janjaweed.
Hemedti benefited when Bashir tapped him to take down Musa Hilal, whom the president judged disloyal. The Hemedti-Hilal conflict escalated to armed clashes in 2017, with Hemedti coming out on top. Hilal was arrested and imprisoned by state authorities. As Hilal’s fortunes declined, Hemedti took control of the lucrative gold mine they once jointly controlled.
Hemedti has thrived as a businessman, establishing several companies under the umbrella of his al-Junaid conglomerate. His company, al-Junaid for Roads and Bridges, was awarded government contracts to help build at least three highways in Darfur (the Nyala-Fashir, Kutum-Fashir and Genina-Zalingei routes). His mining company operates in Jebel Amir and has started working in southern Darfur.
Bashir’s 2015 decision to send troops to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen provided Hemedti with a major boost.
Bashir’s 2015 decision to send troops to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen provided Hemedti with a major boost. He sent troops in much larger numbers than Sudan’s regular military did. RSF troops also took more front-line positions than the military’s rank and file, who are generally more risk-averse and therefore often deployed defensively, such as to guard the Saudi Arabian border. The RSF’s ranks were swelled by recruits from many impoverished families who were highly motivated by the financial rewards, which could reach up to $10,000 each per offensive deployment. Some even paid bribes to go. Apart from his role in the Yemen campaign, Hemedti has authorised a representative to forge an alliance with the UAE’s ally General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. Some diplomats, inside and outside the region, express concern that Abu Dhabi is cultivating Hemedti as a long-term security partner.
In early 2017, Sudan’s parliament passed the Rapid Support Forces Act, which put the paramilitaries directly under the office of the president, cementing their evolution from peripheral militia to quasi-presidential guard. Bashir began referring to Hemedti as Hemayti, which translates from Arabic as “my protection”. In the end, however, when Bashir’s fortunes had begun to shift dramatically, Hemedti turned on his patron, sealing the former president’s fate.
Hemedti’s ambitions for power and influence have led him to cultivate relationships well outside Sudan’s borders. Conspicuously, the RSF’s ranks feature men who are not Sudanese nationals. Meanwhile, Hemedti, whose Arab tribe straddles the border between Chad and Sudan, has used his ancestry to forge links to eastern Chad, as well as circles of power in N’djamena. He also maintains ties with armed groups in the Central African Republic. South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar, hosted by authorities in Khartoum, has also attempted to build ties with Hemedti and travelled with him for talks with President Salva Kiir in September.
While Hemedti lacks Bashir’s charisma [...] he has played his distance from the elites to his advantage.
While Hemedti lacks Bashir’s charisma and is considered a thuggish provincial warlord by Khartoum’s elites, he has played his distance from those elites to his advantage. He has fashioned a role for himself as a champion of Sudanese outside the country’s relatively prosperous centre, seeking to portray the opposition alliance and the military as overly focused on concentrating power in Khartoum and the Nile valley. He has also presented himself as the key figure seeking to end the communal conflicts that have ravaged Sudan’s eastern and western peripheries. While in some ways a remarkable role for Hemedti to assume, given that earlier in his career he led militias accused of perpetrating some of the worst killings in Darfur, it allows him to trade on the close ties he reportedly enjoys with several armed groups.
The economic, military and diplomatic clout Hemedti has amassed is formidable. “He almost doesn’t need to carry out a coup because he has created a role for himself as an alternative to the state and to Khartoum’s elites”, one diplomat who recently spent time in Khartoum told Crisis Group.
3.Gosh and the National Intelligence and Security Services
Until the past decade, the National Intelligence and Security Services were a pillar of Bashir’s rule. Its members are primarily drawn from Bashir’s riverine stronghold and were viewed as more loyal than the army’s soldiers, who have historically been recruited from a diverse pool. But the intelligence services declined in power and influence as Bashir became more paranoid about internal challenges to his rule.
The long-time intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, was formerly regarded as one of the most powerful people in Sudan and as a rival to Bashir. By 2011, it became clear to Bashir that Gosh and the service he commanded could threaten his rule. As a result, he sidelined Gosh and curtailed the intelligence services’ operational capabilities. In November 2012, Sudanese authorities detained Gosh, accusing him of plotting to sabotage the government. Bashir rehabilitated him six years later and reappointed him intelligence chief in February 2018.
When protests broke out in December 2018, Gosh’s apparatus spearheaded the crackdown.
Although in the intervening period the RSF had emerged as Bashir’s favourite security force, when protests broke out in December 2018, Gosh’s apparatus spearheaded the crackdown. Overwhelmed with detainees, Gosh scrambled to build new jail cells and repurpose ordinary prison quarters to hold the service’s detainees. But, as noted above, Gosh soured on Bashir after the latter’s apparent about-face on initiating a transition in February 2019. In April 2019, Gosh appeared to allow the protests to swell, and even to permit the 6 April sit-in to form in front of army headquarters in Khartoum. For a few weeks, the intelligence services’ vehicles disappeared from the streets; intimidation and arrests stopped.
