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Sudan: The Prospects for “National Dialogue”
Sudan: The Prospects for “National Dialogue”
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Can Sudan Manage Economic Discontent amid Volatile Geopolitics?
Can Sudan Manage Economic Discontent amid Volatile Geopolitics?
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir speaks during a rally in El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur state, on February 24, 2010. AFP/Ashraf Shazly
Briefing 108 / Africa

Sudan: The Prospects for “National Dialogue”

President Bashir’s year-old promise of national dialogue is faltering through a lack of political will, factional manoeuvring, and looming elections. Though the threat of economic and political crisis has eased, renewed commitment to substantive, structured, broad-based dialogue is vital if Sudan is to escape the cycle of war and humanitarian crisis.

I. Overview

Prospects for an inclusive national dialogue President Omar al-Bashir promised in January 2014 are fading, making a soft-landing end to Sudan’s crises more doubtful. Sceptics who warned that the ruling party was unwilling and unable to make needed concessions have been vindicated. Peacemaking in Darfur and the Two Areas (Blue Nile and South Kordofan) and potential merging of these negotiations with the national dialogue were dealt a blow with suspension of African Union High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP)-mediated “parallel” talks in Addis Ababa in December. A separate German-backed initiative has elicited a more unified and constructive approach from the armed and unarmed opposition, but no breakthrough yet. The government still holds many cards – including formidable means of coercion – and has little sympathy for the increasingly unified demand of the armed and political opposition for a really inclusive process and true power sharing. Unless both sides give ground, a continuation of intense war and humanitarian crises is inevitable.

The offer of national dialogue was prompted by a series of events – partly due to unaddressed consequences of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and South Sudan’s 2011 independence – including large, violently repressed nationwide September 2013 protests in Khartoum and other cities, followed by a costly, unsuccessful and unpopular military campaign in South Kordofan. But almost as soon as the government’s offer of dialogue was announced, there was a crackdown on opposition activists and the media. The recently-formed paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) reportedly were deployed in Khartoum to quell protests. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), alongside the RSF, have since renewed their “hot dry season” campaign against the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition in the southern peripheries and Darfur.

Opportunism and divisions within the civilian and armed opposition have given the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) a respite. While other parties refused to participate in or withdrew from the preparatory National Dialogue Committee (NDC), some Islamist, traditional and smaller parties remained, looking to maximise their share of government posts in return for lending credibility to planned April elections that other major parties will boycott, further polarising the country. The December 2014 “Sudan Call”, which reflected a growing unity of demands from the political opposition, civil society and armed groups, came too late to influence the NDC’s discussion in August of the parameters for the dialogue and was immediately rejected by the government. However, the opposition’s more sophisticated approach at subsequent meetings in Berlin has improved prospects for an inclusive preparatory meeting before the election.

The NCP has reason to believe Sudan’s vulnerable regional and wider international position has improved. The International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to “suspend” its Darfur work gives the president more confidence he will not be prosecuted. Pressure from anti-Muslim Brotherhood Arab and Gulf states has eased somewhat. Meanwhile, the civil war in South Sudan has distracted the SRF, an increase in gold exports has relieved economic pressure, and the steep drop in oil prices has been weathered, because Sudan now imports much of its fuel, and its substantial income from oil transport fees is fixed. But this betterment of the government’s political and military position is fragile and reversible; fundamental, dangerous weaknesses remain.

As Crisis Group has argued in previous reports, a peaceful, political solution through an inclusive national dialogue would be a vital step toward ending the violent protests at the centre and wars in the periphery that could otherwise lead to Sudan’s further fragmentation. The NCP, and the military-security apparatus in particular, are unlikely to submit to another “CPA” process requiring them to share power in Khartoum with a still-armed opposition, but might accommodate greater regional administrative autonomy if they can continue to dominate the centre.

Western donors’ influence is much reduced, and the responsibilities for mediating the fighting, encouraging recommitment to inclusive dialogue and bearing the burden and cost of instability now mostly fall to the AU (especially the AUHIP, which is mandated to mediate the proposed national dialogue); immediate African neighbours; Arab friends (collectively the Gulf Cooperation Council); and China, given its huge investments. These actors could exert greater and coordinated influence for remedial actions that would improve the chances for more talk and less war by:

  • pressing the opposition and government to participate in an inclusive preparatory meeting for the national dialogue, hosted and mediated by the AUHIP prior to the national elections, to forge clear terms of reference and common positions to which all parties are fully committed;
     
  • urging the AU Technical Assessment Mission to consider the impact an AU observation mission to a controversial election might have on the AUHIP’s mandate in the national dialogue process;
     
  • encouraging opposition parties and civil society to develop further a common position on the national dialogue through trusted third-country facilitation (eg, the German-sponsored initiative);
     
  • pushing the government and opposition to re-engage with the AUHIP’s strategy for a parallel and loosely synchronised process of talks on the Two Areas and Darfur; and
     
  • consideration by China of how its economic investments can better address regional inequalities that are fuelling continued wars.

Nairobi/Brussels, 11 March 2015

Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn (C), President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (R) and President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir (L) attend a meeting on Nile dam talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 29 January 2018. ANADOLUAGENCY/Minasse Wondimu Hailu
Commentary / Africa

Can Sudan Manage Economic Discontent amid Volatile Geopolitics?

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.

There was guarded hope in Khartoum when the U.S. government removed many of its economic and trade sanctions on Sudan in October 2017. Officials thought Washington would move forward with normalising relations, the next step being to strike Sudan from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. That would allow the Nile basin country to obtain relief from its $50 billion international debt and attract external investment, both of which are essential for saving Sudan’s failing economy.

