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Transitional government attempts to revive economy, while challenges remain over opposition cohesion, military consolidation – Sudan Analysis

Executive Summary

The transitional government is likely to focus on reviving the crippled Sudanese economy, with PM Abdullah Hamdok likely looking to realign the budget, rerouting funds from military expenditure towards social welfare programs. However, these military budget cuts retain the potential for increased tensions between the security establishment and the civilian authority in the government.

Another major challenge for PM Hamdok will be the ability to keep the political opposition united given the disparate groups that form the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC). The military is likely to focus on the divisions between the various groups within the DFC in an attempt to break the coalition and thereby consolidate power in the coming months.

That said, there will remain latent tensions within the military establishment over relations between General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Mohammed Hamdan “Hemetti” especially over the latter’s control of lucrative gold mines in the outlying regions, which leave the RSF in a better position to fund and pay its troops in coming months.

Current Situation

An eleven-member Sovereign Council was formed on August 20, to be led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan for the next 21 months. On September 8, an 18-member cabinet led by PM Abdalla Hamdok was sworn in.

On September 9, the Sovereign Council and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) agreed to start peace talks in October with a final peace agreement slated to be signed by the end of the year.  Meanwhile, Abdel Wahid al-Nur, leader of (SPLM-N) stated that he did not recognize the transitional government, and withdrew from ongoing negotiations with Khartoum on September 10.

Severe bread and fuel shortages were reported in various parts of the country on September 14, resulting in repeated protests in Kassala, South Darfur, and Khartoum states over the subsequent days and weeks.

On September 14, the acting governor of South Kordofan ordered an immediate stop to all gold mining activities in the state as reported on September 14 following multiple protests against Rapid Support Forces (RSF) owned mines over chemical polluting the local environment.

In the first joint meeting of the Sovereign Council and the cabinet, the two bodies amended Transitional Constitutional Document that allows the appointment of the Attorney General and the Chief Justice on October 2.

The US Assistant Secretary of State said on October 2 that Sudan’s removal from the State Sponsors of Terror list is “a process, not an event”. Following this, the Sudanese pound’s exchange rate hit a new low against foreign currencies.

PM Hamdok continued to warn of disastrous consequences for Sudan if the world did not negotiate in getting the country removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 3. In connection, the World Bank on October 4 stated that Sudan needed to meet minimum criteria before it could be given foreign debt relief.

Assessments & Forecast

Transitional government likely to focus heavily on reviving economy, though attempts to realign budget likely to face military pushback

On September 28, new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok urged the US to remove Sudan from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, framing it as punishing Sudan for the acts of the former government. Hamdok’s focus on getting Sudan removed from that list is indicative of the crippling effects that the sanctions, which makes the country ineligible for much-needed debt relief and funding from international institutions, as well as limits potential foreign investment. In this context, there remains considerable doubt over the new Sudanese government’s ability to revive its stagnant economy, a priority given that protests against the former President Omar al-Bashir’s government started in December 2018 over the rise in prices of essential commodities amid skyrocketing inflation.

That said, in the short term the government will likely look to prioritize fiscal reforms, as well as measures to contain inflationary pressures and boost productivity in critical sectors. In this endeavor, the transitional government will likely look to leverage the legitimacy and trust gained from the successful implementation of the first stage of the power-sharing agreement to reform the budget and cut spending. Previous budgets have focused on the security apparatus, state transfers, and subsidies, which together make up 70 percent of the official budget. FORECAST: To better highlight its credentials as a civilian government, the PM will likely look to realign the budget to give greater priority to health, education, and social welfare, which together are currently allocated less than 10 percent of budgetary expenses. In this context, in the near term, there remains a heightened possibility that anti-government protests will begin recurring in the coming months if the government does not take immediate steps to reduce high of bread, while also alleviating chronic fuel shortages. Given the security forces disposition towards forcibly suppressing protests, makes it likely that any renewed protests will likely be met with force.

Additionally, given that security sector wages account for approximately 60 percent of all government salaries, reducing military personnel and costs will likely prove to be a politically sensitive and difficult process requiring support from the armed forces and its leaders in the transitional administration. In this context, realigning the budget will likely prove to be a major flashpoint and source of tensions between the PM and the Sovereign Council, which is led by senior military figures such as General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Mohammed Hamdan ‘Hemetti’. The military establishment will likely not countenance any cuts to the budgets, which could lead to a reduction in salaries for the armed forces, especially given their long-established practice of keeping the security forces well stocked and thereby relatively reliable even in times of nationwide upheaval as witnessed during the most recent nationwide protests. FORECAST: In this scenario, any attempts by the government to trim the security budget is likely to lead to consternation by the security establishment, as they will likely perceive the move to be the civilian authority under PM Hamdok attempting to curb the military’s influence on crucial revenue streams, thereby heightening the potential for civil-military unrest in the coming months, however this unrest is remains unlikely to devolve into large-scale violence at this time.