By this time, Gosh and Hemedti were conspiring to oust Bashir. But the relationship between the two security chiefs soon began to deteriorate. Gosh saw himself as a leader and resented Hemedti’s apparent ambitions. For his part, Hemedti distrusted Gosh.
Many in the protest movement also distrusted Gosh, given his role suppressing protests and running a service many Sudanese blamed for gross human rights abuses (including administering a network of makeshift prisons where detainees were allegedly tortured). After initially resisting calls from the movement to leave office when Bashir fell, he resigned on 13 April. A few weeks after Gosh quit, police directed by the Transitional Military Council chiefs tried to arrest him on corruption charges, but intelligence services officers, who remained loyal to him, prevented his detention. Soon afterward, Gosh left the country, reportedly to Egypt, where he appears to have remained active in trying to shape events in Sudan.
Gosh’s rivals have worked to dismantle his power base in the intelligence services. After Gosh left office, Hemedti used his influence to sack dozens of officers from the intelligence services. And in July, the Transitional Military Council announced that the NISS would become the General Intelligence Service, dedicated solely to intelligence gathering and losing its other internal security capabilities. The RSF has reportedly folded many former NISS officers, particularly those from its operational arm, into its ranks – thereby further strengthening Hemedti.
On 15 August, the U.S. State Department announced that it would sanction Gosh, in what observers viewed as a warning to influential Sudanese attempting to sabotage the transition.
B.Two Steps Toward Security Sector Reform
As Khartoum’s transitional government seeks to turn the corner on Bashir’s brutal legacy and create a foundation for stable future governance, security sector reform will be critically important. Two near-term objectives for the transitional government should be 1) to make the security services more accountable for their abuses and 2) to start to bring the country’s primary military and paramilitary organisations under a single command.
Concerning the first objective, the civilian leadership of the transitional cabinet should work with the legislative council, when it is formed, to repeal laws that give the security forces immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in the course of duty. A change to this legal regime, one of the world’s most permissive, would signal that the government no longer tolerates wanton abuses of power by the state’s agents and would be in keeping with the commitment all sides made in the constitutional agreement to implement “legal reform (and) rebuild and develop the human rights and justice system”.
It is difficult to see how Sudan can be a democracy if individuals control quasi-private militias outside the command of the formal armed forces.
As for the second objective, the most significant challenge will almost certainly be how to deal with the RSF, which exists outside the formal military. As a Western diplomat put it: “It is difficult to see how Sudan can be a democracy if individuals control quasi-private militias outside the command of the formal armed forces”.
The RSF’s wealth and power mean that simply disbanding it – which many within the opposition coalition understandably call for – is not realistic. Instead, Prime Minister Hamdok, the military leadership and the RSF should continue discussions broached by the opposition coalition and some within the armed forces during this summer’s negotiations about the power-sharing agreement on the possibility of merging the security forces. In this scenario, RSF commanders and troops would retain their jobs but fall under the military command’s authority. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, which all have stated their commitment to stability in Sudan, should emphasise to RSF leadership that placing the country’s security forces under unified command is essential for achieving this goal and encourage them in this direction. Patience and persistence will be necessary, however, as the RSF benefits greatly from the status quo and is therefore likely to be very resistant to this sort of change.
If domestic consensus can be achieved, actors such as the EU, which have experience in backing reform of the security sector and reintegration efforts, could offer support for the reintegration into society of those RSF militiamen who do not want to join the army and would prefer to go back to civilian life.
The Forces for Freedom and Change is a fragile coalition of parties, political personalities, unions and civil activist groups often with competing interests, divergent constituencies and opposing ideologies. Some veteran opposition party leaders within its ranks are part of the same old guard that many Sudanese view as sharing responsibility for the country’s woes. Its younger leadership cohort, however, particularly the professionals and civil society figures who organised the protest movement, enjoy great credibility with the public, as demonstrated by their capacity repeatedly to summon tens of thousands of Sudanese into the streets.
Throughout, the opposition has shown not only determination but also a mastery of optics. The sit-in outside the army’s Khartoum headquarters was redolent with symbolism – and made for great television. In naming Ahmed al-Rabia, a schoolteacher who drives a taxi at night to supplement his income, as a chief spokesman in April, the opposition drew a sharp contrast between its support base – ordinary Sudanese seeking change – and the generals who got rich during Bashir’s long rule.
A.An Uneasy Alliance
The Forces for Freedom and Change coalition is expected to form the bedrock of support for efforts to institute full civilian rule at the end of the pivotal 39-month transition, but it is a work in progress. For all the FFC’s accomplishments, it is not yet clear whether its many component organisations will maintain the unity required to check the security sector.
The coalition represents a wide diversity of professional, civil society and political organisations, and its internal dynamics are correspondingly complex.
