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Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena waits to address the United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. September 21, 2016 REUTERS/Eduardo Munozala
Report 286 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Transition to Nowhere

Fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. To avoid leaders of the corrupt and violent former regime taking back control of the country, President Sirisena’s two-year-old “unity government” should put aside short-term calculations and return to reform.

Executive Summary

Two years into President Maithripala Sirisena’s term, Sri Lanka’s fragile hopes for lasting peace and cooperation across party and ethnic lines are imperilled. Despite significant achievements in the coalition government’s first nine months, progress on most of its reform agenda has slowed to a crawl or been reversed. As social tensions rise and the coalition slowly fractures, it is unclear whether it can push its signature new constitution through parliament and to a national referendum. Neither the president nor prime minister has made a serious attempt to win support for a more inclusive polity or to reform the national security state to tackle the institutionalised impunity that has fed ethnic unrest and harmed all communities. To protect democratic gains, enable lasting reforms and reduce risks of social and political conflict, the “unity government” should put aside short-term party and individual political calculations and return to a politics of reform and openness.

Ambitious promises to improve the economy, eliminate corruption, restore rule of law, address the legacy of war and write a new constitution remain largely unrealised. Confidence in the government’s reform will has been dented by lack of prosecutions in alleged corruption and political murder cases in the time of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and by allegations of major corruption on its own watch. As the government struggles with large budget deficits and dangerously high debt, hopes for improved living standards have been frustrated, further eroding trust in it and strengthening the appeal of the Rajapaksa-led opposition.

Sirisena is locked in a battle with Rajapaksa for control of their Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP) and hemmed in by the party’s traditional nationalism. SLFP ministers were never enthusiastic about being the junior partner in a unity government with their long-time rival, the United National Party (UNP), and are unhappy with what many see as UNP arrogance and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s less-than-consultative style. Afraid of being outflanked by Rajapaksa’s nationalism, the Sirisena SLFP wing resists key governance and reconciliation promises, even as this weakens support from constituencies that brought Sirisena to power: Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese dismayed by corruption, abuse of power and high cost of living under Rajapaksa.

Torture of detainees remains routine, and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has yet to be replaced, as promised.

Preoccupied with appearing patriotic and worried about dissent and Rajapaksa loyalists in uniform, the government has done little to reform the national security state or reduce the military’s considerable autonomy. It continues to drag its feet on impunity for human rights violations and abuses of power. Torture of detainees remains routine, and the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act has yet to be replaced, as promised.

Tamils in the north and east were assured of confidence building measures that require major changes in the security forces’ role. Yet, the military resists returning additional occupied land to its owners in these areas and continues to run shops and hotels and build Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim communities. Failure to reduce the military footprint has led to a campaign of protests by Tamils in the north that is weakening support for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main Tamil party cooperating closely with the ruling coalition.

Government plans for transitional justice – which would inevitably reveal more about atrocities by the popular, powerful military – have largely not materialised. President Sirisena has prevented the Office on Missing Persons from operating since parliament approved it in August 2016. Mechanisms promised in 2015 are also increasingly in doubt, though the UN Human Rights Council has given the government two more years to make good on commitments. Due to the government’s failure to explain the connection between transitional justice and rule-of-law reforms, many Sinhalese view justice for war-era abuses as a pro-Tamil, anti-military demand, rather than part of a program to protect all communities’ rights.

The government’s fate thus increasingly depends on that of the new constitution. The drafting process, which until late 2016 had been proceeding quietly, now hangs in the balance. Pro-Sirisena SLFP ministers oppose any changes requiring a referendum, which would rule out key reforms, including compromises reached with the Tamil National Alliance to strengthen provincial devolution instead of the federalism they had favoured. With no sustained narrative from the president or prime minister in favour of devolution, politics has been dominated by Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala nationalists, who present even modest changes as existential threats to the nation’s Sinhala and Buddhist character. The government is on the defensive, denying that it is weakening Buddhism and supporting separatism.

To salvage the chance to address fundamental sources of conflict and instability, the government needs to return to its original good governance and reconciliation agenda. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe must reach workable compromises on key issues: economic reform that shares the pain of change equitably and renewed anti-corruption, anti-impunity drives that prioritise a limited number of significant criminal cases implicating both major parties. To achieve a deal on the constitution that includes strengthened devolution, Sirisena must speak forcefully and lead a campaign that explains the reform package’s benefits for all communities. Renewing transitional justice hopes requires rapid launch of the Office on Missing Persons and faster progress on reducing the military footprint in the north and east. Packaged as part of rule-of-law reforms that include prosecuting alleged corruption and political crimes under the Rajapaksas, transitional justice could yet gain support across communities.

But time is running out. Leaders in both parties should not discount a Rajapaksa return. For their own survival and to deliver on at least some of their big promises, they should reject chauvinistic politics and daily bickering and invest their political capital in promoting an inclusive vision and more accountable polity that can mitigate the risk of new conflict.


To restore momentum for democratic reforms sustainable peace requires

To the Government of Sri Lanka:

  1. Redouble efforts to draft a new constitution that respects the rights of all citizens and communities equally, backed by a public campaign, led by the president, to win support in a referendum.
  2. Restore civilian authority and build confidence in the north and east by:
    1. expediting and making more transparent the return of military-occupied land to its owners;
    2. ending military involvement in farms and shops that harm local businesses;
    3. ending military involvement in construction of Buddha statues in Tamil and Muslim areas; and
    4. ceasing intimidation and surveillance of lawful political activities.
  3. Re-energise the process of addressing the war’s legacy by:
    1. constituting immediately the Office of Missing Persons, with an independent, experienced staff and a significant role for victims’ families; and
    2. acknowledging the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms’ report and using its recommendations to develop a public roadmap for full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution.
  4. Address widespread impunity and restore rule of law by repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act and ensuring any replacement respects essential rights; and investigating alleged corruption and emblematic human rights cases, including:
    1. the February 2015 Treasury Bond issue;
    2. the series of cases implicating alleged military intelligence death squads in the murder and abduction of journalists and students; and
    3. the 2006 massacres of aid workers in Mutur and students in Trincomalee.
  5. Establish and empower a high-level United National Party-Sri Lankan Freedom Party team to develop and oversee a consensus policy on economic reforms and how to share resulting short-term hardships more equitably.

To International Financial Institutions, Development Agencies and Donor Countries:

  1. Explore with the government ways to support the economy without demanding disruptive reforms that could trigger social conflict.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 May 2017

I. Introduction

In January 2015, the shock electoral defeat of President Mahinda Rajapaksa by his former ally, Maithripala Sirisena, rescued Sri Lanka from a slide into increasingly harsh nationalist authoritarianism. The victory of a broad coalition representing Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims gave hope that the country could address its longstanding political challenges: remedying the 60-year failure to grant Tamils a fair share of power on the Sinhala-majority island, and restoring for all citizens the rule of law, damaged by decades of politicisation, bitter ethnic bias and impunity for grave abuses committed during and after the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.

The democratic benefits from the defeat of President Rajapaksa and the removal of his family and supporters from key government positions remain tangible. Sri Lanka’s political dysfunctions began long before the Rajapaksas took power, however, and remain daunting.[fn]For earlier Crisis Group analysis of Sirisena and the unity government, see Asia Reports N°s 278, Sri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform ProcessSri Lanka: Jumpstarting the Reform Process, 18 May 2016; and 272, Sri Lanka Between Elections, 12 August 2015; on the Rajapaksa era, see N°s 253, Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace: Democracy under Fire, 13 November 2013; 243, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action, 20 February 2013; and 209, Reconciliation in Sri Lanka: Harder than Ever, 18 July 2011; for the politics of the major communities, see N°s 239, Sri Lanka: Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution, 20 November 2012; 141, Sri Lanka: Sinhala Nationalism and the Elusive Southern Consensus, 7 November 2007; and 134, Sri Lanka’s Muslims: Caught in the Crossfire, 29 May 2007; for background on impunity and the judiciary, see N°s 172, Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights, 30 June 2009; and 135, Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Crisis, 14 June 2007.Hide Footnote Despite positive changes and promises of constitutional changes to come, there has been no substantial, sustainable progress on addressing the two biggest political challenges:

  • Creation of independent institutions capable of upholding rule of law and a concomitant reduction in the power of the national security state and military that grew dangerously under the Rajapaksas. Limited progress has depended on the commitment of a few key politicians. Recent developments, including actions by the president and the growing dominance of party-political calculations, have deepened doubts about the leadership’s ability and willingness to strengthen the rule of law.
  • Beyond generic statements in support of “reconciliation” and “addressing the causes of the war”, government leaders have done little to change the underlying ethno-nationalist dynamics that sustained the quarter-century of war. Promises of a new constitution have not been supported by articulation of a pluralist vision of the state as an alternative to one in which entrenched Sinhala Buddhist nationalism does much to alienate Tamils and Muslims.

Until significant progress is made on both sets of issues there is little hope of lasting reconciliation. This report examines the growing difficulties faced by President Sirisena and his national unity government across the interlinked areas that need reform. It is based on interviews with government officials, politicians, lawyers, diplomats, businesspeople and journalists, conducted in Colombo, Jaffna, London, and Geneva and by email and telephone over the past half year.

II. The Politics of Reform

A. A Divided “Unity” Government

Sirisena’s first nine months saw real progress.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Sri Lanka Between Elections, op. cit.Hide Footnote His electoral coalition, anchored around the United National Party (UNP) and strengthened by much of his – and the Rajapaksa family’s – Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to approve the nineteenth constitutional amendment in April 2015. That fulfilled an electoral pledge to reduce the presidency’s enormous powers and restore the independence of oversight commissions for the police, judiciary and human rights.[fn]The nineteenth amendment in effect annulled Rajapaksa’s 2010 eighteenth amendment, which abolished presidential term limits and gave the president control over police, judiciary, civil service and human rights commissions. Fully abolishing the executive presidency, as Sirisena and his coalition also promised and replacing it by a “Westminster” parliamentary majority arrangement requires more extensive constitutional change and final approval by referendum. On the nineteenth amendment, see Crisis Group Report, Sri Lanka Between Elections, op. cit., pp. 8-9.Hide Footnote The government ended censorship and intimidation of the media and partly scaled back the heavy military presence in Tamil-majority areas in the north and east. The military was persuaded to return, reluctantly, some of the huge swathes of land it had seized there in and after the war.

The presidential election was followed in August 2015 by the narrow victory in parliamentary elections of a UNP-led coalition over a grouping led by former President Rajapaksa and including most of Sirisena’s own SLFP. That allowed Sirisena to convince the fractured SLFP to form an unprecedented national unity government with its often bitter UNP rival, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The grand coalition affirmed Sirisena’s and the UNP’s ambitious agenda to revive the economy, investigate alleged corruption under the previous regime, promote reconciliation and, most importantly, draft a new constitution in parliament.[fn]The pro-business, right-wing UNP and more statist centre-left SLFP have alternated in power since 1956, generally allied with smaller ethnic or leftist parties. While some in the unity government appear committed to the reforms its majority enables, it is mainly a marriage of convenience: a more stable UNP grip, portfolios and patronage for the pro-Sirisena section of the SLFP.Hide Footnote The main aims of constitutional change were to further reduce presidential powers, adopt a new electoral system and expand the powers devolved to provinces so as to address longstanding Tamil demands for autonomy in the north and east.

Keen to reduce international pressure over human rights, the new government co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in September 2015 committing it to a package of transitional justice measures to address the legacy of the 30-year war with the separatist Tamil Tigers, including the horrific final months in 2009, when tens of thousands were killed.[fn]For more on the war’s last months and allegations of grave violations of the laws of war by both sides, see Crisis Group Asia Report N°191, War Crimes in Sri Lanka, 17 May 2010. On the UNHRC resolution, see Crisis Group Report, Jumpstarting the Reform Process, op. cit., pp. 25-29.Hide Footnote Momentum slowed by mid-2016, however, and now seems stalled. Failing to deliver on good governance promises, particularly regarding corruption, and with few signs of the promised economic revival, the government is losing support from its main constituencies: Tamils, Muslims and liberal Sinhalese. This makes it vulnerable to the resurgent populist, majoritarian opposition politics led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Divisions inside and outside the government have led to a focus on manoeuvres for political survival rather than pursuit of reforms and maintenance of unity across party and ethnic lines. It is increasingly clear that the “unity” government was principally a creation of the UNP and some of those close to Sirisena that a meaningful part of the SLFP was persuaded to support in exchange for portfolios.

The split in the SLFP weakened Rajapaksa’s hold over Sinhala voters and was the key to Sirisena’s election but is now the cause of political paralysis. Sirisena is consumed with managing factional rivalries and policy divergences. Having done little to reshape the party around a less exclusionary, nationalist vision, he and his SLFP ministers are increasingly concerned with securing its traditional nationalist core, flirting with the Sinhala chauvinism against which they had campaigned.[fn]Sirisena’s pledges to defend the military and criticism of NGOs increasingly recall Rajapaksa’s presidential speeches. “Sri Lanka risks censure as president falters on war legacy”, Agence France-Presse (AFP), 10 March 2017.Hide Footnote

[T]he Rajapaksas are exciting their base, attacking constitutional reform and transitional justice as capitulations to anti-Sinhala and foreign forces.

Ex-President Rajapaksa, whose charisma and civil war success have kept him popular with many Sinhalese, retains the loyalty of most of the SLFP, particularly local party activists, most of whom have never accepted the unity government. His attempt to regain control of the party benefits from the dissatisfaction of SLFP ministers who joined the government but now chafe at what they feel is UNP arrogance and the prime minister’s unilateral policymaking. Looming large with them are local elections, originally due in 2015 but repeatedly postponed for fear the Sirisena-led SLFP might trail not only the UNP, but also Rajapaksa supporters, who operate in parliament as the “joint opposition” and are expected to form a new party. Three provincial council polls, with the same risk for Sirisena and his SLFP wing, are also scheduled in 2017.[fn]North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Council terms end in 2017. Unlike local government elections, the government appears to have no way of postponing them. Crisis Group interviews, constitutional lawyers, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote The SLFP is a resentful junior coalition partner, whose ministers see uniting their own party – thus making peace with Rajapaksa – as the best way to regain control of government.

The Rajapaksa clan would need to overcome significant hurdles to return to power before 2020, the earliest that parliamentary elections can be called.[fn]Unable to be president again due to the nineteenth amendment, Mahinda’s only route to power is as Sirisena-appointed prime minister. Sirisena would need to abandon the unity government and constitutional reform, which requires a two-thirds majority and the Rajapaksas strongly oppose. It would also require an unlikely UNP split, with eighteen deputies joining the 95 SLFP and allied deputies in the 225-seat parliament to back a Rajapaksa-led SLFP government.Hide Footnote A more likely scenario is deepening coalition dysfunction, as the SLFP bides its time and prepares to regroup for both parliamentary and presidential elections that year, with Sirisena at growing risk of losing the SLFP presidential nomination to Mahinda’s brother, ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.[fn]Gotabaya, though never elected, is increasingly seen as an SLFP unifier, as presidential candidate or Sirisena’s prime minister. He is thought to have support in the Sinhala middle class, due to his war role and reputation as a no-nonsense administrator. Liberals, governance advocates and minorities, who believe him responsible for human rights abuses, widely fear him. Crisis Group interviews, politicians, journalists, Colombo, March 2017; also, “I have self-confidence to perform the duties of Presidency well: Gota”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 19 October 2016.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the Rajapaksas are exciting their base, attacking constitutional reform and transitional justice as capitulations to anti-Sinhala and foreign forces.[fn]The Rajapaksa-led opposition’s 2017 May Day rally was one of the largest in Sri Lanka’s recent history. The national association of professionals, Viyath Maga (Right Way), aligned with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is of growing importance.Hide Footnote Government ministers and others have said the family funds militant Buddhist monks and others to destabilise the ruling coalition, supported by pro-Rajapaksa elements in the military. Many civil servants are hedging their bets, concerned that the government is weak and fearful of retribution, should Mahinda or one of his brothers return to power.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote

B. The Economy: Danger Signs Grow

Inheriting large budget deficits and dangerously high debt, the government has been unable to deliver on election promises of jobs and improved living standards. Prolonged drought, which raised food prices and increased household debt levels, now threatens serious social and economic disruptions. [fn]The budget deficit fell to 5.6 per cent of GDP in 2016, but total public debt reached 76 per cent of GDP at the end of 2015, and the government must repay some $4 billion over the next eighteen months. Marwaan Macan-Markar, “Sri Lanka struggles to build foreign reserves”, Nikkei Asian Review, 3 April 2017. “Drought may leave 80,000 Sri Lankans in need of ‘life-saving’ food aid”, Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 6 March 2017. The drought has exacerbated inflation and could cost the economy $1 billion. Crisis Group interview, UN official, March 2017; “Sri Lanka’s national inflation soars to 8.6-pct in March”, Economy Next (www.economynext.com), 21 April 2017.Hide Footnote Facing a balance of payments crisis and with few other hard-currency sources, the government has been forced to do a U-turn on its campaign pledges and cancel what it had called wasteful, exploitive Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. A government plan to lease the port and much land for a Chinese-controlled industrial zone in Rajapaksa’s home Hambantota district was met with violent protests in January 2017, organised by Rajapaksa supporters and causing delays in finalising the long-term lease, which would pay off $1.1 billion of the $8 billion owed to the Chinese.[fn]“Clashes erupt as Govt. launches southern development projects”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 8 January 2017. While Rajapaksa bears significant responsibility for the economic woes, the impact of heavy reliance on Chinese-financed infrastructure projects was not felt while he was in office. This allows him to criticise Sirisena’s concessions to Chinese loan repayment demands many Sri Lankans feel are humiliating. The port deal has also provoked Indian and U.S. concerns about potential Chinese military use. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Despite the prime minister’s repeated attempts to articulate an attractive export- and foreign-investment-oriented economic strategy, officials have issued multiple, often conflicting policy statements. Disagreements between the UNP and SLFP about the costs of International Monetary Fund (IMF)-supported economic restructuring, compounded by public anxiety at the absence of visible development projects and opposition criticism, have led Sirisena to reverse or modify numerous UNP tax and liberalisation proposals. The resulting policy uncertainty has contributed to lower than expected foreign direct investment.[fn]In June 2016, the IMF and Sri Lanka agreed on a three-year “Extended Funds Facility” with $1.5 billion support for reforms. In March, the IMF reported mixed results in implementation, with better tax collection slow to materialise. “IMF Staff Concludes Visit to Sri Lanka to Discuss Progress of Economic Reform Program”, IMF, 7 March 2017. A draft tax law prepared with IMF help has been criticised. “New tax law: Capitulating to the IMF”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 2 April 2017.Hide Footnote Any benefits from the broad reforms encouraged by the IMF and investors would appear only over years, but their costs would be felt now, in higher taxes, lower subsidies, budget cuts and trade and investment policies giving foreign companies and governments politically controversial privileges.

[T]he social costs of abrupt economic liberalisation undermined support for a UNP government and contributed to the collapse of the peace process.

The government and global financial institutions and development agencies should explore ways to support the economy while mitigating these and other potential sources of social conflict. Otherwise, the government risks a repeat of 2002-2004, when the social costs of abrupt economic liberalisation undermined support for a UNP government and contributed to the collapse of the peace process with the Tamil Tigers, paving the way for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 election as president on a Sinhala nationalist, anti-ceasefire platform.[fn]Sunil Bastian, “Politics of market reforms and the UNF-led negotiations”, in Jonathan Goodhand et al. (eds.), Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sri Lanka: Caught in the Peace Trap? (Abingdon, 2011); and, for an overview of the politics of economic reforms, Bastian, “Understanding the current regime”, Groundviews (groundviews.org), 4 January 2017.Hide Footnote Sri Lanka is caught between economic paradigms whose interaction has spurred conflict in the past: liberalisation that further transforms the economy according to the needs of global and regional capital, with likelihood of nationalist resistance and increased inequality; and statist resistance to privatisation or trimming of an oversized state many citizens still see as the preferred employer.

