Following the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, the democratic transition in Sudan has largely stalled due to myriad factors, leading to a precarious security, economic, and political situation.
The government negotiations with armed groups remain fractious, with the rebel groups bound together in unwieldy alliances that undercut any progress made in talks. This tension is best exemplified by the fragmentation of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and tensions between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North.
Further exacerbating the situation is friction between groups within the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC), with composite groups disagreeing on the state of relations with the military. This situation is further complicated by the inability of civilian opposition to protest given restrictions imposed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the volatile political climate is aggravated by the crippled Sudanese economy. While PM Abdallah Hamdok has attempted to get foreign investment, these efforts are stifled by Khartoum’s presence on the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, which disallows aid and funding from international financial institutions.
Ultimately, the precarious political and economic situation will suppress the influence of the civilian wing of the government, allowing the military, which retains cash reserves and revenue through various state-owned companies, to increase their political influence.
Travel to Khartoum may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity, while remaining cognizant of authorities’ instructions regarding restrictions, quarantines, and health procedures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A little more than a year after the toppling of President Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019 through military intervention spurred by months of massive nonviolent protests nationwide, the stability of Sudan remains precarious. Despite the appointment of the widely-respected Abdallah Hamdok as PM and the signing of a power-sharing deal, the transitional government of the military and the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) revolutionary council of groups remains fragile. This fragility remains despite the signing of a constitutional declaration on August 4, 2019, which laid out the transitional agenda, including the new institutional arrangements for sustained peace. This agenda also included securing a peace deal with armed groups within the first six months of the transitional period.
This process has stalled, even as it is being implemented in the form of peace talks brokered by South Sudan in Juba starting in October 2019. The peace talks were set up as a platform to create a truce between myriad armed groups in the outlying areas of Sudan in return for the safe participation of rebel leaders in the national political process in Khartoum. However, these talks have become the main forum for political negotiations between the government and the rebel groups, upstaging and undermining the role of institutional transition, which remains an unfulfilled promise as envisioned by the constitutional declaration. The efforts of the government to bring the disparate armed groups into mainstream Sudanese polity is further undermined by the internal fragility of the armed groups and the myriad objectives of the groups engaged in discussions.
Key Actors & Groups
Sovereign Council: The Sovereign Council is the collective body that rules as the head of state. It consists of five civilians chosen by the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC), five military representatives, and one civilian chosen by common consent.
Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC): The DFC is a political coalition of civilian and rebel groups. The DFC consists of members such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), unionist groups, and armed groups such as the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF).
Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA): The SPA is an umbrella organization consisting of 17 different trade unions. The group played an integral role in the mass protests that led to the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF): The SRF is an alliance of armed groups from across the country that was formed in 2011 in opposition to al-Bashir. Following the overthrow of Bashir, the SRF has engaged in negotiations with Khartoum over positions in the transitional government.
Negotiations between the Sudanese government led by PM Abdallah Hamdok and the SRF that were supposed to conclude on June 20 with a final peace deal were reportedly extended again.
The breakdown between the government and SRF continued to be on matters of security arrangements, the system of governance, and the wealth and power distribution within the transitional government.
Assessments & Forecast
Eventual fragmentation of SRF likely to open new fronts of negotiations
The stagnation of the peace process is best exemplified by the talks between the government and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of nine Darfuri groups that have long been at odds with the government under former President al-Bashir. While the government negotiators and SRF leaders have managed to sign provisional agreements over resource sharing in Darfur and the cessation of hostilities by either the government security forces or the armed group, a comprehensive peace agreement remains elusive. The government has made some transitional justice in Darfur a priority and has actively worked to earn the confidence of the populace in Darfur. Steps such as PM Hamdok visiting Darfur in November 2019 and the continued prosecution of al-Bashir for both corruption and atrocities committed in Darfur have been hailed as much needed in building trust between Khartoum and the outlying areas of Sudan. Furthermore, the government has also sought to placate and empower the SRF by allotting four seats on the powerful Sovereign Council to the group.
These developments are threatened by factionalism within the SRF, as various previously antagonistic groups attempt to garner as much influence with the negotiations as possible, while also aiming to consolidate power within the SRF. This was illustrated by the withdrawal of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) from the SRF on May 18 after consistently being rebuffed in its requests for reforms in the SRF structure that is currently headed by Hadi Idriss of the Sudan Liberation Movement – Transitional Council (SLM-TC). The SLM-MM, whose leader Minni Minnawi was the SRF deputy leader, has consistently criticized the organization of the SRF, while other groups such as the SLM-TC stress the need for progressing in the peace talks with the government and dealing with internal structural issues at a later date.