The coalition represents a wide diversity of professional, civil society and political organisations, and its internal dynamics are correspondingly complex. Upon its formation in January 2019, a few weeks after protests broke out, the coalition assembled its coordinating committee, which steered the movement until Bashir’s ouster, at which point the political parties became more dominant and led the negotiations. Its most active members were the Sudanese Professionals Association, the civil society group Sudan Call (a collection of Sudan’s more established political parties, rebel representatives and civil society activists) and other lobbies, including the Families of Ramadan Martyrs and the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative. As the protests took shape, established political parties also began to play a bigger role in the movement.
Of these groups, the Sudanese Professionals Association was and remains most prominent in the public eye. The group formed in 2014, remained fairly inactive until 2018, and then assumed a leadership role in the uprising. Civil society groups rallied around the SPA’s leadership and mainstream opposition parties lent it behind-the-scenes support, realising that they lacked the popular legitimacy to lead the movement. This tactical decision accelerated the protests’ momentum and also boosted the SPA’s popularity. By December 2018, the group consisted of seven underground professional syndicates and trade unions, led by a committee of the union heads. The SPA remained at the vanguard of protests until 11 April, when the military moved against Bashir, at which point it assumed a lower profile. Said one local political analyst: “For once, the opposition managed not to shoot itself in the foot”.
Still, the coalition has had its challenges. For one thing, some groups believe the coalition has been too accommodating. A bloc known as the National Consensus Forces split with leading coalition member Sudan Call in March over the latter’s decision to participate in a proposed AU-led dialogue with Bashir’s government. Two members of the bloc – the Sudanese Communist Party and the Popular Congress Party – subsequently announced that they would not join the yet-to-be-formed legislative council or nominate members to the cabinet because in their view the FFC had offered too many concessions to the generals.
Another grievance that some groups complain of is under-representation.
Another grievance that some groups complain of is under-representation. This is a particular concern for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an umbrella for armed groups that have fought insurgent campaigns on Sudan’s periphery. The Revolutionary Front and National Umma Party have together called for formation of a leadership council that would represent the coalition’s different strands and be its decision-making body. Civil society groups, particularly the SPA, initially opposed this idea, contending that the existing flat structure, involving hundreds of neighbourhood committees and a faceless coordinating committee, was better positioned to avoid detection by Bashir’s repressive security apparatus. Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the 3 June attack on protesters, civil society leaders began negotiations about forming the leadership council. The 3 June massacre disrupted these plans, as many leading coalition figures (especially youth leaders) went into hiding, but once mediation began, the council was formed.
Beyond addressing grievances that could threaten internal cohesion, the opposition will need to communicate more effectively and promptly with the public as part of efforts to improve its capacity as a serious political player. Over the course of the summer’s transition talks, it was a source of public frustration and apprehension that the opposition, understandably accustomed to operating secretly, closely guarded information on progress that was being made. Outside civil society organisations and donors, including the EU, U.S. and others, should encourage opposition leadership to be more open and to welcome a flourishing public debate on Sudan’s future as part of their efforts to build support for the transition.
Hemedti has cast himself as a champion of rural Sudan and cultivated alliances with the leaders of armed groups that opposed Bashir.
Another risk to the opposition is that the generals could seek to widen the opposition’s internal divisions by co-opting its constituents. One potentially important fissure is along geographic lines. As indicated above, the opposition is already exposed to the criticism that it is too dominated by metropolitan elites and draws a disproportionate number of its leaders from Khartoum. Against this backdrop, Hemedti has cast himself as a champion of rural Sudan and cultivated alliances with the leaders of armed groups that opposed Bashir and should be the opposition coalition’s natural allies. He could strengthen these ties and try to peel off other coalition partners using similar tactics, weakening the coalition at a time when unity will be critical to its efforts to loosen the generals’ hold on power. For this reason, it will be important for the opposition to be attentive in their actions and policies to both the rebels’ desire for a serious voice in coalition decision-making and to their concerns about Sudan’s treatment of its citizens in its long-neglected peripheries, as discussed below.
Sudan’s centre-periphery tensions predate the Bashir era, but its internal wars intensified under the deposed president. South Sudan eventually seceded, while wars expanded to more places in the north. Mass atrocities perpetrated by Bashir’s security forces in Darfur led to his indictment by the International Criminal Court, the first of a sitting head of state.
The new transitional government must reckon with the legacy of decades of efforts by elites in the wealthier riverine centre to subdue rebellions across the country by force. This legacy encompasses several regions devastated by conflict, huge displaced populations and an array of rebel movements, some scattered outside Sudan’s borders. Bringing peace to warring areas should be a priority during the transitional period and will require careful consideration of the accommodations that the rebels are seeking. These include steps to reverse the imposition of Islamic law on religious minorities, separate religion and state, and provide for a fairer distribution of power and resources to areas in the periphery, including by allowing them to elect governors rather than imposing these from distant Khartoum.
The other in Sudan is left with only two options, either to accept inferiority status or be exterminated.