The economy has hit rock bottom. It remains crippled by the loss of millions in annual oil revenue since South Sudan seceded in 2011. After a new budget was announced in early January 2018, which included the devaluation of the Sudanese pound against the dollar, inflation spiralled upward. Bread prices also more than doubled after cuts to subsidies on wheat imports.

The runaway prices, along with anger at the mismanagement of the economy and corruption sparked protests in January 2018, resulting in hundreds of arrests – including of several opposition politicians. Police beat protesters, killing at least one. Following pressure from the U.S. and European Union some of the detainees were released a few days ago. Many others remain in prison without charge.

Khartoum’s optimism for a quick normalisation of its relations with the U.S. after economic sanctions repeal was premature. Indeed, the U.S. had been clear that this would not happen without further tangible progress from the Sudanese government, including improvements to its human rights record.

In November 2017, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan travelled to Khartoum, reiterating that phase two of U.S. engagement, which would lead to further lifting of sanctions – including removal of Sudan from the terrorism list – would require Khartoum to make such reform.

Khartoum Plays the Field

Since then, Khartoum has signalled that it can look for support elsewhere. Shortly after Sullivan’s visit, President Omar al-Bashir flew to Moscow, where he secured a deal from his counterpart Vladimir Putin to buy Russian wheat at a discounted rate. Bashir also caused consternation in Washington by declaring his support for Russia’s intervention in Syria and criticising U.S. Middle East policies.

Sudan’s leaders view rapprochement with the U.S. and other Western countries, as well as with the European Union, as critical in the long term.

Sudan’s leaders still view rapprochement with the U.S. and other Western countries, as well as with the European Union, as critical in the long term. But in the meantime, the regime needs to cultivate friends who can help it fend off immediate threats, notably those related to its lagging economy. In this spirit, Bashir has adapted to an increasingly thorny geopolitical landscape, both in the Horn and beyond, by moving from one alliance to another, juggling rivalries among his potential allies. This has delivered some gains to his government, but they are likely to prove short-term at best.

Nowhere is this strategy more evident than in Sudan’s relations with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar. Enticed by promises of money for infrastructure and agriculture development, as well as deposits in the Sudanese Central Bank, Sudan – a close ally of Iran during the 1990s and early 2000s – switched its allegiance to the Arab Gulf bloc in 2014. The biggest consequence of this realignment was Khartoum’s dispatch of thousands of troops to Yemen to join the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Huthi rebels.

Khartoum is disappointed, however, with the financial rewards it has received in return, despite also benefitting from Saudi lobbying of the U.S. over sanctions repeal. In mid-2017, when tensions escalated between Qatar and the Saudi-UAE axis, Khartoum chose not to break with its longstanding ally in Doha, preferring to keep its options open.

Tensions with Egypt

Sudan’s relations with Egypt, its neighbour to the north, are also strained. A December visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a close ally of Qatar – to Khartoum brought simmering tensions out into the open. Erdoğan announced $650 million in investments, including a Turkish commitment to restore and lease the Ottoman-era Red Sea port on Suakin Island.

Turkey’s sudden interest in Sudan is of particular concern to Cairo as both Doha and Ankara support various chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood across the world. Since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in July 2013 from President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, Cairo has presumed the Bashir regime to be close to the Islamists. Its willingness to allow Muslim Brothers expelled from Egypt to visit Sudan is a sore spot for Sisi.

A banner celebrating the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Sudan on the River Nile bridge between Khartoum and Omdurman, on 17 February 2018. CRISISGROUP/Magnus Taylor

A graver diplomatic problem is Sudan’s perceived divergence from Egypt’s opposition to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile. Khartoum claims neutrality in negotiations over the dam, but in reality has developed its own distinct position that departs from its earlier support for colonial-era agreements on the allocation of Nile water, which heavily favour Egypt.

Sudan will benefit from the dam’s construction: it will supply the country with cheap electricity, as well as Nile water for greatly expanded agricultural irrigation, particularly in Blue Nile state. Such ambitious plans worry Cairo, which sees upstream projects as a major threat to its own water supply and, therefore, its stability.

Sudan’s economic crisis increases pressure on President Bashir at home as regional politics are becoming ever more complex.

The ongoing war in Libya has caused tensions too. Khartoum is concerned that Darfuri rebels, now based in southern Libya, have served as mercenaries for General Khalifa Haftar, de facto ruler of Libya’s east, who is backed by Egypt and the UAE. In return, the rebels have received money, guns and equipment, which Khartoum fears they will use to restart their rebellion. When Sudanese Liberation Movement insurgents briefly re-entered Darfur (from both Libya and South Sudan) in May 2017, Khartoum angrily accused Cairo of arming them.

Escalation in Eritrea

These frictions came to a head in January 2018 when, amid the economic crisis, reports emerged that Egypt had deployed troops in Eritrea (it appears now that Cairo sent only a small number of advisers and trainers). In response, Khartoum closed the border with Eritrea, declared a state of emergency in the region and deployed additional militia forces to the area without entirely explaining why. It may have been a ploy to divert public attention from worsening economic woes.

A meeting between Presidents Bashir and Sisi on the margins of the African Union summit in Addis Ababa in late January, followed by a visit to Cairo by the Sudanese foreign minister in early February, helped de-escalate tension. But they have done little to address the disagreements underpinning it.

With the dividends of U.S. engagement still mostly unpaid, Khartoum’s foreign policy will likely continue to evolve with shifts in relations among richer and more powerful players. Sudan’s economic crisis increases pressure on President Bashir at home as regional politics are becoming ever more complex. Recent shifts of key regime figures, including at the helm of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Services, show that the president is keen to shore up his own position.

Khartoum’s international standing is higher than it was some years ago, when it was a near pariah due to the atrocities of wars in Sudan’s peripheries, and it has long proven adept at navigating choppy geopolitical waters. But its ability to do so is likely to be tested further over the coming months.