Despite Some Progress, Sudan’s Transition Faces Mounting Hurdles

Some 16 months after the longtime authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by popular protests and the military, Sudan’s effort to achieve democracy and good governance continues to face major hurdles. Civilian authorities and the military hierarchy remain wary of one another, violence has resurfaced in the Darfur region, negotiations with various rebel factions have yet to be concluded, and the economy is beset by high inflation. If these issues were not bad enough, protracted negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has the potential to affect Sudan adversely, are in limbo. Still, Sudan’s technocratic government, headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, enjoys a favorable image at home and abroad, helped by his efforts to push through governmental and social reforms, even though a recent donors’ conference yielded lower pledges of aid than he was hoping for.

An Uneasy Power-Sharing Agreement

Demonstrations that began in December 2018 against Bashir’s implementation of austerity measures soon evolved into political demands for his ouster, as many Sudanese were fed up with his authoritarian rule. The protesters, largely from the educated middle class, coalesced around a group called Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and held massive demonstrations against Bashir. The Sudanese military hierarchy, seeing the strength of the popular movement, decided that it was in its interest to side with the people: they removed Bashir from power and placed him under arrest in April 2019.

However, the military, which then ruled the country through the Transitional Military Council, cracked down harshly on protesters who demanded civilian rule. During June 2019, more than 120 civilians were killed, mostly by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a pro-government militia. Then, with the help of outside mediators, the military and the civilian leadership came to a three-year power-sharing agreement in August 2019 that encompassed the following terms: the Transitional Military Council would be replaced by a Transitional Sovereign Council made up of six civilians and five military officers; the former head of the Military Council, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, or another military leader would chair the Sovereign Council for the first 21 months, and then a civilian would hold that position for the subsequent 18 months; and an 18-member transitional government would be formed under a civilian, technocratic prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, a former World Bank economist, though the positions of the ministers of defense and interior would be chosen by the military.  Finally, national elections would take place in 2022.

Although the military was still able to retain considerable power, the civilians hoped that their slight majority in the Sovereign Council, plus the advent of the transitional government, would be able to keep the military in check.

Although the military was still able to retain considerable power, the civilians hoped that their slight majority in the Sovereign Council, plus the advent of the transitional government, would be able to keep the military in check. One problem is that while the military has given the transitional government some latitude, it does not always consult with it. For example, Burhan met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda in February 2020 without informing civilian leaders. In addition, many members of the military and security forces who have been linked to human rights abuses retain important positions; the most prominent of these individuals is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known by the nickname “Hemedti”) who remains head of the RSF and is a member of the Transitional Sovereign Council.

Some Progress on Political and Social Reforms

Hamdok, however, has adroitly used “street power” to his advantage. When demonstrations again erupted in late June 2020 that called for faster and more comprehensive reforms, he used that event to reshuffle the cabinet and sack Khartoum’s police chief and his deputy, whom the protesters viewed as remnants of the Bashir regime. He tweeted: “the trust that the people have given the transitional government obliges us to listen to the voice of the street.” That street just erupted in protest again on August 17 to push for stalled reforms.

In mid-July 2020, the transitional government canceled Article 126 of the  criminal code, which was used to discriminate against non-Muslims, in an effort to ensure religious freedom and equality for all citizens. Justice Minister Nasredeen Abdulbari emphasized that he was determined to purge all such discriminatory articles and pledged that “legal reformation will continue until we drop all the laws violating human rights in Sudan.”

Furthermore, new laws were enacted the same month to reform some serious social issues. The government ended female genital mutilation (FGM) and imposed jail sentences on those carrying out this practice, repealed the death penalty for apostasy, and abolished flogging as a punishment for crimes. It also ended the requirement that women need permission from a male relative to travel with their children and allowed Christians, who make up about three percent of the Sudanese population, to consume alcohol if they wished (alcohol consumption was banned under the Jaafar al-Nimeiri and Omar al-Bashir regimes).

