Sudan is undergoing a major transition following the 11 April ouster of Omar al-Bashir, one of Africa’s longest-ruling leaders. The strongman’s toppling, prompted by a sustained, peaceful campaign by a diverse and well-organised protest movement, raised hopes that the country might make a transition to more inclusive, civilian-led rule. That transition has been halting and is fraught with risk, with the old military regime showing little appetite for real change. Sudan matters not least because it sits in one of the most geostrategic locations on the continent, straddling the Horn and North Africa, with a long Red Sea coastline, and serving as a historical bridge between North and sub-Saharan Africa. Through field research and advocacy with Sudanese and international actors in the region, we aim to reduce the likelihood of conflict inside Sudan and encourage a genuine transition to more inclusive governance by Khartoum and an attendant shift toward positively engaged regional and international relations.
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.
Security forces escalated attacks on protesters in capital Khartoum and surrounding areas early June, reportedly killing over 120, and external efforts to mediate between military leadership and civilian opposition failed to revive talks. Paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) 3 June stormed sit-in protest outside army HQ in Khartoum, reportedly killing some 120 protesters. In following days paramilitary forces continued to roam Khartoum and abuse civilians and RSF reportedly resumed attacks in Darfur in west. African Union 6 June suspended Sudan’s participation in its activities until transition to civilian-led authority. After initially denying responsibility, Transitional Military Council (TMC) 14 June admitted ordering dispersal of sit-in. TMC 4 June cancelled all agreements with opposition coalition Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), said it would form interim govt and hold elections within nine months, and imposed internet blackout; FFC same day called for countrywide strike and civil disobedience until TMC stepped down. On strike’s first day 9 June, security forces fired gunshots and tear gas to disperse protesters in Khartoum and Omdurman, reportedly killing four. Tens of thousands demonstrated countrywide 30 June; seven protesters reportedly killed in clashes with security forces. Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed and AU launched parallel mediation initiatives. Abiy 7 June met TMC chair al-Burhan and opposition in Khartoum. TMC same day detained protest leader Mohamed Esmat, 10 June deported leader, deputy and spokesman of rebel group and FFC member Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) to South Sudan. TMC 22 June pledged to free all imprisoned fighters from Darfuri armed opposition and hold talks with rebels in Chadian capital N’Djamena. TMC 9 June said it was willing to restart talks and FFC 12 June agreed to resume negotiations and end civil disobedience. FFC 22 June agreed to Ethiopian proposal for joint interim authority, but TMC rejected it 24 June. Ethiopia and AU next day submitted new joint proposal, including civilian-majority governing council, and TMC agreed to resume talks.
Ethiopia is building a mighty dam on the Blue Nile, promising economic benefits for both itself and Sudan. But Egypt fears for its freshwater supply. The parties should agree on how fast to fill the dam’s reservoir and how to share river waters going forward.
Popular protests are rumbling across Sudan, shaking President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year grip on power. The authorities have cracked down hard and, as the demonstrations intensify, they may ratchet up the repression. External powers should urge restraint and offer Bashir a way to the exit.
By 12 October, Washington will decide whether the steps Sudan has taken qualify it for lifting some U.S. sanctions. But to push forward afterwards will require a new roadmap that ties further sanctions relief and improved bilateral relations to political reform and human rights.
China, traditionally averse to intervening abroad, is testing the role of peacebuilder in South Sudan, where it has unique leverage. This could portend a growing global security role, but further Chinese engagement will likely be tempered by self-interest, capacity constraints and aversion to risk.
The clock is ticking for President Trump who must decide by 12 July whether to lift decades-long U.S. sanctions on Sudan. The failure of economic penalties to alter Khartoum’s behaviour so far means Washington should repeal some sanctions and continue a process of conditional engagement.
Sudan's government is in survival mode. As it drifts away from its former radical Islamist ideology toward a new foreign policy pragmatism, Western powers should encourage Khartoum to solve the internal wars that have done so much damage to the country and blocked the normalisation of external relations with this increasingly active player in the Middle East.
All roads forward in Sudan now run into the Hemeti problem. Over time, his power will need to be reined in, yet any action against him at the moment risks civil war.
Sudan is not one signing ceremony away from righting itself from Bashir’s rule. A political deal remains necessary to avert the worst in Sudan, but is only the beginning.
Any agreement is a positive step [in Sudan]. The challenge will be actually getting the military council to do as it promised.
There is still no clear path forward that involves everyone on the military council [in Sudan] simply stepping aside, partly because Hemeti, in particular, represents such a big problem.
What is striking is that the protest movement’s support [in Sudan] is unprecedented, both very broad and very deep.
What is clear is that there has not been a clear break from the old [Sudanese] regime. And what we know is that what the military says and what the military does can be quite different.
In 2019, the African Union faces many challenges, with conflicts old and new simmering across the continent. To help resolve these crises – our annual survey lists seven particularly pressing ones – the regional organisation should also push ahead with institutional reforms.
Drawing from analysis in our Sudan briefing, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, the Washington Post Editorial Board argues that, faced with nationwide unrest and unpalatable alternatives, President Bashir should relinquish power.
Originally published in The Washington Post
A UN mission has largely succeeded in keeping the peace in Abyei, an oil-rich area claimed by both Sudan and South Sudan. But there has been less progress made on the mission's work in aiding political mechanisms to determine the final status of Abyei and demilitarise and demarcate the border. As the UN Security Council debates the mission's scope, these mechanisms deserve ongoing support.
Facing an economic crisis at home, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has avoided picking sides in the spat between Gulf powers. But friction with Egypt and divisions in the Gulf have made such flexibility in regional relations more difficult to achieve.