Sudan: Rebooting an Endangered Transition
Sudan: Rebooting an Endangered Transition
Commentary / Africa 9 minutes

Sudan: Rebooting an Endangered Transition

An agreement between the military and civilians could provide a path out of decades of authoritarian rule, but progress is not assured. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains how the EU and its member states can support Sudan’s transition.

The 5 December signing of a framework agreement between the military and a coalition of major civilian actors could restore civilian rule in Sudan and give the country another chance to chart a path out of decades of authoritarian rule. But progress is far from assured. The deal requires the military to hand over power to a fully civilian government after having interrupted the country’s faltering political transition in an October 2021 coup. The December agreement also set the stage for broader “Phase II” negotiations – which have already begun – over a welter of difficult issues. But the agreement faces significant public opposition from an array of political actors excluded from earlier talks. Without wider buy-in, a final deal to form a civilian government will lack legitimacy and do little to sideline Sudan’s powerful generals, who could try to seize power yet again. Even in the best-case scenario, the new government will face huge challenges, including a cratering economy and rising discord. If it is to succeed, outside support will be required to bolster the economy and offer hope to the Sudanese people. 

To help give Sudan’s transition to democratic civilian rule after decades of military dictatorship a fighting chance, the European Union (EU) and its member states should:

  • Encourage the civilian political elite who negotiated the December deal to pursue energetically the coalition building necessary to build a stronger civilian constituency for the new round of discussions with the military. The credibility of a new civilian government will hinge on the extent to which it is acceptable to a wide range of political actors.
  • In this connection, support efforts led by the UN, African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) regional bloc to facilitate a fully inclusive second phase negotiation process, including tribal leaders, former armed groups and civil society actors who now oppose the framework agreement. Unlike the Quad grouping (the U.S., the UK, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia), which helped broker the December agreement, the UN-AU-IGAD trilateral mechanism has not earned the frustration of those who feel excluded from the December deal, putting it in a better position to play the mediator in reaching a final deal to form a transitional government. 
  • Prepare to take a leading role in coordinating the resumption of financial assistance to Sudan once a credible civilian government is formed and the military meets its commitment to step aside. EU member states should engage international financial institutions in trying to fast-track development aid and debt relief programs.
  • Continue to prioritise the delivery of humanitarian aid to Sudan, regardless of the political situation there, particularly to displaced people across the country. 
Signatory parties stand and raise signed copies of the agreement between military rulers and civilian powers in Khartoum, Sudan December 5, 2022. AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY

An Ill-Fated Power Grab

Sudan has faced increasing political instability since a military coup on 25 October 2021 applied the brakes on the country’s stuttering path toward more representative government. The coup toppled the transitional civilian-led government that took power in August 2019 in accordance with a power-sharing deal between, on one hand, a civilian coalition known as the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) that led months-long popular protests against Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule beginning in late 2018 and, on the other hand, the military that finally deposed him the following spring. 

Under the terms of the August 2019 agreement, the transitional government was meant to prepare the ground for fresh elections to usher in a permanent civilian government at the end of two years, but that failed to happen. Rather, popular frustration with the transitional government – including over the stagnating economy, power struggles within the civilian coalition, alleged corruption and mismanagement of public funds, and the failure to implement promised reforms – set the stage for the military’s power grab in October 2021. As the two-year deadline neared for Sudan’s top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, to hand over the chair of Sudan’s power-sharing sovereign council to civilians, he used the pretext of growing anti-government sentiment to seize power and disband the civilian government. 

The coup backfired. Burhan and his fellow generals faced fierce popular resistance and regular protests organised by youth groups, women’s coalitions and others, while top civilian politicians refused to help it form a new government. Sudan’s external partners including the AU, U.S., EU, UK and UN condemned the coup, while the military’s traditional backers, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, proved reluctant to provide major support. The coup also left an already sclerotic economy on life support, with unemployment rates in excess of 30 per cent, and further deflated the hopes of the country’s youth. Khartoum may have lost billions of dollars of outside assistance pledged to support the country’s transition. Long-sought debt relief negotiations, critical to unlocking the economy’s potential, also ceased. Living conditions continued to decline as rampant inflation further eroded the purchasing power of ordinary citizens. Floods, outbreaks of dengue fever and malaria, and violent unrest further undermined stability. 

Mediation initiatives struggled to end the political impasse. Efforts centred around a joint UN, AU and IGAD mediation track, known as the trilateral mechanism, and closed-door talks between civilian and military leaders marshalled by the coalition of Sudan’s partners known as the Quad, namely the U.S., the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Complicating matters, protesters continued to denounce any negotiations with the military. Still, the mediators pressed forward. Following Burhan’s July 2022 announcement of the army’s intention to exit politics if civilians managed to reach an agreement to establish a government, the U.S. in particular pressured the military and the FFC leaders (who played a prominent role on the civilian side of the table) to reach a deal.