Abdelaziz al-Hilu, who, as noted below, leads the largest faction of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-North, characterised the rebels’ core grievances to Crisis Group as structural. Al-Hilu said Arabic-speaking elites in Khartoum have long tried to impose a “false Arab identity” on a culturally diverse country. This attitude, he said, impelled minorities to take up arms to protect their position in society. He added that successive regimes have worsened centre-periphery relations with the logic of political Islam, which casts non-Muslims as second-class citizens. Al-Hilu concluded by saying: “The other in Sudan is always oppressed, marginalised and excluded when it comes to access to power and wealth. The other in Sudan is left with only two options, either to accept inferiority status or be exterminated”.
The nature of Sudan’s internal conflicts changed after South Sudan’s 2011 independence. Rebel remnants from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regrouped into the Sudanese Revolutionary Front. At the time, the Darfur conflict had raged for years, but the conflict in the latter two areas was just restarting after a respite ushered in by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In its first two years, the Front, supported by Juba, made significant battlefield gains and threatened the central government’s hold on the provinces where the fighting was taking place. The group also forged an alliance with the political opposition, joining Sudan Call.
The Front has since splintered, however, limiting its relevance as an armed force. Among its constituent parts, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North faction under Malik Agar, of Blue Nile, and Yasir Arman, of northern Sudan, lost most of its fighters following a bitter split in 2017. Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi’s Sudan Liberation Army faction is now based in Libya as mercenaries fighting on behalf of General Haftar. The fighting force of the Justice and Equality Movement under Jibril Ibrahim is thought to have dwindled below a few hundred operating in South Sudan and Libya. These groups’ political strength among Sudanese is difficult to gauge but is likely eroding, even in war-affected regions.
The Front is in reality overshadowed by larger, more powerful armed groups that sit outside it.
Though vocal in its efforts to get a seat at the table during transitional agreement talks, the Front is in reality overshadowed by larger, more powerful armed groups that sit outside it. One is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North faction led by Hilu, who took most of the rebel fighters with him in the 2017 split. Hilu has a secure stronghold in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and commands the largest rebel faction in Blue Nile. Another is the Sudan Liberation Movement faction of Abdul-Wahid al-Nur, which is the only remaining significant rebel force in Darfur. Nur’s faction has declined in power in its Jebel Marra stronghold during his long self-imposed exile in France, as has the strength of his personal command. Both leaders disengaged from peace talks in Bashir’s final years – especially Nur, who earned notoriety among diplomats for his consistent refusal to enter negotiations.
But even if the Front is no longer the most powerful of the armed groups, both the coalition and the generals have vied for influence over it, conscious of its symbolic significance and potential spoiler role. Negotiations in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in July 2019 made headway in aligning the Front’s demands with the coalition’s positions but in the end the rebel leaders walked out. Tensions remain rife: as noted above, the Front has griped about the coalition’s decision-making process and having to play second fiddle to the civilian leaders, whom they see as another collection of aloof riverine elites. Meanwhile, Hemedti, whom the military council charged with outreach to Sudan’s rebel movements, has been in touch through his own channels with the Front’s members. His late June meeting with Minnawi, brokered by Chadian President Idriss Deby, fed speculation that the generals are working to pull the rebels away from the coalition and into their corner.
A permanent ceasefire would allow local populations freedom of movement across lines previously controlled by the patchwork of belligerents active across rural Sudan.
South Sudan and Egypt have also sought roles as mediators between Sudan’s generals and rebels. South Sudan, which historically has been the main backer of several of the armed groups, has taken the lead in marshalling these parties to find a compromise. In the first week of September, its president, Salva Kiir, hosted key armed group leaders for talks and subsequently met Prime Minister Hamdok. On 11 September, the parties signed the Juba Declaration, indicating that Juba would remain the sole forum for peace talks. South Sudan is likely to remain an important actor as it seeks to cultivate ties with the new administration in Khartoum on this role, having lost its prior channel, which relied on Bashir. The benefits of a long-term sustainable peace would be considerable. It would mean that humanitarian workers could gain easier access to regions long under siege from the security forces while a permanent ceasefire – potentially overseen by AU monitors – would allow local populations freedom of movement across lines previously controlled by the patchwork of belligerents active across rural Sudan.
V.Islamist Organisations on the Sidelines – for Now
The coup against Bashir and the generals’ consolidation of power with Gulf backing has put Sudan’s Islamist political machinery, embodied in recent years primarily by the ruling National Congress Party, out of order. Its incapacity may be temporary, however, since it still controls layers of the state bureaucracy and military. A failed counter-coup attempt on 24 July, reportedly involving Islamist-allied military personnel, suggests that at least some of Bashir’s old guard may see themselves as his legitimate heirs.
Sudan’s version of the so-called deep state has its roots in the country’s Islamist movement.
Sudan’s version of the so-called deep state has its roots in the country’s Islamist movement, which Bashir co-opted first to mount his own coup in 1989 and later to extend his rule. This movement, the National Islamic Front, was led by the prominent preacher Hassan al-Turabi for almost ten years. It was a major component of Sudan’s ruling party and controlled much of the government bureaucracy.
