Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

Sudan: What Next?

In early July, Sudan’s President Omar el-Bashir announced that the National Dialogue (ND) would restart “after Ramadan”. On August 5th President Bashir went further, stating that the ND would recommence on October 10th. Just two days earlier vice president Bakri Hasan Salih had said that the government would provide the necessary guarantees for the coalition of armed actors, the Sudan Revolutionary Force (SRF), to participate in talks within Sudan.

The African Union High Level Implementation Panel for Sudan (AUHIP) chief, Thabo Mbeki, highly involved with the failed earlier attempts at ND, also visited the country in early August, speaking to both government and opposition representatives.

However, there is little indication that an appetite exists for further “national dialogue” amongst Sudan’s multi-faceted opposition parties and armed movements. Several, including Sadiq al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party (NUP) and former NCP intellectual Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani’s Reform Now Movement, have already stated that they would not participate without significant changes to the way the process was structured and mediated.

The Fitful National Dialogue

The ND was ostensibly conceived in January 2014 as an inclusive consultative process intended to bring all Sudan’s armed and non-armed opposition groups around the table with the ruling NCP to discuss a peaceful, political solution to the country’s chronic conflicts. The immediate context was the outbreak of protests in major urban areas in autumn 2013, linked to high food prices; the regime’s crackdown killed at least 200.

Also significant were ongoing conflicts in the periphery, especially in Darfur and South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Sceptics, however, always saw it as a method of keeping the opposition at bay until the now concluded 2015 elections, and a mechanism through which a weakened opposition could be subsequently co-opted.

In April 2014 the government convened a roundtable that included representatives from over 90 Sudanese political parties. A National Dialogue Committee was established made up of 7 opposition and 7 government-leaning parties, including the “traditional” sectarian opposition, Islamist NCP split-offs, as well as former rebel movements from the east and west of the country.

The ND process quickly stalled however, as participants accused the government of failing to create a suitable enabling environment, including periodic crackdowns against civil society and the press. The arrest of National Umma Party (NUP) leader and former prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, although he was released in June 2014, led to his signing the “Paris Declaration” with a coalition of armed opposition groups, the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces (SRF) in August 2014, and announcing his party would boycott any election not held under a transitional government.

Despite the hardening positions, in September AUHIP managed to broker an agreement between government and opposition representatives on the ND. This progress was negated by the impasse in the parallel AUHIP-mediated talks between the SRF and the government aimed at “synchronising” peace negotiations in Darfur and the Two Areas.

In March 2015 a broader group of opposition (including armed groups) and civil society managed to put aside their differences – just – and signed “The Berlin Declaration” announcing their willingness to participate in another pre-meeting on ND. But with elections in sight, the NCP pulled out of that meeting at the eleventh hour and the opposition divided once more amid recriminations.

Managing the NCP

Whilst discussions surrounding the ND were unfolding, it was becoming increasingly evident that divisions were developing within the NCP; during the party’s National Convention in October 2014, Bashir only narrowly managed to secure a required majority to be nominated as the party’s presidential candidate.

His chosen lieutenants, Bakri Hasan Salih (first vice president) and Ibrahim Ghandour (chief presidential advisor) also received fewer votes than their predecessors Ali Osman Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie – unceremoniously dumped in December 2013, but still popular especially within the Islamist wing of the party.

But with Bashir installed as the NCP presidential candidate the April 2015 polls passed uneventfully with most original ND participants boycotting. Bashir won 94 per cent of the presidential vote against a field of non-entities and little effective electoral competition. Turnout was very low, officially 46 per cent, with others claiming it was only 15 per cent.

The Democratic Unionist Party – the only major opposition party to contest (and already a partner in the outgoing government) – came a distant second with 25 seats in the National Assembly (out of 426), with other smaller, often regionally-based, parties picking up some seats, which the NCP had agreed not to contest.

Despite the handsome majority, the NCP’s internal grumbles returned and delayed the formation of a new government. When eventually announced, pundits poured over the promotions, demotions and omissions, broadly agreeing that the reshuffle had been used to further buttress the president’s power over the NCP, which had appeared somewhat contested in previous months.

Ibrahim Ghandour’s sideways shift from chief presidential assistant to foreign minister – pushing out the more combative Ali Karti – presented a more pragmatic face to the international community and seemed to back the president’s new-found openness to talks with the West; U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth will visit in late August.

Ghandour was replaced as presidential assistant by Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamad – an ultra-loyalist former interior minister with no NCP support base. But in return for this internally unpopular choice, Bashir was forced by the party and the military (a key pillar) to shift Abdelrahim Hussein – a close ally – from his long-held position as defence minister to governor of Khartoum (a profitable sinecure nevertheless).

Next steps

As with Bashir’s careful foreign relations realignment following the Islamic movements’ post Arab Spring reversals, notably rapprochement with Egypt and the public dropping of Iran at the beginning of the Yemen crisis, the post-election government is the result of Bashir’s long-term reshaping of the NCP regime. But what precisely this administration will do, and how much the announced recommencement of the ND is simply furthering its own interests, is a matter of considerable uncertainty.

Attempts to encourage an end to Sudan’s worsening conflicts and to halt the deterioration of economic conditions for the impoverished majority, continues to suffer from the gathering political vacuum within the NCP – a lack of agreement among the NCP’s diverse internal constituencies and especially the military’s resistance to concessions to the SRF – and an absence of credible alternatives. Some basic principles should however be considered:

  • International attempts to facilitate further “national dialogue”, for example via the AUHIP and parallel German initiatives, should recognize that Bashir (and the security apparatus in general) have strengthened their position and are unlikely to make significant concessions to the opposition while the current status quo remains favourable.
     
  • Sudan’s economy remains weak, with inflation running at around 18 per cent. The 2013 riots in Khartoum were directly attributed to dire economic performance and attempts to reduce government spending by lowering costly subsidies on fuel (which in turn increased prices of basic foods staples). This is likely to make Khartoum more open to engagement with a multiple international partners, including those in the Gulf, as well as increasing overtures towards western powers – notably the US – for relaxation of sanctions and debt relief.
     
  • The NCP is an increasingly pragmatic force internationally as is demonstrated by its diplomatic shift to participate in the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen and its clear downgrading of ties with Iran, as well as its relative restraint shown during the South Sudan crisis.
     

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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