Sudan - Avoiding a New Crisis
Sudan - Avoiding a New Crisis
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

Sudan - Avoiding a New Crisis

The independence of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 could have brought peace to both regions of Sudan. But the North's problems are far from over and the risk of implosion is very real.

Risk of new armed conflict in North Sudan

"Democratic transformation" was a foundational principle of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of civil war between North and South Sudan. The aim was to achieve more legitimate, inclusive governance – a platform for dealing with the grievances of marginalised groups in the peripheries of the country, including Darfur, the East, the transitional areas of Southern Kordofan, the Blue Nile, and Abyei, as well as the political opposition. But Khartoum's refusal to alter the status quo resulted in a series of all too predictable crises, before and after the South's independence.

If Khartoum continues to block reform efforts to build more inclusive governance, then prolonged armed conflict is inevitable. With multiple grievances still unsettled, this would mean insurgency will spread in the North. This could have destabilising, spill over effects in the Republic of South Sudan and the region as a whole. Unfortunately, international attention focused on safeguarding South Sudan's referendum and independence while only fire-fighting other situations as they flared up. The North needs a holistic approach to resolve its problems, and international actors need to develop a more cohesive strategy that helps to make it a viable partner for peace and stability throughout the region.

Khartoum exploits the periphery

The heart of the North's chronic problems is governance. Political and economic powers are heavily concentrated in the capital, Khartoum, and in the hands of the elite in President Omar al-Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP). As a result, the peripheries remain grossly marginalised and underdeveloped, and their resources are exploited to serve the centre. The NCP's failure to open up the political space and to create an environment conducive to the peaceful resolution of outstanding issues – such as the future status of Abyei, the conclusion of the CPA protocol on Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states and a lasting resolution in Darfur – has again caused uprisings of the ignored peripheries.

Unfortunately, President Bashir has been hopelessly short on workable policies that address his party's and the country's deep-seated problems. The NCP remains deeply divided between security hardliners and more pragmatic leaders. This has undermined its ability to devise a coherent strategy for coping with the South's separation, including defining the future North-South relationship. With support from the army's generals, party hardliners are determined to solve internal problems militarily. The counterinsurgency campaigns are being waged primarily with aerial bombardment and paramilitary militias who frequently commit war crimes and human right abuses. They are imposing an Arab-Islamic identity on all Sudanese, ignoring its ethnic and regional diversity, and are also ready to sub-divide key states to pander to specific ethnic constituencies. In so doing, they only exacerbate regional and ethnic grievances, making peaceful reform even more difficult.

Bashir's brinkmanship in Abyei: No political solution desired

Smarting over the loss of the South and frustrated that relations with the West remained frozen despite its 'cooperation' on the independence referendum, the NCP sought to strengthen its bargaining position over post-referendum talks with the South. When Bashir ordered the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) to seize the disputed territory of Abyei in May, it was a calculated and dangerous but shrewd move. Bashir was not punished for his actions. He both exhibited a show of strength to domestic political constituencies and demonstrated to key governments that the NCP remains indispensable to North-South cooperation and Southern stability.

On 20 June 2011, Bashir agreed with South Sudan's President Salva Kiir on the withdrawal of their respective armed forces from the disputed territory. They were to be replaced by the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) with 4,200 Ethiopian troops. After some incidents, both sides met again on 8 September and agreed to the complete withdrawal of their forces by 30 September – a deal brokered by the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP) headed by former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki.

This agreement is a necessary short-term measure to keep Khartoum and Juba's armies apart. It suits Bashir because it provides no political solution to the disputed territory, instead preserving the status quo and leaving the territory's fate hanging in balance. Placing troops between the two countries to avoid new conflict does not bring the region closer to a final solution on Abyei. On the contrary, Ethiopia's presence has worried some who fear that this new concept of peacekeeping, based on troops contributed by one single country, will be very hard for the UN to control.

Brutality in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile

Bashir made a much bigger miscalculation in Southern Kordofan. He authorised a military campaign against former Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) units from the North and loyal to leaders of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N). Khartoum's onslaught appears to be about several things, including exerting control in a state where there were still SPLA forces – and therefore a potential threat – and demonstrating its strength to other constituencies and groups that continue to defy Khartoum.