Hamdok was also successful in appointing civilians to head governorships, a key demand of the protesters, because Bashir had reserved these positions for the military in an effort to maintain repressive control. On July 28, Hamdok replaced the military governors of Sudan’s 18 states with civilians, including two women. The fact that he was able to prevail in this case is a testimony to his budding political skills.

Darfur Violence Resurfaces

But these positive achievements in human rights and democratic transitions have been overshadowed by a number of disturbing developments, one of which is the renewed violence in Darfur, a region that witnessed large-scale massacres and displacement of civilians in the early 2000s that were orchestrated by the Bashir regime. In late July 2020, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Sudan reported that 500 armed men attacked the village of Masteri in West Darfur province, causing the death of over 60 people. The conflict appears to be largely over land. Under a government-sponsored deal three months ago, farmers displaced by the earlier conflict began to return to their former lands to begin planting, and it was this group and their families who were reportedly attacked by a militia.

Hamdok immediately announced that he would deploy a joint security force, made up of the army and the police, to protect the citizens of Darfur and enable them to farm. He also promised more development aid to the region, but many citizens in the area are skeptical, believing that the militia that staged this latest attack is linked to the infamous Janjaweed militias that had carried out much of the earlier violence in Darfur. Hamdok clearly wants to nip this latest spate of violence in the bud, as any news of more massacres in Darfur would receive very unfavorable international attention at a time when he keenly needs the support of foreign donors. In addition, the Darfur issue is especially sensitive for Hamdok as Bashir is expected to be tried for genocide-related crimes in The Hague by the International Criminal Court after his current trial in Sudan finishes. To be sure, Hamdok does not want his own government to be tainted in any way by violence in Darfur.

Hamdok clearly wants to nip this latest spate of violence in the bud, as any news of more massacres in Darfur would receive very unfavorable international attention at a time when he keenly needs the support of foreign donors. 

Negotiations with Rebel Groups Proceeding but Not Yet Complete

Hamdok also does not want the recent Darfur violence to hinder plans for a negotiated settlement with various rebel groups from the peripheral areas of Sudan, including those in Darfur. These negotiations began in the autumn of 2019, hosted by the country of South Sudan, and Hamdok has recently said he hopes to complete them in a few weeks.

Most of the rebel factions—representing the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile regions—have coalesced into the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF). This coalition and the government have reportedly agreed to a power-sharing agreement whereby they would receive 25 percent of the seats in parliament as well as a similar representation in the executive branch of government. Many of their fighters would also be incorporated into the Sudanese army. A second rebel coalition, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, SPLM-N) from South Kordofan, is negotiating separately. The SPLM-N wants a secular state in its region or self-determination, but it is unclear if the government will meet these demands.

Hamdok views a negotiated settlement as speeding up the formation of a transitional legislative council and a way to bolster civilian rule; a prolongation of these conflicts that date from the Bashir era gives the military an excuse to maintain power.

Nile Blues

Meanwhile, the Sudanese government, along with Egypt, is engaged in what have become protracted negotiations over Ethiopia’s megaproject, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.  Although Sudan could benefit from the cheap energy the dam’s hydroelectric power will produce, Sudanese officials are concerned about the dam’s safety, as it is only nine miles from the Sudanese border, as well as the impact it may have on Sudan’s own dams.

Although Sudan could benefit from the cheap energy the dam’s hydroelectric power will produce, Sudanese officials are concerned about the dam’s safety, as it is only nine miles from the Sudanese border, as well as the impact it may have on Sudan’s own dams.

On August 5th, both Egyptian and Sudanese irrigation ministers left the negotiations, which were sponsored by the African Union, angered over a new Ethiopian proposal that would leave the operating of the dam to a comprehensive treaty after the dam had been filled. The Sudanese minister said his country “will not accept that lives of 20 million of its people who live on the banks of the Blue Nile depend on a treaty.”