Though Bashir later fell out with Turabi and rebranded the Front as the National Congress Party, Bashir’s coalition continued to comprise Islamists acting in concert with security factions and opportunists. Bashir gradually shunted the party aside in the final years of his rule in a desperate attempt to disassociate himself from a political entity that many Sudanese blamed for the collapsing economy. Despite the NCP’s troubles, however, its members remain part of a relatively well-resourced and entrenched political network on the outside of the power-sharing arrangements.Two Islamist political organisations that are also on the sidelines are the Popular Congress, which Turabi founded after his split with Bashir, and Reform Now. Both were once allied with Bashir but decided to back the protests that toppled him.
Given their nationwide political machinery and extensive financial resources after decades of access to government resources and contracts, the NCP and allied parties could yet emerge as powerful post-Bashir actors. In the spring of 2019, after the state of emergency declaration and weeks before Bashir’s ouster, party leaders reportedly began scheming about where and how to hide their wealth. The NCP could be positioning itself to return to the political scene, and it may have some inside support. To their Egyptian and Gulf backers, the generals claim to be purging Islamist forces from the military and senior ranks of the civil service but some observers believe that the former junta and the NCP have a quiet truce.
Parties associated with Islamism could well profit from the inevitable challenges that the transitional government will face.
By standing apart from the transition, and in fact defining themselves in opposition to both the civilian coalition and the generals, parties associated with Islamism could well profit from the inevitable challenges that the transitional government will face. Because they are outside of it, they stand to gain public support should the transitional government be unable to deliver on key promises, especially with respect to reviving the economy. Further, they may be able to call upon eager patrons in Qatar and Turkey, which are both looking for opportunities to regain their foothold in Khartoum.
That said, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are keen to keep parties with strong links to Islamists in political exile. These two monarchies calculate that Sudan’s security forces are their most dependable ally in that regard. The civil society component of the opposition coalition has also consistently rejected any accommodation with Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam, identifying it as a legacy of Bashir that must be swept away.
VI.The Role of External Actors
Sudan has gripped the attention of Western, Gulf and African observers who are concerned, among other things, by the prospect of the Sudanese state’s implosion. External actors have had to grapple with a complex crisis, notable for deep schisms between the key actors who will determine the country’s future as well as divisions within the negotiating blocs themselves. Consistent, unified support for Sudan’s political negotiations is necessary to avoid a breakdown of the civilian-military transitional administration on whose shoulders Sudan’s near-term fate now rests. Indeed, without substantial external pressure, it is unlikely that the junta would have acceded to the concessions necessary to arrive at the deal adopted 17 August.
A.Regional Mediation Efforts
The AU and Ethiopia have been critical to bridging the divide between the opposition coalition and security establishment.
Until the 3 June massacre, the two sides refused offers of international and regional mediation, but the killings in Khartoum created new pressure to talk. International revulsion over the massacre found expression in the AU’s 6 June decision to suspend Sudan’s membership. The action by the Peace and Security Council, reportedly taken in spite of lobbying on Sudan’s behalf by Egypt, illustrated the generals’ growing isolation after the killings. Still, even as pressure for mediation grew, it was not immediately clear which regional and international actors would get traction. The AU Commission renewed its offer to step in, but the Sudanese parties rebuffed its envoy Mohamed el-Hassan Lebatt, a Mauritanian diplomat.
In the end, it was Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who reset the talks.
In the end, it was Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who reset the talks. Four days after the massacre, Abiy arrived in Khartoum, wearing the hat of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional body that Ethiopia now chairs. He quickly met with both sides, leaving senior diplomat Mahmoud Dirir behind as his envoy. Critically, Abiy’s effort received the public and private backing of the UAE, which had previously played a key role in brokering Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea.
After talks got under way, apparent disunity between the AU and Ethiopian envoys stymied early efforts at achieving a breakthrough. The envoys offered contrasting proposals to the opposition and military council, each containing different numbers for the composition of the planned legislative and sovereign councils. But after discussions in Addis, the AU and Ethiopian envoys closed ranks on 26 June, and presented both sides with a joint proposal, which became the basis for the 17 July political accord and the constitutional declaration eventually adopted on 17 August. The formula for the sovereign council that finally proved acceptable – with five members each appointed by the civilian coalition and the generals and an eleventh jointly chosen civilian – echoed the initial Ethiopian proposals.
B.Western Coordination with the Gulf States and Egypt
Coordinating Western and Gulf pressure on the parties to reach a negotiated deal took some time. In the weeks and months leading up to Bashir’s ouster, many Sudanese protesters were frustrated at the relative silence of key Western countries. Even after Bashir fell, pivotal players, notably Washington, which had de facto led the Troika partnership effort to stabilise Sudan and South Sudan dating back to the early 2000s, stayed largely out of the fray. The opposition, Addis Ababa, Washington and European governments were together frustrated with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for supporting Sudan’s military council notwithstanding signals that it did not intend to share power with civilians.
