Sudan’s Best Chance For Peace: How Not to Lose It
Sudan’s Best Chance For Peace: How Not to Lose It
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Report 51 / Africa

Sudan’s Best Chance For Peace: How Not to Lose It

On 1 September 2002, two weeks into the second phase of the peace negotiations in Machakos, Kenya, the Sudanese government suspended its participation in the talks being brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

Executive Summary

On 1 September 2002, two weeks into the second phase of the peace negotiations in Machakos, Kenya, the Sudanese government suspended its participation in the talks being brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). This followed the capture, after a series of battles, of the southeastern Sudanese town of Torit by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLA).

The Machakos talks represent the best chance for peace the Sudanese people have had since the beginning of the war nearly two decades ago, and the interruption is dangerous. The government has reached an historic fork in the road as it deliberates next steps. Two scenarios are possible. Either those officials benefiting from the status quo will torpedo the peace process and intensify the war, or those who see the far greater benefits of peace will ensure that the government returns to the table and seeks a negotiated end to the war. The rebel SPLA movement, bedevilled by competing tendencies towards war and peace, faces a similar moment of truth.

If an attitude persists that without peace on their terms war should continue, the outlook is bleak. Forceful diplomacy by the mediators and the application to both sides of increased international leverage will be required to bring the parties back to the negotiating table and to forge an agreement to end one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The first order of business should be to arrange mutual informal commitments to cease major offensive actions for the next half-year to break the dangerous battlefield dynamic and give negotiations a chance.

Despite widespread international scepticism, IGAD scored a major breakthrough during the first phase of talks. The parties reached agreement on the “Machakos Protocol” of 20 July 2002 for dealing with one of the most important issues driving the conflict, self-determination for southern Sudanese, by means of a referendum that will pose the alternatives of continued national unity or secession for the South at the end of a six-year interim period during which laws in the North will be based in part on Sharia law while those in the South will be secular. (The basis of law for the central authority that will also exist during this interim period is still disputed, as is the legal status of non-Muslims in the North.)

These are not new positions for the parties. What is new is that they have incorporated them in a jointly signed document in the context of a serious peace process from which it will be difficult to backtrack without significant diplomatic costs. It is a significant achievement for the partnership between the IGAD mediators, led by General Lazaro Sumbeiywo of Kenya, and involving envoys from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, a quartet of active international observers representing the U.S., UK, Norway, and Italy, and the United Nations.

The government’s early agreement to a self- determination referendum with an independence option surprised almost everyone. Its possible motivations are varied, even partially contradictory. They range from a survival decision driven by calculations about the need to make inroads into the constituencies of the larger sectarian parties by showing it can deliver peace, oil and prosperity, through a desire to obtain greater oil revenues and debt relief, to uncertainty about U.S. intentions in possible further stages of its “war  against terrorism”. They may also include tactical judgements, at least among the harder line elements of the regime, that early agreement on a single big issue provides an opportunity to split the SPLA from its northern allies or to paint the SPLA as the intransigent side responsible for the eventual breakdown of the negotiations.

The signing of the Machakos Protocol had a catalytic effect on internal political dynamics, not all of it positive. While grassroots support for a comprehensive peace is growing across the country, the government, the SPLA and the northern opposition parties are all aggressively seeking to use the new situation to undermine each other, and politics are becoming more polarised by the day. The Machakos process has also revived dormant hard-line tendencies, or uncovered hidden ones, on both sides that will have to be overcome if the parties are to reach a final deal.

The remaining negotiations will be very difficult since the agenda includes complex issues that have heretofore been little discussed. The two largest remaining obstacles are arrangements for internal security and for the areas adjacent to “the South” that are also in armed revolt. Other difficult issues involve wealth and power sharing, human rights, and serious structural reforms of the state.

For peace to come, it is crucial that the mediators encourage, and the parties accept, proposals that genuinely give Sudan’s long-term unity a chance. To ensure that Southerners have confidence and commitment to put down their weapons, there will have to be security arrangements acceptable to the SPLA and provisions for substantial redistribution of national power and wealth. The agreement must vest the SPLA in national development and governance, not just control of a southern regional government.

Khartoum is simply unlikely to sign, or maintain its commitment to, an agreement that does not provide a reasonable prospect that the South will in the end vote to keep the country together. It is critically important that the mediators put forward proposals that will – if implemented fully – create favourable conditions for unity. They must, accordingly, take the time to develop compromises as complex as necessary to ensure their lasting acceptance. Additionally, the mediators  must  use the break  in negotiations to address the status of the areas adjacent to the South that are in armed revolt.

The foundation upon which any peace agreement must be built remains the agreement already achieved – the referendum. It is the SPLA’s absolute requirement. So long as they have it, the rebels should be willing to accept creative proposals on other points that give unity a chance. The prospect of the South voting, after six years of transition, for independence is a strong incentive for Khartoum to implement the terms it signs.

It is not just North-South issues that have been tearing Sudan apart, and if an agreement in the end is only a narrow power sharing deal between the SPLA and Khartoum along geographic lines, it is unlikely either to last or to maintain the country’s unity. A further crucial dimension not yet seriously addressed at Machakos is how to bring into the process the views of other Sudanese groups deeply disaffected with the present government – the SPLA’s northern allies (the National Democratic Alliance, NDA), the Umma Party and other political parties and key members of civil society from North and South.

Peace is indeed within reach but much work remains to be done, not least by the U.S., which must lead other international actors in organising multilateral leverage and then using it judiciously to move the parties through all the crucial decision points still ahead.

Nairobi/Brussels, 17 September 2002

 

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.

Contributors

Former Special Adviser on Sudan and the African Union (AU)
Former Vice-President for Multilateral Affairs

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