Furthermore, over the coming months, the biggest obstacles to the government in reforming the economy will be to dismantle the entrenched patronage networks that continue to hold control all institutions and key sectors of the economy. One of the sectors where this reform is most crucial is the gold mining industry, a sector which has taken on additional significance following the loss of nearly 70 percent of oil production after South Sudan seceded in 2011. Sudan is Africa’s third-largest producer of gold, with production in 2018 officially stated to be 93 tons which is equivalent to approximately 4 billion USD, with gold also now being Sudan’s main source of hard currency. That said, the al-Bashir government used the gold sector for patronage and to secure loyalties, often leading to huge inefficiencies and leaving companies tied to political interests and the security services. Such practices are best exemplified in South Kordofan where multiple gold mines are controlled by the RSF and Hemetti, who often uses the revenue from the mines to enrich himself and to assure the loyalty of his forces. FORECAST: In this context, any efforts to open up the mining sector to private investment will likely directly lead to tensions with elements of the security establishment, who may perceive that privatization of hitherto public assets would lead to them losing control of a major revenue stream.

PM Hamdok faces challenge of balancing competing factions within DFC, delivering on expectations of justice

One of the major defining traits of the protests that forced the military coup that finally toppled al-Bashir and then eventually led to the signing of a power-sharing agreement between the TMC and the Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) was the cohesiveness of the political opposition. The SPA’s role in circulating information about resistance activities meant that the movement was able to sustain its momentum and regularly stage demonstrations. The cohesiveness of the protest movement also proved vital in the talks concerning the transitional rule too, as it helped the military and the mediators identify counterparts within the DFC that, while not directly representing various opposition groups, enjoyed a relative degree of credibility as representatives of the political opposition.

The DFC also consists of parties such as the umbrella group of Darfuri armed groups known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), who have consistently petitioned for positions within the transitional government. However, following the signing of the power-sharing deal, the SRF currently holds no position in the Sovereign Council, which is likely suggestive of the DFC’s reticence in allowing the SRF back into the mainstream political space. In this context, the SRF continues to lobby for amendments to the Constitutional Declaration drafted and signed by the DFC and TMC. The SRF contends that they represent marginalized areas in the country, such as Darfur. That said, in the unlikely event of the government acquiescing to the SRF demands, it is notable that the SRF body is composed of myriad armed groups who have often clashed with each other during the long conflict against the government. This means that while the SRF appears to be united in the short term, any government rapprochement towards the group is likely to heighten internal tensions with the SRF, as the various leaders of the armed groups jostle for superiority and the chance to be presented with a lucrative cabinet position in Khartoum. FORECAST: Ultimately, the government is likely to continue negotiating with the SRF, to maintain the appearance of the administration wanting to facilitate pan-Sudan representation within the government while continuing to block the entrance of such volatile entities into the already delicate power-sharing agreement between the opposition and the military.

FORECAST: In this context, the SRF demands for constitutional amendments would inevitably slow down the process of establishing independent institutions in Sudan including a free judiciary along with the Legislative Council, whose vote is necessary to even initiate any legal action against Sovereign Council members such as Hemetti and other military leaders who the vast majority of the political opposition hold responsible for atrocities against protesters during the revolution to depose al-Bashir. In the event that the government ceded to the SRF demands of amendments to the constitutional agreement, the decision would then raise tensions within the political opposition, including the SPA, who using their neighborhood committees have already held mass protests in Khartoum and other urban centers reiterating the demand that governmental reforms be sped up. These protests were then dispersed by the security forces who likely considered the gatherings as a threat to national security.

While PM Hamdok has consistently stated the need for Sudan to build truly independent institutions including the judiciary, there remains a tension between the kind of justice that friction between the armed rebel movements and the DFC leadership, caused by diverging priorities concerning the emerging political order in Sudan. While the protesters led by the SPA strive to establish a civil rights-based rule, the parts of the DFC from the outlying areas of Sudan prioritize achieving peace and security and ending regional marginalization. The SRF initially rejected the Constitutional Declaration on the basis that it inadequately addresses the question of peace in conflict areas such as Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. FORECAST: Following the signing of the peace agreement, Darfur has witnessed a relative increase in violence against civilians by paramilitary forces including the RSF. This development and local actors’ disappointment at the way the Constitutional Declaration addresses the conflict situations puts the armed groups at odds with the emerging regime. While the agreement over the peace roadmap is a promising sign, frustration at the lack of progress in the peace processes will heighten the potential for increased violence in the outlying areas of Sudan over the coming months.