Two international initiatives helped bring Western and Gulf governments together with regional actors behind a common position.
Two international initiatives helped bring Western and Gulf governments together with regional actors behind a common position.
The first to form was the Friends of Sudan contact group, an initiative primarily driven by Western diplomats, which met first in May in Washington and included representatives from the UN, AU, EU and Ethiopia, and which expanded to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar at its second meeting in Berlin in June. A statement after the June meeting, issued by the German foreign ministry, said all agreed on the need for a transition to civilian rule. One Western official, however, described this forum as “cosmetic” – useful primarily for coordinating financial aid packages – mainly because neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE, the junta’s critical backers, sent high-level delegations.
Indeed, it was a second – smaller, quieter and more informal – group that proved more effective. On the sidelines of a Quad (the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) ministerial meeting in London regarding Yemen in late April the group discussed Sudan. Those discussions ultimately led to a secret, Quad-brokered meeting in Khartoum on 29 June between the military council, including Hemedti, and opposition coalition leaders, to cool temperatures in advance of the next day’s “million-man” march.
Beyond these group efforts, Washington also pressured Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo through bilateral channels. In public, the U.S. pointedly condemned the 3 June killings and pressed the Saudis to do more so that the junta would change course. In visits to Cairo and Riyadh in July, U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth, appointed just nine days after the Khartoum massacre, made it clear that Washington supported a negotiated compromise and backed calls for a civilian-led administration.
U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the junta’s principal external backers, paved the way for such compromise. Diplomats who follow the region differ as to whether the two Gulf countries decided after 3 June that the military could not govern effectively using purely strong-arm tactics, or whether they were more focused on the need to defuse the immediate situation given the global backlash the June violence engendered. Either way, Washington’s diplomacy helped focus both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the importance of shifting their posture, which they did.
Cairo looks at Sudan through a somewhat different lens than the Gulf states.
Although Egypt, another critical player, also altered its position and began pressing the junta to compromise, Cairo looks at Sudan through a somewhat different lens than the Gulf states. Its involvement in Sudan is rooted in its historical desire to maintain political stability in an important neighbour, as well as to thwart Islamist movements it views as extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it is also invested in preventing its regional rival Ethiopia from outflanking it in shaping Sudan’s post-Bashir order, and maintaining sufficient influence to defend its interests in a country through which the Nile river, critical to Egypt’s survival, charts its course from the Ethiopian highlands. Against this backdrop, Egypt’s persistent closeness to the generals – with whom it has met numerous times since Bashir’s ouster – will likely continue to be a channel for Cairo to assert itself in a political environment where it is competing with Addis, and where Ethiopia’s Abiy remains popular with the opposition following his mediation efforts this summer.
VII.Nurturing a Fragile Deal
The deal reached this summer was hard-won and remains Sudan’s best hope. If implemented, it can prevent – for now – a worst-case scenario of spiralling violence and state collapse. Yet the path ahead remains daunting. A central challenge moving forward will be maintaining coordinated pressure from across several continents to make sure that the deal sticks and Sudan’s transition remains on a firm footing.
A.Supporting the Transition Economically and Diplomatically
A key driver of the protests that forced Bashir out of power was the parlous state of Sudan’s economy. The new administration inherits the challenge of improving the lives of millions of Sudanese immiserated by decades of ruinous policies. Widespread corruption, massive transfers of capital abroad by the top brass and NCP insiders and extravagant expenditure on the defence sector contributed to an economic crisis exacerbated by high inflation, enormous foreign debt and widespread shortages of essential goods, including fuel, bread and medicine.
In recent months, technocrats from the opposition have devised what they describe as an “emergency plan” to revive the economy.
In recent months, technocrats from the opposition have devised what they describe as an “emergency plan” to revive the economy. Among its worthy components are reforming key institutions, including the central bank, to ensure that all government revenue is channelled through formal institutions and not into the generals’ coffers; tackling the parallel currency market as part of an effort to stabilise the overvalued official currency; setting up a system to encourage and facilitate remittances from Sudan’s vast diaspora; and trebling the budgetary allocation to the health and education sectors from 5 to at least 15 per cent.
Prime Minister Hamdok, whose most recent posting was as deputy executive secretary and chief economist at the UN Economic Commission for Africa, has the right training and expertise to take on this task. But he faces an enormous obstacle in the form of Sudan’s debt stock, which stands at close to $60 billion. Securing debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Sudan’s Paris Club creditors, however, is bound up with the question of whether the U.S. government will rescind its 1993 designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST), which was imposed at a time when Khartoum hosted al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.
Given the politics surrounding the SST issue in the U.S. and in light of historically fraught relations between Washington and Khartoum, lifting the designation will not be straightforward. Moreover, even if it is lifted, Sudan’s arrears of $2.6 billion will nevertheless preclude debt relief until they can be cleared.
