Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Working with Others to Halt Sudan’s Collapse
Report 194 / Africa 4 minutes

Sudan: Major Reform or More War

Last week’s arrests of senior security figures for allegedly plotting a coup showed how close Sudan is to even greater violence and disintegration. Only managed but fundamental governance reform can help it escape chronic conflict and humanitarian misery.

Executive Summary

The “Sudan Problem” has not gone away with the South’s secession. Chronic conflict, driven by concentration of power and resources in the centre, continues to plague the country. The solution is a more inclusive government that addresses at least some of the peripheries’ grievances, but pledges to transform governance remain unfulfilled. A key hurdle – though not the only one – is President Bashir, who has further concentrated authority in a small circle of trusted officials and is unwilling to step aside. Many hope for regime change via coup but have not considered the dangers. The goal should be managed transition to a government that includes, but is not dominated by his National Congress Party (NCP). He might be willing to go along if he concludes greater disorder or even a coup is growing more likely, but only if the right incentives are in place. The international community should contribute to these provided a credible and inclusive transitional government, a meaningful national dialogue on a new constitution and a roadmap for permanent change in how Sudan is governed are first put firmly in train.

The regime in Khartoum is in crisis, faced with multiple challenges that, combined, profoundly threaten its existence and Sudan’s stability. The economy is in a freefall that any oil deal with South Sudan will only slow, not arrest. NCP members are deeply unhappy with the leadership, its policies and massive corruption. Feuding factions within the ruling party and the Islamic movement are jockeying to present an acceptable alternative to the NCP government. At the same time, political opposition forces are growing more assertive, and the war with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) is slowly expanding, bleeding the military dry and draining the treasury.

Many hope a coup, or popular uprising, could force Bashir and the NCP regime out, but there is a great risk that either event could trigger more violence. Since he came to power in a military coup in 1989, he has deliberately fragmented the security services and frequently rotated commanders to make an army takeover more difficult. Unless commanders are united, the army could easily split into competing factions. There are also a host of other security services and armed militias loyal to different NCP leaders. Added to this combustible mix are numerous armed tribes outside of Khartoum that would seek to take advantage of turmoil in the capital to create facts on the ground difficult for a new regime to reverse.

Bashir and the NCP likely recognise that the dangers of the present phase are greater than the social and economic troubles they have survived in the past. Their instincts are to cut a deal with the fractured opposition (ceding some power and resources to one or two of the political parties and/or a major armed group) and take advantage of the partial settlement with South Sudan to get the oil flowing again. But that can only buy more time, not resolve the causes of chronic conflict or stop the spreading civil war.

The international community should learn the lessons of past failed settlement initiatives: Sudan needs a truly comprehensive peace agreement, not a partial settlement that serves the government’s divide-and-rule tactics and perpetuates the unacceptable status quo. At the same time, the NCP needs to be part of any transition. Leaving it out in the cold would be costly. Its elites are too powerful to ignore, and the opposition is too divided and inexperienced to rule alone. A comprehensive solution and genuine political reform including national reconciliation acceptable to all, with the NCP on board, is the only way out of the trap of endless conflict.

The president and his colleagues will have to reach their own conclusion that the present crisis requires more radical adjustments than those they used for survival previously. If they do, however, the international community, by providing incentives, can help them to act on that conclusion consequentially and responsibly. These should be carefully tied to Bashir and the NCP meeting specific, irreversible benchmarks, such as those Crisis Group set out as early as 2009, and verifiably continuing the transition process. Such cooperation might be unpalatable to many who hold Bashir responsible for atrocity crimes, but it would be necessary to prevent further conflict and continued humanitarian crises in Sudan as well as South Sudan. He is crucial to a managed transition that incorporates both the NCP and opposition leaders – civil and armed – and that could put Sudan on a more inclusive, sustainable path. The alternative would be continuation of the status quo, with the NCP desperately clinging to power at whatever humanitarian cost, and the opposition pursuing a military strategy that risks more national fragmentation.

Most Sudanese know what is necessary to end decades of conflict. Even before independence in 1956, it was clear that power and resources should be shared more equitably with marginalised regions. The historical focus was often on South Sudan, but other areas have suffered as well. At different times, most peripheral regions have risen in armed revolt to demand greater representation and more development. This dynamic will not change unless there is fundamental structural reform of how the country is governed, and all its political forces – the NCP, the traditional parties, the SRF and youth groups – work together to create a more inclusive and representative government that accepts and respects the tremendous diversity of the Sudanese peoples.

Nairobi/Brussels, 29 November 2012

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