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From Conflict to Cooperation? Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda
From Conflict to Cooperation? Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda
Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir (L) welcomes Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni as he arrives at Khartoum Airport for talks during an official visit to Sudan on 15 September 2015. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Commentary / Africa

From Conflict to Cooperation? Sudan, South Sudan and Uganda

When South Sudanese leaders travelled to Khartoum in early June, pragmatically declaring their intent to “normalise relations” with their northern neighbors, it was a tentative sign of hope for what has been one of the Horn of Africa’s worst war zones.

Uganda, historically a staunch ally of South Sudan, is now seeking more constructive relations with Sudan too. The current processes – formal and informal, public and private – tackle a wider set of challenges that have historically inhibited good relations between the three countries. A new understanding between the three could bring a welcome change to the Horn’s complex balance of alliances and animosities.

The new overtures are driven by South Sudan’s economic crisis, coupled with Uganda’s and Sudan’s desire to protect their interests in the country. South Sudan has large oil reserves, which are exported through Sudan, but its production fell sharply with the eruption of civil war in December 2013. With the civil war’s end, Juba now wants to renegotiate the terms of its 2012 oil transfer agreement that mandates large payments to Sudan, arguing that a new deal needs to reflect the global downturn in prices and its own post-civil war financial straits. While Juba wants a new arrangement with Sudan, such a deal would come with strings attached. Donors’ reluctance to bail out South Sudan financially, unless Juba adopts stringent transparency and accountability measures, makes other options seem worse than a wider deal with Sudan.

 

A new understanding between the three could bring a welcome change to the Horn’s complex balance of alliances and animosities.

Sudan now wants to cooperate too. Its economy, though more resilient, still suffers from the 2011 division of the country, the loss of shared oil revenue, and, like South Sudan, obstacles to full cross-border trade. But in return Khartoum wants South Sudan to help end wars in Darfur and the Two Areas, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and stop its alleged support for Sudanese rebel groups.

Reaching agreement could be tough but conditions are more favourable than at any time since South Sudan’s secession five years ago. If both sides continue to work seriously on their bilateral relations, chances will rise of resolving other interlinked conflicts, notably the conflict in the Two Areas. A Khartoum-Juba deal would likely limit the operational space of Sudanese rebels – especially the Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) – and lead to new border security arrangements.

Map showing South Sudan’s historic regions and the border with Sudan. CRISIS GROUP

Khartoum and Kampala’s long rivalry

The territory of southern Sudan (South Sudan since 2011) has long been a site of mutual interventions and proxy conflict between Khartoum and Kampala. During the 1990s, Uganda was suspicious of Islamist Sudan’s apparent desire to expand Arab and Islamic influence southwards. To counter the perceived Islamist threat, Uganda backed the Southern Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in the Sudanese civil war. Khartoum supported Ugandan rebel groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), among others.

South Sudan’s 2011 independence directed its neighbours’ rivalry toward competition for influence over the new state. Despite this, Sudan and Uganda have shared interests in common, including unhindered South Sudanese oil production and stability under President Salva Kiir.

Kampala’s concerns have shifted substantially from security to economic.

Sudan needs regular “transit fees” – a per barrel payment for use of the northern export pipeline – to buttress its fragile post-secession economy. Kampala’s concerns have shifted substantially from security to economic. It wants a prosperous South Sudan to trade with, particularly in the Equatoria region bordering Uganda. Kampala also believes it should have influence over major strategic decisions made in Juba; its historical support for the SPLA is reflected in a longstanding defence cooperation agreement, which includes allowing cross-border interventions by the Ugandan army.

When South Sudan’s civil war erupted in December 2013, Uganda deployed troops in support of the embattled Juba government, reviving tensions with Sudan. In response, Sudan provided limited backing to the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army – In Opposition (SPLA-IO).

From civil war to regional peace?

The potential for regional contagion following the outbreak of South Sudan’s civil war demanded mediation from the Horn of Africa’s regional security organisation, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Though it failed to stop the war from escalating within South Sudan in its early months, IGAD’s largely unheralded success was to pull Uganda and Sudan (both member states) back from more aggressive posturing and toward a resolution of the war that both could support.

Critical to the eventual Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS) in August 2015 were key provisions negotiated at the IGAD Head of State level involving Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. These included the withdrawal of Ugandan forces – completed in October 2015 – and the “disarmament, demobilisation and repatriation” of any Sudanese rebel forces present in South Sudan, which include the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army – North (SPLM/A-N) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) – which Khartoum alleges are materially supported by Juba. The long-running African Union mediation to end the armed conflicts in Sudan has also engaged both these groups.

Peace in the Sudans is dependent on all three countries’ approach to regional relations.

