Sudan: Toward a Reset for the Transition
Sudan: Toward a Reset for the Transition
Commentary / Africa 7 minutes

Sudan: Toward a Reset for the Transition

The failure to reach a consensus between the civilian population and the military has led to the resignation of Sudan’s prime minister. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2022, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to press the authorities to maintain ceasefires and stop violence against protesters, and to support a possible transition and the UN efforts to forge consensus in Sudan.

Sudan’s once-promising transition away from autocratic rule has veered off course. On 25 October 2021, the country’s generals deposed the civilian-led cabinet in a coup, abruptly ending the civilian-military power-sharing arrangement that was to steer the country to free elections. Under considerable international pressure, armed forces chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan reinstated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on 21 November. That concession did little to mollify protesters furious at the military’s power grab. Hamdok, unable to forge consensus between the street and the generals or to agree with the military on the shape of a new, “technocratic” cabinet, resigned in frustration on 2 January. Difficult days lie ahead should the military persist with its crackdown on popular resistance to its rule.

The generals have taken a number of steps to strengthen their grip on power. Days after dissolving the cabinet, Burhan reconstituted Sudan’s executive branch, the Sovereign Council, replacing its civilian officials with Islamists from the party of long-time dictator President Omar al-Bashir, who was driven from power following massive protests in 2019. Burhan also added other figures congenial to the armed forces. In December, he issued an edict giving authorities sweeping powers to clamp down on dissent, including granting security officers immunity from prosecution in carrying out these orders. That directive echoed laws in place under Bashir. Security forces continue to meet regular protests with lethal force, firing into crowds and killing dozens.

Sudan faces other pressing challenges. The economy is in deep trouble, with sky-high inflation and shortages of essential goods causing considerable pain to ordinary Sudanese. A peace deal designed to end the many insurgencies that have wracked the country’s peripheries for decades has barely been implemented, protests related to that agreement have shut down the country’s main port on several occasions, attempts to bring two main rebel leaders into the accord have faltered and deadly violence resurged in Darfur at the end of 2021

To help reset Sudan’s transition, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:   

  • Insist that the security forces halt all violence against protesters and make clear, in coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the U.S., that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they are responsible for the killing of unarmed demonstrators. 
  • Support efforts by the UN mission to encourage credible Sudanese efforts to forge consensus between civilian and military officials through inclusive talks, with participation from the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and neighbourhood resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections. 
  • Should the transition get back on track, work with other donors to condition the release of budget support on the achievement of benchmarks, including the establishment of a legislative council, which is expected to plan for elections. Until the condition is met, the EU could channel some funds instead to civil society groups pressing for reform, including the women-led groups integral to the protest movement. It should also maintain the supply of humanitarian assistance. 
  • Press authorities to maintain ceasefires with and among armed groups in Sudan’s peripheries, including Darfur, South Kordofan’s Nuba Mountains and the restive east. 

From Bashir to Burhan

Sudan’s stirring protest movement, with women and youth at the forefront, succeeded against the odds in ending President Bashir’s three-decade rule in April 2019. Facing a popular revolt, the top brass removed Bashir in a palace coup but continued to suppress street actions calling for the military’s exit from politics. On 3 June 2019, security forces massacred protesters encamped near military headquarters in the capital Khartoum. International censure was swift. The African Union suspended Sudan’s membership. The AU, U.S., EU and UK pressured the junta into signing a power-sharing agreement with the Forces for Freedom and Change, a loose alliance of civilian activists that was coordinating the demonstrations alongside neighbourhood resistance committees. The generals also accepted a constitutional declaration, adopted in August 2019, which mandated the hybrid transitional government headed by Hamdok to pave the way for elections transferring power to civilians. 

Living conditions for most Sudanese deteriorated during the transition, keeping social discontent at a low boil.

The new government faced enormous challenges. The agreement called for investigations into past abuses, the establishment of a transitional legislative council to oversee constitutional changes and free elections, and security-sector reforms to prise parastatals, arable land and other valuable assets out of the military’s hands. But the hybrid government was slow to make many of these changes, hampered by foot dragging among officials but also by Bashir-era economic mismanagement that had left the treasury starved of revenue. Civilian leaders meanwhile struggled to provide a political counterweight to the security forces, which retained the real balance of power. Hamdok took steps to rescue the country from fiscal collapse, securing significant debt relief and removing costly fuel and wheat subsidies. But living conditions for most Sudanese deteriorated during the transition, keeping social discontent at a low boil.

