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Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War
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

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.