As the 2015 South Sudan peace agreement recognises, peace in the Sudans is dependent on all three countries’ approach to regional relations. Improved relations between Uganda and Sudan have been reinforced by regional heads of state summits during South Sudan’s peace process, joint efforts to resolve South Sudan’s civil war, presidential and vice presidential visits, mutual disparagement of the International Criminal Court and plans to create a Joint Permanent Commission on bilateral affairs.

Precedents for Cooperation

Despite political will, the inherent complexities of the disputed Sudan-South Sudan border and relationships on both sides make this a fraught process with no guarantee of success. Skepticism and a degree of distrust remain on all sides. Yet negotiators are drawing from past agreements considered a success – notably the Chad-Sudan 2010 agreement, which precipitated the weakening of both Chadian and Darfur rebel groups; and the arrangement between Khartoum and Juba that led to the South Sudan Liberation Army (SSLA) disbanding and its members returning to the South in 2013. Elements of the former SSLA control part of the border as part of the Juba-Khartoum deal, which served both their interests during South Sudan’s civil war.

If Sudan and South Sudan cannot strike a new deal then the broader regional configuration may well revert to its previous state of instability, mutual suspicion and proxy conflict. But the emergence of a new and pragmatic grouping could shift the regional balance of power in the Horn of Africa with significant advantages to the regimes in Kampala, Juba and Khartoum, and help end one of Africa’s most enduring conflicts.

Sudanese forces are deployed around Khartoum's army headquarters on 3 June 2019 as they try to disperse Khartoum's sit-in. AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY
Statement / Africa

Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War

Sudan’s political transition is in great peril following the unprovoked killing of dozens of protesters. The African Union has rightly suspended the country’s membership. Western and Gulf powers should take urgent steps to compel Sudan’s interim leaders to accept a civilian-led transitional administration. 

On 3 June, Sudan’s security forces launched a bloody crackdown on unarmed protesters in Khartoum, clearing a sit-in outside the country’s military headquarters and bringing its political transition to a screeching halt. The horrific rampage left dozens dead and many more injured. State-affiliated militias now roam the streets of the capital and other major cities, with residents sheltering at home. Many Sudanese fear the prospect of fractures among the army, intelligence services and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitaries blamed for the attacks. The risk of widespread conflict is at its highest since the military removed Omar al-Bashir on 11 April. But the alarming course of events is reversible. On 6 June, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council took an important first step in the right direction, suspending Sudan’s African Union (AU) membership until authorities put a civilian administration in place. Other world leaders, including Sudan’s backers in the Arab world, must now follow suit, quickly and in concert, to force the military junta to resume talks aimed at handing power to a civilian-led transitional authority.

The ouster of Bashir was set in motion by a remarkable, non-violent campaign, which began in the provinces in mid-December and quickly spread countrywide, eventually forcing the toppling of one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders. Since 11 April talks have been marked by periods of apparent progress, only to be followed by stalemate. On one side is the Transitional Military Council – an awkward marriage of the Sudan Armed Forces, now led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the RSF, a rural militia primarily from Darfur led by General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who many consider the true power behind the scenes. (The RSF rose to prominence as a counter-insurgency force during the civil war in Darfur.) On the other side is the opposition – the Forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change, comprising traditional parties and active rebel movements as well as a coalition of professional trade unions known as the Sudanese Professionals Association.

There had been hopeful signs: the two sides agreed on the outlines of a deal built around a civilian-led executive overseen by a sovereign council for a three-year transitional period leading up to elections. The sovereign council’s composition and chairmanship remained in dispute, but the parties reportedly came close to a compromise under which they would have had an equal number of seats, with the chair rotating between the two sides, and with the civilian-dominated council of ministers and legislative council wielding more power in any case.

What happened next is not entirely clear. According to various reports, parts of the military council were unhappy with the tentative deal, fearing it ceded too much power. The RSF and other disgruntled elements scrapped the deal and moved to disperse the protesters. On 4 June, Burhan announced plans to form a government and hold elections in nine months.  That the crackdown came immediately on the heels of the junta leaders’ first state visits from 23 May, including to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), fuelled protesters’ suspicions that external actors encouraged the Sudanese officers down the path of violence instead of compromise.

All concerned with peace and stability in Sudan should take every possible step to stop this prospect in its tracks and press for a genuine transition to a civilian-led transitional administration.

The attacks on the protesters have muddied the road ahead. The RSF now patrols the streets of Khartoum as residents hole up at home, fearing to go out and without internet access, which the state has cut off. The crackdown could in principle bring together the factious opposition against the military council, which had been quietly trying to peel off some of the established opposition parties. Protesters say they will continue their campaign of civil disobedience rather than negotiate to share power with the military rulers responsible for the mass killings. They have demanded that the junta step down.

