Fractured Power Structure, Peace Talks Hurdles Add to Sudan’s Woes

Negotiations between Sudan’s military and several rebel groups, which have been taking place in the neighboring country of South Sudan, have now been extended until May as some of the parties continue to make demands that are not likely acceptable to Khartoum. Even if agreements with the rebel groups are finalized next month—ending most of the country’s long-standing ethnic and territorial conflicts in peripheral zones—Sudan will continue to face myriad problems. These include tensions between the military and the new civilian governing elite, mounting economic pressures, and the potential spread of COVID-19.

After years of troubled relations with the government of Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted by a popular uprising and a military coup in April 2019, Washington has opened a new chapter in its relations with Khartoum. But the delay, largely over technical issues, in taking Sudan off the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism has stymied the process of providing direct aid to the country at a time when it needs such assistance more than ever.

A Tenuous, Post-uprising Power-sharing Arrangement

Popular demonstrations against the authoritarian Bashir government that began in late 2018 and were led in large part by secular, middle-class professionals, finally came to a head in April 2019 when the Sudanese military ousted Bashir and placed him under arrest. Human rights groups estimated that upwards of 100 people were killed by Bashir’s security forces during this period. The bloodshed did not end there, however. When civilian demonstrators continued their protests, demanding that the military council cede power to civilian rule, security forces cracked down brutally against them. The association representing Sudanese doctors—part of the opposition—said at least 120 citizens were killed by security forces during June 3–18, 2019, many of them reportedly at the hands of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government paramilitary group.

With the help of outside mediation from the African Union and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Sudanese military and the coalition representing the civilian opposition groups came to a power-sharing agreement in August 2019. Both sides agreed to a transitional government made up of a Sovereign Council comprised of 11 military and civilian leaders (with a slight civilian majority) and a civilian-led cabinet with a prime minister representing executive authority.

The current chair of the Sovereign Council is General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan; the council’s deputy is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known by the nickname “Hemedti,” is in charge of the RSF. Although the military hierarchy allowed Bashir, who had appointed the top brass, to be tried and convicted on financial corruption charges and even permitted the civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok—a former World Bank economist—to talk openly about cooperating with the International Criminal Court to bring Bashir to justice, it clearly wants to avoid any culpability for the June 2019 crackdowns. In September 2019, the Sovereign Council formed a committee to investigate the June atrocities, but Sudanese and international human rights groups have charged that the inquiry is proceeding at a slow pace and is not being taken seriously.

Hamdok, who as prime minister and the face of the new regime to the outside world, is walking a political tightrope. Because he was chosen for the premiership by the civilian coalition of protest groups called the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), he has to be sensitive to their demands as well as to those of the military hierarchy.

As part of the August 2019 political agreement, the Sovereign Council is to have a rotating leader and the civilians in that body are hoping that the next one will be one of theirs, as stipulated in the deal. The agreement also spelled out a road map that would include peace negotiations with various rebel groups, safe participation of rebel leaders in a political process, appointment of a transitional legislative council, and a constitutional conference with forthcoming nationwide elections.

Although peace talks with the rebels have been taking place since October in the neighboring country of South Sudan, the fact that they have yet to reach a final agreement has delayed the other aspects of the political road map.

Although peace talks with the rebels have been taking place since October in the neighboring country of South Sudan, the fact that they have yet to reach a final agreement has delayed the other aspects of the political road map. In the meantime, the Sovereign Council, led by the generals, has gained more power at the expense of Hamdok and the civilian cabinet in part because the peace talks are the only real political development taking place.

Last month there was an assassination attempt on Hamdok. The identity of the perpetrator remains unclear; nevertheless, the act is indicative of the fragile state of affairs in the country. Fearing more instability (and perhaps believing the military was involved in the assassination attempt), the FFC rallied to Hamdok’s side and called for protests in Khartoum in his support.

What complicates matters is that the security forces themselves appear to be fractured. In January 2020, there was an armed revolt in parts of Khartoum by elements of the National Intelligence and Security Service who were reportedly angry over their severance pay. Loyal regime security forces then negotiated with the revolt leaders to surrender. Although some press reports characterized the episode as merely a pay issue, the fact that the dismissed intelligence personnel were once part of Bashir’s repressive apparatus and were probably let go for their role in assaulting protesters in the December 2018–April 2019 period gave the episode a political dimension.

Peace Talks Make Progress but Still Face Hurdles

The one hopeful development in the political road map has been the negotiations between the Sovereign Council and the rebels, which include forces representing the Darfur and the Blue Nile regions as well as South Kordofan province. The latter is represented by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). That Bashir, their nemesis, is no longer in charge of the country probably made most of the rebel groups more willing to negotiate with the authorities.

In late January 2020, the Sudanese government reached a tentative agreement with rebel groups representing the Darfur and Blue Nile regions. The deal covered autonomy, including allowing local authorities the right to have their own legislatures and make their own local laws, and the creation of a unified, national army. However, rebel groups from South Kordofan, namely the SPLM, refused to sign it, making demands that included a broader autonomous region.

In late January 2020, the Sudanese government reached a tentative agreement with rebel groups representing the Darfur and Blue Nile regions. However, rebel groups from South Kordofan, namely the SPLM, refused to sign it.

In late March 2020, moves toward reaching a final agreement hit a glitch because Sudanese Defense Minister Jamal al-Din Omar, who had been leading the government’s negotiating team, suffered a fatal heart attack while in South Sudan. His death on March 25 led the mediators from South Sudan to postpone the new deadline for a final peace deal between the Sudanese government and the rebels to April 9. It is noteworthy that when that day arrived, the mediators announced that the negotiations would be extended another month.

