Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Briefing 68 / Africa

Sudan: Preventing Implosion

Sudan is sliding towards violent breakup. The main mechanisms to end conflicts between the central government and the peripheries – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the Darfur Peace Agreement and the East Sudan Peace Agreement – all suffer from lack of implementation, largely due to the intransigence of the National Congress Party (NCP).

I. Overview

Sudan is sliding towards violent breakup. The main mechanisms to end conflicts between the central government and the peripheries – the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the Darfur Peace Agreement and the East Sudan Peace Agreement – all suffer from lack of implementation, largely due to the intransigence of the National Congress Party (NCP). Less than thirteen months remain to ensure that national elections and the South Sudan self-determination referendum lead to democratic transformation and resolution of all the country’s conflicts. Unless the international community, notably the U.S., the UN, the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council and the Horn of Africa Inter-Government Authority on Development (IGAD), cooperate to support both CPA implementation and vital additional negotiations, return to North-South war and escalation of conflict in Darfur are likely.

Democratic transformation should remain a key goal, as ultimately only this can entrench peace and stability. National unity is unattractive to Southerners because the two parties – the NCP and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – that fought the North-South conflict ended by the CPA and now form the Government of National Unity (GNU) in Khartoum have failed to advance it. The South’s self-determination referendum, which must be held no later than 9 January 2011, will thus almost certainly result in a decision for separation, despite the enormous difficulties of establishing an independent South Sudan that is economically viable and peaceful. The failure to foster democratic transformation in the North has also undermined the chances for political settlement in Darfur and exacerbated tensions in both the East and the far North.

The recent progress of NCP-SPLM negotiations on the modalities of national and regional elections and the referendum bill is welcome but does not advance far enough on a credible path for all-Sudan peace. Both parties want elections for the wrong reasons. The NCP wants votes in April 2010 that would allow it to regain the political legitimacy it needs both to protect President Bashir against the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant and to be in a stronger position to declare a state of emergency if needed, including in the event of a new war. The SPLM is concerned that derailed elections might jeopardise its overriding goal of holding the referendum on schedule. It threatens to declare unilateral independence if pushed to accept a referendum postponement.

Opposition parties in both North and South maintain that the current conditions for elections are unconstitutional and undemocratic and seek postponement until a genuinely inclusive transitional government has been established that implements reforms needed for free and fair voting. The main Darfur insurgency groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SLA), continue to fight and contemplate possible alliances with the SPLM (if the referendum is endangered) and with armed tribal groups such as the Baggara in Darfur and Kordofan, the Nuba and Ingesana in Blue Nile and disgruntled constituencies in the East and north of Khartoum.

With the NCP and SPLM drifting apart, the role of international actors becomes more essential. The challenge is to craft a process that produces credible and fair elections, an on-schedule referendum and, if its decision is independence, two economically viable and stable democratic states. The CPA provides the overall political framework but does not address the Darfur crisis, the post-2011 arrangements or intra-South issues. Consequently, an additional protocol that addresses these issues, unites the several peace processes and revises the timing of some benchmarks should be negotiated.

It is essential to move rapidly on a number of fronts, including to negotiate a Darfur peace agreement that allows all Darfuris to vote in national elections; to implement legal reforms necessary for a free and fair national election process; and to agree on the commissions for the South’s self-determination referendum and the Abyei referendum. Time is also required to negotiate a framework for the negotiations over how two highly interdependent states will relate to each other, were the South to decide in its referendum for independence, as appears quite certain. This should cover two periods: first, from the day after the referendum to July 2011, when the CPA’s interim period ends; and secondly, for a further several years – perhaps the four-year equivalent of a parliamentary term – to complete implementation of the peaceful transfer of sovereignty and decide numerous practical details. The NCP and SPLM should negotiate this framework as early as possible in 2010.

These processes require strong, united international facilitation, as well as support from other major political forces in Sudan. Cooperation can be promoted by providing significant economic and political incentives for the NCP, the SPLM and Darfuri rebel groups and by isolating and sanctioning recalcitrant parties. The current U.S. initiative goes part way toward what is needed but is not comprehensive enough. The U.S., China, other members of the UN Security Council, members of the AU Peace and Security Council and IGAD member states should cut through the welter of multiple facilitators by agreeing to support an individual of international stature to lead the several negotiations with a view to reconciling the paths of the Sudan peace process. The ideal sequence would be along the following lines:

  • implementation early in 2010 of outstanding major pre-electoral CPA benchmarks: legal reforms guaranteeing basic freedoms of expression, association and movement; demarcation of the 1956 North-South border, including Abyei; and agreement on the commissions for the South’s self-determination referendum and the Abyei referendum;
     
  • completion on the basis of the recommendations of the African Union Panel on Darfur (AUPD) by April 2010 of a permanent ceasefire and comprehensive security arrangments, monitored by the international community;
     
  • negotiation of a new CPA protocol by June 2010 to allow fair Darfuri participation in elections; establish post-election transitional arrangements to administer the South’s referendum and the new Darfur ceasefire and security arrangements; decide the process, if necessary, for transfer of sovereignty to an independent South; and create a strong international mechanism to monitor and support these terms and other CPA elements; and
     
  • postponement of general elections to November 2010, along with adoption of a constitutional amendment by July 2010 to authorise extension of the term of the present GNU through those elections or, in the event that they are further postponed, to July 2011, and incorporate the terms of the post-referendum transition.

The lead mediator should mobilise support for the above by brokering an agreement between the U.S., China, the AU, European Union (EU), UN and the Arab League in particular on incentives (eg, financial aid, lifting of sanctions, deferment of ICC action) and disincentives (eg, further sanctions, increased isolation, national arms embargo) to be applied to the parties depending on their actions. International support for the elections and its results should be conditioned on the credibility of the process.

Progress should be monitored closely and a decision taken by July 2010 at the latest whether it has been sufficient to maintain the full agenda. If implementation again lags badly, it will be necessary to concentrate on achieving the minimum essential to prevent return to deadly chaos, namely ensuring that the South’s referendum is held on schedule, and a day-after arrangement is in place. Elections would consequently have to be postponed until such time after January 2011 as the Darfur peace process had advanced adequately; delay in other CPA benchmarks such as governance reforms might also have to be accepted reluctantly.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 December 2009

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.

Background

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.

Recommendations

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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