The 5 December agreement, signed by more than 50 political and civil groups, promises the establishment of a transitional order in which a civilian will become head of state, serving officially as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and high commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), though in practice Burhan and his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti” will continue to lead the army and RSF, respectively. Under the new arrangement, civilians will also appoint the prime minister, a transitional legislative council and an eleven-member interim judicial council. The prime minister will in turn name the cabinet and state governors and chair the Defence and Security Council, where the heads of the various state security institutions will sit (including, presumably, Burhan and Hemedti).

The framework agreement looks very promising on paper, but its implementation will need to overcome significant challenges.

The framework agreement looks very promising on paper, but its implementation will need to overcome significant challenges. The deal has yet to gain wider buy-in from most “resistance committees” (neighbourhood groups that formed the core of the 2018-2019 anti-Bashir protests but that have since sparred with the FFC), other civic groups and community leaders, some former armed group leaders and many political parties. Among those excluded are constituencies that were originally part of the FFC coalition in 2018-2019. These groups have widely criticised the process for reaching the deal as exclusionary. Many of them accuse the FFC leaders of acting in bad faith by striking a deal to return themselves to power instead of first reaching agreement on a negotiated transition plan that has support from diverse political actors, and that also holds the coup leaders accountable for crimes committed against civilians. 

The December agreement left space for a second phase of negotiations, which have commenced. These “Phase II” discussions are taking place among FFC leaders and other political actors on five major contentious issues, including security reforms; transitional justice; the status of the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (which sought to fold armed groups from the peripheries into the transition); security and development demands from tribal leaders in eastern Sudan; and reclaiming economic and political benefits bestowed on Bashir allies. 

The Phase II negotiations provide an opportunity for a broad range of political actors to reach a final agreement that leads to the formation of a credible civilian government. But it is hardly easy going. Non-signatories of the December agreement accuse the FFC leaders of trying to control the Phase II process and who gets to sign the agreement that emerges from it. Unless the FFC leaders make genuine efforts to forge a broader coalition with civilian groups that are critical of the framework agreement, their exclusion will affect the credibility of any final agreement and the legitimacy of the civilian government that will take power. Without broader support, Sudan’s next government risks falling again, possibly to another coup. 

What the EU and Its Member States Can Do 

As Phase II talks move forward, the EU and member states should encourage the FFC elite who negotiated the new deal to undertake the coalition building necessary to put up a strong front in further negotiations with the military. The credibility of a new civilian government will hinge on the extent to which it is acceptable to a wide range of political actors. Players left out of the initial talks will only be willing to take part in the new phase of negotiations, and sign a final agreement, if they feel their interests will be adequately addressed and they will be negotiating on equal grounds with all other parties, including the civilian coalition that signed the initial framework agreement with the military. The EU should thus encourage FFC leaders to not only continue expanding the groups included in the talks but also to add agenda items they would like discussed. December’s signatories should also signal willingness to include more actors in the governance structures of the transition period, so that a broader range of constituencies can be represented. 

Secondly, to ensure a credible process more likely to bolster the next government with greater buy-in from diverse actors within both pro-coup and anti-coup camps, the EU and its member states should continue to support the mediation efforts of the UN-AU-IGAD trilateral mechanism. This mechanism, unlike the Quad, is not widely blamed for the closely held process around the December accord. The EU and member states should urge both the Quad actors and FFC leaders to allow the trilateral process to take a lead supporting role as a neutral facilitator in further negotiations and consultations.

Brussels and member states should prepare to support the government that emerges from the dialogue.

Thirdly, Brussels and member states should prepare to support the government that emerges from the dialogue. A civilian government that takes over from the military will face daunting challenges, and its success will depend on the extent it is able to address these. The major one is reforming and bolstering Sudan’s economy to better the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. With very little income from exports and domestic markets, Sudan’s new civilian government will need substantial outside financial support to meet the critical needs of its people and offer hope of a brighter future. A civilian transitional government will lose popular support if it fails to adequately improve the livelihoods of ordinary citizens, undermining public trust in the political transition. The result could be yet another military coup and a further setback for the effort to move beyond authoritarian rule. That in turn would not only help military-security forces further consolidate their political and economic power, but also create an opportunity for Bashir’s defunct party – the Islamist National Congress Party – to make a comeback. 

The EU should thus weigh what is at stake and be ready to help coordinate the resumption of financial aid from its member states, other Western and Gulf countries, and international financial institutions, including through the renewal of discussions on debt restructuring, once a transitional civilian government is reinstated in Sudan. The EU and member states such as Germany and France had previously coordinated donor conferences to galvanise financial support for Sudan’s transition. A similar initiative with much more rapid delivery of financial assistance is required once a civilian government is reinstated. 

Finally, Sudan is also facing enormous humanitarian needs. Already, 15.8 million Sudanese need humanitarian assistance. The EU and its member states should continue to provide such relief as a matter of urgency. Additionally, the EU should also continue to provide development assistance, particularly focused on health care, food security and education services, through its “urgent measures” budgets, which are implemented through UN agencies and international organisations. These measures will help mitigate the suffering of the Sudanese people and serve the broader ends of stability while the country struggles to find its political footing.

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