The fighting so far has been extremely brutal. In June, a leaked UN human rights report indicated that the traditionally marginalised Nuba people, who had been allied with Southern Sudan in its fight against Khartoum, were targeted by the SAF and allied paramilitary forces. The report alleges arbitrary arrests and detentions, targeted killings, summary executions, extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombings and forced displacement of civilians. A UN Security Council meeting in mid-August failed to condemn the fighting, and China and Russia demanded a statement proposed by the US be watered down.

Conflict soon expanded to Blue Nile. Hundreds of thousands are now displaced and fighting continues in Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Khartoum has formally banned the SPLM-N, detained many of its local leaders, declared a state of emergency in the Blue Nile and replaced its SPLM-N governor, Malik Agar.

Demonstrating the strength of the hardliners, Khartoum also immediately rejected a promising framework agreement of 28 June. It includes a political and a security agreement for Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, was facilitated by Thabo Mbeki and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and signed by Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, Co-deputy NCP chairman and a presidential adviser. A few days later, however, President Bashir publicly disavowed the agreement.

Misery in Darfur

Meanwhile, the situation remains unstable in Darfur. The NCP has continued its current military push in the region, which has killed hundreds and displaced thousands. NCP leaders are ignoring an inclusive settlement of the Darfur conflict and are targeting ethnic Zaghawa civilians, who are perceived to be supporters of rebel groups that rejected the Doha talks and the government peace strategy.

The opposition's peaceful options are now extremely limited and, not surprisingly, rebel forces, including those from Darfur, are openly attempting to unify and pursue a policy of regime change.
Meanwhile, both the Sudan and South Sudan have intensified rhetoric that each country is supporting its rival's insurgents. The situation will escalate if a response by the international community is delayed, or if there is a disjointed and incoherent approach by the key external actors.

The parties need to return to the table

It is now indispensable to find a holistic solution to chronic conflict with Khartoum and to intensify negotiations between the North and the South. Both sides must still reach agreements on other divisive issues, such as the joint exploitation of oil, border demarcation and security arrangements, and the allocation of Sudan's $ 38 billion debt. The parties held extensive pre-partition negotiations in Addis Ababa, facilitated by the AUHIP. But the list of issues still outstanding is longer than those resolved, and their resolution has become even more difficult by hostilities in Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. The time for brinkmanship is past. The parties must return to the table as soon as possible and sustain the focus and commitment necessary to hammer out deals. Allowing these critical issues to fester will undermine any chance for peace and prosperity, within – and among – the two Sudans.

Recommendations for a unified international strategy

Developments in the North are spiralling out of control. To avert a crisis, the international community must not abandon the North but instead require the NCP to agree to an immediate inclusive national reform process. A national reform agenda should be accepted by all and should include a programme on a wider constitutional review process that accommodates all the peoples of Sudan and supports more inclusive governance. To facilitate this, the NCP must respect basic human rights, refrain from arbitrary detentions, allow the media to operate freely, lift the state of emergency in Darfur and stop its indiscriminate military campaigns. The NCP must also make genuine efforts to stop impunity in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile, allow humanitarian agencies unhindered access, and support international efforts to protect civilians. The NCP cannot guide the reform process alone and should allow a national committee to lead.

The support of the international community will be critical. But so far, a comprehensive strategy or unified approach is lacking. Instead there have been numerous envoys and multiple crises interventions that have prolonged instability. Interested external actors should move beyond the myriad of uncoordinated, ad hoc and isolated initiatives that have complicated international engagement in Sudan to push the NCP in the right direction. If the NCP seriously commits to a national reform agenda, the process should be supported by regional actors as well as major donors like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, the League of Arab States, China, the US, the EU and the African Union. All these countries and institutions must recognise that reform is necessary for stability.

Alongside these steps, uncertainty in North-South relations should not be allowed to fester. The international community needs to invest capital in North-South dialogue. If both sides continue to refuse to compromise on divisive issues, Darfur and even peacebuilding in the South will not take off.

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.


By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

The October 25 Coup and Its Aftermath

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.


The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.

Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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