Always reluctant participants, the generals slammed the brakes on the civilian-military partnership on 25 October. Soldiers placed Hamdok under house arrest after he refused to sign an agreement dissolving his cabinet. They also detained scores of civilian leaders and declared a state of emergency. The EU responded by threatening to suspend aid as the U.S. froze $700 million in emergency assistance, while the World Bank halted its support, jeopardising future debt forgiveness. In the weeks following the coup, Burhan tightened his grip with a set of executive orders deepening military and old-guard Islamist influence upon key institutions such as the central bank. Another executive order on 20 November stipulated that the prime minister cannot undo any of these edicts. 

The Sudanese public rightly interpreted the 21 November reinstatement of Hamdok as the military’s cynical attempt to give the internationally condemned coup a veneer of legitimacy. Burhan and his allies clearly hoped that Hamdok’s return to the premiership would keep donors’ purses open – an unrealistic expectation absent meaningful steps to get the democratic transition back on track. When that did not happen, Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, the head of the Rapid Support Forces, a powerful militia, issued a thinly veiled threat to open Sudan’s borders and send migrants toward Europe. 

Protesters, meanwhile, kept taking to the streets in the thousands, demanding not just reinstatement of the 2019 agreement but the military’s complete withdrawal from the transition. Finding a way forward that meets their demands for more democratic and accountable governance and that the generals will accept will not be easy. Indeed, prospects for return to the status quo ante appear increasingly slim, given the military’s refusal to relinquish control and the protesters’ rejection of compromise with the armed forces. Hamdok leaves no obvious successor who could independently unite Sudan’s disparate actors while competently pursuing urgent economic reforms in a cabinet under military scrutiny. Further polarisation seems inevitable.

What the EU Can Do

Sudan is a pivotal state on the continent, sharing borders with seven other countries and straddling the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Sahel. The EU and its member states, like other outside powers, have a strong interest in pursuing a resolution to the post-coup crisis that can usher in greater stability.

The immediate priority is to stop the bloodshed. The EU, in coordination with other international actors such as the U.S. and the UK, should impress on Sudan’s leaders that use of excessive force against protesters will carry consequences, including individual sanctions such as travel bans and asset freezes. The EU should lobby the AU Peace and Security Council, whose assertiveness after the 3 June 2019 massacre helped compel the junta to accept the power-sharing agreement, to adopt a similar stance in response to the continued attacks on peaceful protesters. With Sudan’s AU membership still suspended, Brussels should push the Council to send a clear message to the generals that it will impose individual sanctions on actors who continue to authorise the killing of protesters and to stand in the way of the AU’s demands for the “effective restoration” of a civilian-led transitional authority. 

Building consensus on how to restore the primacy of civilians in leading the transition will be tougher still. Given the paucity of ideal options, Brussels should support efforts by the UN political mission in Sudan to facilitate Sudanese-led talks on a way forward. Any such talks should be maximally inclusive and in particular should welcome participants from both the FFC and neighbourhood resistance committees. The EU should continue to make clear to the generals that it will reject any unilaterally appointed cabinet that does not receive broad support from the FFC and other civilian forces. Any premier who fails to gain the backing of civilian actors is likely to flounder. The EU and other partners should also press both sides to reach a military-civilian compromise that acknowledges the previous power-sharing arrangement – to culminate in elections – as a blueprint. 

If the parties reach a deal to restore civilian leadership and recreate a path toward transition, the EU should work with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as well as bilateral donors to condition future budget support on concrete steps to advance the transition, including installation of the legislative council, which is expected to coordinate election preparations. In the interim, they should continue to offer humanitarian support and could channel enhanced funding to civil society groups campaigning for reform, including those led by women. Furthermore, Brussels should work with the U.S. and others to urge key states with direct influence in Khartoum – such as Egypt and the Gulf states – to tell the generals that the power-sharing arrangement they torpedoed with the coup remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal all profess to share. 

Amid work to resolve the national crisis, the EU and member states should also call on Sudanese authorities not to lose sight of progress made toward ending the long wars in Sudan’s troubled peripheries, particularly in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains, where rebel leaders Abdulaziz al-Hilu and Abdulwahid al-Nur remain outside the landmark 2020 Juba Peace Agreement. While ceasefires with those groups are largely holding, renewed violence rages in Darfur and the country’s east is increasingly on edge due to discontent with the peace deal.

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