III. The Politics of Investigations and the National Security State

For the unity government, fulfilling election pledges about corruption and rule of law is essential to retaining support needed to achieve its agenda’s more controversial aspects: a new constitution with greater powers for provinces and dealing with the war legacy. With little to show for two years of investigations, however, many supporters of reform now view the government’s yahapaalanaya (good governance) claims derisively.[fn]“Yahapalanaya is no joke: President”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote

A. Sirisena’s Bombshell Speech

On 12 October 2016, in a speech before military veterans and their families, President Sirisena angrily denounced his own government’s investigations into alleged corruption, saying those undertaken by the police and the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) were politically motivated.[fn]Sirisena also criticised long detention of military personnel in murder cases and expressed displeasure at ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and retired navy commanders being taken to court on corruption charges and his not being informed before charges were filed. “President warns investigative arms: Don’t work to political agendas”, Daily News, 13 October 2016; “Sri Lanka president intervenes on behalf of accused military men”, Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (www.jdslanka.org), 14 October 2016.Hide Footnote This was met with shock and anger by civil society activists and sections of the public that had backed his good governance agenda. By criticising CIABOC and the Financial Crimes Investigation Division of the police, demanding they inform him in advance of filing charges in major cases and appearing to try to protect military suspects, he was seen as undermining the independence of investigations.[fn]“President slams Bribery Commission for ‘hauling’ Gota and navy chiefs to court”, Daily FT, 13 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Four days later, CIABOC Director General Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe humiliatingly resigned.[fn]Wickremesinghe did not explain her resignation. A senior lawyer in the attorney general’s department known as a determined investigator willing to pursue hard cases, she is also a close friend of the prime minister. “Crisis continues: Bribery Commission Director General quits”, Daily FT, 18 October 2016; Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote In subsequent weeks, courts released on bail all remaining military intelligence personnel held on suspicion of involvement in murder and abduction cases – including the January 2009 murder of editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and the 2010 abduction of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. The speech and the releases cast a cloud over ongoing investigations and deepened doubts about government willingness to pursue cases against the security forces and associates of the former regime in the face of military resistance.[fn]“Army not helping probe – ASG”, Ceylon Today, 14 October 2016; “Political interference suspected in Prageeth’s case”, Sunday Leader, 20 November 2016. The murder of Wickrematunge, known for articles exposing alleged government corruption, and the abduction and presumed murder of Ekneligoda, both Sinhalese, were two of many attacks on media people in the Rajapaksa era. They received wide international notice. At his death, Wickrematunge was involved in a court battle with Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who sued his paper after articles alleged he accepted kickbacks in the purchase of MiG fighter jets. “MiG deal: court issues warrant through Interpol to arrest Gota’s first cousin Weeratunga”, Colombo Telegraph, 20 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Those doubts remain, even after new arrests in the Wickrematunge case and in cases related to other attacks on journalists that appear to implicate the highest levels of the Rajapaksa-era defence establishment. On 20 March, police investigators presented court testimony from ex-army commander Sarath Fonseka alleging Gotabaya Rajapaksa oversaw a military intelligence “death squad” responsible for attacks on journalists, including Wickrematunge’s murder. Rajapaksa denied this and said Fonseka had been responsible.[fn]In February 2017, the police Criminal Investigation Department arrested military intelligence officers allegedly responsible for attacks on journalists, including Wickrematunge’s murder. “Sri Lanka ex-leader’s brother ‘led death squad’”, AFP, 20 March 2017; “Gotabaya denies role in killings”, The Hindu, 21 March 2017; “‘Whodunnit’ high noon duel between Gota and Fonseka”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 2 April 2017. Fonseka led the military’s final offensive against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 but broke with the Rajapaksas and challenged Mahinda for president in 2010. Following his defeat, Fonseka was convicted of corruption and other charges and stripped of his rank. Sirisena named him field marshal in 2015 and minister in 2016 after his release in May 2012.Hide Footnote On 29 March, in a speech to a military audience, President Sirisena vowed that he would protect “war heroes” from prosecution but not security personnel “who killed journalists, sportsmen or others”.[fn]“Sri Lanka’s leader backs arrests of ‘official’ killers”, AFP, 29 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Despite the progress investigators appear to have made and Sirisena’s stated commitment not to protect military killers, his earlier intervention showed two main prosecution obstacles: party-political tensions in the coalition and a desire to placate and be seen to respect the military and the national security state.

B. Party Politics Intervene

Many Rajapaksa-era criminal cases are complex, involving hard-to-unravel financial transactions, but the lack of high-profile indictments appears at least partly a result of partisan efforts to protect members of the old regime. Sirisena’s intervention responded to and deepened tensions within the government over differing approaches to cases. Responding to widespread criticism of his October 2016 speech, Sirisena complained that SLFP ministers were being investigated for relatively minor improprieties, while investigations into larger fraud and other crimes were being obstructed by unnamed sections of his government.[fn]This includes at least one minister, known as close to Sirisena, charged with misusing state vehicles. “Crisis continues: bribery commission director general quits”, Daily FT, 18 October 2016.Hide Footnote He alleged in particular that certain cases involving accusations against Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the investigation into the 2013 murder of rugby player Wasim Thajudeen were being ignored or blocked.[fn]“President concerned – probe on Dubai account has ceased, Thajudeen case has gone under”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 6 November 2016. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has rejected all allegations of wrongdoing. Investigations into Thajudeen’s murder reportedly implicated members of the Rajapaksa family, who denied any involvement. Greg Bearup, “Phantoms of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sri Lanka’s reign of terror”, The Australian, 26 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The lack of decisive response to alleged irregularities in a February 2015 treasury bond issue has particularly angered Sirisena and SLFP ministers and become a focus of opposition attacks. A 27 October 2016 report by the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises stated that the ex-Central Bank governor, a friend of the prime minister who appointed him, was directly responsible for a possibly illegal deal believed to have lost the government millions of dollars. After SLFP and opposition demands for criminal investigations, Sirisena appointed a commission of inquiry in January to investigate the alleged scam further. Public hearings regularly offer new detail that keeps the controversy, and coalition divisions, alive.[fn]Excess money earned in the deal is widely believed to have gone to the UNP to pay election debts. The former Central Bank Governor, Arjuna Mahendran, and the prime minister deny any wrongdoing. “Mahendran hits back”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 7 February 2017. While the prime minister publicly welcomed the report, it was released only after strenuous resistance by the committee’s UNP members, who challenged its conclusions. Crisis Group interviews, politicians and activists, Colombo, November 2016. For more, see Crisis Group Report, Sri Lanka Between Elections, op. cit., p. 5; and “Sri Lanka panel questions central bank chief over bond sale”, Reuters, 21 February 2017.Hide Footnote

[T]he more time passes without prosecution of major corruption and political crimes, the more people will lose faith the government is different from its predecessors. The government would then have lost its most powerful asset.

Partisan interests also appear to be a key obstacle to investigations against Rajapaksa family members. The prime minister is widely seen as working to ensure they do not proceed too far, so as to keep the Rajapaksas politically alive and the SLFP divided and weakened.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, journalists, politicians, lawyers, Colombo, March 2017. Critics of the UNP note that the police are under the law and order ministry, led by Sagala Ratnayaka, a UNP minister and confidante of the prime minister. Crisis Group interviews, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote Others more sympathetic to the UNP argue that the president and SLFP ministers are interested in going easy on the Rajapaksas, in exchange for a reunified, Sirisena-led SLFP.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, diplomats, Colombo, March 2017. In a 24 January parliament speech, opposition and Tamil National Alliance leader R. Sampanthan accused the main parties of protecting each other. “UNP-SLFP hand in glove on corruption: Opposition Leader”, Daily FT, 26 January 2017.Hide Footnote Senior government officials continue to promise early breakthroughs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Colombo, March 2017; “Mangala says Lasantha and Prageeth investigations moving forward despite delays”, Colombo Telegraph, 22 January 2017.Hide Footnote Regardless of the causes, the more time passes without prosecution of major corruption and political crimes, the more people will lose faith the government is different from its predecessors. The government would then have lost its most powerful asset.

C. Fear and Resistance of the Military and Security State

Sirisena’s corruption intervention was one of a series of speeches praising military audiences’ heroism and promising to preserve their honour and protect national security.[fn]Explaining why he objected to Gotabaya and the former navy commanders being taken to court by CIABOC, Sirisena argued that “the public perception should be understood when action is taken. We should not act against the will of the people”. “President concerned – probe on Dubai account has ceased, Thajudeen case has gone under”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 6 November 2016.Hide Footnote It was followed two weeks later by one that attacked NGOs, journalists and “traitors” for misusing their freedom to criticise his national security policies.[fn]“President slams some NGOs, media, traitorous forces”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 27 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Following its victory over the Tamil Tigers, the military is very popular among Sinhalese, a fact the Rajapaksas exploit, given their leadership roles at the end of the war. This helps explain why, as a well-placed political analyst said, “Sirisena has a soft spot for the military. He is giving them a big margin and is protecting them to a large extent …. He wants to keep them happy”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote He and other officials appear both generally content with the military’s role in the security state and uncertain about the loyalty of at least some elements and reportedly fearful that a section of military intelligence, still aligned with Gotabaya, will be deployed in a pro-Rajapaksa destabilisation campaign.[fn]The Rajapaksas are alleged to use considerable money to fund protests, militant Buddhists and, possibly, rogue military intelligence-unit actions. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, government officials, advisers, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote The government avoids policies the military is thought to oppose, rather than proactively countering a threat.

Sirisena’s 12 October speech reportedly was sparked by a report, later disproved, from the director of military intelligence, Suresh Salley, detailing allegedly growing opposition to government policies within the military.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, diplomats, journalists, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote His November decision to replace that director, widely believed a Gotabaya loyalist, followed sustained civil society calls for the removal, which grew louder after that speech.[fn]Many wondered why Sirisena had not removed Salley earlier, given his close links to Gotabaya. According to a government adviser, “Sirisena assumed Salley would follow orders. He generally assumes subordinates will follow his orders, despite this being proved wrong repeatedly in his attempt to win control of the SLFP”. Crisis Group interview, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote

D. Bureaucratic and Political Resistance to Reform

In addition to military interference and non-cooperation with investigations in which military intelligence personnel are suspects, powerful bureaucrats and politicians fight to keep the security state beyond the control of the judiciary and civilian leadership.[fn]Some are Sinhala nationalists who believe a strong security state is needed to keep potential terrorists at bay; others may be concerned about being implicated in abuses that reforms could reveal. Crisis Group interviews, government officials, lawyers, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote Key officials in the justice and defence ministries, police and attorney general’s office have taken positions or made statements that directly undermine efforts to reform the institutions responsible for decades of major human rights violations.[fn]In some of the cases below, protests, at times backed by diplomatic pressure, have helped mitigate the resistance, indicating the current government, unlike that of the Rajapaksas, is still open to persuasion from constituencies whose support it needs.Hide Footnote Among the most important instances of resistance:

  • Despite promises to citizens and the UN, the government has yet to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). A proposed replacement Counter-Terrorism Act (CTA) a military- and police-dominated committee drafted added clauses that increase the likelihood of state abuses.[fn]Security force officials and lawyers with the attorney general’s department reportedly vetoed a more human rights-friendly draft. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, government officials, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote Following outcry when it was leaked in October 2016 and eager to regain the European Union’s human rights-linked Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tariff relief, the government initially removed some of the most troubling bits.[fn]In January, the European Commission (EC) announced support for renewal of GSP+ trade benefits to Sri Lanka, which depend on effective implementation of 27 human rights, labour and environmental conventions. The EC revoked GSP+ privileges in 2010 for serious human rights failings. The EC stressed need for further progress on implementing the 27 conventions, in particular bringing anti-terrorism legislation in line. “Commission Proposes Enhanced Market Access for Sri Lanka as Reform Incentive”, EC press release, 11 January 2017. The European Parliament and Council had until 15 May to object to the EC “proposal” but neither did.Hide Footnote Nonetheless, the latest version would still give the state dangerously broad and ambiguous powers.[fn]The cabinet approved a new draft CTA on 25 April 2017, two days before the European Parliament voted down a resolution to block Sri Lanka gaining GSP+. The draft defines “terrorism-related offences” very broadly and authorises extended detention and broad powers of investigation without meaningful judicial oversight and potentially significant restrictions on suspects’ access to counsel. The draft has been widely condemned by rights activists, with the Tamil National Alliance criticising it in unusually strong terms. TNA press release, 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote Arrests under the old law have ceased, but some 125 people arrested under it are in prison or on bail awaiting trial, many for years.[fn]“PTA no longer operational – SCRM chief”, Daily FT, 3 March 2017. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers and activists, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote
  • A draft revision of the Criminal Procedure Code released in October 2016 contained new restrictions on suspects’ access to a lawyer while in detention. The justice minister said the restrictions were necessary to prioritise victims’ rights. Following strong condemnation from lawyers and rights activists and worries the draft would not meet criteria for regaining GSP+, the prime minister said it would be amended. However, the version approved by the cabinet on 25 April contains provisions the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka earlier found “whittles down the rights of detainees in police custody to have unimpeded access to lawyers”.[fn]“Amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedure Act: HRCSL sets out its recommendation”, Colombo Telegraph, 16 March 2017. The government has been widely criticised for the secretive way in which it drafted the CTA and Criminal Procedure Code amendments, even refusing to share drafts with the Human Rights Commission, which is mandated to review such legislation. “Leaked version: Amendment to code of criminal procedure”, Groundviews, 27 April 2017.Hide Footnote
  • In December, the UN Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) issued a strongly critical report on the “routine” use of torture by the security sector and near complete lack of accountability for wartime and post-war human rights violations. Many of these concerns were echoed the next month in the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s report, which found a continuing “culture of torture” in the police. Both reports urged repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.[fn]“Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture … on his mission to Sri Lanka”, 22 December 2016; “Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Sri Lanka”, UNCAT, 27 January 2017. The November UNCAT session in Geneva was a major embarrassment for the government following revelations its delegation included the former head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the police, which is credibly accused of torture and sexual violence. “UN Committee on Torture demands answers from DIG on Lankan delegation”, Daily FT, 17 November 2016.Hide Footnote
  • Both UN reports also recommended overhaul of the weak witness protection program, originally drafted by the Rajapaksa government, to ensure independence from the police and ability to protect victims and witnesses. There is no sign the government has reviewed or strengthened the law, as it committed to do in the 2015 Human Rights Council. The national protection authority established under the law includes officials against whom allegations of involvement in intimidation and cover-ups have been made.[fn]The Special Rapporteur’s report recommends the law be strengthened “to make the National Authority set up under the Act an independent and accountable agency not managed only by the police but subject to judicial oversight”. The witness protection and anti-torture responsibilities given to Deputy Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda have been widely criticised, given his efforts in Geneva to block UN investigations and alleged involvement, as documented by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, in undermining past human rights investigations, allegedly including by witness intimidation. “Putting the Wolf to Guard the Sheep: Sri Lanka’s Witness Protection Authority”, International Truth and Justice Project, February 2017.Hide Footnote

The government has taken some positive steps, but their impact will depend on the willingness of officials to comply with their legal obligations.

  • The Right to Information (RTI) Act parliament approved in June 2016 and in force since February gives potentially powerful tools to citizens to make authorities more transparent and accountable. The RTI Commission it established has shown itself to be proactive, and NGOs and individual citizens have filed important requests for information on land issues and missing persons.[fn]“Sri Lanka’s new information law puts corrupt officials in crosshairs”, Nikkei Asian Review, 27 February 2017.Hide Footnote For the act to be effective, the government will need to give adequate resources to the commission and officers in public bodies tasked with responding to requests.
  • After May 2016 ratification, the cabinet approved in February a draft incorporating the international convention on enforced disappearances into domestic law. Criminalisation of disappearances, if parliament adopts the law, would be a significant step long sought by human rights defenders, but enforcement requires a fundamental shift in how the state relates to victims of abuses by its own personnel. As the above-cited UN reports make clear, a strong law (also incorporating an international convention) has not ended torture and has only rarely been used to prosecute alleged state perpetrators.[fn]According to UNCAT, op. cit., “only 17 cases of torture have been filed under the Convention against Torture Act since 2012 and only 2 have resulted in convictions, suggesting that only a small number of allegations of torture have actually been investigated”.Hide Footnote

E. Continued Impunity for Militant Monks

Despite election promises to crack down on anti-Muslim agitations, the government has not used laws criminalising hate speech and has sent mixed signals in response to renewed threats against Muslims and Tamils by militant Buddhist groups actively cultivated by the Rajapaksa government.[fn]The 2007 act incorporating the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights makes it a crime to “advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence”; offences are punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. This clause has been applied only once. Gehan Gunatileke, “Hate Speech in Sri Lanka: How a New Ban Could Perpetuate Impunity”, Oxford Human Rights Hub, 11 January 2016. On Rajapaksa government support for militant Buddhists, see Crisis Group Report, Sri Lanka’s Potemkin Peace, op. cit., pp. 27-30.Hide Footnote In November 2016, the leader of the best-known militant Buddhist group, Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, BBS), threatened violence against Colombo Muslims if a local Salafist activist who criticised it was not arrested.[fn]The activist, head of Sri Lanka Towheed Jamaat, was arrested in days, along with a Buddhist activist who had called for his murder. Dharisha Bastians, “More equal than others”, Daily FT, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote On 19 November, BBS held its largest rally in over two years, denouncing the Muslim threat as it marched to the country’s holiest Buddhist temple in Kandy. This came in the wake of a widely circulated videotaped incident in which a prominent monk, Ampitiye Sumana, was seen abusing and threatening a Tamil civil servant in Batticaloa for resisting attempts to settle Sinhalese in the Tamil district. No action was taken against the monk.[fn]‘“You Tamil dog, I will kill you’ Buddhist Monk Tells Grama Sevaka in Batticaloa”, Colombo Telegraph, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Rising tensions prompted the president to call an emergency security council meeting, at which he announced that anyone inciting racism would be arrested. Days later, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe met with BBS leader Galagoda Atte Gnanasara and Sumana with the declared purpose of encouraging dialogue among communities.[fn]“Arrest all inciters, President orders”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 20 November 2016. The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation called for “the strictest action … against persons or groups who act to provoke disharmony … along ethnic and religious lines”. “Statement by ONUR on the Rise of Hate Speech in the Recent Past”, 25 November 2016. “Govt. to start dialogue among religious and ethnic groups”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 23 November 2016; “Justice Minister holds talks with BBS and Batticaloa monk”, Colombo Gazette, 21 December 2016.Hide Footnote On 22 December, Gnanasara was among the monks in attendance at a meeting Sirisena held on preserving Buddhist archaeological sites.

Unlike during the Rajapaksa regime, the police now intervene to keep the peace when communal tensions rise, and the government does not promote violence as a political instrument.[fn]A court order blocked a planned rally in Batticaloa on 3 December designed to link up with a march led by BBS leader Gnanasara. Police brought in armed reinforcements to control crowds led by Ampitiye Sumana, who was later charged with organising an unlawful assembly and released on bail. “Unruly Batticaloa monk summoned to court”, Ceylon News, 6 December 2016.Hide Footnote But appearing to treat Gnanasara and other militant monks as legitimate Sinhala Buddhist representatives has eroded faith among Muslims and those in other communities hoping to see an end to impunity and attacks on minorities and makes militant forms of nationalism seem acceptable.

IV. Transitional Justice Without a Transition

The security services’ successful resistance to investigations and legal reforms, combined with Sirisena’s pro-military statements, add to deep concerns about the government’s ability and willingness to pursue the transitional justice policies promised to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Jumpstarting the Reforms Process, op. cit., pp. 24-29.Hide Footnote Having established none of the agreed institutions – offices on missing persons and reparations, a truth commission and a special court – the government negotiated a “technical roll over” resolution in March to give it more time to implement its initiatives.[fn]“Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka”, HRC 34/1, 24 March 2017. Many Tamil groups and some human rights activists criticised the two-year extension, which had no additional conditions. “Joint Appeal by Tamil Civil Society Organisations, Political Parties and Trade Unions”, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Unless there is a major change in the government’s approach, the extra time is unlikely to make a big difference. Transitional justice has always been the reform issue with the least backing in government and the Sinhala public, consequently the most dependent on international pressure. The government has done little to build greater support among Sinhalese and Muslims by making a case for the link between transitional justice and the rule-of-law/anti-impunity agenda that has significant backing in all three communities, or explaining the specific benefits of a transitional-justice program.[fn]“Opinion Poll on Constitutional Reform – Topline Report”, Centre for Policy Alternatives, April 2017. For arguments that in Sri Lanka anti-impunity and transitional justice measures need to be intertwined and would have backing among all communities, see Niran Anketell, “Forgetting the Past: A warning”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 22 March 2017; and Gehan Gunatilleke, “Confronting the Complexity of Loss”, Law and Society Trust, 2015.Hide Footnote By contrast, the Rajapaksa-led opposition has defined transitional justice for many Sinhalese as a pro-Tamil, anti-military agenda.

The lack of progress on establishing the mechanisms and making the rule-of-law reforms necessary for those mechanisms to function effectively appears to confirm long-standing criticisms that transitional-justice promises were principally designed to win international support and manage and ultimately end Human Rights Council oversight. Nonetheless, the March 2017 resolution and the two additional reports it mandates by the High Commissioner for Human Rights offer a framework for continued domestic and international engagement in support of greater efforts to address the legacy of war and strengthen the rule of law.

