Sudan’s long walk to freedom

Andrew Tchie
By Andrew Tchie
Editor, IISS Armed Conflict Database

Dr Andrew Tchie is a research fellow in conflict, security and development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). As the editor of the IISS Armed Conflict Database he focuses on understanding civil war dynamics and violence against civilians by state and non-state actors.

Posted on Wednesday, 24 April 2019 11:14

On 23 April protestors ride in on to Khartoum on a train from Atbara, the birthplace of the uprising that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Any swift transition to democratic rule in Sudan could further deepen tensions that already exist in the country. While the protestors’ demands and momentum represent a milestone for Sudan, the country faces several crucial challenges before it can transition to democracy.

Events in Sudan mark the sixth military coup and the third where a civilian uprising has helped to oust a leader.

President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a coup in 1989, is under arrest in Kobar maximum security prison after being ousted by the military, under pressure from protestors. Bashir had dealt swiftly and ruthlessly with similar protests in 1992 and 2013.

The military council who ousted Bashir said he would be tried at home and not extradited to the International Criminal Court. But, in a recent statement, council members said this would be down to the new government to decide.

Bashir is accused of genocide in Darfur, beginning in 2003, oppressing civilians in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan states and of war crimes in the conflict against the south – now South Sudan. In recent days suitcases loaded with more than $7m in US dollars, euros and Sudanese pounds were found at Bashir’s home.

The initial protests were sparked by people who could not afford bread. They quickly mobilised into a movement for change which attracted support from professional organisations and women’s groups, who played a critical role in his downfall. Sudan’s professional associations also played a leading part in the 1964 and 1985 uprisings that swept away Sudan’s previous two dictators.

If key rebel groups do not participate in the negotiations, settlements are doomed from the get-go

However, recent events suggest the military seems set on repeating a trend that emerged during the transitional periods of 1964-1965 and 1985-1986. On both occasions, key rebel groups did not participate in the negotiations. This meant that negotiated settlements were doomed from the get-go.

The military council that took control suspended the constitution and said elections will be held in two years. The signatories to the Declaration of Freedom and Change coalition of opposition parties, including the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), have rejected the seizure of power by Sudan’s military, and called on the public to maintain the protests and sit-ins. The SPA is calling on the military council to be dissolved and replaced by a civilian council including representatives of the army.

On 15 April the African Union (AU) gave Sudan’s military council 15 days to install a civilian government or risk getting kicked out of the bloc. The AU said a military transition would be “completely contrary to the aspirations of the people of Sudan” and that the country must aim to hold “free, fair and transparent elections” as soon as possible.

However, any swift transition to democratic rule in Sudan could further deepen tensions that already exist in the country. While the protestors’ demands and momentum represent a milestone for Sudan, the country faces several crucial challenges before it can transition to democracy.

1. Security reform

The protesters believe they have the wind in their sails, and rightly so. But a fractured military, security and intelligence apparatus could hinder the protestors’ overall demands if these forces are not unified under new leadership.

  • The pace of events in Sudan quickly ushered in Lieutenant General Awad Ibn Auf one day, only to have him replaced by General Abdel-Fattah Burhan the next. Burhan, in a television address, said he would “uproot the regime” of former president Bashir, and called for immediate dialogue with leaders of the protest movement to restore “peace, order and security”.
  • The military council later named Lieutenant General Abu Bakr Mustafa as the new head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), with Hamdan Daglo, a.k.a. “Himeidti”, as its deputy head. However, Himeidti is a field commander for the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) counter-insurgency unit, which is accused of human rights violations against civilians in Darfur, Kordofan and Blue Nile. The RSF is also accused of using funds from an EU programme to mitigate the flow of refugees to Europe to pursue controversial and brutal border policing and protect the Bashir regime.

This demonstrates a need to gain control over the security sector, which at this stage may not be fully possible under a civilian-led government, for three reasons. First, the various different security sections are divided and at odds with each other. This will require a strong, stable and consistent leader, which looks highly unlikely under civilian rule.

Second, the security forces are still vying for power behind the scenes. Some are aligned to military officials with ties to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among them Ibn Auf and Sudan’s intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, who later resigned as the head of the NISS.

