Since the October 2021 military coup that derailed Sudan’s political transition to a much hoped-for democracy, Sudan has been plagued by civil strife, deteriorating economic conditions, a suspension in funding from the international community, and an increase in tribal violence. Perhaps because of these dire problems, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of Sudan’s military, announced in July 2022 his intention to cede power to civilians.
By mid-October, press reports suggested that the military and its civilian opponents were close to a deal that would put the transition back on track, with the military allowing civilians to hold the positions of head of state and prime minister in return for immunity for the military from prosecution for any crimes it may have committed. US diplomats, along with officials from several other countries, reportedly facilitated these negotiations, which certainly represent a step in the right direction. However, whether a final deal can be reached and can encompass a compromise with which all stakeholders can live remains an open question.
The October 2021 Coup and Its Aftermath
Sudan’s national protest movement to oust longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir—which was led mostly by middle-class professionals from the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC)—succeeded in April 2019, in part because the Sudanese military came to believe that its ties to Bashir had become a liability. Although the military’s role was decisive in forcing Bashir out of power, an uneasy relationship between civilians and the military establishment took hold in subsequent months. Scores of civilians were killed while protesting against the Transitional Military Council that initially ruled the country in the aftermath of Bashir’s ouster, and demonstrators saw little difference between the new council and the old regime.
In August 2019, following negotiations supported by the international community, an agreement was reached stipulating that the military council would cede power to a civilian-led transitional council, led by a former World Bank technocrat, Abdalla Hamdok. Meanwhile, a Sovereign Council composed of six civilians and five military officials, and led by General Burhan, would serve as a collective presidency. Per the agreement, in November 2021, one of the six civilians was to take over as head of the Sovereign Council, and nationwide elections were then to take place at an unspecified date sometime in the following months.
Although Hamdok, as prime minister, was the face of the new government in interactions with the international community, including at a major donors conference in Germany in 2020, Burhan and the military establishment, including his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (commonly known as Hemedti), represented the real power in the country. Then, in October 2021—just one month before the transition within the Sovereign Council was to take place—Burhan staged a coup and placed Hamdok under detention. This coup was decried by the majority of the international community, and led the United States and other western countries to suspend economic assistance to Sudan, including approximately $4 billion in grants and loans from international financial institutions, and excepting humanitarian aid that was mostly administered by the United Nations.
Egypt and some Gulf Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were publicly much more equivocal about Burhan’s coup because they reportedly feared “democratic contagion” coming from Sudan and impacting their own countries.
Egypt and some Gulf Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, were publicly much more equivocal about Burhan’s coup because they reportedly feared “democratic contagion” coming from Sudan and impacting their own countries. Russia, meanwhile, was supportive of the coup because it helped solidify longstanding military and economic links between the two countries, including the shipping of Sudanese gold to Russia, which was reportedly part of an elaborate, military-led corruption scheme. Moreover, Hemedti, who was in Russia at the time of its invasion of Ukraine, publicly stated right after the invasion that he saw “no problem” in Russia establishing a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. In addition, Israel was not bothered by the coup because it had already established ties to Burhan and his associates, who were instrumental in making Sudan a partner in the so-called Abraham Accords that established diplomatic relations between some Arab states and Israel.
However, such support for Burhan and the military did not lead to an improvement in Sudan’s economic situation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to shortages of critical wheat imports, rising food costs, and rampant inflation, which reached 192 percent in May 2022, with wages unable to keep pace with such a sharp rise in the cost of living. Electricity shortages also followed, affecting not only the use of home appliances, but also basic needs like access to potable water because the shortages made it impossible to run electric water pumps. Consequently, the cost of water in Sudan has risen sharply.
Many unemployed young people are members of Sudan’s resistance committees, which have sprung up in many neighborhoods in the capital city of Khartoum, and in other cities across the country.
In addition, unemployment in Sudan remains very high. Figures from 2021 suggest that joblessness was about 20 percent overall and over 35 percent among the youth. Given the country’s deteriorating economic conditions and the fact that the IMF predicts that the Sudanese economy is expected to contract by 0.3 percent in 2022, it is likely that percentages are even higher this year.
Many unemployed young people are members of Sudan’s resistance committees, which have sprung up in many neighborhoods in the capital city of Khartoum, and in other cities across the country. Ever since the 2021 coup, the committees have staged weekly protests against the military regime, which have resulted in at least 117 demonstrators’ deaths. Despite the military’s heavy hand in trying to stop them, the protests have persisted.
Increasing Tribal Violence
If these problems were not bad enough, there has also been a surge in tribal unrest and violence in the past year. The most recent UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report said that between January and September 2022, about 211,000 people were displaced by intercommunal conflicts and armed attacks across the country. In addition, between July and mid-October, roughly 170 people were killed in intercommunal clashes in Sudan’s southern Blue Nile Province, and an additional 230 people were killed in the same province over the course of two days in October. The conflict is part of a land dispute between the Hausa tribe and the Berta people, with the Hausa claiming that they have been the victims of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, violence has broken out in the West Kordofan Province between the Misseriya and Nuba ethnic groups, again due to a land dispute.
Why Is the Military Seemingly Ready to Cede Power?