A. Transitional Justice Mechanisms in Limbo

The government and activists have largely kept the transitional justice focus on the four promised big mechanisms, rather than creating the conditions for their success by putting checks on the national security state and addressing impunity. Even so, none of the mechanisms has been established. Other than parliament’s approval of the Office of Missing Persons in August, 2016 saw no progress.[fn]In 2016, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) was launched, led by businessman Mano Tittawella and reporting to the prime minister. It sees itself as “the apex body that coordinates all government reconciliation mechanisms”. Crisis Group interview, Tittawella, Colombo, November 2016. A working group aided by two international experts prepares draft laws for the four transitional justice mechanisms but has few staffers and no one below Tittawella with bureaucratic experience or political influence. It is thus hostage to the lack of direction and political will from the top. “Coordinated” by but independent of SCRM, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), led by ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, has significant UN funding but no clear mission or significant policy impact. SCRM reportedly may be restructured as a formal government “authority” with cabinet approval. Crisis Group interviews, SCRM staff, Colombo, March 2017. Until political leaders commit to coherent reconciliation and transitional justice policies, however, neither body can play more than a limited role.Hide Footnote The office itself remains in limbo, as Sirisena has put obstacles in its path, including not assigning it to a ministry, which is necessary for it to function.[fn]An amendment the cabinet approved in February needs parliament’s approval. The president’s refusal to make the office operational largely responds to strong criticism of the law by the Rajapaksa-led opposition and is unlikely to change. “He won’t touch it”, said a well-connected activist. “He sees it as slippery slope that will get the joint opposition up in arms”. Crisis Group interviews, government advisers, human rights lawyers, Geneva, Colombo, February-March 2017.Hide Footnote

The government has repeatedly pushed back the timetable for the other three mechanisms: a reparations office, truth commission and special court. The whole project increasingly appears on hold, with the president worried about military discontent and the potential for the Rajapaksas to exploit it.[fn]This was reportedly the president’s blunt message to the members of the consultation task force (CTF) with whom he met on 30 January. Crisis Group interviews, CTF members, March 2017.Hide Footnote Ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga, a Sirisena ally, made clear nothing will be done to establish the court before completion of the slow-moving constitutional reforms process when she told reporters: “If you start the war crimes tribunals now, you can be sure there will be no constitution. There will be such an uproar in the country. … We have to prioritise and see what is more important”.[fn]

Regular statements by the president and prime minister opposing any role for foreign judges in the special court, as agreed in the 2015 Human Rights Council resolution, also raise doubts the government will set up this body.[fn]On 4 March, the president said, “I will not listen to … calls to prosecute my troops”. “Sri Lanka risks censure as president falters on war legacy”, AFP, 10 March 2017. The prime minister appeared to suggest a truth commission could be a possible substitute for a war crimes court. “‘Hybrid court’ not feasible: Prime Minister”, Daily News, 3 March 2017. There has been no effort to introduce legislation to make prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity possible, which would be essential to the ability to consider the worst wartime atrocities.Hide Footnote Sirisena said on 26 November that he was writing to ask U.S. President-elect Donald Trump to “free” the military from “accusations” it had committed war crimes and to end U.S. support for Council action.[fn]“Sirisena to write to Trump seeking relief for Sri Lanka from human rights allegations”, The New Indian Express, 27 November 2016.Hide Footnote Statements casting doubt on the court carry particular weight given the failure to pursue even cases in which the Sinhala public is interested and supportive, like the Wickrematunga murder. The surprise acquittal in December 2016 of all accused in the 2006 murder of N. Raviraj, a Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian, dented slim hopes the judiciary might fairly try cases in which the accused are military or police and the victims Tamil.[fn]The case was heard before an all-Sinhala jury. In July 2016, a similar jury acquitted six soldiers of the 1996 massacre of 26 Tamil civilians at Kumarapuram in the eastern port city Trincomalee. “Impunity reigns in Sri Lanka: The Kumarapuram massacre and acquittals”, PEARL, March 2017.Hide Footnote

“Govt. to launch hearts and minds campaign to win support for constitution: CBK”, Daily FT, 16 February 2017. Kumaratunga, previously supportive of trials, also said once a new constitution and the Office of Missing Persons are in place, “there would not be any necessity to have courts to probe war crimes”. “CBK drops bombshell, says no need for war crimes probe”, Colombo Telegraph, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote

Sri Lanka’s specific history of commissions of inquiry that ratify, rather than end, impunity, lead many to fear a truth commission would at best merely substitute for eventual trials

With war-related prosecutions off the table, the government may eventually establish a truth commission.[fn]With little backing in government and no larger momentum behind it, this is far from guaranteed. The foreign minister told the Human Rights Council on 28 February a draft law for a “truth seeking commission” would be presented to cabinet “within the next two months”. “Statement to the High-Level Segment of the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council Geneva”, 28 February 2017. Draft laws for a truth commission and reparations office have been prepared by the reconciliation “working group” that reports to SCRM and the prime minister, but he made no mention of the latter. Crisis Group interviews, government officials, March 2017.Hide Footnote Properly designed, staffed and publicised, it might have potential to inform each community about the suffering of others in ways that build trust and generate the acknowledgement of state crimes Tamil victims have long been denied. That might help reduce the Tamil Tigers’ continued appeal for many Tamils and to change Sinhala attitudes enough to open political space for war-related trials. But Sri Lanka’s specific history of commissions of inquiry that ratify, rather than end, impunity, lead many to fear a truth commission would at best merely substitute for eventual trials.[fn]Indumini Randeny and Isabelle Lassée, “The Politics of Sequencing: A Threat to Justice?”, South Asian Centre for Legal Studies, November 2016.Hide Footnote To mitigate this risk, no truth commission should be created until there is tangible progress toward prosecutions in emblematic human rights cases, ideally led by a properly-resourced special prosecutor’s office, independent of the attorney general.[fn]Numerous Sri Lankan commissions of inquiry have recommended such an office. See Crisis Group Report, Jumpstarting the Reform Process, op. cit., p. 9. Should it be successful at prosecuting the non-battlefield cases noted by the UN High Commissioner, the office could later be strengthened to deal with the alleged war crimes to be handled by the UN-mandated special court. “Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka”, 10 February 2017, pp. 8-10.Hide Footnote

B. National Consultations with No Visible Government Support

The government’s failure to publicise or build cross-ethnic support for even the less controversial of its reconciliation and transitional justice initiatives is striking.[fn]On 2 May, the Cabinet approved a long-delayed National Policy on Reconciliation and Coexistence, prepared by the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The policy argues power sharing and recognition of ethnic and religious pluralism are necessary to reconciliation. The “National Action Plan” that is due to follow will need strong backing from the president and prime minister to be effectively implemented. “National policy on Reconciliation and Co-existence approved”, Daily News (Sri Lanka), 4 May 2017.Hide Footnote Lack of enthusiasm was evident in the treatment of its own national consultations on “reconciliation mechanisms”. Appointed by the prime minister in January 2016, the eleven-member, multi-ethnic Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) was composed entirely of well-known civil society advocates. Working with fifteen “zonal task forces”, it held hearings in all provinces and received over 7,000 submissions from the public. [fn]“Final Report of the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms”, 17 November 2016, p. viii, at www.scrm.gov.lk/consultations.Hide Footnote However, the president and prime minister ignored its report and senior ministers attacked it, particularly for its endorsement of a role for foreign judges.[fn]To disappointment of victims, grassroots activists and the CTF, neither the president nor prime minister attended the 3 January report launch, though it was postponed at least once to fit the president’s schedule. He met the CTF privately on 30 January, with no announcement. CTF members have criticised the failure to take ownership of the process. “Statement by the former members of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF)”, 15 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Public distancing from the report was only the most obvious example of reluctance to support the consultations process, which from the beginning faced delays and complications. Lack of backing from government leaders and minimal media outreach reduced public awareness of hearings and the call for submissions, particularly among Sinhalese. Failure to develop an effective media campaign was due in part to the process’ ad hoc, civil society-led nature, which also resulted in bureaucratic hurdles for paying staff and other expenses that led in turn to frustration. Despite assurances of cooperation from civilian and military leaders, some who attended hearings in the north and east, as well as members of the zonal task forces, were later questioned and intimidated by the military and police.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, CTF members, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote All this limited the consultations’ ability to generate a national conversation on and support for transitional justice and other reconciliation means.

Nevertheless, the report is a landmark that offers a roadmap for the changes needed if the government decides it is serious about addressing the war legacy. It articulates the stories of victims from all communities and builds on them and preferences of the war-affected to develop practical recommendations for how all four transitional justice mechanisms could best support reconciliation and democracy. Crucially, it reminds the government of the many steps it must still take, independent of the four mechanisms, to address the immediate needs of conflict-affected communities in the north and east – on livelihoods, land, military economic activities and surveillance – and to strengthen rule of law for all.[fn]See in particular its chapter VI, “Transitional justice beyond the four mechanisms”.Hide Footnote

The failure to pay more attention to these enabling conditions has contributed to the lack of progress. Domestic and international focus on the four mechanisms – and civil society preoccupation with educating people in the international language of transitional justice – diverted attention and energy from many reforms needed for those mechanisms to function effectively: reducing the security state’s political influence, repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act, creating effective witness protection, ending military surveillance and intimidation of activists in the north and east and prosecuting key corruption and political murder and abduction cases. These steps would help open space for transitional justice by making it safer to discuss and challenge state abuse. Connecting the two agendas would also make it easier to explain transitional justice to Sinhalese audiences.

V. Growing Discontent in the North

The growing doubts about government commitment to even a basic transitional justice process is further weakening low levels of trust among Tamils in the north and east. The second half of 2016 saw little progress on the confidence-building measures the Sirisena government had promised. The slow but steady return of military-occupied land to Tamil owners in Sirisena’s first year waned; indeed, additional land has been taken for new camps.[fn]Since April 2016, there have been some small land releases in the north. There are no public, trusted figures for how much land, public or private, the military holds and no transparency regarding often contradictory government claims. Crisis Group interviews, Colombo, November 2016. A government baseline study of such land, preferably with the northern and eastern provincial councils and the UN or another international body, would build trust and capacity.Hide Footnote The military continues to run shops, hotels and farms in the north, to the local economy’s detriment, and to involve itself in a range of civilian activities. Buddha statues are still being set up with its help in Tamil and Muslim villages where the only near Buddhists are soldiers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community leaders, Jaffna, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Since the start of 2017, there has been a wave of protests across the north and into the east demanding return of military-occupied land and information on the disappeared. Angry at unfulfilled government promises, communities have launched sit-down strikes outside military camps, and relatives of the disappeared have gone on hunger strikes. Following direct appeals to the president from Tamil National Alliance leader Sampanthan, small amounts of military-held land in Mullaitivu districts were released in March. TNA meetings with the military led to further small releases in April, with more promised, but protests continue.[fn]A small amount of private land was returned on 1 March in Pilakudiyiruppu. Owners complain the military looted and destroyed their houses. An additional 480 acres in nearby Kepapilavu division remains occupied. “In Post-war Sri Lanka, Returning IDPs Face Fresh Challenges”, Roar.lk, 10 March 2017; “‘We will not move from here until we get our land back’: from inside the Pilavu protest”, Tamil Guardian (www.tamilguardian.com), 13 February 2017. On 3o April the Navy returned 100 acres to families in Mullikulam. “Navy to release 100 acres of land for the Mullikulam public”, www.defence.lk, 30 April 2017. “Govt. agrees to release more military-occupied land: TNA, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 18 April 2017. Despite hunger strikes, including by elderly women, there has been no progress on disappearances. Families were angry when a meeting with the president and prime minister, promised for ending the strike, was hosted by ministers and the head of police. “Sri Lankan government sends back families of missing with yet another promise”, The New Indian Express, 18 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The sense of grievance generated by the continued heavy military presence and lack of progress on addressing the war legacy is strengthening the nationalist sentiments of many Tamils and increasing tensions with Sinhalese and Muslims.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Colombo, Jaffna, March 2017. While both Tamils and Muslims in the north and east have suffered from militarisation and Sinhala nationalist policies, mistrust is strong between the communities over land issues, the war legacy and Tamil Tiger violence. Crisis Group Asia Report N°219, Sri Lanka’s North I: The Denial of Minority Rights, 16 March 2012, pp. 26-30.Hide Footnote With the Tamil National Alliance leadership working to maintain smooth relations with the government so as to facilitate constitutional negotiations, Tamil disappointment and anger have largely been channelled by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and his Tamil People’s Congress (TPC), which poses a growing challenge to the more accommodating TNA.[fn]The TPC does not contest elections and has TNA members, including the chief minister, as well as smaller political parties, including the Tamil National People’s Front.Hide Footnote

The chief minister and organisers were called “extremists”, even racists and pro-Tamil Tiger separatists.

The TPC-organised “Eluga Tamil” (“Tamil, Rise”) rally in Jaffna in September 2016 was the post-war’s largest in the north. Some 10,000-15,000 protested continued militarisation of area and what many see as growing threats to the Tamil character of the province. The rally, addressed by Wigneswaran, highlighted many grievances and called on the government to live up to its promises to return private land, resettle those still in camps, remove the military from economic and civilian activities and give answers to the families of the thousands of Tamils who disappeared in the war, many after being taken into military custody. Many Tamils in and out of Sri Lanka were gratified by the turnout and publicity, but there was wide criticism by many Sinhalese and Muslims, and by Tamils committed to engaging the government on constitutional and other reforms. The chief minister and organisers were called “extremists”, even racists and pro-Tamil Tiger separatists.[fn]Critics included ministers, radical Buddhist nationalists and some northern Tamils. “Demo in North; Govt not afraid – Ruwan”, Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka), 25 September 2016; “‘Eluga Tamil’ and the constitutional litmus test”, Daily FT, 30 September 2016. For the rally’s declaration, see “Thousands take part in Ezhuka Tamil rally in Jaffna”, Tamil Guardian (www.tamilguardian.com), 24 September 2016.Hide Footnote

Criticism centred on calls for an international investigation into alleged genocide against Tamils, removal of the military from the north (as distinct from reducing its size and removing it from non-military activities) and a halt to the spread of Buddha statues and settling of Sinhalese in the north. Echoes of Tamil Tiger-organised “Pongu Tamil” (“Tamil Uprising”) rallies and failure to reach out to Muslims caused the standard Tamil nationalist demand for a federal constitution and recognition of the Tamil homeland in the north and east to look more threatening.

The negative reaction among Sinhalese, including many who see themselves as supporters of reconciliation, reveals how wide the gap is between communities.[fn]The limited support for the rally outside the north angered many Tamil activists and deepened divisions with counterparts in Colombo and the south. Relations were already tense due to differences over how and whether to engage the government on its reform initiatives, including the civil-society run CTF, the Office of Missing Persons and the March 2017 Human Rights Council extension. Crisis Group interviews, Tamil Civil Society Forum members, March 2017.Hide Footnote It resulted from organisers’ failure to frame demands in ways that could be more easily accepted by potential allies in other communities. The lack of a Sinhala translation of the chief minister’s speech as he spoke made it more likely Sinhala media would present a distorted version of the rally.[fn]Following the strong criticism of the rally, Wigneswaran reached out more to Sinhalese, including by press conferences with the Sinhala- and English-language media. “Wigneswaran calls for north-south dialogue”, The Hindu, 23 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The rally also needs to be seen in the context of political struggles within the Tamil community. Tamil National Alliance leaders were publicly critical of its timing, sought postponement and reportedly tried to persuade people not to take part.[fn]“Wigneswaran urges Tamils to join mass protest in Jaffna tomorrow, Daily FT, 23 September 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Tamil Civil Society Forum members, Jaffna, March 2017.Hide Footnote The rally was at least in part an expression of discontent with Sampanthan and his de facto deputy, M.A. Sumanthiran. Often overlapping political formations that have been very critical if not directly opposed to the alliance leadership organised this rally: Wigneswaran and the TPC, but also the Tamil Civil Society Forum and a chief TNA electoral rival, the Tamil National People’s Front.[fn]Unhappiness with the TNA’s pro-engagement policies among northern Tamil civil society, backed by many in the diaspora, has not been enough to overcome Tamil voters’ desire for unity and traditional support for the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), the main constituent of the TNA. Crisis Group interviews, Tamil academics, Jaffna, March 2017. The January 2017 foiling of a plan to assassinate Sumanthiran, allegedly by ex-militants with links to rump Tamil Tigers abroad, came in the wake of denunciations of Sumanthiran as a traitor to the Tamil cause. There are suspicions the plot may have been planned by military intelligence elements loyal to ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, diplomats, Colombo, March 2017. Dharisha Bastians, “The perils of traitorisation”, Daily FT, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote

The TNA’s Tamil rivals argue that its strategy of working closely with the government on constitutional reforms has led it to soften criticism of unfulfilled promises. Growing anger and frustration at lack of change in the north could make it harder for the TNA leadership to win Tamil support in a constitutional referendum, though expected opposition from the Rajapaksa-led opposition could be enough to generate a strong Tamil vote for even relatively modest changes.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tamil academic, Jaffna, March 2017.Hide Footnote

VI. A New Constitution?

Sirisena came to office on a promise to change the constitution, a goal also endorsed by the victorious UNP-led coalition in the 2015 parliamentary elections and by the unity government. Key changes envisaged are abolition or further weakening of the executive presidency, a new mixed electoral system, a bill of rights, and, most important but most controversial, deepened devolution of power to provincial councils so as at least partially to resolve the Tamil national question.[fn]For a useful overview of constitutional promises made at various elections, see “Two Years in Government: A Review of the Pledges Made in 2015”, Centre for Policy Alternatives, February 2017, pp. 13-14. While Sirisena is believed to have agreed to pursue greater devolution in exchange for the Tamil National Alliance support in the January 2015 election, the issue was not mentioned in his manifesto or in the UNP-SLFP coalition agreement. For more on constitutional reforms, see Crisis Group Report, Jumpstarting the Reforms Process, op. cit., pp. 19-23.Hide Footnote

Abolishing the executive presidency and devolution beyond what is in the thirteenth amendment have been stated government goals since 1994. Once a president is in office, however, surrendering powers has been difficult; likewise, the required cross-party consensus on devolution repeatedly has been blocked by Sinhala fears of separatism, as well as more cynical party politics.[fn]The most sustained attempt at constitutional reform was President Kumaratunga’s, 1995-2000, but Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, was elected on a pledge to end the executive presidency and maximise devolution, though in a unitary state. For more on constitutional reform history, see Crisis Group Report, Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution, op. cit.Hide Footnote With the unity government’s two-thirds majority in parliament and support expected from the Tamil National Alliance’s sixteen deputies, there is, in principle, an unprecedented opportunity both to achieve devolution and design a more coherent constitution, rather than piecemeal amendments.

While encouraging progress was made in negotiations through 2016, deep divisions over the nature of the state and short-term calculations on the political futures of individuals and factions have reasserted themselves and threaten any compromise. The government’s apparent decision to postpone major transitional justice initiatives until after constitutional reforms has increased the stakes.

A. A Quiet Process

Parliament began drafting a new constitution in March 2016 by forming a Constitutional Assembly of its whole membership. The Assembly formed a cross-party steering committee and six subcommittees (with all parties represented) to draft proposals.[fn]There are subcommittees for fundamental rights, the judiciary, law and order, public finance, public service and centre-periphery relations. The Steering Committee took the “nature of the state, sovereignty, religion, form of government, electoral reforms, principles of devolution, land and “matters covered by Chapter 1 and 2 of the present constitution”. http://english.constitutionalassembly.lk/. Finding consensus on the full range of issues was always going to be hard, and no partial agreement is considered final until the whole package is agreed.Hide Footnote Work proceeded quietly throughout 2016, backed by occasional direct meetings between the president, prime minister and Tamil National Alliance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, steering committee members, Colombo, November 2016.Hide Footnote Though slower than the original one-year timetable, the process appeared to be on track as late as November, when the subcommittees published reports on a range of issues. Devolution proponents welcomed the proposals of the subcommittee on centre-periphery relations, and the steering committee was poised to ratify and even strengthen them in its report to the full Assembly by year’s end.[fn]Ibid. In an attempt to generate cross-party consensus from the initial stages of negotiations, members of Rajapaksa’s “joint opposition” were on all subcommittees and endorsed their reports.Hide Footnote

While short of the TNA’s federalism goal, a compromise appeared in the works to strengthen the limited and ambiguous powers of provincial councils under the never-fully-implemented thirteenth amendment.[fn]The thirteenth amendment, adopted as a consequence of the 1987 India-Sri Lanka accord, established provincial councils with limited powers. Resistance from Sinhala nationalists and central government bureaucrats has meant provinces have never had power over land and police. A host of “concurrent” powers and ambiguous, open-ended clauses have allowed the central government to reclaim many apparently devolved powers. See Crisis Group Report, Tamil Politics and the Quest for a Political Solution, op. cit., pp. 18-21.Hide Footnote Most contentious is the definition of Sri Lanka as a “unitary state”, which courts have invoked to restrict devolution. The emerging consensus was to retain “unitary” but define and contextualise it to allow greater provincial powers.[fn]“Report of the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform”, May 2016, pp. 20-25. While expanding and clarifying provincial powers, including over land and police, the emerging compromise was expected to keep the clause giving Buddhism pre-eminent status, despite Tamil and Muslim support for a secular state, and keep the northern and eastern provinces apart, though Tamil nationalists and the Alliance’s 2015 election manifesto demanded re-merger.Hide Footnote While pleasing neither Sinhala nationalists (for whom “unitary” is synonymous with “united”) nor Tamil nationalists (whose minimal demand is federalism), there was hope this could win cross-party and public endorsement and allow meaningful autonomy in the north and east.

Political reality struck when the steering committee postponed debate on the subcommittee reports planned for 10 December and a subsequent debate planned for the second anniversary of Sirisena’s January election, when its own report was to be discussed. The SLFP and left-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramauna requested additional time to study the still-unpublished latter, which proposes on overall outline of a new constitution, drawing on the subcommittee reports and adds its own ideas on the unitary state, executive presidency, privileged status of Buddhism and a new electoral system.[fn]Dharisha Bastians, “President steps in to break deadlock in constitutional negotiations”, Daily FT, 16 February 2017. On the electoral system, there is cross-party consensus to move from the proportional, party-list preferences system to a mixed first-past-the-post and proportional system, but deep differences remain on details. Smaller parties are concerned their votes could be diluted. Attempts to reach consensus on a twentieth constitutional amendment failed in 2015. Crisis Group Report Sri Lanka Between Elections, op. cit., pp. 11-12.Hide Footnote

Without a referendum, there can be no new constitution […] nor any meaningful increase in the powers devolved to provinces.