The junta’s most powerful constituency lies, by all appearances, outside Sudan – in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. The Saudis and Emiratis know Burhan and Hemedti well due to their command of Sudanese forces in the Yemen war. They trust the generals to shepherd the country through a managed transition from one military-led regime to another, avoiding the interlude that occurred in Egypt – elections with uncertain outcomes followed by brief Muslim Brotherhood rule – by sidelining those favouring more wholesale reform among civilian protesters. This gambit is risky, however: it could lead to greater unrest, or perhaps even civil war, precisely the outcomes Arab allies say they dread. The recent two-day general strike has made clear that popular protest can continue to render the country ungovernable. Sudan’s economic troubles are already severe, and both Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be on the hook for open-ended subsidies to keep the ship of state afloat.

The gambit also appears based on a faulty analogy. An Egyptian-style managed transition in Sudan lacks a critical ingredient: a cohesive military. Bashir gutted the Sudan Armed Forces, gradually outsourcing security tasks to a dysfunctional array of state-backed militias and paramilitaries, in order to forestall a coordinated challenge to his rule. In recent years he bolstered the RSF in particular to counterbalance other elements of the security apparatus. The RSF also gained influence as it contributed to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Indeed, Bashir so divided his security forces that, in the end, he could only be ousted through a coup-by-committee. Today, many of Sudan’s officer corps would sooner trust their fate to Khartoum’s opposition elite than to Hemedti, whom they view as a thuggish provincial warlord and who lacks the legitimacy and political constituency to rule on his own. In short, this bloated and fissiparous security apparatus offers no clear foundation for a political regime.

A key to a peaceful settlement thus lies in prompting the junta’s Arab backers to rapidly shift tack. There are signs that they and their Gulf backers have softened their position in the face of widespread condemnation and revulsion at the attack on unarmed protesters. On 5 June, Saudi Arabia publicly expressed “great concern” over the loss of life in Sudan, calling for a resumption of dialogue. As if in response, Burhan quickly changed his tune, calling on 5 June for the opposition to return to talks. A day earlier, the U.S. State Department released an unusually blunt readout from a call between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman in which the Americans pressed for a transition to a civilian-led government “in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people”. This call may be directly related to the softening of Riyadh’s stance – and Khartoum’s.

Still, Sudan’s peaceful transition to more inclusive governance is in great and immediate peril. International actors should take the following steps:

  • The AU Peace and Security Council should follow up on its suspension of Sudan’s membership by pressing authorities there to drop their unilateral decision to hold elections within nine months. The military rulers should instead go back to the deal earlier broadly agreed with protesters for a civilian-led transitional administration. The Council should set a new deadline for the conclusion of a final round of talks on the hand-over to an authority led by civilians. AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki should visit Khartoum at the earliest opportunity to convey the urgent need to meaningfully advance the dialogue process.
     
  • Parties with influence over Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, particularly the U.S., should urge them to lean on the generals in Khartoum to back down from their attempts to rule through repression. They should instead ask Sudan’s military rulers to resume talks with the protesters and swiftly accede to a civilian-led transitional authority that can restore stability.
     
  • To persuade an understandably reluctant civilian protest movement to resume talks, the junta will need to take a number of confidence-building measures. It should release all political prisoners, accede to an outside-led commission of inquiry into the killings and swiftly reinstate access to telecommunications. A more difficult step might be persuading the RSF, whose reputation arguably is beyond repair following its role in the violence, to retreat to the barracks. To this end, the RSF’s backers, notably Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, should rein in its leaders and urge them to back down, to avert the descent into chaos they fear. Egypt, a key regional power broker and current chair of the AU Assembly, ought to have every interest in avoiding a Libya-style meltdown in one of its key neighbours. It should lean on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to persuade the RSF leadership to pull their men out of Khartoum and to give space to parties able to strike a deal that could prevent a dangerous slide to civil war.
     
  • The AU Peace and Security Council, the U.S. and the EU should warn members of Sudan’s security forces who stand in the way of a political deal that they will face targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans. The Council, which on 6 June took the additional welcome step of cautioning those obstructing a path to a political settlement that they would face individual sanctions, could start compiling a list of targets. 
     
  • The U.S. should reiterate that no talks with Khartoum toward the normalisation of ties, which could lead to the lifting of Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation, the potential return of a permanent ambassador to Khartoum and Washington’s enabling of debt-relief, will resume until the military junta reaches a deal on a civilian-led transitional authority.   

As early as 2012, Crisis Group had warned that the security forces might fly apart in a post-Bashir Sudan. The danger of such a split – and the conflict it portends – is real and growing. All concerned with peace and stability in Sudan should take every possible step to stop this prospect in its tracks and press for a genuine transition to a civilian-led transitional administration.