Usually, those who have taken part in coups are reluctant to give up power. But in this case, Burhan and his associates may have concluded that the costs of remaining in charge of the country outweigh the benefits. With the economy in even worse shape than it was last year, and with the abovementioned problems increasing, the military may have decided that staying at the helm of the government is a losing proposition. Moreover, the international community, led by the United States and the European Union, has been united in withholding financial assistance to Khartoum until civilian government is restored, thereby greatly limiting Burhan’s options. And Russia, the Sudanese military’s chief patron, is not in a position to offer a helping hand given its all-consuming war with Ukraine.
With the economy in even worse shape than it was last year, and with ethnic problems and violence increasing, Sudan’s military may have decided that staying at the helm of the government is a losing proposition.
Interestingly, when preliminary talks began in July following Burhan’s announcement about his interest in ceding power to civilians, they were mediated by Saudi and US diplomats in Khartoum and held at the residence of the Saudi ambassador. A statement from the FFC said, “We are keen to have two of the most influential countries in the region and the world remain supportive of the Sudanese people and the pro-democracy forces.”
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in these and subsequent talks may signal that their support for the 2021 coup is waning and that achieving stability in Sudan has become their preferred policy, rather than providing all-out support for the military regime. The Saudis may have concluded that Sudan would not be able to achieve stability under the military regime, given the suspension of international funds and ongoing protests and violence. Moreover, some of the kingdom’s planned agriculture and infrastructure projects in Sudan may hinge on partial funding from international financial institutions, funds that are not likely to be released without the restoration of civilian rule.
Outlines of a Potential Deal
The possible shift in Saudi policy toward Sudan, however, does not mean that the Saudis have abandoned their support for Burhan, who assisted their war effort in Yemen by
providing ground troops to the conflict. The potential deal, if it does indeed come to fruition, would reportedly exempt Burhan and other members of the military from prosecution, a stipulation that may have been added at the insistence of Saudi mediators who do not want to burn their bridges with their allies.
Other parts of the deal include the military agreeing to a civilian head of state and a prime minister chosen by civilians. The US State Department, meanwhile, emphasized that the new government should be “civilian-led and provide justice, prosperity, and peace,” and that “military rule is not and will not be sustainable.” How providing justice would be achieved while exempting the military—which has committed numerous human rights abuses—from prosecution is an open question, and it could be one of many stumbling blocks that may ultimately stymie a deal.
The potential deal involves the acceptance of a new constitution drafted by the Sudanese Bar Association, a stipulation that served as a basis for the talks and that enticed civilians to the negotiating table.
In addition, the potential deal involves the acceptance of a new constitution drafted by the Sudanese Bar Association, a stipulation that served as a basis for the talks and that enticed civilians to the negotiating table. However, concessions for the military have reportedly been added to the draft constitution during negotiations.
Another negotiating track has been operating in parallel to the US and Saudi-led mediation effort, and involves the UN, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (made up of representatives of eight East African countries). The two tracks appear to be on the same page. UN Special Envoy to Sudan Volker Perthes has stated that “accountability and transitional justice are key for the future of stability in Sudan” and that a transitional civilian government and that elections could be held within two years.
Yet another potential stumbling block to an agreement is the fact that civilian opponents of the military are divided. The potential deal on the table would be made between the FFC and the military. But grassroots resistance committees and labor unions have not been part of these negotiations. These groups are likely to be far less accommodating to the military and may oppose any new clause in the constitution that would exempt it from prosecution, particularly for its killing of protestors in the years since Bashir was ousted in 2019.
On October 5, at least 54 resistance committees signed a document supporting a new constitution and calling for the removal of military leaders from power, the annulment of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement, and the implementation of a new transitional constitution and a legislative council. The Juba agreement was meant to integrate Sudan’s rebel armed forces into the national military forces and to improve regional and ethnic representation in the country. But resistance committees argue that policies in this regard have made little headway and have failed to include other rebel forces.
As for the FFC itself, coalition members may believe that the only way to compel the military to return to the barracks is to include the clause concerning immunity. But the coalition will have a tough row to hoe if it hopes to convince the resistance committees to accept the clause’s inclusion.
It is unclear if the new constitution referred to by the resistance committees is the one drafted by the Sudanese Bar Association or another version. In any event, these committees are likely to resist compromising with the military, and could put pressure on the FFC to distance itself from the potential deal if the immunity clause for the military remains. On October 23, a 15-year-old protestor was killed by security forces in Khartoum, an event that will likely further harden such sentiments. As for the FFC itself, coalition members may believe that the only way to compel the military to return to the barracks is to include the clause concerning immunity. But the coalition will have a tough row to hoe if it hopes to convince the resistance committees to accept the clause’s inclusion.
Recommendations for US Policy
US diplomats have been deeply involved in the Sudan issue, even with other major crises dominating the international scene. The pressure applied by the US and other countries and organizations, as well as western countries’ unified position on prohibiting international funds from going to Khartoum in the wake of the 2021 coup, undoubtedly played a role in compelling Burhan to undertake serious negotiations with the FFC on the restoration of civilian rule. At this point, and given the very poor state of the Sudanese economy and the continued suffering of its people, it is imperative that parties arrive at a final deal soon, one that would restore civilian rule and establish a road map leading to nationwide legislative elections.
This path would also free up much-needed international funds to improve Sudan’s battered economy. Although it may be morally questionable to grant the military immunity in such a deal, this move may unfortunately be the price it is necessary to pay in order to bring the currently pending deal to a successful conclusion. Under such a deal, the Sudanese people would at least have the chance to live in a democracy, which is their chief demand. But achieving this deal will have to involve sustained efforts on the part of the US and others, including the FFC.