Although various administrative reasons were cited for the delay, it appears that the real hurdle was that the SPLM was angry the Sudanese authorities were not willing to bend on the issue of self-determination and a declaration of a secular state. Most likely, the government negotiators believed that if they concede on these issues it could lead to another breakup of the Sudanese state (South Sudan separated from the rest of the country in 2011) and anger the country’s majority Muslim population, particularly from Islamist political elements who believe the country’s new civilian leadership is too secular. The SPLM negotiators did not even sign an agreement to extend the talks through May 9.

Another issue that remains a bottleneck and goes beyond the SPLM’s demands is representation in the Sovereign Council. Some rebel groups from western Sudan want at least four seats on the council as well as greater representation in the central government.

On April 11, the leadership of the SPLM announced that it was suspending participation in the talks, claiming that the South Sudan mediators were not consulting them ahead of time and were not focusing on “core issues” that include compensation for displaced people and rehabilitation of refugees. SPLM officials added that they were “freezing” their participation in the talks until formal consultations with the movement’s leaders are held and relevant issues are addressed.

Whether the Sudanese authorities and the SPLM leaders can now reach an agreement is an open question. The former could conclude and finalize agreements with rebel groups representing Darfur and the Blue Nile regions, leaving the SPLM outside the process. That would hurt the Sudanese military’s reputation and standing, however, as it has been banking on its newfound reputation as both a strong and conciliatory force, one looking after the Sudanese people, maintaining the country’s current borders, and persuading the rebel groups to disarm.

Mounting Economic and Political Problems

While protracted peace talks continue, Sudan has been facing serious economic difficulties: unemployment overall is estimated at 22 percent, with youth unemployment at 30 percent. Inflation, meanwhile, is extremely high, with estimates running at 60 percent. The slide of the Sudanese pound has contributed to higher prices of imported goods, including food.

Hamdok was chosen as prime minister by the civilian protest movement largely because he was seen as a technocrat who would help to turn the economy around.

Hamdok was chosen as prime minister by the civilian protest movement largely because he was seen as a technocrat who would help to turn the economy around. His quest for foreign donor assistance led him to recommend earlier this year that fuel subsidies be lifted—to show the international community that Sudan was serious about reducing its fiscal deficits. But he was blocked in this effort by the FFC, which worried about a popular backlash.

In addition, Sudan’s main foreign exchange earner, oil exports, has been hurt by the sharp drop in oil prices in recent weeks as the Saudis and Russians engaged in a production battle and worldwide demand dropped because of the COVID-19 virus.

As of April 14, Sudan has been largely spared by this pandemic, recording only 32 cases and five deaths. Despite Sudan’s many highly trained doctors, its medical infrastructure is in poor shape and is not equipped to handle a massive outbreak and a major crisis of the magnitude experienced by neighboring countries such as Egypt.

Role of Outside Powers

Sudan’s new regime, particularly the premiership of Hamdok, has been received favorably by the international community. During Hamdok’s trip to Germany earlier this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel stated: “Your country’s fate lies close to our hearts … You need partners, and Germany would like to be such a partner.” Within the Arab world, the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have been major supporters of Sudan’s transitional government, though their sympathies may be expected to be with the military as opposed to the civilian component, since they fear a democratic contagion that threatens their regimes.

On April 1, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo phoned Hamdok and “reiterated US support for the civilian-led transitional government and its efforts to build a lasting peace in Sudan.” The call also discussed the “policy and statutory requirements” for consideration by the United States to remove Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

While the United States has been pleased with Sudan’s anti-terrorism cooperation in more recent years, outstanding issues have remained, chiefly that of compensation for the families of the victims of al-Qaeda’s bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salam as well as the USS Cole.

Sudan was given this terrorism designation in 1993 when Bashir allowed al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups safe haven in the country. Even though Bashir pressured Osama bin Laden and his associates to leave the country, Washington believed there were still some al-Qaeda elements and affiliates in the country several years later, such as the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab. While the United States has been pleased with Sudan’s anti-terrorism cooperation in more recent years, outstanding issues have remained, chiefly that of compensation for the families of the victims of al-Qaeda’s bombings of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salam as well as the USS Cole.  While an agreement has been reached on the USS Cole and one is expected to be concluded soon on the East African embassy bombings, the State Department is still pressing Sudan to do more to address the issue of money laundering by terrorist groups before lifting the designation.

Recommendations for US Policy

Although there are valid reasons for US policymakers to press the Sudanese government to settle the issue of compensation for terrorism victims, they should be more sensitive to the fact that Sudan’s support for al-Qaeda was under the departed Bashir regime. Moreover, with a compensation deal expected soon over the East African bombings, Washington should move immediately afterward to lift the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation. Waiting for the money laundering issue to be resolved could take many months and it is likely to be seen as unfair in Sudan. After all, many countries with which the United States has friendly relations, including the Gulf Arab states, have had similar money laundering issues in the recent past and the United States did not threaten to place them on the terrorism list.

Furthermore, if Washington is serious about opening a new chapter in its relations with Khartoum and helping its nascent, albeit hybrid, democracy, it should provide significant economic assistance to Sudan, at least equal to the amount it is providing Tunisia ($335 million over five years)—the sole “Arab Spring” country from 2011 that emerged as a democracy. In addition, a closer US partnership with Khartoum may help the government finalize peace talks with the rebel groups, begin other aspects of its transitional phase, and strengthen civilian rule.  The State Sponsor of Terrorism designation prevents direct US assistance to Sudan outside of humanitarian aid, so maintaining this designation over the heads of current Sudanese leaders as a kind sword of Damocles is counterproductive.

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