By withdrawing from the SRF, the SLM-MM is demonstrating its lack of faith in the ability of the group to negotiate with the government on even terms, given the structural instability within the SRF. However, that the SLM-MM has established its own SRF wing, which includes the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM-Dabajo) led by Bakheet Abdelkarim, is illustrative of the SLM-MM aiming to upstage the original SRF movement led by the SLM-TC. FORECAST: The breakaway faction is likely to pressure the government to negotiate with its constituents in the coming weeks and claiming that the new group is more internally stable than the original SRF organization given that it has fewer members.
FORECAST: To that end, the breakaway SRF will claim that any agreements made between Khartoum and the SLM-MM led faction would stand a better chance at actually being implemented. Additionally, the SLM-MM is likely to talk to other rebel groups within the original SRF to get them to secede and join the new faction, thereby escalating tensions between the already antagonistic groups. That said, the smaller size of the new SRF faction means that the government will likely continue negotiations with both groups simultaneously. The government will likely negotiate with both groups as a leveraging tactic and as a strategy to allow for more maneuvering space. This is likely given the entrenched distrust between both groups, and thereby the government will use this animosity to push for quicker resolutions in negotiations. However, given the wide variety of issues that need to be resolved, it remains unclear if such a strategy will succeed.
Progress with SPLM-N factions remains limited, with distrust between the groups remaining persistent
Meanwhile, the government has made some progress with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) faction led by Malik Agar in terms of integrating the group into the political mainstream. On May 2, the government and the SPLM-N Agar agreed to reintegrate rebel fighters into the Sudanese military, police, security and intelligence, wildlife, customs, and civil defense. The government also granted the SPLM-N Agar areas to establish military camps in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states. However, these developments have provoked protests from the rivaling SPLM-N al-Hilu faction, which accused the government of favoring the SPLM-N Agar and stated that the land allotted to established military camps was untenable, given that the Agar faction has a presence in Blue Nile, but does not control any land in South Kordofan or the Nuba Mountains, which remain an al-Hilu stronghold.
In this context, talks between the government and the SPLM-N al-Hilu faction remain volatile, given the group’s initial decision to refuse to negotiate until the government agrees to secularization and self-determination for the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions. However, given that SPLM-N al Hilu faction then agreed to restart negotiations with the government, excluding the points of secularization and self-determination, is indicative of al-Hilu’s cognizance that any government agreement with the Agar faction could lead to Khartoum favoring the rival group.
Ultimately, the renewal of talks with the SPLM-N al Hilu suggests progress, given the group remains one of the major armed factions in Sudan and controls a significant portion of territory. However, the decision of the SPLM-N al-Hilu to resume talks has likely not been made in good faith, given that the group only agreed to discuss issues that preclude the topics of secularization and self-determination. These issues are particularly important to them as a major segment of the population under their control is Christian and Animist, unlike the majority of Sudan. These groups perceive that, without concessions on these issues, they remain vulnerable to attack by Islamist government forces, as was seen by an attack by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in October 2019, which led to a suspension of the talks. In this context, it is likely that the group is only resuming talks to prevent the government from overly favoring the Agar faction. FORECAST: Given these conditions, it is possible that the government may agree to small concessions to the group, however, a larger peace deal will likely remain out of reach as the government contends with various Islamist groups and factions and their interests.
Factionalism within the DFC likely to further help the military undermine transitional efforts
Following the ouster of al-Bashir, factionalism within the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) has increased over the past year. This is in contrast to the disparate groups within the political opposition working together with the common purpose of the revolution and preventing the military establishment from gaining total control in the aftermath. However, transitional efforts have been slow and patience among the civilian opposition has waned, with groups such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which was a major driving force of the revolution, perceiving that the transitional government has been slow to install civilians into positions of power.
This tension is best exemplified by PM Hamdok’s decision on April 18 to postpone the appointment of state governors, allegedly due to the fact that the PM was still holding consultations with the leaders of the SRF. The delays were exacerbated by the SRF insisting that they should have input on how governors are chosen, despite the fact that the group has not signed a comprehensive peace deal with the government. This stance agitated members of the DFC, who agreed that the democratic transition needed to be inclusive of those in the periphery, especially Darfur, but perceived the SRF to be stalling for time in their negotiations with the government. The DFC raised this as a concern that the military wing of the government would use the delays to further entrench themselves in positions of power. FORECAST: In this context, the military will likely use their influence with the current military-appointed state governors to disrupt any attempts to democratize state institutions. This deadlock has led to violent protests in many parts of Sudan, which has, in turn, led to military leaders cracking down on the demonstrations, as they claim these instances of civil unrest to be a threat to national security.
Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the DFC in pressuring the government to hasten the democratization process is undermined by divisions within the political coalition. This can be seen with the divergent approaches of the SPA and the National Ummah Party (NUP) led by former PM Sadiq al-Mahdi. The NUP has consistently aimed to undermine the DFC, despite being part of the coalition, likely in an attempt to gain favor with the military leaders. Even during the process of the negotiations for the constitutional agreement, al-Mahdi publicly stated his acceptance of the military leadership in the country, as opposed to a power-sharing agreement. Most recently, the NUP froze all its activities in the DFC, criticizing what it perceived to be excessive demands by the armed groups during negotiations with the transitional government.
In contrast, the SPA remains highly suspicious of the military and consistently voices its disagreement on occasions where it perceives that the civilian government under PM Hamdok is ceding too much control to the military generals. The SPA has sought to preserve its influence nationwide by keeping neighborhood resistance committees active and occasionally holding protests to pressure the government into adhering to its schedule of democratization, though this approach has been disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions. The SPA has also taken divergent stances in terms of dealing with armed rebel groups, exemplified by the SPA’s support for the SPLM-N al-Hilu demand for a secular state and self-governance of the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State. This position is at odds with the DFC position, which has tended to downplay the SPLM-N al-Hilu’s demands, likely perceiving that any acquiescence to secular demands could lead to a loss of support to the government from the various Islamist groups present within the DFC.
FORECAST: The NUP will likely continue to issue statements criticizing the DFC and the government while positioning itself close to the military establishment. Al-Mahdi likely perceives that any possible eventual failure of the transitional government and subsequent increase in military control would allow the former PM to be positioned to be the civilian face of the military-dominated government. However, given that the generals are unlikely to be willing to divest much influence to even nominal supporters such as al-Mahdi, the NUP’s impact in national politics is likely to remain one of complication, rather than of any real influence. More broadly, the military generals are likely to portray the NUP’s support, and the SPA’s public divergences in policy choices, as proof of the DFC’s disorganized nature as a threat to national security, further putting pressure on the government to cede influence to the military.
Fallout from COVID-19 pandemic likely to further cripple government standing, strengthen military control
Sudan recorded its first case of COVID-19 on March 13, with the majority of cases being reported in Khartoum. However, the disease has expanded its reach exponentially, with the number of cases now doubling approximately every 13 days. The authorities remain ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic with contact tracing procedures remaining relatively non-existent. In this context, the medical infrastructure already incapacitated by decades of authoritarian rule under Omar al-Bashir has all but collapsed. The nationwide lockdown prevented doctors from going to work, with some professionals self-isolating due to the severe lack of protective equipment. The resulting staff shortages have led to many hospitals shutting down, with existing doctors noting that the burgeoning infection and mortality rates are likely being caused by the breakdown in healthcare services. While the government has implemented strict curfews and implored the citizenry to follow social distancing protocols, the low public knowledge of the disease has led to many of these instructions being ignored.
That said, while the military has precluded the treatment of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals, military leaders have used the pandemic to jostle for more influence while improving their image among the public. This is best exemplified by the fact that the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohammed Hamdan “Hemetti”, took advantage of the cracks within the DFC to rise to head the Emergency Economic Committee, a powerful ad hoc panel which decides matters of national importance such as economic reforms and the national response to COVID-19. Hemetti further attempted to burnish his image by pledging to deposit 200 million USD of his own money into the Central Bank to tackle the economic and COVID crisis.
Amid this play for power by Hemetti, he remains cognizant of his negative reputation among the population and international community given the RSF’s violent repression in Darfur during the al-Bashir era. Given this wariness, Hemetti has sought to allow PM Hamdok deputy positions in government committees, including the Emergency Economic Committee. The PM has not been the driving force for the democratic transition, instead seeking consensus from a fractured DFC, the military establishment, or in many cases both parties. However, such consensus has been difficult to achieve, given the parties involved are at odds with each other. Hamdok has also lost trust within the DFC after he rejected the nomination of DFC figures as state governors. The DFC perceives the PM as being too willing to acquiesce to the demands of the military establishment, with this perception being further bolstered by Hamdok’s statement that he viewed his relationship with the generals as a “partnership which is working,” despite the PM’s power being gradually stripped away.