Nonetheless, both Egypt and Sudan do not want to abandon the field to Ethiopia. They thus rejoined the AU-sponsored talks on August 16 to discuss outstanding issues.

It is unclear if Sudan has any real leverage in this issue, however, given the domestic problems with which it is currently dealing.

Disappointing Donor Conference

Although Hamdok has been warmly received in foreign capitals and seems to have an especially good relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a late June 2020 donor conference that she hosted came up short, from Sudan’s perspective. Hamdok was hoping for $8 billion, but he received only $1.8 billion in pledges from the international community. In his speech at the conference, he warned that instability in Sudan would lead to more migration of its nationals to northern Africa and Europe; that appeal, however, did not open up the donors’ pocketbooks as much as he had hoped. The pledges included the following: $350 million from the EU, $356 million from the United States, $177 million from Germany, $118 million from France, $130 million from Britain, $10 million from Saudi Arabia, and $50 million from the United Arab Emirates. The money is to support the World Bank’s efforts to provide humanitarian aid and cash transfers to Sudan’s poor families.

Why the donors were not more generous may have had to do with their own economic problems stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noteworthy that Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged only small amounts of aid. Although both countries together pledged some $3 billion to Sudan in 2019, it is not known if that money has been disbursed; their low pledges at the recent conference may have been a signal to Hamdok not to weaken the powers of the Sudanese military, which they have supported and which they see as a hedge against a democratic contagion that could potentially affect their own countries.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese economy continues to struggle. Inflation in April 2020 reached an annualized rate of 99 percent, fueled largely by higher food costs. Hamdok sees aid to the poor as crucial to stability, especially since fuel and other subsidies were removed more than a year ago. Another problem is that COVID-19, while at a relatively low rate in Sudan, is spreading, with almost 12,500 cases and over 800 deaths reported so far this year.

US Relations and the Trump Administration’s Legacy

On August 6, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Hamdok to inform him of the progress he is making to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. A week earlier, Pompeo testified before Congress that the administration would soon put forth a settlement for the victims of the 1998 East Africa bombings (in which Sudan, as host to Al-Qaeda at the time, was deemed complicit) with a provision of sovereign immunity for Sudan so it would be protected from any future claims. Part of the impetus for compensation has come from Congress. On August 6, a bipartisan group of 11 members of the US Senate, including the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch (R-Idaho), issued a statement on the eve of the 22nd anniversary of the 1998 bombings and called on the Trump Administration to “redouble efforts to deliver justice to the victims and their families” and appropriately address the terrorism-related claims.

However, the same Senate statement praised the “December Revolution” in Sudan that put the country on the path toward democracy and better relations with the United States, suggesting that the US legislators want Sudan’s new government to succeed. Reportedly, Hamdok’s government has agreed to pay $335 million for the victims of the terrorism bombings, a figure that a group of victims and their families have said is adequate given Sudan’s limited economic resources. Hence, a deal appears to be within sight, but it needs to reach a conclusion with the support of both the Trump Administration and Congress.

Removing the country from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list may be connected to a possible opening between it and Israel.

On August 6, Josh Rogin of The Washington Post published a story indicating that some Trump Administration officials, believing that President Trump might not be reelected, want to leave a lasting legacy in the foreign policy arena. Although the article did not mention Sudan, improving relations with that country and helping it transition to democracy would be a long-lasting, positive development. Removing the country from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list may be connected to a possible opening between it and Israel: Sudan’s foreign ministry spokesman has just announced that the country is looking “forward to a peace agreement with Israel.” Said removal would also allow direct US development aid to the country (under the terrorism designation, only humanitarian aid can be rendered), permit Sudan to do business with American banks, and give an important boost to Hamdok and his civilian cabinet ministers as they deal with many problems. That would certainly help the long-suffering Sudanese people and go a long way toward bolstering the US image in the country.

Gregory Aftandilian is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Gregory and read his publications click here