SLFP ministers were actually backing away from key assumptions underpinning the process. In a 3 January meeting with Sirisena, they unanimously decided to oppose any devolution beyond the thirteenth amendment and any changes requiring a referendum, which in effect rules out significant reform. The ministers also announced support for the executive presidency and called on Sirisena to be the SLFP’s presidential candidate in 2020, despite his promises to abolish the position and not stand again.[fn]“SLFP wants executive president retained and Sirisena to contest”, The Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), 8 January 2017. Their position on devolution is also in the mainstream of Sinhala political thinking and consistent with traditional SLFP policy, with the exception of the Kumaratunga years. Key players in the SLFP’s pro-devolution wing such as Mangala Samaraweera and Rajitha Senaratne are now aligned with the UNP. Considerable uncertainty remains about the UNP, which on 8 December restated support for a new constitution, for “maximum devolution within a unitary state”, and for retaining the executive presidency (which it pledged to abolish in 2015). “UNP approves two resolutions to honour mandate”, Daily News, 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote Without a referendum, there can be no new constitution – which the SLFP agreed to pursue when it voted to create the Constitutional Assembly – nor any meaningful increase in the powers devolved to provinces.[fn]Change of certain “entrenched” constitutional clauses requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority and a referendum. These include Article 2: “The Republic of Sri Lanka is a Unitary State”; and Article 9: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana”.Hide Footnote

While the SLFP central committee has not formally endorsed the position, it is clear Sirisena has not persuaded even the wing of the party that formally supports him. He has since increased his effort to broker an SLFP-UNP-Tamil National Alliance compromise, and a new steering committee report is being drafted, but it is an uphill battle. “The president is insisting he is committed to a new constitution and ending the executive presidency”, said a close observer, “but it’s also clear SLFP bigwigs are opposed. The big question now is who will come out on top”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Col0mbo lawyer, February 2017; Dharisha Bastians, “President steps in to break deadlock in constitutional negotiations”, Daily FT, 16 February 2017.Hide Footnote

SLFP ministers are spooked by the threat Mahinda Rajapaksa and the joint opposition present to the pro-Sirisena SLFP in 2017 local and provincial polls. Rajapaksa denounced the subcommittee proposals, particularly on devolution, as “designed to end the unitary character of Sri Lanka without however deleting that word from the constitution”. The new constitution, he warned, “will divide the country without using the word division”.[fn]Among other aspects, Rajapaksa opposed reducing provincial governors’ powers, removing the list of powers shared by the centre and provinces and giving provinces significant powers over land and police. He also warned against limiting executive and emergency powers and expanding rights. His statement rejected positions he had taken as president, even criticising national-language status for Tamil, which is already in the constitution. “Rajapaksa fires first salvo against constitutional reform process”, Sri Lanka Brief (srilankabrief.org), 4 December 2016.Hide Footnote In March, he accused the government of a “traitorous agenda” to encourage “separatism”, saying proposed constitutional changes and other reforms were aimed at “demoralising and breaking the will of the majority of the population and the armed forces.[fn]Mahinda Rajapaksa, “Constitutional and legal reforms to destroy the nation”, Colombo Telegraph, 14 March 2017.Hide Footnote The SLFP is also responding to worries about the difficulty of winning a referendum that have grown in the wake of recent results in the UK, Colombia and Italy and are compounded by discontent over the government’s failure to deliver on the economy or governance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government officials, Colombo, November 2016. “Most people worried about referendum: Chandrika”, The Hindu, 16 February 2017. Some advisers are counselling Sirisena to give up the constitution and limit changes in provincial powers to laws needing only a parliamentary majority, such as an amended Provincial Councils Act. Ibid.Hide Footnote

Doubts are also an effect of the lack of consistent, strong, public support for expanded devolution from the president, prime minister and other key ministers. While Sirisena defended devolution before parliament on 2 December, he avoided taking positions on specific provisions. His strategy has been to keep discussions out of the public eye, in the hope the Constitutional Assembly would produce a detailed consensus. This has backfired, leaving public debate on constitutional reform and devolution dominated by nationalists on both sides, but particularly Rajapaksa-aligned Sinhala politicians.[fn]“Need of the hour is leaders who can find just solutions – President”, PMD News (www.pmdnews.lk), 2 December 2016. The lack of a government information campaign has also contributed to poor knowledge of the constitutional reforms process in the public. “Opinion Poll on Constitutional Reform – Topline Report”, Centre for Policy Alternatives, April 2017.Hide Footnote Having failed to propose any alternative to the exclusionary Sinhala nationalist vision of the state articulated by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the government is on the defensive, denying that it plans to weaken Buddhism and supports separatism.[fn]“Prime Minister reassures foremost place for Buddhism”, Daily News, 11 October 2016.Hide Footnote A prominent pro-devolution activist said, “Ranil is hopeless, and Maithri is staying quiet”.[fn]Crisis Group email correspondence, February 2017.Hide Footnote The costs are now uncomfortably clear.

B. The Way Forward

With nationalist sentiments rising in north and south, the government needs to make a major effort to inform the public about the reforms under negotiation. The president and other top officials should begin a campaign to persuade Sinhalese that a fair political solution to the ethnic conflict requires expanded provincial powers, while reassuring Tamils a united Sri Lanka can protect their rights. Repeated promises to launch such a campaign have not materialised.[fn]“Govt. to launch hearts and minds campaign to win support for constitution: CBK”, Daily FT, 16 February 2017. Plans for a media campaign have been under consideration for months. Crisis Group interviews, government officials, November 2016, January 2017.Hide Footnote Chief ministers from all provinces should be at the forefront. Many support more devolution and could speak to what all communities could gain.[fn]See, for instance, “A New Devolution Settlement for Sri Lanka: Proceedings and Outcomes”, Conference of Provincial Councils, Centre for Policy Alternatives, August 2016.Hide Footnote Sinhalese and SLFP chief ministers would be particularly effective at diluting the line it is only for Tamils.[fn]Proponents say the constitution should include a bill of rights, likely also socio-economic rights, but there is a debate over whether these would be justiciable in court. Such enforceable rights could make a constitution more attractive to Sinhala in a context where devolution would otherwise dominate debate. Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, activists, Colombo, March 2017.Hide Footnote

The government has reached the limits of quiet deal making. Without a fight, there is little chance a decent constitutional package will emerge and survive a referendum. The president and prime minister face a crucial choice: going all out risks a defeat that could well mean the end of the unity government and a strengthened hand for the Rajapaksas in their battle to win back the SLFP. Alternatively, they could abandon the constitution and new devolution and give up on the agenda central to their already-damaged yahapaalanaya brand. But that retreat would almost certainly only postpone a collapse back into dangerous, polarising politics as usual. Abandoning the constitution would also deal another blow to Tamil hopes of securing meaningful autonomy from the Sinhala-dominated state. It would cripple pro-engagement Tamil leaders who have taken a big risk in working closely with the government and being willing to accept compromises at a considerable distance from the traditional Tamil nationalist demand for federalism.[fn]These have been most recently articulated in a Tamil People’s Council statement: “A viable solution to the Tamil National question could only be achieved by establishing sovereign institution[s] of self-government which recognise the Tamil people of the North and East as a distinct nation, while … respecting their right to self-determination”. “Ezhuga Thamizh” Declaration, Batticaloa, 10 February 2017. Moves to amend the provincial councils act as a step toward more effective provincial autonomy would fall far short of demands and likely be viewed as humiliating.Hide Footnote

Should Sinhala political leaders again fail to offer meaningful provincial autonomy, the repercussions may be felt for decades. Restlessness and radicalisation among Tamils in the north and east almost certainly would grow, provoked daily by the heavy presence of a virtually all-Sinhala military. While the 100,000 or more troops and their thousands of informants would be able to prevent a return to war, the lack of political power they signify and prolong would perpetuate conflict.

VII. International Support

Internationals have been too quick to celebrate a Sri Lanka success story and failed to maximise their leverage. Today’s greatest danger is moving too slowly on reforms and losing what remains of the public support and enthusiasm essential to success. Without significant external pressure, the government is unlikely to pursue reforms seriously enough. A renewed “good governance” agenda needs more effective backing from partners beyond the essential UN oversight that will be maintained through the rollover resolution unanimously approved at the Human Rights Council’s March 2017 session. Lacking enforcement powers, the Council has impact primarily through the willingness of UN member states to use their influence to encourage Sri Lanka to fulfil the commitments it has reaffirmed in Geneva.

Influential states, multilaterals and campaigners have limited tools to influence Sri Lanka, particularly as sovereignty concerns are not always a mere proxy for chauvinism or resistance to change. But smart, calibrated engagement could play a useful role in putting reforms back on track:

  • Sri Lanka’s international partners should send clear messages to President Sirisena and his wing of the SLFP that reunifying the party around either Gotabaya or Mahinda Rajapaksa will not only damage Sri Lanka’s long-term prospects for sustainable peace but also endanger the international backing it has recently regained.
  • With the renewal of GSP+ trade benefits, the European Commission should devise a rigorous monitoring process, and should work with the government to strengthen the National Human Rights Commission including by codifying its right to review all draft bills with impact on fundamental rights as part of its mandate to monitor Sri Lanka’s compliance with treaty commitments.
  • Foreign militaries and the UN could use increased cooperation with the military to encourage security sector reform and greater accountability, while rigorously vetting personnel considered for training and peacekeeping operations.[fn]The UN and key military partners, notably the U.S., should press the government to hold criminally accountable army personnel responsible for documented peacekeeper sexual abuse in Haiti in 2007. “UN child sex ring left victims but no arrests”, Associated Press, 12 April 2017.Hide Footnote
  • Global financial institutions and development agencies could tailor support to encourage equitable sharing of costs and benefits of growth from economic reforms and minimise risks of social conflict from abrupt economic liberalisation.
  • Civil society’s ability to hold the government to at least some promised reforms is encouraging. Donors should strengthen support to its efforts to hold government accountable and encourage groups to collaborate more actively across regional, linguistic and ethnic differences.
  • India should follow up on Prime Minister Modi’s successful May visit to reaffirm India’s traditional support for expanded provincial powers and encourage more effective cooperation between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
  • China should show flexibility, allowing renegotiation of Rajapaksa-era loans to give the government manoeuvre room in a difficult economic situation that produces hardship for ordinary people and potential political instability.

VIII. Conclusion: Renew or Collapse

If the government is to not lose its chance to address Sri Lanka’s key sources of conflict and instability, it must return to its good governance and reconciliation agenda. The democratic middle ground is still there to be had, but the government must work to expand it. Achieving sustainable changes to the political culture requires retaining support from the three key constituencies that brought it to power: reform-minded Sinhalese, Muslims, and Tamils. While few from these are likely to support the Rajapaksa-led opposition, discouragement and abstentions could be enough for an SLFP triumph under restored Rajapaksa leadership.

Rebuilding trust in the yahapaalanaya project requires compromise and balancing expectations and risks across the spectrum of challenges. At a minimum, president and prime minister need to agree on a five-point program of renewal:

  • Set up an UNP-SLFP economic team to develop and oversee consensus policy on economic reforms and sharing short-term hardships more equitably.
  • Launch a campaign for a new, more democratic, pluralist constitution, including increased devolution, and commit to achieving the two-thirds majority needed in parliament, while building support to win a referendum.
  • Operationalise the Office of Missing Persons, with independent staff well-versed in disappearance issues and a significant role for victims’ families.
  • Restore normalcy in the north and east and increase Tamil trust by returning military-occupied land to owners, ending military involvement in farms and shops and spread of Buddha statues, and ceasing surveillance and intimidation of political activities.
  • Restore rule of law by long-promised institutional reforms, pursuing crimes allegedly committed by military intelligence death squads and preventing and punishing any corruption by insiders in either party, including a thorough criminal investigation into the February 2015 Treasury Bond issue.

Civil society in all communities has an important role in achieving meaningful reforms. Sinhala groups that backed Sirisena’s good governance agenda should do more to bring Tamil issues to the Sinhala south and argue the concerns of all communities on rule of law, ending impunity and achieving a constitution with deeper devolution, expanded rights and a less powerful presidency. In turn, Tamil activists and civil society groups in the north and east should resist the growing trend toward exclusively Tamil positions and advocacy, however severe their frustrations. There is no other route to achieving their rights than with Sinhala and Muslim allies; appeals for international intervention lack traction in today’s context.

Finally, Tamils and Muslims need to do more to rebuild their relationship. Each community has made mistakes and has much to gain from strengthened ties. Both continue to suffer from language discrimination and expansionist forms of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. They should press their political leaders to develop a transparent and equitable process to ensure return of those displaced by the war in both communities, as well as the small number of Sinhalese.

This year is another decisive one in Sri Lanka’s political history. If current dynamics continue, the country will likely lose a real opportunity to address the roots of its decades of political turmoil. The chances of an eventual return to violence would then grow considerably. To prevent this, the president, prime minister and leaders in both unity-government parties will need to jointly take up the challenge of persuading their colleagues and the public that a more equal and inclusive Sri Lanka is possible and the best way of insuring prosperity and peace for all.

Colombo/Brussels, 16 May 2017

Appendix A: Map of Sri Lanka

Map of Sri Lanka Crisis Group. Based on UN map No. 4172 Rev. 3 (March 2008)

Appendix B: Glossary of Terms

CIABOC – Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption: One of Sri Lanka’s independent government commissions, members appointed by the Constitutional Council.

CTA – Counter-Terrorism Act: Draft legislation designed to replace the widely-criticised Prevention of Terrorism Act, as agreed in the 2015 UNHRC resolution.

CTF – Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms: 11-member group of civil society activists appointed by the prime minister in January 2016 to lead nationwide public consultations on the design of transitional justice mechanisms agreed in the 2015 UNHRC resolution; issued report in January 2017.

GSP+ – Generalised System of Preferences Plus: The European Union’s program of unilateral tariff preferences for developing countries, designed to support sustainable development and the full implementation of 27 international conventions on human and labour rights and environmental protection.

ONUR – Office of National Unity and Reconciliation: Established in 2015, led by ex-President Chandrika Kumaratunga and reporting to President Sirisena in his capacity as Minister of National Integration and Reconciliation.

SCRM – Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms: Established in 2016 to coordinate government work on transitional justice and reconciliation; reporting to the prime minister.

SLFP – Sri Lanka Freedom Party: The main left-of-centre party, headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa until January 2015 and now by President Maithripala Sirisena. Party is split between those aligned with Sirisena and those still loyal to Rajapaksa. The latter faction forms the core of the “joint opposition” in parliament and includes smaller parties formerly part of the United People’s Freedom Alliance: the Sinhala nationalist National Freedom Front (NFF), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and PHU (Pivithura Hela Urumaya), and the leftist Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Democratic Left Front (DLF).

TNA – Tamil National Alliance: A coalition of four parties – Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK), Eelam People’s Liberation Front (EPRLF), People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation (TELO) – led by veteran politician R. Sampanthan. Originally formed in 2001 under pressure from the Tamil Tigers to support its claims to leadership of the Tamil people, it currently supports a political solution under a federal system in a united Sri Lanka.

TPC – Tamil People’s Council: A Tamil civil society group uniting groups and activists dissatisfied with the positions of the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance; formed in December 2015 and co-chaired by Northern province Chairman C.V. Wigneswaran.

UNP – United National Party: The traditional centre-right party, headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

UNCAT – UN Committee Against Torture: Oversees compliance by signatory states with requirements of the UN Convention Against Torture; formally considered Sri Lanka in November 2016.

UNHRC – UN Human Rights Council: The council unanimously approved resolution on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka in October 2015, reaffirmed in March 2017, committing Sri Lanka to establishing a range of transitional justice institutions and related governance reforms.

Sudanese civilians ride on the train to join in the celebrations of the signing of the Sudan's power sharing deal, that paves the way for a transitional governmentand eventually elections, following the overthrow of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Report 281 / Africa

Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution

Sudan’s post-Bashir transition holds the promise of civilian rule but also perils, among them renewed insurgency, economic stagnation and backsliding into autocracy. Outside powers should press the military to adhere to its power-sharing pact with the opposition. Authorities in Khartoum should pursue peace with rebels.

What’s new? Since Omar al-Bashir’s 11 April ouster, Sudan’s military leadership and opposition alliance have appointed a new prime minister, formed a cabinet and assembled a supervisory council to oversee a power-sharing deal concluded on 17 August. If honoured, the deal could pave the way for elections and civilian rule.

Why does it matter? Sudan faces a crushing economic crisis, insurgencies and political polarisation, with a security establishment bent on keeping power and an opposition movement determined to instal a fully civilian administration. The 17 August agreement represents the best pathway both to achieving reform and to averting spiralling violence.

What should be done? The AU, U.S. and EU, together with Gulf states, should push the generals to respect the power-sharing deal. They should encourage Khartoum to make peace with insurgents in peripheral areas. The U.S. should rescind Sudan’s state sponsor of terrorism designation while maintaining pressure on the military in other ways.

Executive Summary

Sudan has swung between hope and despair since 11 April, when the most sustained civilian protest movement in the country’s modern history swept Omar al-Bashir from power. Many Sudanese celebrated Bashir’s ouster, seeing him as responsible for economic ruin and severe rights abuses. But the generals who sought to placate the demonstrators by deposing Bashir have shown reluctance to cede power. The security forces’ brutal 3 June attack on protesters in Khartoum repulsed the world and galvanised support for mediation that yielded a power-sharing agreement on 17 August. Still, more outside support is needed to keep the transition on track. The African Union (AU) should appoint an envoy to help bridge the gap of mistrust between parties. For their part, Western powers should signal willingness to open the taps of badly needed financial support, encourage Khartoum to make peace with rebel factions on Sudan’s periphery, and sustain pressure on the generals’ Gulf allies to ensure that all sides abide by the deal Sudan needs to move ahead after Bashir’s rule.

In Sudan’s lopsided, patronage-driven economy, the top brass has a clear interest in clinging to political power.

There have been encouraging steps since the military leadership and civilian opposition signed a constitutional declaration sealing the power-sharing agreement at a ceremony by the Nile in Khartoum. The parties named representatives to an eleven-member sovereign council that is to steer the country to free elections over the 39 months following 17 August. A widely respected economist, Abdalla Hamdok, became prime minister four days after the ceremony, and a new cabinet took office on 8 September. But the generals continue to wield enormous influence, and they have shown few signs that they intend to respect the Sudanese people’s demand for a civilian-led administration. In Sudan’s lopsided, patronage-driven economy, the top brass has a clear interest in clinging to political power.

That is just one challenge among many. In addition to being a potential spoiler, the security establishment is fragmented, unaccountable and subject to dangerous internecine rivalries. The once-dominant army has lost its primacy to the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group formed from the remnants of the Janjaweed militia of Darfur infamy and run by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, who may be the most powerful man in Sudan. The country’s primary military and paramilitary organisations should be unified under one command, but that project will require patience and encouragement from outside powers like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Forcing the issue could result in confrontation at a time when the last thing Sudan needs is more conflict.

Then there is the challenge of maintaining the unity of the extraordinarily broad civilian coalition – named the Forces for Freedom and Change – that has been at the vanguard of the uprising. Comprising professional associations, civil society groups, unions, political parties and armed groups, the coalition has had its own internal struggles. It will need to deftly manage them lest the security establishment use fissures in its unity to peel off constituents and weaken it politically.

There are also wars on the country’s periphery – in the Blue Nile, Kordofan and Darfur regions – that tear at national cohesion. The transitional government should focus on ending these conflicts.

Yet for all the challenges standing in Sudan’s transitional path, there are reasons for hope. For one thing, the protest movement’s strength and increasing sophistication set it apart from anything in the country’s recent history. The generals have already seen that strong-arm tactics of the sort used to quell prior movements – for example in 2013 – are not likely to work here. For another thing, a botched transition could stymie prospects for a surge of desperately needed international support and investment in Sudan’s flailing economy. That is an outcome for which the security forces will almost certainly not wish to be blamed.

Against this backdrop, there is a good deal that outside actors – including African powers, Khartoum’s backers in the Gulf, Western states and multilateral organisations – can do to help the power-sharing arrangements succeed and nudge Sudan along the path of transition.

Diplomatically, regional actors (especially Ethiopia and the AU) played a key role in unlocking talks after the 3 June massacre and should continue to stay closely involved. The AU should dispatch to Khartoum an envoy to support the transition by mediating between the two sides and helping guard against the possibility that the security establishment (with all its structural advantages) will steamroll the civilian opposition if there are disputes over the deal’s details. The deal will be all the stronger if Western powers, including the U.S., keep up the pressure to honour it and press Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – all with close ties to the generals in Khartoum – to do the same.

The benefits of a successful transition are potentially enormous, and the cost of state failure would be vast.

There is also much to do on the economic front. Rescuing Sudan’s anaemic economy will require broad international support through a major multilateral donor initiative. Hamdok has estimated that the country needs a $10 billion infusion over the next two years. Donors, including the U.S., the EU and its member states, and Gulf countries, should begin taking steps to support this request. The U.S. should also move expeditiously to rescind Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which forbids international financial institutions from issuing loans and impedes other foreign investment, thereby hobbling Sudan’s private sector. Lifting the designation would help the newly appointed, civilian-led cabinet by giving it an early win and would be an important step toward Sudan’s qualifying for debt relief. External partners should couple these supportive measures with stern warnings that spoilers in Khartoum who impede the economic and political reforms necessary for Sudan’s successful transition will be subject to targeted sanctions on the part of the AU, EU and U.S.

Sudan is one of Africa’s most important countries, sandwiched between two major powers, Ethiopia and Egypt, abutting the Red Sea and located in a region scarred by instability. The benefits of a successful transition are potentially enormous, and the cost of state failure would be vast. Until recently, it was hard to imagine a moment of opportunity like the country now faces. It would be a mistake to squander it.

Khartoum/Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Brussels,
 21 October 2019

Murithi Mutiga, Crisis Group's Project Director for the Horn of Africa, reflects on the Sudanese revolution and on the challenges lying ahead for the new civilian-led administration in Khartoum.

I. Introduction

Mass protests and a military coup have ended the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. The same events have also released centrifugal forces in Sudan that could spark renewed violence if not contained by a coherent transition to civilian rule. The civilian opposition that mobilised in the street yearns to bulldoze the former president’s corrupt, repressive legacy and hold fair elections. But the security establishment, dominated by paramilitary forces once at the vanguard of state-sponsored slaughter in the Darfur region, now controls government arsenals as well as the country’s major revenue streams. It is disinclined to relinquish these assets; thus, it could stymie reform. The generals continue to receive backing from powerful Gulf monarchies and Egypt, which view them as a bastion of stability in the Horn of Africa and a source of manpower for military ventures in Yemen.

Negotiations between the civilian opposition and a military council representing the security establishment over a transitional agreement were fraught with tensions over the division of power. The standoff culminated in a violent crackdown on 3 June, when paramilitary forces killed up to 120 protesters in the capital Khartoum. The killings met with international opprobrium, with the UN and African Union (AU) issuing swift condemnations and the AU suspending Sudan’s membership. The U.S., EU and UK then engaged with the Gulf states and Egypt, which corralled the junta into signing a power-sharing agreement on 17 July and accepting a constitutional declaration that was formally adopted one month later on 17 August.