PM Hamdok’s weakened position, COVID-19 effects likely to impact economic recovery
Exacerbating the situation is the continued downward spiral of the Sudanese economy, with PM Hamdok’s attempts to liberalize the economy being disrupted by the DFC, who have consistently sought to block the implementation of policies that would allow for investment from the “Friends of Sudan” group of foreign donors, which includes the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt. One of the major demands of foreign investors is the removal of a crippling system of subsidies on fuel and wheat. While the removal of subsidies is a way to halt the repeated monetized deficits and currency collapses in the medium term, it will likely lead to a further rise in prices of these essential goods in the short term, which greatly affects members of the DFC, of which unions play an important part. Furthermore, inflation continues to near 100 percent, with experts estimating that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause the economy to contract by seven percent. On the street, there remains considerable discontent over the inability of the government to control the rising prices of goods and services.
Since taking office in 2018, PM Hamdok has sought to solve Sudan’s economic woes by attempting to garner financial support and pledges of aid from various Western governments, most notably the US. In December 2019, Hamdok arrived in Washington, DC, becoming the first Sudanese leader to officially visit the country since 1985 as a result of President al-Bashir’s decision in the 1990s to provide havens for various jihadist leaders such as Osama bin Laden. These policies led Sudan to be placed onto the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. While on this list, the US government is mandated to veto any debt relief for Sudan from international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
While being on the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list does not place Sudan under formal sanctions, the designation acts as a deterrent to foreign investment and debt relief efforts. Khartoum has gone to significant lengths to prove its commitment to reform, including agreeing to pay damages for its role in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While the exact amount of damages has not been made public, the depressed state of the Sudanese economy will make it hard for any damages to be paid, which may further delay any US assistance.
FORECAST: Furthermore, given that US President Donald Trump has decided against fast-tracking Sudan’s removal from the list, this means that the case will likely be caught between the various committees of the State Department, national security agencies, and the US Congress. Ultimately, while the government is likely to continue pleading with the US to take Sudan off the list, Khartoum will likely remain low on the list of priorities for Washington, thereby further delaying any prospect of economic recovery through international investment.
In this context, while the government has traditionally been unable to borrow money from international donors and institutions, Khartoum has received relatively regular aid from China and the Gulf states. The Arab governments, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, have generally been significant donors, though much of this aid has been directed toward the military generals with an aim to control the levers of power within government and aid the Gulf states in their strategic aims. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to historically low oil prices, denting the economies of the Gulf countries, leading to pay freezes and layoffs. Another source of foreign exchange that has been affected by the pandemic layoffs is the remittances sent home by Sudanese workers in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, as both countries have implemented the prioritization of nationals in the workforce. Recent estimates are that remittances are expected to drop by approximately 20 percent given the layoffs, meaning that this money, which is often the sole source of income for families in Sudan, will diminish, thereby heightening insecurity and strife among the populace.
FORECAST: The government and PM Hamdok will continue to seek international assistance and investment, mainly garnered through donor conferences such as the ‘Friends of Sudan’ conference slated to be held in Berlin in June 2021. However, given that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a global economic downturn, with many of the wealthy foreign nations facing slowing growth or recessions, it remains highly uncertain whether these countries will be willing to pledge the large sums of money required to resuscitate the Sudanese economy. In this context, the military establishment will use its control of state-owned companies to keep patronage networks functioning, thereby further undermining the government.
FORECAST: In this context, the shortage of funds for the government is likely to further bolster the standing of the military. The military is unlikely to be affected by a lack of funds as it owns approximately 100 state-run companies, including establishments that sell lucrative commodities such as gold, gum arabic, oil, water, and weaponry. The military also has deep connections with the banks, telecommunications, and real estate, which means that the generals will likely remain liquid financially, money which they can lend to the government or use to gain control of government committees such as the Emergency Economic Committee. While the government has approved a plan to liquidate and privatize many government companies that do not pay taxes and are connected to the military elites, it remains to be seen how well this plan can be implemented. Given that many of the business elites in Sudan are allied to the military leaders, this means that any bidding process for these companies will also likely be compromised. Given these conditions, the government will likely struggle to raise funds for essential services. These entrenched issues mean that the political transition in Sudan will remain highly volatile in the coming months.
Travel to Khartoum may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity, while remaining cognizant of authorities’ instructions regarding restrictions, quarantines, and health procedures due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Immediately consult a doctor if you are concerned that you have potentially contracted the disease. Only procedure medication and medical advice from vetted professional institutions and remain cognizant of any fake or counterfeit medication.
Those operating or residing in Khartoum, as well as other urban centers across Sudan, are advised to avoid the vicinity of all gatherings and protests given the associated risks of violence.
We advise against all travel to the Darfur region as well as South Kordofan and Blue Nile states given the volatile security situation.
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