Still, Khartoum – along with its European and Gulf partners – should press for lifting the SST designation, and Washington should acquiesce. There are more than enough economic, symbolic and political reasons to move forward with the SST lifting as soon as possible. In addition to being a necessary though insufficient step toward debt relief (which will also require meeting benchmarks for fiscal transparency in addition to clearing arrears), lifting the SST designation will open the way for international banks to re-engage with Sudan, reconnect the country to the international financial system, signal to foreign investors that the country is open for business and make clear to the world that Washington no longer considers Khartoum a pariah. Rescission will also pave the way for the loosening of other U.S. legislation and executive orders that restrict aid and U.S. economic ties to Sudan.
On the political level rescission will be an important win for Hamdok.
Perhaps most critically, on the political level rescission will be an important win for Hamdok, who can use it to consolidate public support at a moment when he will need all the strength he can muster. Just weeks ago, Hamdok made an impassioned appeal to the UN General Assembly to help him rehabilitate Sudan’s international image and lobbied for the U.S. to lift the SST designation. Lifting it will show that he can deliver. Although U.S. government officials have indicated to external interlocutors that lifting could take up to a year once there is a decision to do it, there is nothing in the laws governing rescission to indicate that it needs to take so long, and former executive branch officials suggest that there is precedent for moving much more quickly. Moreover, even if there are hidden impediments in the case of Sudan, the U.S. government can signal its intention now, pledging to move as quickly as possible toward rescission – a signal of support that would serve Hamdok well.
Some knowledgeable observers have argued against taking this step before the RSF has demonstrated that it will allow the transitional authorities to make needed reforms and negotiate peace. They are understandably concerned that rescission will eliminate Washington’s key tool for pressing Sudanese hardliners not to spoil the transition.
Kicking the can down the road has considerable downsides, however. Indeed, there are strong arguments militating for lifting the SST designation even if Sudan were not negotiating a delicate political transition. For one thing, some commentators (including Crisis Group) have long expressed concern that the sanctions flowing from the designation disproportionately hurt the Sudanese people, create a shadow economy that empowers senior security officials and their cronies, and give the country’s leadership an excuse for its poor economic performance. For another thing, it is hardly clear that Sudan – which obviously no longer hosts Osama bin Laden and has for years been a U.S. counter-terrorism partner – satisfies the criteria for being an SST any longer.
Sudan is in the midst of a delicate political transition, where lifting the designation has the potential to create positive momentum and maintaining it could have perilous consequences.
But the central consideration should be that Sudan is in the midst of a delicate political transition, where lifting the designation has the potential to create positive momentum and maintaining it could have perilous consequences. Securing a rescission of Khartoum’s SST status would give Hamdok the political win alluded to above and boost prospects for a successful transition. It would demonstrate to the Sudanese people that moving toward civilian government – as they have been doing over the course of the past year – can open doors that were long closed to the country and give it a chance at a more prosperous future. By contrast, the longer Washington delays in lifting the designation, the more the generals will be able to sow doubt that the civilians entrusted with Sudan’s transition are capable of bringing about the economic turnaround the country needs.
To be sure, if the U.S. moves forward with SST lifting, there is a risk that the generals will subsequently seek to derail the transition, and Washington will have lost one tool for influencing them. But there are other pressures that may help to keep the generals in line. For a start, even if the SST designation is lifted, Sudan will still need to meet certain reform benchmarks (especially with respect to fiscal transparency) in order to qualify for debt relief. Whether the generals might be willing to risk public outrage and Sudan’s economic future in order to spoil the reforms and deny Hamdok a win is simply not clear; some analysts doubt it. To help manage this risk, Washington and Brussels should also signal loud and clear that spoilers who impede Sudan’s economic or political transition will be targeted for financial sanctions – as will their networks, companies and commercial facilitators. The AU Peace and Security Council, which already warned on 7 June that it would “impose punitive measures on individuals and entities obstructing [the transition]”, should reinforce this threat to deter spoilers.
The U.S. and other partners should be considering other ways to strengthen Hamdok’s hand at this pivotal moment.
Beyond SST rescission, the U.S. and other partners should be considering other ways to strengthen Hamdok’s hand at this pivotal moment. One important step would be for them to create a broad economic relief package for the country that can help support the prime minister’s government while he embarks on necessary reforms. This donor effort should involve the World Bank, the U.S., the EU and its member states, the Islamic Development Bank, the Saudi Fund for Development, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and other members of the Friends of Sudan international forum, such as Qatar. All participating entities should pool funds for budget support and coordinated development projects and channel them to the government through a lead agency such as the World Bank or the African Development Bank.
Additionally, to help Khartoum put its financial house in order, Hamdok should request, and foreign donors should provide, technical assistance to help Sudan’s ministries track state revenues and illicit rent-seeking behaviour within Sudan’s complex state and parastatal machineries, including in the profitable and corruption-prone oil sector. With this assistance, Hamdok will be better able to navigate Sudan’s opaque financial systems and assess how he might take control of revenue streams that, legally, should be under the state’s purview and not under that of politically connected individuals with ties to the security services. Hamdok initially may decide to move cautiously even with these tools at his disposal, however, lest he provoke a sharp reaction from actors within the security services who could see their interests threatened.