The deal contemplates a transition to elections at the close of a 39-month period of reforms overseen by a civilian-dominated cabinet and legislature. It also lays out the terms for forming the institutions that will see the country through the coming period.

At the centre of the arrangements is a “sovereign council” tasked with steering the transition.

At the centre of the arrangements is a “sovereign council” tasked with steering the transition, which consists of five opposition representatives, five members picked by the security forces and a civilian jointly nominated by both parties. The Council moved swiftly to name a prime minister – economist Abdalla Hamdok – and a cabinet (with the military assigning the interior and defence portfolios). The cabinet will report to a legislative council, two thirds of which the civilian opposition will appoint, and which is expected to fashion a constitution pending elections. A general will head the sovereign council for the first 21 months of the transition before handing it over to a civilian for the remaining eighteen months pending elections.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Nurturing Sudan’s Fledgling Power-sharing Accord”, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote

But while critically important to guiding the country through a smooth transition, the deal reached over the summer goes only so far toward addressing some of the country’s most pressing needs. These include the urgent task of transforming a deeply dysfunctional economy and bringing an end to long-running rebellions in areas that Khartoum has historically neglected. The country’s bloated and fissiparous security machinery is a near-fatal drag on the state and needs restructuring. Meanwhile, segments of the army and security services appear to resent the more powerful paramilitaries, which could easily spark feuding among the generals themselves.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats involved in the negotiations, Khartoum and Nairobi, August 2019. Under the deal’s terms, the Sudan Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) will remain separate entities tasked with “supporting the unity and sovereignty of the nation” though they are “subordinated to the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces”. The diplomats pointed to this section’s wording as reflecting divisions among the top brass. Some in the Sudan Armed Forces wanted to formally absorb the RSF, a suggestion that RSF leaders rejected out of hand.Hide Footnote

This report describes Bashir’s fall from power, the power-sharing deal’s emergence and the challenges that Sudan’s transitional leadership will face. It argues that the deal offers the best – and only viable – framework for addressing these challenges, steering the country toward reform, and avoiding the very real possibility that the country is instead pulled toward spiralling violence. It is based on interviews conducted since January in Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Abu Dhabi, Washington, Brussels, London, Nairobi, New York and Juba. It also builds on Crisis Group’s past work on Sudan’s long-term crisis.[fn]For Crisis Group reporting and analysis on Sudan’s unravelling economy and political paralysis since South Sudan gained its independence in 2011, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°194, Sudan: Major Reform or More War, 29 November 2012; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°119, Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival, 21 March 2016; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°127, Time to Repeal U.S. Sanctions on Sudan?, 22 June 2017; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°128, A New Roadmap to Make U.S. Sudan Sanctions Relief Work, 29 September 2017; and Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°143, iImproving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, 14 January 2019.Hide Footnote

II. From Crisis to Coup, Crackdown and Compromise

Unlike many of his peers, Omar al-Bashir survived the 2011 Arab uprisings relatively unscathed. It was subsequent setbacks that caused his eventual fall: an economic slump; the ensuing street protests in regime strongholds, including across Khartoum; the alienation of core constituencies, including within a regime security architecture beset by schisms between the armed forces and paramilitary units; and eroding support from sponsors in the Gulf.

The spark for the revolution was a rapidly declining economy.

The spark for the revolution was a rapidly declining economy. Bashir had maintained his power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in peripheral areas and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditures that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Prime Minister Hamdok says the country spends up to 80 per cent of its budget on defence when it should spend no more than 20 per cent. He lists reducing these costs, via deals with rebel groups that yield a “peace dividend”, among his priorities. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote  By late 2018, the economy had plunged to new depths, due to mismanagement, corruption and the loss of revenue following the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011. While, in 2017, the U.S. eased some financial and economic sanctions, the impact was modest; because Washington did not lift Sudan’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, the country remained off limits to many foreign investors.

Protests began in the south-eastern cities of Damazin and Sennar on 13 December 2018 over the tripling of bread prices and rising cost of other staples, as well as shortages of medicine, fuel and cash. Many ATMs in banks had run dry, and queues at petrol stations stretched for kilometres. Opposition parties, professional associations and unions marched and staged strikes. By 19 December, when the snowballing demonstrations reached Atbara, a railway town and historic bastion of unionism in River Nile state, protesters were demanding regime change.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, op. cit. Sennar and Damazin are both located in Blue Nile state – of which Damazin is the capital – in south-eastern Sudan. The regime responded by arresting suspected leaders, compounding the anger on the street. “NISS in Blue Nile state detains alleged protest mobilisers”, Radio Dabanga, 15 January 2019; “Sudan uprising: Sudanese youth and diaspora dispel negative stereotypes”, Shabaka, 7 February 2019.Hide Footnote

Several factors contributed to the movement’s strength. Previous protests centred in Khartoum, for instance in 2011 and 2013, had struggled to expand beyond student and middle-class youth activist circles. By contrast, the December demonstrations erupted outside the capital and leapt across geographic and class divides. These new protests were also better organised through neighbourhood resistance committees that had learned from the failures of the 2013 protests, which Bashir’s forces put down with brute force, taking dozens of lives.[fn]“In Sudan, neighbourhoods mobilised against al-Bashir”, Al Jazeera, 8 May 2019.Hide Footnote

Of crucial significance throughout the rise of the movement was the participation of Sudanese women, whose position in society had suffered under Bashir’s brand of Islamist rule.

Of crucial significance throughout the rise of the movement was the participation of Sudanese women, whose position in society had suffered under Bashir’s brand of Islamist rule. At several points during the uprising, women outnumbered men at protests.[fn]“Letter from Africa: ‘We’re not cleaners’ – sexism amid Sudan protests”, BBC, 1 April 2019.Hide Footnote  Mainstream interest in women’s roles in the uprising surged when a photograph depicting Alaa Salah, a university student, standing on a car, dressed in a traditional white toub and leading chants, went viral.[fn]Lana Haroun took the famous photograph. For more on Salah, see “‘I was raised to love our home’: Sudan’s singing protester speaks out”, The Guardian, 10 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a grouping of labour and trade organisations formed in 2014, provided the movement’s backbone. By bringing workers and professionals into the streets, the association evoked memories of previous popular uprisings in 1964 and 1985, also led by trade unionists.[fn]The 1964 and 1985 uprisings were similarly driven by a mix of political and economic grievances. Workers, students and professionals were key players. See Willow Berridge, Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The Khartoum Springs of 1964 and 1985 (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).Hide Footnote  Soon, the protests spread into affluent parts of Khartoum, where government officials live. Anecdotes abound of the Khartoum elite’s sons and daughters joining the demonstrations.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, op. cit.
 Hide Footnote

See Crisis Group Briefing, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, op. cit.

Hide Footnote On 1 January 2019, the SPA struck an alliance with 21 other organisations in a joint declaration calling for a national transitional government to replace Bashir. The declaration marked the birth of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) opposition coalition, which became the protest movement’s official voice.[fn]“Declaration of freedom and change”, Sudanese Professionals Association, 1 January 2019.Hide Footnote

As pressure mounted, Salah Gosh, chief of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), held a meeting on 22 February 2019 with select newspaper editors and reporters to inform them that Bashir would no longer be head of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).[fn]Bashir and Gosh had a turbulent relationship. In 1989, after the coup that brought him to power, Bashir appointed Gosh director of operations in the new regime’s security bureau. In 1995, however, he sacked Gosh amid the backlash to the assassination attempt by militants from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. The militants trained in Sudan and reportedly enjoyed the support of elements of the Bashir administration. Gosh is not believed to have played a direct role in supporting the militants, but amid the international outrage over the failed attack it appears that Bashir felt he needed to show he was taking action against senior figures. See “Sudan’s president removes powerful intelligence chief”, Sudan Tribune, 13 August 2009. In 2004, the Sudanese leader appointed Gosh director of the newly established NISS, only to remove him yet again in 2009, as a result of power struggles within the NCP. In 2011, following release of WikiLeaks cables showing that Gosh had considered exploiting the International Criminal Court indictment of Bashir to muster a coup attempt, the tensions intensified. Bashir ordered Gosh be arrested in 2012. Gosh was released in July 2013 without charge, and some five years later, he reassumed the NISS director’s post. See “Sudan’s ex-spy chief arrested in connection with ‘sabotage’ attempts: reports”, Sudan Tribune, 22 November 2012; and “Sudan’s intelligence chief Salah Gosh resigns: military council”, Middle East Eye, 13 April 2019.Hide Footnote  He also said Bashir would not run in the 2020 election and that the president would dissolve the government, form a new administration composed of technocrats and launch a national dialogue to address Sudan’s challenges.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ruling party insider, Khartoum, July 2019.Hide Footnote  Officials leaked details of Gosh’s discussion with the journalists shortly after the meeting.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Bashir Moves Sudan to Dangerous New Ground, 26 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Some Sudanese rejoiced, hoping that Bashir would indeed engineer a transition and leave office.

But when Bashir spoke later that day, he instead proclaimed a state of emergency, installed military officers as governors of Sudan’s eighteen states and announced his second cabinet reshuffle in six months.[fn]“Sudan’s Bashir declares state of emergency, dissolves government”, Reuters, 23 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Bashir also formed a security committee composed of loyalists – though many would later turn against him. Among its members were senior officers from the Sudanese Armed Forces; General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), leader of the RSF, the paramilitary group that Bashir increasingly relied upon as a praetorian guard; NISS officials including Gosh, whom Bashir was still keeping close; and a police representative.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NCP insiders, Khartoum, July 2019.Hide Footnote  But the divergence between what Gosh had told the journalists and what Bashir defiantly announced highlighted fissures within the regime. Despite his position on the committee, ruling party figures say, Gosh soon began working in earnest to oust Bashir.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NCP insiders, Khartoum, August 2019.Hide Footnote

Sensing the regime’s weakness, the protest movement dialled up the pressure, calling for larger and more audacious street actions.

Amid these brewing tensions, public unrest put the cohesion of Bashir’s security committee to the test. By April, managing the daily protests had depleted state funds: the treasury had to cover four months of overtime costs for police and other security agencies. Meanwhile, inflation surged to as high as 70 per cent, emptying the pocketbooks of ordinary Sudanese.[fn]“Sudan’s economic decline provides fuel for anger against Bashir”, Reuters, 20 February 2019.Hide Footnote  Sensing the regime’s weakness, the protest movement dialled up the pressure, calling for larger and more audacious street actions. On 6 April, protesters marched to army headquarters in Khartoum, as well as to military installations in other cities, and staged a sit-in.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sudanese Professionals Association member, June 2019.Hide Footnote Riot police and personnel from the intelligence services were poised to block the protesters’ advance, a source told Crisis Group, but elements of the security forces led by Gosh held them back.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bashir regime insider, Khartoum, August 2019.Hide Footnote

At this point, Bashir still appeared confident that he could ride out the uprising. While he remained an international pariah – the only sitting head of state ever indicted by the International Criminal Court – he had developed important security and economic partnerships with Gulf states and Turkey, which he may have believed would help him hang on to power.

As Crisis Group has described elsewhere, starting in 2013, the Gulf Cooperation Council developed a common policy of bringing Sudan closer into its orbit.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°206, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, 19 September 2019.Hide Footnote  The primary motivation was to peel Khartoum away from arch-rival Tehran. When the Saudi-led coalition launched its campaign in Yemen in 2015, its interest in the partnership intensified, as Sudan was possessed of both potential troops for the venture and a long Red Sea coastline that the coalition wanted, for strategic reasons, to ensure was in friendly hands.

For Bashir, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen presented an opportunity.

For Bashir, the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen presented an opportunity. In 2015, short on cash and eager for sanctions relief, he sought to solidify his alliance with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by deploying roughly 10,000 RSF members and some regular army soldiers to fight alongside Saudi and Emirati troops.[fn]“Sudan crisis: The ruthless mercenaries who run the country for gold”, BBC, 20 July 2019.Hide Footnote  A year later, Bashir severed ties with the Saudis’ nemesis Iran after protesters attacked the Saudi embassy and consulate in Tehran and Mashhad.[fn]The protesters were angered by Saudi Arabia’s execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric from the kingdom’s Eastern Province, whom the state had tried on “terrorism” charges for supporting demonstrations by Saudi Arabian Shiites. “Iran: Saudis face ‘divine revenge’ for executing Nimr”, BBC, 3 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Riyadh, meanwhile, worked to keep Sudan on its side with cash and diplomatic support.

But Bashir’s relationship with the Gulf powers was nevertheless on less than firm ground. For one thing, the Saudis and Emiratis harboured suspicions of Bashir, who maintained relations with their rivals Qatar and Turkey. Bashir also alienated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi with his refusal to purge Islamists from his political machinery, security services and state bureaucracy. From the moment Bashir took power in 1989, Egyptian authorities, later joined by Cairo’s allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, were spooked by the Islamist bent of his administration and his ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that Egypt’s security establishment considers its most potent domestic challenger and that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) views as a regional threat.[fn]For background, see Crisis Group Briefing, Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo simply did not trust Bashir, whom they saw as highly transactional.

Fundamentally, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo simply did not trust Bashir, whom they saw as highly transactional, requiring constant cultivation and forever at risk of sliding back in Tehran’s direction. As Bashir’s grasp on power began to slip, the Gulf monarchies saw an opening to replace him with someone more reliable and gave their blessing to the generals planning to move against him.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, p. 8. “An Emirati foreign ministry official said, ‘We have no particular nostalgia for Bashir as a leader. He is transactional: he goes to Qatar when it is convenient, and he goes to the UAE or Saudi Arabia when it is convenient. So we are not attached to his regime, but we do see it as important to make sure Sudan is stable and secure’”.Hide Footnote  A contact who was one of the last people to speak with Bashir before he was toppled said the president blamed Saudi Arabia and the UAE for his ouster.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bashir regime insider, Khartoum, July 2019.Hide Footnote

The coup against Bashir came quickly and decisively. When Hemedti, the RSF leader, turned against Bashir in the first week of April – as the protesters’ encampment outside military headquarters swelled – the balance of power tipped for good.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese investigative journalist, Khartoum, June 2019.Hide Footnote  On 10 April, Bashir’s security committee made the decision to oust the strongman. A member later reported that the committee deliberated for one hour, then disconnected Bashir’s phone and replaced his bodyguards.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NCP insider, April 2019. See also “The son protested the dictator; the father helped throw him out”, The New York Times, 23 April 2019.Hide Footnote  A period of uncertainty followed as the generals, now a junta, worked to consolidate power. Army officers arrived at the state television and radio stations just after 3am on 11 April, but it was another twelve hours before Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Ouf, Bashir’s first vice president, appeared to announce the president’s arrest and declare a state of emergency.

Ibn Ouf’s stint in power lasted only a day. On 12 April, he appeared on television again to announce that he was stepping aside to make way for General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, an obscure figure who had overseen Sudan’s deployment to Yemen. Before his promotion to army inspector general in February 2019, Burhan had served as the military attaché in China.[fn]“Who is Abdul-Fattah al-Burhan, the new leader of Sudan?”, 7D News, 13 April 2019.Hide Footnote  Many believe it was Hemedti who forced Ibn Ouf’s resignation, partly because he harboured his own ambitions for supremacy and saw the installation of the more pliant Burhan as a way to expand his own influence.

Ibn Ouf’s removal gave confidence to the protesters, who chanted “it fell once, it fell twice, it could fall a third time”.

Ibn Ouf’s removal gave confidence to the protesters, who chanted “it fell once, it fell twice, it could fall a third time”. Within a few days, they began agitating against Burhan.[fn]See “Sudan’s unfinished revolution: The dictator is gone but the fight continues”, The Nation, 26 April 2019. The agitation against Burhan quieted, for the public knew little about him, though he had been integral to Bashir’s war machine in Darfur. His speeches against the old regime helped improve his image during the junta’s first 40 days.Hide Footnote  Under pressure to contain the revolt, the junta, now calling itself the Transitional Military Council, embarked on negotiations with the opposition coalition. The two sides announced a framework on 15 May for a three-year transitional government to steer the country to elections and also agreed on mandates for the council of ministers, the legislature and a “sovereign council” to guide the transition.[fn]“Sudan’s army rulers, protesters, agree on 3-year transition”, The East African, 15 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The talks exposed divisions in the military council between hardliners and others willing to compromise. Some of the council grumbled that the deal conceded too much without giving the security establishment sufficient protection from an opposition-controlled legislature.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of FFC negotiations committee, Khartoum, 15 June 2019. One activist advising FFC negotiators said the May talks broke down because the military council leaders felt boxed in by their own concessions, especially that the FFC would have two-thirds control of the legislature. Crisis Group telephone interview, June 2019.Hide Footnote  A day later, on 16 May, the Transitional Military Council suspended the talks with the opposition coalition, instead making a show of meeting with less significant political parties.[fn]“Sudan army ruler suspends civil rule talks”, AFP, 16 May 2019.Hide Footnote  Undeterred, the coalition stepped up the pressure. On 28 and 29 May, the opposition alliance, pushed by elements such as the Communist Party, organised a general strike that shut down much of the country.[fn]The general strike partly shut down Khartoum International Airport as airport employees and pilots joined. It also spread to government agencies seen as regime strongholds, such as the Central Bank and federal and state ministries. See “Sudan protesters strike as deadlock with military persists”, Capital News, 28 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The general strike partly shut down Khartoum International Airport as airport employees and pilots joined. It also spread to government agencies seen as regime strongholds, such as the Central Bank and federal and state ministries. See “Sudan protesters strike as deadlock with military persists”, Capital News, 28 May 2019.

Hide Footnote

The standoff continued until 3 June, when security forces brutally dispersed the ten-week sit-in that had formed outside army headquarters on 6 April. Opposition medics and media outlets documented that the raid killed up to 120 people.[fn]“Sudan’s factions sign constitutional declaration – Sudan unrest”, TRT World, 5 August 2019.Hide Footnote  In the days following the massacre, forces roamed the streets assaulting civilians and looting – an extraordinary breakdown of order in Khartoum. Video and eyewitness testimony pin the bulk of the attack on Hemedti’s RSF, though other security forces appear to have taken part.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, member of FFC negotiations committee, Khartoum, 5 June 2019.Hide Footnote  The massacre took place days after Hemedti visited the Saudi crown prince as well as leaders in Cairo and Abu Dhabi.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War”, 7 June 2019; Crisis Group Report, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, op. cit. Western diplomats told Crisis Group that though RSF and NISS elements were the main perpetrators of the attack, the military council as a whole appears to have endorsed the strategy to clear the encampment, if not the extreme brutality meted out. Crisis Group interviews, Nairobi, June-July 2019. Some diplomats believe that Gulf powers were sufficiently embarrassed by the perception that they greenlighted the 3 June violence that they shifted toward supporting a negotiated political deal. Crisis Group interviews, Nairobi, June-July 2019. Increasing hostility from the U.S. Congress over the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the bloody stalemate in Yemen also played into Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s calculations, as they were wary of further alienating allies. Crisis Group interviews, Nairobi, June-July 2019.Hide Footnote

The bloody 3 June crackdown marked a turning point. The attack, coupled with a string of arrests, a total shutdown of the internet and a ban on public events, served to re-energise and reunify the opposition alliance.[fn]In the days before 3 June, the FFC was divided. Some sources suspect that certain factions, namely the Umma party, were on course to strike a separate deal with the military council. The massacre on 3 June put an end to those schemes and dampened dissension within the opposition. Crisis Group interviews, figure close to opposition leaders, Khartoum, 16 June 2019; Crisis Group email interview, member of the opposition-aligned SPLM-N/A, 9 July 2019; Crisis Group interviews, civil society activist, Khartoum, 11 June 2019.Hide Footnote  Indignant that the top brass appeared intent on clinging to power following Bashir’s fall, and outraged by not only the massacre but also a number of other smaller-scale killings of protesters, the opposition marshalled tens of thousands of Sudanese across the country for a “million-man” march on 30 June.

The 3 June massacre provoked ire across the region and around the world.

At the same time, the 3 June massacre provoked ire across the region and around the world. The UN, the EU and AU, as well as various governments – including the U.S., UK and Germany – immediately issued calls for a transition to civilian rule. The AU’s Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan’s membership in an unambiguous show of condemnation. The U.S. also piled pressure on Gulf powers to lean on the junta to reach an accommodation with the protesters. In a rare move, on 4 June, the U.S. State Department issued a readout of a call between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman to discuss “the brutal crackdown against peaceful protesters [by the generals]”. The American asked the Saudis to use their influence with the junta to “encourage a transition to a civilian-led government in accordance with the will of the Sudanese people”.[fn]See Crisis Group Statement, “Sudan: Stopping a Spiral into Civil War”, op. cit., and “Saudi influence in the spotlight as US tells Riyadh to end Sudan violence”, The Guardian, 5 June 2019. The attack on protesters heightened alarm among key actors in the AU’s Peace and Security Council, notably Nigeria, which rallied diplomats to take a harder line toward the junta. The EU also condemned the assault in blunt terms. Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomats involved in talks between the Sudanese parties, July-August 2019.Hide Footnote

This combination of diplomatic pressure and internal protest – particularly the 30 June march – proved critical in drawing the generals back to the negotiating table. The scale of the 30 June demonstration was especially important in making clear to the military council that this situation would not be a reprise of 2013 – when the Bashir government squashed a protest movement in part with promises of a national dialogue that never came to pass; the 2019 movement was simply too strong. In July, the junta resumed direct talks with the opposition under the aegis of the AU and a special envoy designated by the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.[fn]“Sudan briefing: May-July 2019 timeline of events”, Relief Web, 15 July 2019.Hide Footnote  By 17 July the two sides had endorsed what they described as a “political agreement” that would be followed by a formal “constitutional declaration” signed a month later on 17 August. The power-sharing deal reached over the course of the summer laid out a blueprint for the transitional government and a roadmap for a 39-month transition to elections. Still, many fault lines remained both between the parties involved in the agreement and within their respective ranks.