Military likely to seek to exploit opposition fragmentation in bid to consolidate power, though threat of internal split remains

Despite the positive development of power-sharing agreement between the military and the political opposition, security establishment backlash and consolidation of the military rule remains a real possibility. Sudan has a history of authoritarian backsliding, following similar successful non-violent uprisings in 1964 and 1985. Both movements were followed by a military takeover after a few years of tenuous and unstable multi-party rule. In this sense, the deep roots of military autocratic rule in Sudan are unlikely to dissipate easily. Generals such as Burhan and Hemetti are accustomed to exercising power and likely view themselves as cornerstones and essential elements for political and security stability. In this context, a full transition to civilian rule would likely lead to weakening in their powers, which would then expose them to possible legal retribution for alleged crimes against the population over the past two decades.

In contrast, the leadership in the DFC remains relatively inexperienced in ruling the state, as even PM Hamdok while a respected figure has resided and worked for much of his life outside of Sudan. However, given the protesters, relative success in indirectly leading to the deposition of al-Bashir, and forcing the TMC into agreeing to sign a power-sharing agreement with a commitment to eventually transitioning to a civilian government raises expectations to a high level. FORECAST: In this context, the military will likely aim to exploit differences within the DFC by negotiating deals with parties such as the SRF and the National Ummah Party (NUP), which have criticized the constitutional agreement for its failure to appoint SRF or NUP leaders to positions of influence within the cabinet. Furthermore, the military is likely to use the differences within the DFC to deepen existing fissures within the DFC, all the while using opposition disunity to consolidate power.

FORECAST: While the military is likely to use divisions within the DFC as a method to consolidate control of the country, there remains an underlying yet persistent possibility of splits within the security establishment itself. While General Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Hemetti are both parts of the Sovereign Council as President and Vice President, there have been persistent tensions between the two groups over control of assets and resources. That said, the constitutional declaration shows an effort to simultaneously control the military by placing the RSF under the authority of the SAF, there remains doubt over whether this hierarchy can be maintained.

The position of the RSF is particularly precarious position with regard to the transition, as its involvement in the transitional bodies is unpopular as the force is perceived to be responsible for the June 3 crackdown on protesters in Khartoum, which is thought to have killed over 100 people. However, Hemetti’s position as Vice President of the Sovereign Council makes it exceedingly difficult for the political opposition to exclude the group. FORECAST: While Burhan and Hemetti have thus far resolved to work together within the transitional government framework, fragmentation within the DFC could lead to both leaders jostling to consolidate power within the government, which could then further exacerbate existing tensions between the two generals. Ultimately, the political and security environment in Sudan is expected to remains tense for the foreseeable future.

Recommendations

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 continued 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 caused by ongoing violence between the government and armed rebel groups as well as inter-communal clashes.

Those in Sudan are advised to maintain contingency and evacuation plans due to the continued risks of operating in the country during the political transition.

For any further questions or consultation, please contact us at [email protected] or +44 203 540 0434.

Recent developments in Darfur highlight Sudan’s security dilemma of past armament of local militias; local escalation of conflict likely – Sudan Special Analysis

Current Situation

The Sudanese government launched a large-scale disarmament campaign in Darfur in October, as part of an effort to marginalize local militias and mitigate the threat they pose to the central government. Musa Hilal, the head of the Sudanese Awakening Revolutionary Council (SARC), refused to comply with demands for disarmament, and alleged that the campaign was launched deliberately to target him.

In response, Hilal, also the head of the Border Guards militia, was reportedly arrested by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia in a raid in Misteriya, North Darfur State, alongside his children, as well as other senior members of the SARC on November 26.

Reports indicate that dozens of people were killed in clashes between Border Guards militia and the RSF in Misteriya on November 29, when the RSF raided the Border Guards headquarters in response to an ambush of their vehicles the day prior. The RSF had reportedly besieged the town ahead of Hilal’s arrest, and remains heavily deployed in the area.

On December 1, the SARC released a statement condemning the arrest of their leader, and threatened revenge against the Sudanese government, particularly the RSF militia. They further noted that the arrest was a violation of the entire Rizeigat Arab tribe, as Hilal is the tribal leader of its Mahamid clan.

Background

Musa Hilal is most notorious for being a founder of the Janjaweed in 2003, organizing the loose coalition of armed Arab militias at the behest of the Sudanese government to put down the rebellions in Darfur. Hilal was eventually named as a suspect of genocide by the US State Department in 2004 and individually sanctioned by the UN in 2006 for his role in the ethnic cleansing of several tribes in the region.