External actors should also consider how they can best use their diplomatic muscle in support of a successful transition.
External actors should also consider how they can best use their diplomatic muscle in support of a successful transition to long-term civilian rule. Experience with transitions elsewhere suggests that power sharing often founders when there is no party capable of offering an avenue for mediation if protagonists become deadlocked.
The AU might be able to help on this front. It could appoint a special envoy to Sudan and expand its liaison office in Khartoum with the objective of providing mediation and other support to the transition; the UN could channel technical assistance through this office. The proposed envoy could report to the AU chair and provide regular briefings to the Peace and Security Council, so that the Council can monitor the agreement’s implementation. Having an AU representative in this role might bolster the opposition coalition’s confidence that they are not politically alone when they need to square off against the generals, who enjoy an asymmetric edge in military and economic power. Finally, Sudan’s Western allies – especially the U.S. – should continue to give the transition a diplomatic boost by leaning on the generals’ most important external backers in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, so that the latter governments encourage the security forces’ leadership not to obstruct necessary economic and political reforms. The core message addressed to them should reprise the considerations that finally drove them to push for a power-sharing agreement this summer: without these changes, the political stability that all three seek for Khartoum will likely remain elusive.
B.Seizing the Moment to End Sudan’s Internal Wars
The fall of Bashir presents a rare opportunity to end Sudan’s long-running internal wars. The new constitutional charter requires that transitional authorities prioritise the pursuit of a “just and comprehensive peace” within the first six months of the transition. Sudanese authorities should use this period to urgently address this challenge. Western, African and Gulf powers should throw their weight behind this effort.
First, the transitional government and rebel groups should swiftly proclaim a mutual ceasefire during the six-month timeframe allocated for striking peace deals. If the parties can reach a permanent ceasefire agreement, a formal African-led ceasefire monitoring mission, under the office of the proposed AU envoy, should then be deployed to bolster security on the ground. The government and rebel groups should also agree to open areas they control to humanitarian agencies and negotiate a mutual release of prisoners as they enter political talks.
Secondly, leaders from the regions that have suffered from wars with Bashir’s regime or their nominees should be offered positions in transitional institutions, lest they conclude that yet another betrayal is in the offing. The two most powerful rebel leaders – Abdelaziz al-Hilu and Abdul-Wahid al-Nur of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North and the Sudan Liberation Movement, respectively – are unlikely to quickly join the government. Nur, in particular, has already denounced the new government in Khartoum. Sudan’s new civilian administration should nonetheless take care to avoid the perception of exclusion. In making key appointments, it is essential for the prime minister, who himself hails from Kordofan, to include qualified candidates from rebel strongholds.
The transitional government will need to negotiate inclusive peace accords without succumbing to the temptation of further splintering the rebels.
Thirdly, the transitional government will need to negotiate inclusive peace accords without succumbing to the temptation of further splintering the rebels, which would increase the likelihood of continued war by making peace negotiations even more complex. These groups will present demands for greater regional autonomy and a more formal redistribution of power; both the security establishment and the opposition coalition should take these seriously, as those demands have strong grassroots support in peripheral areas. These are concessions that the new authorities will probably need to make in order to start Sudan on its steep path to recovery. Down the road, it will be necessary to consider how political commitments to greater autonomy translate into the country’s formal federal structure, and how to screen the rebels and integrate their forces into the nation’s security architecture.
Dealing with the splintered Darfuri factions may require a special effort, not least because of the rise of Hemedti, whose RSF now controls most of the region and is loathed by many Darfuris. Most of the active Darfuri rebel groups are now outside the country, primarily in Libya, where they fight on multiple sides of that nation’s conflict. Sudanese authorities should urge these groups to engage seriously in the talks. The AU and EU should offer technical support for the initiative to help parties formulate a roadmap for sustainable peace.
Bashir’s fall is a victory for Sudan’s people and a chance to end Sudan’s legacy of state failure and civil strife. Yet the path ahead is strewn with challenges and there is hard work ahead to make the transitional power-sharing agreement hold. The Sudanese people, whose bravery brought down the strongman, will necessarily be at the vanguard of efforts to ensure that all parties abide by their commitments. External support – particularly to pull Sudan’s economy out of its doldrums and to strengthen the hand of civilians in an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with generals who have an interest in sabotaging reform – is sorely needed. Sudan’s elites will also need to seize the opportunity to stop the country’s numerous wars and redress the structural inequalities that undergird them. Bashir’s rule broke Sudan; there will be no shortcuts to repairing the decades of damage wrought. At least, albeit at great cost, the Sudanese have given themselves a fighting chance.
Khartoum/Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Brussels,
21 October 2019