III. A Factious Security Establishment in a Time of Transition

The Transitional Military Council that ousted Bashir was an awkward alliance of the competing security forces the deposed president left behind. Under the terms of the power-sharing deal, it dissolved and ceded its authority on 21 August to an eleven-member “sovereign council” that comprises five members each from the security sector and the opposition, with one consensus civilian appointee, and is headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Much of the day-to-day responsibility for running the country has already passed to Prime Minister Hamdok and his cabinet, which manage the civil service, draw up the budget and oversee all state agencies outside the security sector.

The security establishment continues to hold most instruments of raw power in the country.

In practice, however, and though the civilian-led cabinet has wide popular support, the security establishment continues to hold most instruments of raw power in the country. It has control of the streets, a grip on Sudan’s illicit economy, and political and financial backing from foreign capitals, principally Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

This establishment is far from being a cohesive body. At its core, it comprises the Sudanese Armed Forces, Hemedti’s RSF, the intelligence services and allied militias. It is vulnerable to internecine rivalries. Its constituent parts have their own loyalties and political backgrounds.[fn]The Transitional Military Council was originally composed of ten members. Three members resigned ten days after its formation and were never replaced: Lieutenant General Omer Zain al-Abdin of the Sudanese Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Jalal al-Deen Al-Sheikh of NISS and Lieutenant General Al-Tayeb Babikir Ali of the police. The remaining council members painted the resignations as a concession to the opposition, as these three individuals were very close to the old regime. One source, however, claims that the junta forced the three to resign as part of its purge of Islamists from the old regime, partly intended to signal to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that they were serious about reversing the Islamists’ dominance under Bashir. Crisis Group interview, NCP insider, Khartoum, July 2019. On 21 August, the FFC and generals released the Sovereign Council members’ names. The five soldiers nominated were Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, Lieutenant General Yassir Alatta, Lieutenant General Shams Aldin Alkabashi and Major General Ibrahim Gabir. The FFC nominated Mohamed Alfaki Suleiman, Isidig Touwer Kafi, Mohamed Hassan Altaishi, Hassan Idriss and Aisha Musa. Both sides agreed to nominate lawyer Raga Nichole Issa Abdul Massih as the eleventh member. A Copt, she is the first Christian to hold a senior political position in the country since independence in 1956. See “Profile: members of Sudan’s Sovereign Council”, Daily Africa News, August 2019.Hide Footnote  Against this backdrop, the security sector represents a dual threat to the peace process. It is, first and foremost, a spoiler that may try to block civilian oversight of the transitional government in order to preserve the extensive prerogatives it enjoyed under Bashir and has not yet been forced to yield. Additionally, its internal divisions could spur instability if they blow up into armed clashes.

A. Key Players and Power Centres

1. Burhan and the military

Sudan’s professional military weakened so drastically under Bashir that it is now just one power among many in the security sector.[fn]Some doubt that Sudan still has a functional infantry after years of outsourcing front-line duties to irregular militias and paramilitaries. One Sudanese political analyst said the Sudanese Armed Forces has an air force, tanks and officers, but few foot soldiers. Crisis Group interview, Washington, June 2019.Hide Footnote  The reasons for the Sudanese Armed Forces’ decline are many. Bashir lost trust in the military following his 1999 falling-out with Hassan al-Turabi, Sudan’s leading Islamist, who had hand-picked much of the top brass. Bashir’s suspicion of the generals hardened after the military failed to prevent the stunning assault on Khartoum by the Darfuri rebel Justice and Equality Movement in 2008. Also, the lengthy insurgencies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile largely precluded the army from recruiting soldiers from those regions, eroding its claim to be a unifying national institution.

Rather than rebuild the military, Bashir increasingly opted to fund and arm local paramilitary groups.

Rather than rebuild the military, Bashir increasingly opted to fund and arm local paramilitary groups, leading to the proliferation of groups such as Hemedti’s RSF, which, as discussed below, started out in Darfur and has grown more powerful than the army itself.[fn]Alex de Waal, “Counter-insurgency on the cheap”, London Review of Books, 5 August 2004.Hide Footnote

General al-Burhan, now head of the Sovereign Council, was a little known but senior officer. In his current role, he acts as a bridge between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Hemedti, who was his deputy on the Transitional Military Council. Like most high-ranking army officers, Burhan is from central Sudan, the bastion of Sudan’s political elite, in contrast to Hemedti, who comes from Darfur.[fn]“The man who terrorised Darfur is leading Sudan’s supposed transition”, Foreign Policy, 14 May 2019; “Who is Abdul-Fattah al-Burhan, the new leader of Sudan”, 7D News, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Burhan has broadly aligned the army with the RSF. He is a known figure to the security forces of the junta’s two Gulf allies, the Saudis and Emiratis, due to his role as a commander in the Yemen campaign, to which Hemedti has also contributed men and resources.[fn]In return for this contribution, both Burhan and Hemedti reportedly benefit from funds sent by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which appear to go directly into accounts controlled by the security establishment with little or no oversight from Sudan’s treasury. See Alex de Waal, “Sudan: A Political Marketplace Framework Analysis”, World Peace Foundation, August 2019. Illustrating the opaque relations between Sudanese authorities and their Gulf sponsors, detectives told a court trying Bashir for corruption that he had admitted receiving $90 million in cash from the Saudis but that he said he could not remember how the money was spent. He said he had not deposited it in the central bank. “Ex-Sudan leader said he received millions from the Saudis, trial told”, The Guardian, 19 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Additionally, as a professional officer, Burhan is acceptable to Cairo, which wants to make sure that the military establishment, rather than Hemedti and others whose power derives from militias, is in charge in Khartoum.[fn]Burhan’s first foreign trip after taking power was to Cairo on 25 May 2019. During the visit, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Cairo was ready to “provide all means of support to our brothers in Sudan”. See “Sudan interim military council chief Al-Burhan meets with Egypt’s president El-Sisi”, Arab News, 25 May 2019. The Egyptian top brass has deep ties with their Sudanese counterparts and many Sudanese officers, including Ibn Ouf, who briefly replaced Bashir, trained in Cairo.Hide Footnote

Notwithstanding Burhan’s position atop the Sovereign Council, many in the army resent what they see as Hemedti’s increasing dominance. They also take exception to the lucre that the RSF gleans from smuggling across Sudan’s borders (which the RSF controls), the artisanal gold market (which the RSF has cornered) and its position as the primary conduit of support from Sudan’s allies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.[fn]On Hemedti’s control of gold mining in Darfur, see Tom Collins, “Sudan’s gold: Hemedti’s untold power”, African Business, 8 July 2019. Two sources said Burhan has also invested in gold mining in South Kordofan. Crisis Group interviews, NCP insider, Khartoum, 16 June 2019; Crisis Group telephone interviews, lawyers and SPA member, 16 June 2019. The RSF’s tendency to react violently to protests is a potential flashpoint between the paramilitaries and the army. Following the shootings of at least five schoolchildren in al-Obeid on 30 July, allegedly by RSF units, Burhan himself condemned the killings as an “unacceptable crime”. See “Sudan military rulers say El-Obeid killings unacceptable, demand accountability”, Reuters, 30 July 2019; “Sudan’s ruling military council identifies attackers of al-Obeid students”, Asharq al-Awsat, 1 August 2019.Hide Footnote Some of the army’s generals also have illicit sources of income, due to their privileges in a country where corruption is rampant, but in recent years the RSF have become the main actor in a rigged economy. Many in the armed forces see the RSF as an ill-trained, undisciplined provincial militia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, Nairobi, August 2019; Sudanese ruling party insiders, Khartoum, July-August 2019.Hide Footnote

Many low- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces seemed to share some of the protest movement’s grievances.

The army’s rank and file have also had a different perspective on the protest movement than their counterparts in the RSF and intelligence services. From the beginning of the uprising, many low- and mid-ranking members of the armed forces seemed to share some of the protest movement’s grievances – especially with respect to the collapsing economy – and to have more sympathy for the movement’s demands. In contrast to the RSF and intelligence services, which were persistently brutal in their treatment of protesters until their leaders shifted their stance in April, members of the armed forces sometimes sought to shield the protesters from harm.

Some within the armed forces would like to restore the military’s prestige and dominance. Hemedti, however, resisted suggestions by army generals during negotiations leading up to the power-sharing deal that the constitutional declaration outline the need to unify Sudan’s security forces.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomat who took part in the talks and Sudanese official, August 2019.Hide Footnote  For now, the military and RSF maintain an awkward alliance; however, as the transition progresses and with Hemedti seemingly intent on entrenching the RSF’s position and acquiring greater political power, some military officials could seek to halt his rise, which would likely trigger clashes between two powerful and well-armed organisations.

2. Hemedti and the Rapid Support Forces

General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, the boyish head of the RSF, is the most powerful man in the security forces. Hemedti draws his strength from three primary sources. First, he directly oversees much of the RSF, the pre-eminent paramilitary force among the many that Sudanese authorities spawned during Bashir’s three decades in power.[fn]Estimates of the RSF’s size vary, from 30,000 (Crisis Group email interview, Omer Ismail, Enough Project analyst, July 2019) to 50,000 troops (Pax Sudan Alert, Actor Map, 20 June 2019). Though the core fighters are Darfuri Arabs, since 2011 the RSF has absorbed troops, Arab and non-Arab, from West Kordofan, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. See “Remote-control breakdown: Sudanese paramilitary force and pro-government militias”, HSBA for Sudan and South Sudan Issue Brief, April 2017, p. 2. The RSF is also believed to include nomads from Sahel countries, most prominently Chad, but also Mali, Niger, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and possibly Libya. Crisis Group email interview, Omer Ismail, Enough Project analyst, July 2019. Reports of French-speaking forces in Khartoum have fuelled speculation about foreign fighters in the RSF. Crisis Group interview, EU official, Brussels, 4 July 2019.Hide Footnote  The RSF now appears to control Khartoum, as well as other towns and regions of the country, notably Darfur. Secondly, he has acquired significant wealth, including proceeds derived from stakes in major gold mining operations, which he wields to extend his power and influence in Sudan’s transactional politics.[fn]Some diplomats report that Hemedti paid the police in cash to get them back on the streets after Bashir’s ouster. Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Nairobi, June 2019; “From camel herder to dictator”, Foreign Policy, 2 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Thirdly, he has curried favour with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which see him as an accommodating strongman who – unlike Bashir – can be relied upon to serve as a bulwark against Islamist sympathisers in the military and bureaucracy.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Intra-Gulf Competition in Africa’s Horn: Lessening the Impact, op. cit., noting perceptions in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that Bashir dithered over whether to rid his political machinery of Islamists.Hide Footnote

Hemedti’s rise exemplifies the proliferation of non-conventional security “entrepreneurs” who have eclipsed Sudan’s conventional military.

Hemedti’s rise exemplifies the proliferation of non-conventional security “entrepreneurs” who have eclipsed Sudan’s conventional military. Born to Chadian migrants, Hemedti dropped out of primary school but thrived as a trader. The Darfur conflict gave him his entrance into Sudan’s power politics.[fn]He belongs to the Mahariya sub-group (specifically Awlad Mansour clan) of the Rizeigat tribe which are under the larger Baggara nomadic group that live in Darfur and Kordofan and have extensions into Chad and other Sahel countries. Hemedti’s kin came from Chad in the 1980s, fleeing drought. Crisis Group email interview, Sudan and Chad security analyst, 9 June 2019.Hide Footnote  He joined the Janjaweed militia, then led by Musa Hilal, his maternal cousin and a prominent leader of the Mahamid tribe, a sub-group of the Rizeigat.[fn]The Janjaweed, which, translated literally from the local Arabic dialect, means “devils on horseback”, are government-backed Darfuri Arab militias responsible for many atrocities in Darfur since 2003.Hide Footnote In 2009, Hemedti received his first government post as a security adviser to the governor of South Darfur. There he served until 2011, when Bashir helped him set up the RSF, a rebranding of the Janjaweed.[fn]“The man who terrorised Darfur is leading Sudan’s supposed transition”, Foreign Policy, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Hemedti benefited when Bashir tapped him to take down Musa Hilal, whom the president judged disloyal. The Hemedti-Hilal conflict escalated to armed clashes in 2017, with Hemedti coming out on top.[fn]The clashes took place in Jebel Amir, Mostreha and other towns in November 2017. The confrontation claimed lives in both families as Hemedti lost his cousin, Abdelrahim Juma Dalgo, who was the RSF’s logistics head, and his brother-in-law.Hide Footnote  Hilal was arrested and imprisoned by state authorities.[fn]“Sudan says militia leader Musa Hilal arrested”, BBC, 27 November 2017.Hide Footnote  As Hilal’s fortunes declined, Hemedti took control of the lucrative gold mine they once jointly controlled.[fn]A 2016 report by the UN Panel of Experts reported that Hilal was making $54 million per year and estimated that more than 48,000kg of gold “was potentially smuggled from the Sudan to the United Arab Emirates from 2010 to 2014”. See “Final report of the Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005)”, UNSC S/2016/85, 4 December 2015. One study disputes the veracity of these UN figures. See “Remote-control breakdown: Sudanese paramilitary force and pro-government militias”, op. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote

Hemedti has thrived as a businessman, establishing several companies under the umbrella of his al-Junaid conglomerate. His company, al-Junaid for Roads and Bridges, was awarded government contracts to help build at least three highways in Darfur (the Nyala-Fashir, Kutum-Fashir and Genina-Zalingei routes). His mining company operates in Jebel Amir and has started working in southern Darfur.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, prominent civil society figure in northern Darfur, 17 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Bashir’s 2015 decision to send troops to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen provided Hemedti with a major boost.

Bashir’s 2015 decision to send troops to fight under the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen provided Hemedti with a major boost. He sent troops in much larger numbers than Sudan’s regular military did. RSF troops also took more front-line positions than the military’s rank and file, who are generally more risk-averse and therefore often deployed defensively, such as to guard the Saudi Arabian border. The RSF’s ranks were swelled by recruits from many impoverished families who were highly motivated by the financial rewards, which could reach up to $10,000 each per offensive deployment. Some even paid bribes to go.[fn]“On the front line of the Saudi war in Yemen: child soldiers from Darfur”, The New York Times, 28 December 2018. Some suggest that the RSF suffers high desertion rates when units come back from Yemen, as soldiers flush with earnings return to private life. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Khartoum, 16 June 2019.Hide Footnote  Apart from his role in the Yemen campaign, Hemedti has authorised a representative to forge an alliance with the UAE’s ally General Khalifa Haftar in Libya.[fn]According to a U.S. Department of Justice Foreign Agents Registration Act filing dated 7 May 2019 and signed by Hemedti, the Canadian lobbying company Dickens & Madson states that it would “strive to obtain funding … from the Eastern Libyan Military Command in exchange for your military help to the LNA (Libyan National Army)” of General Haftar. Some media have reported that the RSF have since deployed troops in Libya. Crisis Group has been unable to verify these reports. See “Hundreds of Sudan militia fighters deployed to Haftar’s Libya offensive”, The New Arab, 26 July 2019.Hide Footnote Some diplomats, inside and outside the region, express concern that Abu Dhabi is cultivating Hemedti as a long-term security partner.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Washington, 2019.
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In early 2017, Sudan’s parliament passed the Rapid Support Forces Act, which put the paramilitaries directly under the office of the president, cementing their evolution from peripheral militia to quasi-presidential guard.[fn]Pax Sudan Alert, Actor Map, 20 June 2019. At the time, Hemedti told the press that the RSF comprised 30,000 members, with many others awaiting induction. One Sudanese analyst said the RSF has become more diverse in the last two years, with most newcomers being NISS agents, raising concerns about the future of Hemedti’s hegemony. Crisis Group interviews, journalist, Khartoum, 15 June 2019; political analyst, Khartoum, 17 June 2019.
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Bashir began referring to Hemedti as Hemayti, which translates from Arabic as “my protection”. In the end, however, when Bashir’s fortunes had begun to shift dramatically, Hemedti turned on his patron, sealing the former president’s fate.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Khartoum, 15 June 2019.
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Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Khartoum, 15 June 2019.

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Hemedti’s ambitions for power and influence have led him to cultivate relationships well outside Sudan’s borders. Conspicuously, the RSF’s ranks feature men who are not Sudanese nationals.[fn]Numerous officials report that RSF ranks include fighters from Chad and points further west in the Sahel. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and analysts, Nairobi, Brussels, Washington and remote communication, June-August 2019.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, Hemedti, whose Arab tribe straddles the border between Chad and Sudan, has used his ancestry to forge links to eastern Chad, as well as circles of power in N’djamena. He also maintains ties with armed groups in the Central African Republic.[fn]Nourredine Adam, leader of the Popular Front for the Rebirth of Central African Republic, has a longstanding relationship with Hemedti. They have met several times in 2019. According to a UN Panel of Experts report, the Front continues to acquire weapons, ammunition and vehicles from RSF elements. See “Letter dated 30 July 2019 from the Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic extended pursuant to resolution 2454 (2019) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, UNSC S/2019/608, 30 July 2019.
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South Sudan’s rebel leader Riek Machar, hosted by authorities in Khartoum, has also attempted to build ties with Hemedti and travelled with him for talks with President Salva Kiir in September.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Riek Machar, Addis Ababa, August 2019. Crisis Group interviews, African officials, Addis Ababa, August 2019. See “South Sudan rebel brings Sudanese ally for peace talks”, Bloomberg, 9 September 2019.
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While Hemedti lacks Bashir’s charisma [...] he has played his distance from the elites to his advantage.

While Hemedti lacks Bashir’s charisma and is considered a thuggish provincial warlord by Khartoum’s elites, he has played his distance from those elites to his advantage.[fn]Conscious of his limited popular appeal, Hemedti has deployed the vast funds he commands to win support, partly through a body he created called Sudanese People for the Support of the Transitional Military Council and the Protection of the Revolution, effectively a civilian wing of the RSF through which Hemedti dispenses patronage and which offers services usually performed by the state. Hemedti’s troops, for example, took prominent roles in offering aid after recent major flooding.Hide Footnote  He has fashioned a role for himself as a champion of Sudanese outside the country’s relatively prosperous centre, seeking to portray the opposition alliance and the military as overly focused on concentrating power in Khartoum and the Nile valley.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese officials, Khartoum, July-September 2019; Western diplomats, September 2019.Hide Footnote He has also presented himself as the key figure seeking to end the communal conflicts that have ravaged Sudan’s eastern and western peripheries. While in some ways a remarkable role for Hemedti to assume, given that earlier in his career he led militias accused of perpetrating some of the worst killings in Darfur, it allows him to trade on the close ties he reportedly enjoys with several armed groups.[fn]“The man who terrorised Darfur is leading Sudan’s supposed transition”, Foreign Policy, op. cit.
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The economic, military and diplomatic clout Hemedti has amassed is formidable. “He almost doesn’t need to carry out a coup because he has created a role for himself as an alternative to the state and to Khartoum’s elites”, one diplomat who recently spent time in Khartoum told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote

3. Gosh and the National Intelligence and Security Services

Until the past decade, the National Intelligence and Security Services were a pillar of Bashir’s rule. Its members are primarily drawn from Bashir’s riverine stronghold and were viewed as more loyal than the army’s soldiers, who have historically been recruited from a diverse pool.[fn]See “Will Sudan End Torture?”, Amnesty International, 3 April 2018.Hide Footnote  But the intelligence services declined in power and influence as Bashir became more paranoid about internal challenges to his rule.

The long-time intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, was formerly regarded as one of the most powerful people in Sudan and as a rival to Bashir. By 2011, it became clear to Bashir that Gosh and the service he commanded could threaten his rule. As a result, he sidelined Gosh and curtailed the intelligence services’ operational capabilities. In November 2012, Sudanese authorities detained Gosh, accusing him of plotting to sabotage the government.[fn]“Sudan’s ex-spy chief arrested in connection with ‘sabotage attempt’: reports”, Sudan Tribune, 22 November 2012.Hide Footnote  Bashir rehabilitated him six years later and reappointed him intelligence chief in February 2018.

When protests broke out in December 2018, Gosh’s apparatus spearheaded the crackdown.

Although in the intervening period the RSF had emerged as Bashir’s favourite security force, when protests broke out in December 2018, Gosh’s apparatus spearheaded the crackdown.[fn]De Waal, “Sudan: A Political Marketplace Framework Analysis”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Overwhelmed with detainees, Gosh scrambled to build new jail cells and repurpose ordinary prison quarters to hold the service’s detainees. But, as noted above, Gosh soured on Bashir after the latter’s apparent about-face on initiating a transition in February 2019. In April 2019, Gosh appeared to allow the protests to swell, and even to permit the 6 April sit-in to form in front of army headquarters in Khartoum. For a few weeks, the intelligence services’ vehicles disappeared from the streets; intimidation and arrests stopped.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Bashir regime insider, Khartoum, 14 June 2019.Hide Footnote

By this time, Gosh and Hemedti were conspiring to oust Bashir. But the relationship between the two security chiefs soon began to deteriorate. Gosh saw himself as a leader and resented Hemedti’s apparent ambitions. For his part, Hemedti distrusted Gosh.[fn]A well-placed source offered the account in this paragraph. Crisis Group interview, Bashir regime insider, Khartoum, 14 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Many in the protest movement also distrusted Gosh, given his role suppressing protests and running a service many Sudanese blamed for gross human rights abuses (including administering a network of makeshift prisons where detainees were allegedly tortured). After initially resisting calls from the movement to leave office when Bashir fell, he resigned on 13 April.[fn]“Sudan’s intelligence chief resigns: Military council”, Middle East Eye, 13 April 2019.
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A few weeks after Gosh quit, police directed by the Transitional Military Council chiefs tried to arrest him on corruption charges, but intelligence services officers, who remained loyal to him, prevented his detention. Soon afterward, Gosh left the country, reportedly to Egypt, where he appears to have remained active in trying to shape events in Sudan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, regional analyst, 2019.
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Gosh’s rivals have worked to dismantle his power base in the intelligence services. After Gosh left office, Hemedti used his influence to sack dozens of officers from the intelligence services.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese ruling party insider, Khartoum, July 2019; Western diplomats, Nairobi, August-September 2019.
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And in July, the Transitional Military Council announced that the NISS would become the General Intelligence Service, dedicated solely to intelligence gathering and losing its other internal security capabilities.[fn]De Waal, “Sudan: A Political Marketplace Framework Analysis”, op. cit.
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The RSF has reportedly folded many former NISS officers, particularly those from its operational arm, into its ranks – thereby further strengthening Hemedti.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese ruling party insider, Khartoum, July 2019; Western diplomats, Nairobi, August-September 2019.
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Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese ruling party insider, Khartoum, July 2019; Western diplomats, Nairobi, August-September 2019.

