Sudan’s fragile future hangs in the balance
From the moment that Sudan obtained its independence from the British it has been gripped with internal conflicts that have divided the country. The current uprising has the potential to do that all over again but on a scale unseen before.
Armed conflict and mass atrocities drew the world’s attention to Darfur in 2003 and 2004. This conflict resulted in the death of perhaps 300,000 people and the displacement of millions more. Prior to this, Sudan fought two bloody wars in the South of the country, now South Sudan. In 2005, combatants signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005).
Over decades President Omar al-Bashir (in power since 1989) and a small group of ruling elites have transformed Sudan into a violent kleptocratic deep state. This group, as well as their enablers and facilitators, have amassed personal fortunes by looting the country’s considerable natural-resource wealth and state assets. Attempts to disrupt the looting machine or hold government officials accountable have been met with state violence and severe repression.
Civil disobedience and uprisings have featured throughout Sudan’s violent history. The protest in Sudan, which was largely executed in December, has survived in part due to the brave actions of protestors led by the Sudanese Professionals Association and with support from soldiers in the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF). Some of them, as well as protesters, have been injured, tear gassed and even killed.
At different points, members of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and Rapid Security Forces (RSF) have tried to disperse the demonstrations by force. The RSF was Bashir’s private army within the army and is made up of former members of the Janjaweed, the notorious fighters who committed mass atrocities in Darfur. Now led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as ‘Hemedti’), the RSF could finally be on its way out – but not without a possibly violent power struggle.
Pathways to peace or violence
The popular uprising that toppled President Bashir on 11 April appeared to be stalling as the negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) running the country and representatives of the civilian protesters came to a deadlock. The points of disagreement appeared minor at first. The Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) opposition coalition had insisted on being accepted as the sole representative of the protesters, and thus of the Sudanese people.
However, as the negotiations began to show cracks the TMC decided to cripple the process by using indiscriminate violence against protesters at the sit-in site in front of the Sudanese Military Headquarters on 3 June. In many ways, this shows that the TMC had to accept that it could not rule by consent and could only now rule by force. These actions are very dangerous because they kill off any opportunity for a political negation or settlement.
Beyond negotiations, what are the options for Sudan?
In response to the violence, the DFCF suspended talks with the TMC and launched a civil disobedience campaign to remove the TMC from power. Recent events suggest the TMC may have miscalculated its position and could be losing external legitimacy, as internal legitimacy totally evaporates. As a result, the TMC and the DFCF may be faced with three possible outcomes:
1. TMC/Islamist transitional government
- The first option is that the TMC attempts to form a transitional government including the Islamist opposition who were aligned with Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). This government would be made up of the non-DFCF parties, which include Ali al-Haj’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) and Mubarak al-Fadil’s faction of the Umma party, known as Hazb Al-Fakkah (formerly a part of Bashir’s last government, but which joined the protests towards the end). On 4 June, Shamseddine Kabbashi, the new head of the Political Committee of the TMC, claimed the TMC would continue to negotiate with other political parties. Despite the recent suspension from the African Union, this option would leave the TMC with continued civil disobedience from protestors and the possibility of further instability in Sudan.
2. The DFCF forms a parallel government
- This option bears similarities to the situation in Venezuela. A parallel government would require the support of the international community, regional and international institutions to force the TMC to transfer power to a civilian-led transitional government. This option is possible but could pose the worst risk to Sudan’s future stability. It would certainly leave Sudan looking like a modern-day Libya. It could create an opportunity for the armed groups in the peripheries to be a part of a new Sudan and be integrated into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), but it would create a massive security power vacuum between those within the military and the RSF, who have been fighting rebel groups in Darfur and other parts of Sudan for over a decade. This could cause leaders like Hemedti to go underground and continue to authorise the RSF to wreak havoc on civilian populations. This option could also embolden most, if not all, of the lower to middle SAF officers who support the uprising to take over once an alternative government is formed. But if coups in Africa have shown us anything, this would come at a risk of civilians being killed and the potential for a general or a Machiavellian middle-ranked colonel to want to take power later, as was done by former President JJ Rawlings in Ghana.
3. The TMC surrenders power
- The third option, which is least likely to occur without a fight, is for the TMC to surrender power and swiftly allow the DFCF to take over and set up a transitionary government or a transitional government of unity. This choice focuses on both sides cutting a deal, where the DFCF will offer guarantees that members of the TMC will not be prosecuted. However, it would still need the SAF to have fair representation in the newly formed government, which would diminish over time if Sudan becomes more democratic. Recent talks initially suggested that Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, would mediate if certain conditions were met, but after Abiy left the TMC started to arrest leaders associated with the alliance.
Turning the cards for Sudan
Whatever happens, Sudan is faced beyond its immediate crossroads with four possible outcomes:
- First, Sudan could adopt the Ethiopia model of President Abiy Ahmed, who made great strides at reforming the authoritarian country in his first year in office. In Sudan, a similar path would require a radical reformist that enjoys the backing of protestors, civil and professional society, armed groups, and the entire security sector. Unfortunately, today’s Sudan is nowhere near this model and there does not appear to be a sole leader, even from the Sudanese Professionals Association, who is willing to step forward. This would also require the SPA to reform itself into a legitimate political party separate from traditional political parties.
- The second model is that of Egypt – a familiar one across the Middle East and North Africa. After Egypt’s 2011 revolution the nation ended up with Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who will now hold power until 2034. Sisi’s electoral win gave him democratic legitimacy, but he then slowly ushered in a host of changes to the existing democratic framework.
- The third option is the Libya model, where foreign governments back a regime to their liking but generals rise up to pose a threat, as Khalifa Haftar did in Libya. Sudan today even without strong international backing is mostly set to walk this path considering the internal security dynamics that continue to play out behind the scene and throughout the horn. One way to avoid the inevitable chaos is for the international community to exert pressure on regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt, who have influence over the TMC.
- If mediation from the AU and possibly the UN is put back on the table, then Sudan could end up going down a fourth pathway: the Kenyan post-2007 elections model, which would need sustained external support from the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. Kenya’s situation involved former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan mediating between the opposing parties and supporting a transitional government. This could work well for allm or end up fuelling or contributing to new conflicts. The AU is under obligation to forcefully intervene and propose a road map for a peaceful and consensual democratic transition before it is too late.
Dr Andrew Edward Tchie wrote this article in collaboration with Jihad Mashamoun, doctoral researcher for Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, UK.