Thirdly, allowing senior figures some control over the security apparatus provides them with assurances, thus discouraging them from defecting, rebelling or the state descending into anarchy.

2. Addressing structural marginalisation through radical reforms

Structural and systemic problems have marginalised people. The government will need to adopt an approach that is radical, sustainable and inclusive in order to create and embed real change.

3. Establishing governance

The state needs to build a vision of governance that places it in the service of all Sudanese. The process will require accountability, devolution of powers to regions, establishment and maintenance of rule of law and order, respect for minorities, credible opposition and a responsive government. If not, Sudan runs the risk of falling into violence and a return to the status quo. In short, the institutions that are currently lacking need to be in place for a civilian government to be sustainable.

4. Elections without reform

Sudan needs to establish a clear mandate for a technocratic transitional government. Rushing forward with elections after years of authoritarianism is a recipe for disaster, particularly because the institutional systems are often not in place to support this transition. Instead, time should be taken to reform the key institutions.

5. Armed groups and South Sudan

Another challenge will be to deal with the issues in the west and south of the country. With almost half of the population living below the poverty line, dealing with armed groups who formed because of Bashir’s exploitative policies is crucial to stopping the emergence of new and future armed groups. Groups like the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the Justice and Equality Movement, Sudan Liberation Movement and the Beja Congress all formed partially for these reasons.

Bashir was one of the guarantors of South Sudan’s peace deal with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni. With Bashir’s departure, South Sudan’s peace deal could be further derailed.

  • The Sudan oil deal remains central to medium-term engagement between the two countries.
  • Several of South Sudan opposition figures including Riek Machar and Johnson Olony, who had Bashir’s support, still pose a military threat and reside in Khartoum.
  • Tut Gatluak, the chair of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan National Pre-Transitional Committee (R-ARCSS NPTC) was closely associated with Bashir, which will change his role and influence on Juba.
  • With Kiir previously supporting SPLM-N, this impacts on the relations between the two countries.

6. An inclusive political process

Leaders of the three main opposition parties – the National Consensus Forces Alliance, Nidaa al-Sudan and the Ummar party – were slow to support Sudan’s uprising but may need to negotiate with the National Congress Party (NCP), who ruled with Bashir. Despite its ideological Islamist roots, the NCP could pose a future threat to the stability of Sudan because it is connected to Sudan’s military and could connect to groups or individuals returning from conflicts in the Middle East, forming opportunities to create instability.

7. Looming debt and a weak economy

Finally, Sudan will need to get through its currency crisis and an inability to manage a shortage of foreign exchange, which sent inflation rates soaring and struck living standards. With inflation at 120% and $55bn in foreign debt and high unemployment, the Sudanese need to take a decision to address the economy through comprehensive policies that place Sudan back on a road map to economic growth.

  • Should a transitional civilian government emerge, there is also the question of how quickly international financial institutions and donors would be able to step in and help stabilise the economy. Doing so will be necessary for Sudan to sustain its transition.

Sudan now has a chance to embark on a path to reconciliation, but this transition could go three ways.

  • First, Sudan could adopt the Ethiopia model under President Abiy Ahmed. This would require a radical reformist who had the backing of protestors, civil and professional society, armed groups and all segments of the security sector. But Sudan today is nowhere near this model.
  • The second model is the Egyptian model which is familiar across the Middle East. Egypt ended up with General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in 2014, who intends to hold power until 2034.
  • The third model is the Libya model, where foreign governments back a regime to their liking but generals like General Khalifa Haftar rise up to pose a threat. Whatever the outcome, Sudan’s future looks uncertain.

Caution, with realistic and sustainable policies, must be put in place by all Sudanese over empty rhetoric from the West, which could result in pushing Sudan into a democratic format that does not suit its future framework. Swift changes could hamper Sudan’s future and leave protestors with a model resembling Egypt or Libya.

Bottom line – For Sudan to achieve a reformist model like Ethiopia today, hindrance and interference from the international community without any synergy must be kept to a minimum. This will allow the Sudanese to find their own unique transition, resulting in the country developing into a more inclusive and prosperous society that eventually achieves a full transition to democracy.


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