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On 15 August, the U.S. State Department announced that it would sanction Gosh, in what observers viewed as a warning to influential Sudanese attempting to sabotage the transition.[fn]“US slaps sanctions on Sudan’s former spymaster Salah Gosh”, The East African, 15 August 2019. Crisis Group interview, regional analyst, September 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Two Steps Toward Security Sector Reform

As Khartoum’s transitional government seeks to turn the corner on Bashir’s brutal legacy and create a foundation for stable future governance, security sector reform will be critically important. Two near-term objectives for the transitional government should be 1) to make the security services more accountable for their abuses and 2) to start to bring the country’s primary military and paramilitary organisations under a single command.

Concerning the first objective, the civilian leadership of the transitional cabinet should work with the legislative council, when it is formed, to repeal laws that give the security forces immunity from prosecution for crimes committed in the course of duty.[fn]See “Sudan: Khartoum dragging feet over immunity”, Institute for War and Peace Reporting, 2 June 2010.Hide Footnote  A change to this legal regime, one of the world’s most permissive, would signal that the government no longer tolerates wanton abuses of power by the state’s agents and would be in keeping with the commitment all sides made in the constitutional agreement to implement “legal reform (and) rebuild and develop the human rights and justice system”.[fn]“Sudan: Constitutional Charter for the 2019 Period”, 17 August 2019.Hide Footnote

It is difficult to see how Sudan can be a democracy if individuals control quasi-private militias outside the command of the formal armed forces.

As for the second objective, the most significant challenge will almost certainly be how to deal with the RSF, which exists outside the formal military. As a Western diplomat put it: “It is difficult to see how Sudan can be a democracy if individuals control quasi-private militias outside the command of the formal armed forces”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Western diplomat, Nairobi, August 2019.Hide Footnote

The RSF’s wealth and power mean that simply disbanding it – which many within the opposition coalition understandably call for – is not realistic.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western and African diplomats familiar with the negotiations leading up to the power-sharing agreement, Nairobi and Addis Ababa, August 2019.Hide Footnote  Instead, Prime Minister Hamdok, the military leadership and the RSF should continue discussions broached by the opposition coalition and some within the armed forces during this summer’s negotiations about the power-sharing agreement on the possibility of merging the security forces. In this scenario, RSF commanders and troops would retain their jobs but fall under the military command’s authority. Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo, which all have stated their commitment to stability in Sudan, should emphasise to RSF leadership that placing the country’s security forces under unified command is essential for achieving this goal and encourage them in this direction. Patience and persistence will be necessary, however, as the RSF benefits greatly from the status quo and is therefore likely to be very resistant to this sort of change.

If domestic consensus can be achieved, actors such as the EU, which have experience in backing reform of the security sector and reintegration efforts, could offer support for the reintegration into society of those RSF militiamen who do not want to join the army and would prefer to go back to civilian life.

IV. The Opposition

The Forces for Freedom and Change is a fragile coalition of parties, political personalities, unions and civil activist groups often with competing interests, divergent constituencies and opposing ideologies. Some veteran opposition party leaders within its ranks are part of the same old guard that many Sudanese view as sharing responsibility for the country’s woes. Its younger leadership cohort, however, particularly the professionals and civil society figures who organised the protest movement, enjoy great credibility with the public, as demonstrated by their capacity repeatedly to summon tens of thousands of Sudanese into the streets.

Throughout, the opposition has shown not only determination but also a mastery of optics. The sit-in outside the army’s Khartoum headquarters was redolent with symbolism – and made for great television. In naming Ahmed al-Rabia, a schoolteacher who drives a taxi at night to supplement his income, as a chief spokesman in April, the opposition drew a sharp contrast between its support base – ordinary Sudanese seeking change – and the generals who got rich during Bashir’s long rule.

A. An Uneasy Alliance

The Forces for Freedom and Change coalition is expected to form the bedrock of support for efforts to institute full civilian rule at the end of the pivotal 39-month transition, but it is a work in progress. For all the FFC’s accomplishments, it is not yet clear whether its many component organisations will maintain the unity required to check the security sector.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FFC members, diplomats familiar with the negotiating process and civil society campaigners, Khartoum, Addis Ababa and Nairobi, May-August 2019.Hide Footnote

The coalition represents a wide diversity of professional, civil society and political organisations, and its internal dynamics are correspondingly complex.

The coalition represents a wide diversity of professional, civil society and political organisations, and its internal dynamics are correspondingly complex. Upon its formation in January 2019, a few weeks after protests broke out, the coalition assembled its coordinating committee, which steered the movement until Bashir’s ouster, at which point the political parties became more dominant and led the negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, opposition activists and local analyst, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Its most active members were the Sudanese Professionals Association, the civil society group Sudan Call (a collection of Sudan’s more established political parties, rebel representatives and civil society activists) and other lobbies, including the Families of Ramadan Martyrs and the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative. As the protests took shape, established political parties also began to play a bigger role in the movement.

Of these groups, the Sudanese Professionals Association was and remains most prominent in the public eye.[fn]“Meet the men leading Sudan’s protest movement”, AFP, 23 April 2019.Hide Footnote  The group formed in 2014, remained fairly inactive until 2018, and then assumed a leadership role in the uprising. Civil society groups rallied around the SPA’s leadership and mainstream opposition parties lent it behind-the-scenes support, realising that they lacked the popular legitimacy to lead the movement.[fn]Two sources inside the FFC said the political parties finally conceded that the public would not follow their lead and began looking to the SPA as an alternative. One source worried that this step to politicise civil society risked undermining their mobilising potential. Crisis Group interviews, Khartoum, 16 June 2019.Hide Footnote  This tactical decision accelerated the protests’ momentum and also boosted the SPA’s popularity. By December 2018, the group consisted of seven underground professional syndicates and trade unions, led by a committee of the union heads.[fn]At its inception, the SPA was a body coordinating among independent syndicates of university professors and lecturers, physicians, teachers, engineers, veterinarians and journalists. Bashir, aware of Sudan’s history of popular uprisings led by trade unions, infiltrated and weakened the state-sanctioned unions, requiring parallel unions to mobilise underground.Hide Footnote  The SPA remained at the vanguard of protests until 11 April, when the military moved against Bashir, at which point it assumed a lower profile.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese political analyst, Washington, June 2019.Hide Footnote  Said one local political analyst: “For once, the opposition managed not to shoot itself in the foot”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese political analyst, Washington, June 2019.Hide Footnote

Still, the coalition has had its challenges. For one thing, some groups believe the coalition has been too accommodating. A bloc known as the National Consensus Forces split with leading coalition member Sudan Call in March over the latter’s decision to participate in a proposed AU-led dialogue with Bashir’s government.[fn]The bloc formed in 2010, with the intention of standing against the ruling NCP in that year’s elections. See “National Consensus Forces”, Sudan Tribune, 2012. Its members include the National Umma Party (a moderate Islamic party, commonly known as Umma, led by former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi), the Popular Congress Party (previously led by Islamist figure Hassan al-Turabi, who fell out with Bashir in 1999) and the Sudanese Communist Party (which was once one of the most powerful political movements in the country).Hide Footnote  Two members of the bloc – the Sudanese Communist Party and the Popular Congress Party – subsequently announced that they would not join the yet-to-be-formed legislative council or nominate members to the cabinet because in their view the FFC had offered too many concessions to the generals.[fn]“Sudanese Communists reiterate opposition to set up FFC leadership body”, Sudan Tribune, 17 September 2019; and “Sudan rebels take issue with Forces for Freedom and Change”, Radio Dabanga, 22 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Another grievance that some groups complain of is under-representation.

Another grievance that some groups complain of is under-representation. This is a particular concern for the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an umbrella for armed groups that have fought insurgent campaigns on Sudan’s periphery.[fn]The Front is at least notionally part of Sudan Call.Hide Footnote  The Revolutionary Front and National Umma Party have together called for formation of a leadership council that would represent the coalition’s different strands and be its decision-making body. Civil society groups, particularly the SPA, initially opposed this idea, contending that the existing flat structure, involving hundreds of neighbourhood committees and a faceless coordinating committee, was better positioned to avoid detection by Bashir’s repressive security apparatus.[fn]The protest movement faced stern repression in its early stages and, as a result, adopted a decentralised structure that spread out decision-making power among a network of committees and the diaspora. Among the leaders who were detained were Mohamad Nagi Al-Asam, a 28-year-old doctor who became one of the faces of the movement following his 4 June arrest. Another early coordinator was Mohamed Yousif Ahmed al-Mustafa, an SPA founder and Sudan’s former labour minister. Other key figures on the coordinating committee were Medani Abbas Medani and Muawia Shaddad.Hide Footnote  Nevertheless, in the weeks leading up to the 3 June attack on protesters, civil society leaders began negotiations about forming the leadership council. The 3 June massacre disrupted these plans, as many leading coalition figures (especially youth leaders) went into hiding, but once mediation began, the council was formed.

Beyond addressing grievances that could threaten internal cohesion, the opposition will need to communicate more effectively and promptly with the public as part of efforts to improve its capacity as a serious political player. Over the course of the summer’s transition talks, it was a source of public frustration and apprehension that the opposition, understandably accustomed to operating secretly, closely guarded information on progress that was being made.[fn]“The constitutional declaration, for example, is a very good document on paper in which the opposition won many concessions. But they have hardly explained its contents to the public”, a Western diplomat said. Crisis Group interview, Khartoum, 7 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Outside civil society organisations and donors, including the EU, U.S. and others, should encourage opposition leadership to be more open and to welcome a flourishing public debate on Sudan’s future as part of their efforts to build support for the transition.

Hemedti has cast himself as a champion of rural Sudan and cultivated alliances with the leaders of armed groups that opposed Bashir.

Another risk to the opposition is that the generals could seek to widen the opposition’s internal divisions by co-opting its constituents.[fn]One African mediator who worked with the veteran opposition for years characterised its leaders as “no better” than Bashir’s clique and just as power-hungry. Crisis Group interview, July 2019. Another Western diplomat familiar with the opposition said they were “stuck in the past” and should yield to the new civil society campaigners, who were in tune with the street. Crisis Group interview, Nairobi, February 2019.Hide Footnote  One potentially important fissure is along geographic lines. As indicated above, the opposition is already exposed to the criticism that it is too dominated by metropolitan elites and draws a disproportionate number of its leaders from Khartoum.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sudanese analyst and Western diplomats who recently visited Khartoum, September 2019.Hide Footnote  Against this backdrop, Hemedti has cast himself as a champion of rural Sudan and cultivated alliances with the leaders of armed groups that opposed Bashir and should be the opposition coalition’s natural allies.[fn]One Western diplomat quoted a major rebel leader saying he trusts Hemedti more than he does the opposition alliance, which he claimed was too focused on concentrating power in Khartoum. Crisis Group telephone interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote  He could strengthen these ties and try to peel off other coalition partners using similar tactics, weakening the coalition at a time when unity will be critical to its efforts to loosen the generals’ hold on power. For this reason, it will be important for the opposition to be attentive in their actions and policies to both the rebels’ desire for a serious voice in coalition decision-making and to their concerns about Sudan’s treatment of its citizens in its long-neglected peripheries, as discussed below.

B. Splintered Rebels

Sudan’s centre-periphery tensions predate the Bashir era, but its internal wars intensified under the deposed president. South Sudan eventually seceded, while wars expanded to more places in the north. Mass atrocities perpetrated by Bashir’s security forces in Darfur led to his indictment by the International Criminal Court, the first of a sitting head of state.

The new transitional government must reckon with the legacy of decades of efforts by elites in the wealthier riverine centre to subdue rebellions across the country by force. This legacy encompasses several regions devastated by conflict, huge displaced populations and an array of rebel movements, some scattered outside Sudan’s borders. Bringing peace to warring areas should be a priority during the transitional period and will require careful consideration of the accommodations that the rebels are seeking. These include steps to reverse the imposition of Islamic law on religious minorities, separate religion and state, and provide for a fairer distribution of power and resources to areas in the periphery, including by allowing them to elect governors rather than imposing these from distant Khartoum.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote

The other in Sudan is left with only two options, either to accept inferiority status or be exterminated.

Abdelaziz al-Hilu, who, as noted below, leads the largest faction of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army-North, characterised the rebels’ core grievances to Crisis Group as structural. Al-Hilu said Arabic-speaking elites in Khartoum have long tried to impose a “false Arab identity” on a culturally diverse country. This attitude, he said, impelled minorities to take up arms to protect their position in society. He added that successive regimes have worsened centre-periphery relations with the logic of political Islam, which casts non-Muslims as second-class citizens. Al-Hilu concluded by saying: “The other in Sudan is always oppressed, marginalised and excluded when it comes to access to power and wealth. The other in Sudan is left with only two options, either to accept inferiority status or be exterminated”.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, September 2019.Hide Footnote

The nature of Sudan’s internal conflicts changed after South Sudan’s 2011 independence. Rebel remnants from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regrouped into the Sudanese Revolutionary Front.[fn]“The Sudan Revolutionary Front: Its Formation and Development”, Small Arms Survey, October 2014.Hide Footnote  At the time, the Darfur conflict had raged for years, but the conflict in the latter two areas was just restarting after a respite ushered in by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. In its first two years, the Front, supported by Juba, made significant battlefield gains and threatened the central government’s hold on the provinces where the fighting was taking place. The group also forged an alliance with the political opposition, joining Sudan Call.

The Front has since splintered, however, limiting its relevance as an armed force. Among its constituent parts, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North faction under Malik Agar, of Blue Nile, and Yasir Arman, of northern Sudan, lost most of its fighters following a bitter split in 2017. Darfuri rebel leader Minni Minnawi’s Sudan Liberation Army faction is now based in Libya as mercenaries fighting on behalf of General Haftar.[fn]“Letter from the Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, UNSC S/2019/35, 10 January 2019.Hide Footnote  The fighting force of the Justice and Equality Movement under Jibril Ibrahim is thought to have dwindled below a few hundred operating in South Sudan and Libya.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  These groups’ political strength among Sudanese is difficult to gauge but is likely eroding, even in war-affected regions.

The Front is in reality overshadowed by larger, more powerful armed groups that sit outside it.

Though vocal in its efforts to get a seat at the table during transitional agreement talks, the Front is in reality overshadowed by larger, more powerful armed groups that sit outside it. One is the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North faction led by Hilu, who took most of the rebel fighters with him in the 2017 split. Hilu has a secure stronghold in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan and commands the largest rebel faction in Blue Nile. Another is the Sudan Liberation Movement faction of Abdul-Wahid al-Nur, which is the only remaining significant rebel force in Darfur.[fn]“Letter from the Panel of Experts on the Sudan established pursuant to resolution 1591 (2005) addressed to the President of the Security Council”, UNSC S/2019/35, 10 January 2019.Hide Footnote  Nur’s faction has declined in power in its Jebel Marra stronghold during his long self-imposed exile in France, as has the strength of his personal command. Both leaders disengaged from peace talks in Bashir’s final years – especially Nur, who earned notoriety among diplomats for his consistent refusal to enter negotiations.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former observer of various rounds of Darfur peace talks, October 2019.Hide Footnote

But even if the Front is no longer the most powerful of the armed groups, both the coalition and the generals have vied for influence over it, conscious of its symbolic significance and potential spoiler role. Negotiations in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in July 2019 made headway in aligning the Front’s demands with the coalition’s positions but in the end the rebel leaders walked out. Tensions remain rife: as noted above, the Front has griped about the coalition’s decision-making process and having to play second fiddle to the civilian leaders, whom they see as another collection of aloof riverine elites. Meanwhile, Hemedti, whom the military council charged with outreach to Sudan’s rebel movements, has been in touch through his own channels with the Front’s members. His late June meeting with Minnawi, brokered by Chadian President Idriss Deby, fed speculation that the generals are working to pull the rebels away from the coalition and into their corner.

A permanent ceasefire would allow local populations freedom of movement across lines previously controlled by the patchwork of belligerents active across rural Sudan.

South Sudan and Egypt have also sought roles as mediators between Sudan’s generals and rebels. South Sudan, which historically has been the main backer of several of the armed groups, has taken the lead in marshalling these parties to find a compromise. In the first week of September, its president, Salva Kiir, hosted key armed group leaders for talks and subsequently met Prime Minister Hamdok.[fn]See “South Sudan president Kiir meets Sudan rebel leaders”, Radio Dabanga, 6 September 2019. After Sudanese security forces released three prominent opposition leaders – Yasir Arman, Ismail Jalab and Mubarak Ardol – from detention, South Sudanese authorities welcomed them to Juba and offered them a base as they engaged in talks with the opposition coalition and junta. “Sudan opposition leader escapes to Juba”, The East African, 10 June 2019.Hide Footnote  On 11 September, the parties signed the Juba Declaration, indicating that Juba would remain the sole forum for peace talks. South Sudan is likely to remain an important actor as it seeks to cultivate ties with the new administration in Khartoum on this role, having lost its prior channel, which relied on Bashir.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and other diplomats, New York, September 2019.Hide Footnote  The benefits of a long-term sustainable peace would be considerable. It would mean that humanitarian workers could gain easier access to regions long under siege from the security forces while a permanent ceasefire – potentially overseen by AU monitors – would allow local populations freedom of movement across lines previously controlled by the patchwork of belligerents active across rural Sudan.

V. Islamist Organisations on the Sidelines – for Now

The coup against Bashir and the generals’ consolidation of power with Gulf backing has put Sudan’s Islamist political machinery, embodied in recent years primarily by the ruling National Congress Party, out of order. Its incapacity may be temporary, however, since it still controls layers of the state bureaucracy and military. A failed counter-coup attempt on 24 July, reportedly involving Islamist-allied military personnel, suggests that at least some of Bashir’s old guard may see themselves as his legitimate heirs.[fn]“Sudan military says it thwarts coup attempt, arrests senior officers”, Reuters, 24 July 2019. Crisis Group interviews, NCP insiders, July 2019. Several earlier reports of “coup attempts” were seen by observers in Khartoum as subterfuge by the junta in its effort to purge opponents, but local observers view the reported 24 July coup plan as more credible. On 2 October, Sudanese authorities said ten individuals suspected of involvement in the reported plot, including the former chief of staff, would be prosecuted. Two other generals were released without charge. “Generals arrested for 2019 coup attempt released”, Radio Dabanga, 2 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Sudan’s version of the so-called deep state has its roots in the country’s Islamist movement.

Sudan’s version of the so-called deep state has its roots in the country’s Islamist movement, which Bashir co-opted first to mount his own coup in 1989 and later to extend his rule. This movement, the National Islamic Front, was led by the prominent preacher Hassan al-Turabi for almost ten years. It was a major component of Sudan’s ruling party and controlled much of the government bureaucracy.

Though Bashir later fell out with Turabi and rebranded the Front as the National Congress Party, Bashir’s coalition continued to comprise Islamists acting in concert with security factions and opportunists.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Sudan’s Islamists: From Salvation to Survival, op.Hide Footnote  Bashir gradually shunted the party aside in the final years of his rule in a desperate attempt to disassociate himself from a political entity that many Sudanese blamed for the collapsing economy. Despite the NCP’s troubles, however, its members remain part of a relatively well-resourced and entrenched political network on the outside of the power-sharing arrangements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ruling party insiders, Khartoum, June 2019.Hide Footnote Two Islamist political organisations that are also on the sidelines are the Popular Congress, which Turabi founded after his split with Bashir, and Reform Now. Both were once allied with Bashir but decided to back the protests that toppled him.

Given their nationwide political machinery and extensive financial resources after decades of access to government resources and contracts, the NCP and allied parties could yet emerge as powerful post-Bashir actors.[fn]Crisis Group interview, figure with close contacts in NCP, Khartoum, 15 June 2019.Hide Footnote  In the spring of 2019, after the state of emergency declaration and weeks before Bashir’s ouster, party leaders reportedly began scheming about where and how to hide their wealth.[fn]According to a source close to the NCP’s inner circle, a few weeks before Bashir’s ouster, high-ranking NCP officials began executing a plan to stash party funds in personal accounts and in foreign banks. By the time Bashir fell, the money had been transferred abroad or to accounts in Sudan that were not easily linked to the NCP. The plan is to withdraw the money slowly over the next few years, partly to fund the NCP, but mainly to establish a new youth-led party. Some in the NCP believe that they should take their time building this new party and try returning to power only after seven or eight years. Crisis Group interview, Khartoum, 15 June 2019.Hide Footnote  The NCP could be positioning itself to return to the political scene, and it may have some inside support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western and regional diplomats, Nairobi, Khartoum and Addis Ababa, July-August 2019.Hide Footnote To their Egyptian and Gulf backers, the generals claim to be purging Islamist forces from the military and senior ranks of the civil service but some observers believe that the former junta and the NCP have a quiet truce.[fn]According to one local observer, during the period when the Transitional Military Council controlled the reins of government, the NCP agreed not to publicly criticise the junta. In return, the junta agreed not to order mass arrest of NCP cadres, beyond its 22 members who are already in detention, and to prohibit negative coverage of the party in state media. Crisis Group interview, figure close to NCP, Khartoum, 15 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Parties associated with Islamism could well profit from the inevitable challenges that the transitional government will face.

By standing apart from the transition, and in fact defining themselves in opposition to both the civilian coalition and the generals, parties associated with Islamism could well profit from the inevitable challenges that the transitional government will face. Because they are outside of it, they stand to gain public support should the transitional government be unable to deliver on key promises, especially with respect to reviving the economy.[fn]One European official characterised this de facto opposition status as a “gift” to the Islamists, due to the challenges the new government will face during the transitional period. Crisis Group telephone interview, 7 August 2019.Hide Footnote Further, they may be able to call upon eager patrons in Qatar and Turkey, which are both looking for opportunities to regain their foothold in Khartoum.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Qatari official, July 2019.Hide Footnote

That said, both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are keen to keep parties with strong links to Islamists in political exile. These two monarchies calculate that Sudan’s security forces are their most dependable ally in that regard. The civil society component of the opposition coalition has also consistently rejected any accommodation with Muslim Brotherhood-style political Islam, identifying it as a legacy of Bashir that must be swept away.

VI. The Role of External Actors

Sudan has gripped the attention of Western, Gulf and African observers who are concerned, among other things, by the prospect of the Sudanese state’s implosion. External actors have had to grapple with a complex crisis, notable for deep schisms between the key actors who will determine the country’s future as well as divisions within the negotiating blocs themselves. Consistent, unified support for Sudan’s political negotiations is necessary to avoid a breakdown of the civilian-military transitional administration on whose shoulders Sudan’s near-term fate now rests. Indeed, without substantial external pressure, it is unlikely that the junta would have acceded to the concessions necessary to arrive at the deal adopted 17 August.

A. Regional Mediation Efforts

The AU and Ethiopia have been critical to bridging the divide between the opposition coalition and security establishment.

Until the 3 June massacre, the two sides refused offers of international and regional mediation, but the killings in Khartoum created new pressure to talk.[fn]While the generals feared pressure from international mediators to offer concessions, the opposition coalition had grown frustrated by the muted Western and AU reaction to the security forces’ abuses as the protests continued. Crisis Group interviews, Sudanese Professionals Association members, Khartoum, June 2019.Hide Footnote  International revulsion over the massacre found expression in the AU’s 6 June decision to suspend Sudan’s membership. The action by the Peace and Security Council, reportedly taken in spite of lobbying on Sudan’s behalf by Egypt, illustrated the generals’ growing isolation after the killings.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Western and African diplomats, Addis Ababa, August 2019.Hide Footnote Still, even as pressure for mediation grew, it was not immediately clear which regional and international actors would get traction. The AU Commission renewed its offer to step in, but the Sudanese parties rebuffed its envoy Mohamed el-Hassan Lebatt, a Mauritanian diplomat.[fn]Answering MPs’ questions on 1 July, Abiy rationalised Ethiopia taking the lead in Sudanese mediation: “When there is peace and development in the Sudan, it would benefit us and whenever a problem happens in the Sudan it would affect us in a similar manner. Whenever the Sudanese encounter a problem, we are their first choice and hence it is inevitable for us to bear their burden”. See Ethiopian House of Peoples Representatives, session of 1 July.Hide Footnote

In the end, it was Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who reset the talks.

In the end, it was Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, who reset the talks.[fn]Answering MPs’ questions on 1 July, Abiy rationalised Ethiopia taking the lead in Sudanese mediation: “When there is peace and development in the Sudan, it would benefit us and whenever a problem happens in the Sudan it would affect us in a similar manner. Whenever the Sudanese encounter a problem, we are their first choice and hence it is inevitable for us to bear their burden”. See Ethiopian House of Peoples Representatives, session of 1 July.Hide Footnote  Four days after the massacre, Abiy arrived in Khartoum, wearing the hat of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional body that Ethiopia now chairs. He quickly met with both sides, leaving senior diplomat Mahmoud Dirir behind as his envoy.[fn]Dirir is one of Abiy’s top diplomats. “Mediators call on Sudan generals, protesters to resume talks Wednesday”, The East African, 2 July 2019.Hide Footnote  Critically, Abiy’s effort received the public and private backing of the UAE, which had previously played a key role in brokering Ethiopia’s rapprochement with Eritrea.[fn]Abiy asked the UAE to support his mediation initiative. Crisis Group interview, UAE official, Abu Dhabi, July 2019.Hide Footnote

After talks got under way, apparent disunity between the AU and Ethiopian envoys stymied early efforts at achieving a breakthrough. The envoys offered contrasting proposals to the opposition and military council, each containing different numbers for the composition of the planned legislative and sovereign councils. But after discussions in Addis, the AU and Ethiopian envoys closed ranks on 26 June, and presented both sides with a joint proposal, which became the basis for the 17 July political accord and the constitutional declaration eventually adopted on 17 August. The formula for the sovereign council that finally proved acceptable – with five members each appointed by the civilian coalition and the generals and an eleventh jointly chosen civilian – echoed the initial Ethiopian proposals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, protest leaders, activists and diplomats who took part in the talks, Khartoum and Nairobi, July 2019.Hide Footnote

B. Western Coordination with the Gulf States and Egypt

Coordinating Western and Gulf pressure on the parties to reach a negotiated deal took some time. In the weeks and months leading up to Bashir’s ouster, many Sudanese protesters were frustrated at the relative silence of key Western countries.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, protest leader, February 2019.Hide Footnote  Even after Bashir fell, pivotal players, notably Washington, which had de facto led the Troika partnership effort to stabilise Sudan and South Sudan dating back to the early 2000s, stayed largely out of the fray.[fn]The Troika is composed of the U.S., the UK and Norway.Hide Footnote  The opposition, Addis Ababa, Washington and European governments were together frustrated with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for supporting Sudan’s military council notwithstanding signals that it did not intend to share power with civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Washington, Khartoum and Addis Ababa, June-July 2019.Hide Footnote

Two international initiatives helped bring Western and Gulf governments together with regional actors behind a common position.

Two international initiatives helped bring Western and Gulf governments together with regional actors behind a common position.

The first to form was the Friends of Sudan contact group, an initiative primarily driven by Western diplomats, which met first in May in Washington and included representatives from the UN, AU, EU and Ethiopia, and which expanded to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar at its second meeting in Berlin in June. A statement after the June meeting, issued by the German foreign ministry, said all agreed on the need for a transition to civilian rule. One Western official, however, described this forum as “cosmetic” – useful primarily for coordinating financial aid packages – mainly because neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE, the junta’s critical backers, sent high-level delegations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European official, Nairobi, July 2019.Hide Footnote

Indeed, it was a second – smaller, quieter and more informal – group that proved more effective. On the sidelines of a Quad (the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) ministerial meeting in London regarding Yemen in late April the group discussed Sudan. Those discussions ultimately led to a secret, Quad-brokered meeting in Khartoum on 29 June between the military council, including Hemedti, and opposition coalition leaders, to cool temperatures in advance of the next day’s “million-man” march.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UK diplomat, July 2019. At least seven protesters were killed during this march on 30 June, as thousands of Sudanese took to the streets. See “Sudanese protesters killed during ‘million-man march’”, France 24, 30 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Beyond these group efforts, Washington also pressured Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Cairo through bilateral channels. In public, the U.S. pointedly condemned the 3 June killings and pressed the Saudis to do more so that the junta would change course.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S., European and UK diplomats, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Washington and London, July-August 2019.Hide Footnote  In visits to Cairo and Riyadh in July, U.S. Special Envoy Donald Booth, appointed just nine days after the Khartoum massacre, made it clear that Washington supported a negotiated compromise and backed calls for a civilian-led administration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian foreign ministry official, Addis Ababa, July 2019; Western diplomat, Nairobi, August 2019.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group interviews, Ethiopian foreign ministry official, Addis Ababa, July 2019; Western diplomat, Nairobi, August 2019.

Hide Footnote

U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the junta’s principal external backers, paved the way for such compromise. Diplomats who follow the region differ as to whether the two Gulf countries decided after 3 June that the military could not govern effectively using purely strong-arm tactics, or whether they were more focused on the need to defuse the immediate situation given the global backlash the June violence engendered.[fn]One senior European official said the Saudis and Emiratis realised after 3 June that the military council could not stabilise Sudan through repression alone. Hence, it supported efforts to reach a negotiated deal. The official expressed optimism that the partnership could continue, saying there was a lower degree of divergence with the Gulf on Sudan than on other regional crises, including Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia. Another European official, however, suggested that reputational risk, rather than a change in perspective, spooked the Gulf powers into backing away from repression in Sudan, for now. Crisis Group interviews, Nairobi, June-July 2019.Hide Footnote  Either way, Washington’s diplomacy helped focus both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the importance of shifting their posture, which they did.

Cairo looks at Sudan through a somewhat different lens than the Gulf states.

Although Egypt, another critical player, also altered its position and began pressing the junta to compromise, Cairo looks at Sudan through a somewhat different lens than the Gulf states. Its involvement in Sudan is rooted in its historical desire to maintain political stability in an important neighbour, as well as to thwart Islamist movements it views as extensions of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it is also invested in preventing its regional rival Ethiopia from outflanking it in shaping Sudan’s post-Bashir order, and maintaining sufficient influence to defend its interests in a country through which the Nile river, critical to Egypt’s survival, charts its course from the Ethiopian highlands.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°271, Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute, 20 March 2019.Hide Footnote  Against this backdrop, Egypt’s persistent closeness to the generals – with whom it has met numerous times since Bashir’s ouster – will likely continue to be a channel for Cairo to assert itself in a political environment where it is competing with Addis, and where Ethiopia’s Abiy remains popular with the opposition following his mediation efforts this summer.[fn]“Sudan interim military council chief al-Burhan meets with Egypt’s president El-Sisi”, Arab News, 25 May 2019; “Sudan’s Hemedti meets el-Sisi before resumption of power talks”, Al Jazeera, 29 July 2019.Hide Footnote

VII. Nurturing a Fragile Deal

The deal reached this summer was hard-won and remains Sudan’s best hope. If implemented, it can prevent – for now – a worst-case scenario of spiralling violence and state collapse. Yet the path ahead remains daunting. A central challenge moving forward will be maintaining coordinated pressure from across several continents to make sure that the deal sticks and Sudan’s transition remains on a firm footing.

A. Supporting the Transition Economically and Diplomatically

A key driver of the protests that forced Bashir out of power was the parlous state of Sudan’s economy. The new administration inherits the challenge of improving the lives of millions of Sudanese immiserated by decades of ruinous policies. Widespread corruption, massive transfers of capital abroad by the top brass and NCP insiders and extravagant expenditure on the defence sector contributed to an economic crisis exacerbated by high inflation, enormous foreign debt and widespread shortages of essential goods, including fuel, bread and medicine.[fn]Sudan is rated 175 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index. See “Sudan, South Sudan near bottom of corruption perception index”, Radio Dabanga, 23 February 2018.Hide Footnote

In recent months, technocrats from the opposition have devised what they describe as an “emergency plan” to revive the economy.

In recent months, technocrats from the opposition have devised what they describe as an “emergency plan” to revive the economy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, technocrats appointed to devise economic management plans under the new civilian-led authorities, Khartoum, August 2019. A core team of seven experts consulted about 24 authorities on the economy, including some former government officials. The team completed a draft at the end of May and held consultations on key findings in June. Priorities include tackling mass youth unemployment, addressing chronic delays in the importation of medicine and finding more funding for public and higher education.Hide Footnote  Among its worthy components are reforming key institutions, including the central bank, to ensure that all government revenue is channelled through formal institutions and not into the generals’ coffers; tackling the parallel currency market as part of an effort to stabilise the overvalued official currency; setting up a system to encourage and facilitate remittances from Sudan’s vast diaspora; and trebling the budgetary allocation to the health and education sectors from 5 to at least 15 per cent.[fn]At least some of these measures will help take Sudan in the direction of qualifying for the IMF-World Bank Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) Initiative benchmarks. It will need to meet these criteria before it can secure a broad debt relief package along the lines discussed in this section from creditors down the road.Hide Footnote

Prime Minister Hamdok, whose most recent posting was as deputy executive secretary and chief economist at the UN Economic Commission for Africa, has the right training and expertise to take on this task.[fn]Hamdok worked at the Finance Ministry in Sudan before he was forced into early retirement. He turned down an offer from Bashir to be finance minister in September 2018, at a time when the president recognised that the economic crisis posed a real challenge to his hold to power. Significantly, he hails from Kordofan in Sudan’s war-torn periphery, a shift away from the traditional dominance of such positions by appointees from the wealthier centre of the country.Hide Footnote  But he faces an enormous obstacle in the form of Sudan’s debt stock, which stands at close to $60 billion.[fn]“Sudan PM seeks end to Sudan’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Securing debt relief from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Sudan’s Paris Club creditors, however, is bound up with the question of whether the U.S. government will rescind its 1993 designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism (SST), which was imposed at a time when Khartoum hosted al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden.

Given the politics surrounding the SST issue in the U.S. and in light of historically fraught relations between Washington and Khartoum, lifting the designation will not be straightforward.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Time to Repeal Sanctions on Sudan?; and Crisis Group Briefing, A New Roadmap to Make U.S. Sudan Sanctions Relief Work, both op. cit. See also “U.S. is open to removing Sudan from terrorism list, diplomat says, The New York Times, 16 November 2017. The U.S. has as far back as 2017 attempted to use the State Sponsors of Terrorism designation to demand change on human rights and political freedoms.Hide Footnote  Moreover, even if it is lifted, Sudan’s arrears of $2.6 billion will nevertheless preclude debt relief until they can be cleared.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economist, U.S. government and Congressional officials, Washington, September 2019. See Crisis Group Briefing, Improving Prospects for a Peaceful Transition in Sudan, op. cit. If the transition stays on track, help for clearing these arrears might come in the form of a bridging loan from a supportive government and write-offs.Hide Footnote

Still, Khartoum – along with its European and Gulf partners – should press for lifting the SST designation, and Washington should acquiesce. There are more than enough economic, symbolic and political reasons to move forward with the SST lifting as soon as possible. In addition to being a necessary though insufficient step toward debt relief (which will also require meeting benchmarks for fiscal transparency in addition to clearing arrears), lifting the SST designation will open the way for international banks to re-engage with Sudan, reconnect the country to the international financial system, signal to foreign investors that the country is open for business and make clear to the world that Washington no longer considers Khartoum a pariah. Rescission will also pave the way for the loosening of other U.S. legislation and executive orders that restrict aid and U.S. economic ties to Sudan.[fn]The Centre for Global Development has compiled a list of such legislation and executive orders. See Jeremy Bennett, “Table of Legal Bases for Sanctions on Sudan”, Centre for Global Development, 6 October 2011.Hide Footnote

On the political level rescission will be an important win for Hamdok.

Perhaps most critically, on the political level rescission will be an important win for Hamdok, who can use it to consolidate public support at a moment when he will need all the strength he can muster. Just weeks ago, Hamdok made an impassioned appeal to the UN General Assembly to help him rehabilitate Sudan’s international image and lobbied for the U.S. to lift the SST designation.[fn]“Hamdok urges US to remove Sudan from sponsors of terrorism list”, Al Jazeera, 28 September 2019.Hide Footnote Lifting it will show that he can deliver. Although U.S. government officials have indicated to external interlocutors that lifting could take up to a year once there is a decision to do it, there is nothing in the laws governing rescission to indicate that it needs to take so long, and former executive branch officials suggest that there is precedent for moving much more quickly.[fn]Crisis Group conversations, diplomats, New York, September 2019. See also Congressional Research Service, “State Sponsors of Acts of International Terrorism – Legislative Parameters: In Brief”, 30 November 2019. As noted in the CRS report, there are two statutory routes to rescission. Under the first, the President must certify and report to Congress that 1) there has been a fundamental change in the leadership and policies of the government concerned; 2) the government is not supporting acts of international terrorism; and 3) the government has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. The second requires the president to certify to congressional leadership, 45 days before rescission takes effect, that 1) the government concerned has not provided any support for acts of international terrorism during the preceding six-month period; and 2) the government concerned has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future. Even if the executive branch determines that it must follow the lengthier second path in the case of Sudan, which requires a review of the prior six-month period, a former U.S. government lawyer noted that the government generally has updated information on which it can base its assessments, that a review need not take long, and that there is precedent for wrapping up such reviews very quickly when there is sufficient political will. Crisis Group interview, former U.S. government lawyer, October 2019.Hide Footnote  Moreover, even if there are hidden impediments in the case of Sudan, the U.S. government can signal its intention now, pledging to move as quickly as possible toward rescission – a signal of support that would serve Hamdok well.

Some knowledgeable observers have argued against taking this step before the RSF has demonstrated that it will allow the transitional authorities to make needed reforms and negotiate peace. They are understandably concerned that rescission will eliminate Washington’s key tool for pressing Sudanese hardliners not to spoil the transition.[fn]The Sentry (Enough Project), “A Modernised U.S. Policy for Sudan”, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Kicking the can down the road has considerable downsides, however. Indeed, there are strong arguments militating for lifting the SST designation even if Sudan were not negotiating a delicate political transition. For one thing, some commentators (including Crisis Group) have long expressed concern that the sanctions flowing from the designation disproportionately hurt the Sudanese people, create a shadow economy that empowers senior security officials and their cronies, and give the country’s leadership an excuse for its poor economic performance.[fn]Crisis Group Briefing, A New Roadmap to Make U.S. Sudan Sanctions Relief Work, op. cit.Hide Footnote  For another thing, it is hardly clear that Sudan – which obviously no longer hosts Osama bin Laden and has for years been a U.S. counter-terrorism partner – satisfies the criteria for being an SST any longer.[fn]Sudan has positioned itself as a counter-terrorism partner to the U.S. in recent years, including by sharing intelligence about the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Somalia-based insurgent group Al-Shabaab. A U.S. official told Crisis Group in April 2017 that Khartoum’s cooperation on this score was “active”, ahead of an October 2017 decision to drop some financial sanctions against Sudan. See Crisis Group Briefing, Time to Repeal Sanctions on Sudan?, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Sudan is in the midst of a delicate political transition, where lifting the designation has the potential to create positive momentum and maintaining it could have perilous consequences.

But the central consideration should be that Sudan is in the midst of a delicate political transition, where lifting the designation has the potential to create positive momentum and maintaining it could have perilous consequences. Securing a rescission of Khartoum’s SST status would give Hamdok the political win alluded to above and boost prospects for a successful transition. It would demonstrate to the Sudanese people that moving toward civilian government – as they have been doing over the course of the past year – can open doors that were long closed to the country and give it a chance at a more prosperous future. By contrast, the longer Washington delays in lifting the designation, the more the generals will be able to sow doubt that the civilians entrusted with Sudan’s transition are capable of bringing about the economic turnaround the country needs.

To be sure, if the U.S. moves forward with SST lifting, there is a risk that the generals will subsequently seek to derail the transition, and Washington will have lost one tool for influencing them. But there are other pressures that may help to keep the generals in line. For a start, even if the SST designation is lifted, Sudan will still need to meet certain reform benchmarks (especially with respect to fiscal transparency) in order to qualify for debt relief. Whether the generals might be willing to risk public outrage and Sudan’s economic future in order to spoil the reforms and deny Hamdok a win is simply not clear; some analysts doubt it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sudanese political analyst, Washington, June 2019.Hide Footnote To help manage this risk, Washington and Brussels should also signal loud and clear that spoilers who impede Sudan’s economic or political transition will be targeted for financial sanctions – as will their networks, companies and commercial facilitators.[fn]The Sentry, “A Modernised U.S. Policy for Sudan”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The AU Peace and Security Council, which already warned on 7 June that it would “impose punitive measures on individuals and entities obstructing [the transition]”, should reinforce this threat to deter spoilers.[fn]Communiqué of the AU Peace and Security Council, 7 June 2019.Hide Footnote

The U.S. and other partners should be considering other ways to strengthen Hamdok’s hand at this pivotal moment.

Beyond SST rescission, the U.S. and other partners should be considering other ways to strengthen Hamdok’s hand at this pivotal moment. One important step would be for them to create a broad economic relief package for the country that can help support the prime minister’s government while he embarks on necessary reforms. This donor effort should involve the World Bank, the U.S., the EU and its member states, the Islamic Development Bank, the Saudi Fund for Development, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development and other members of the Friends of Sudan international forum, such as Qatar.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UK diplomat, July 2019.Hide Footnote  All participating entities should pool funds for budget support and coordinated development projects and channel them to the government through a lead agency such as the World Bank or the African Development Bank.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UK diplomat, July 2019. Creating pooled funds is a step that donors can take even before the state sponsor of terrorism designation is lifted. Although these two agencies cannot directly lend funds to Sudan until the lift, they can legally coordinate the management of funds provided by voluntary donations. Crisis Group email interview, U.S. Congressional source, September 2019. U.S. officials have said that they would not veto the creation of these mechanisms even if it happens while the SST still remains in effect. Crisis Group interviews, U.S. Congressional sources, Washington, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Additionally, to help Khartoum put its financial house in order, Hamdok should request, and foreign donors should provide, technical assistance to help Sudan’s ministries track state revenues and illicit rent-seeking behaviour within Sudan’s complex state and parastatal machineries, including in the profitable and corruption-prone oil sector. With this assistance, Hamdok will be better able to navigate Sudan’s opaque financial systems and assess how he might take control of revenue streams that, legally, should be under the state’s purview and not under that of politically connected individuals with ties to the security services. Hamdok initially may decide to move cautiously even with these tools at his disposal, however, lest he provoke a sharp reaction from actors within the security services who could see their interests threatened.