Hilal came to be the head of a subset of the Janjaweed known as the Border Guards. After the war in Darfur largely subsided, the unit was later formally integrated into Sudanese military intelligence, now consisting of thousands of people, including 3,000 militia in Hilal’s home area in North Darfur.

Other elements of the Janjaweed became part of the newly-formed Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2013, which operates in coordination with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and is deployed throughout the country’s conflict zones in the western and southern regions, with another contingent sent overseas to fight in Yemen with the Saudi coalition.

Recent developments in Darfur highlight Sudan’s security dilemma of past armament of local militias; local escalation of conflict likely - Sudan Special Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments & Forecast

Militia Groups Formerly Supported By Government Now Present Main Security Dilemma

Throughout the the outlying regions, and particularly in Darfur, the Sudanese government armed militias to fight local rebellions, with relatively high rates of successes in these campaigns. Nonetheless, in the absence of an active mission, Khartoum has been left with well-equipped and combat-tested militias whose services are no longer needed, but present a threat as an armed group, acting as destabilizing agents in their regions as well as potential challengers to government authority. This is exacerbated by Sudan’s poor economic situation, leaving the government with fewer funds with which to pay off any militia leaders as necessary. Despite the widespread volatility of the region, Hilal and the SARC represented the largest group in Darfur that was in rebellion to the government in all but name, thus bolstering the likelihood that the disarmament campaign was a specific effort to neutralize Hilal as a threat.

Despite the integral role that Musa Hilal played throughout the intensive phases of the conflict in Darfur, his arrest is the highly notable culmination of the rift between Hilal and President Omar al-Bashir that has been ongoing since 2013. Hilal had become more politically ambitious, demanding a prominent role in the central government, and claimed that he was not sufficiently rewarded for his role in crushing the rebellion. This has caused tensions and outright clashes in the past, including an armed confrontation with the SAF and RSF over control of Jabal Amer, the source of significant gold deposits in North Darfur. This period saw the founding of the SARC as a new movement, now thought to number between 8 to 10,000 people, as a vehicle for Hilal’s political and tribal agenda, serving as a prominent example of the extent of the threat posed to the central government by previously supported local militias. Bashir has been increasingly wary of Hilal, especially as the latter has become more vocally critical of Khartoum, particularly in condemning the deployment of troops to Yemen, urging his tribesmen not to participate.

These developments are additionally notable as it comes as Khartoum is engaged in peace talks with the Sudan Call opposition, with ceasefires extended throughout 2017. While there remain holdouts, notably the Sudan Liberation Movement – Abdelwahid al-Nur (SLM-AW), the power of these groups has considerably diminished and outright confrontations are intermittent, with the most recent clashes lasting about a month in June and July in Jebel Marra. Reports have circulated of cooperation between Hilal and the rebel groups, which would appear paradoxical given Hilal’s role in the campaign against them, but the calculus had shifted following Hilal’s falling-out with Bashir. This was further emphasized when the SLM – Minni Minawi (SLM-MM) issued a statement on November 28 calling for Hilal’s release.

FORECAST: With that said, while this is politically expedient for the rebel groups, the extent to which they would be willing to mobilize on Hilal’s behalf is likely limited. Rather, the threat they pose in this situation is opportunistic, and there is likely to be increased rebel activity as they seek to take advantage of the government’s focus on Hilal and the SARC in order to stage their own attacks on the SAF and RSF in their areas of operation within Darfur.

Involvement of Regional Actors 

An additional element of this situation is Hilal’s ties to neighboring states, with the move to arrest him possibly triggered by suspicions that he is connected with Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar and the Libyan National Army (LNA), whom President Bashir accuses of deliberately working to destabilize Darfur. While Haftar’s specific involvement in Sudan is less clear, his presence is broadly in Libya’s east, which also hosts hundreds of Darfuri rebels suspected to use Libyan territory to avoid Sudanese authorities and, at times, to launch attacks back into Sudan. Furthermore, there are indications that Darfuri militias are employed by rival factions in Libya, increasing the Darfuris’ capabilities with funds, and further weapons and experience. To this end, several top SARC members were arrested by the RSF while en route from Libya to Darfur in September, who Khartoum publicly accused of recruiting for Haftar. In addition to concerns about Hilal receiving material support from Haftar that could be used against Sudan, the Sudanese government has likely pointed to the foreign influence in efforts to undermine Hilal and the SARC, attempting to impugn their opposition as non-local, or driven by external forces rather than a legitimate cause for hostility toward Khartoum.

In addition to Libya, Hilal’s daughter is married to Chad’s President Idriss Deby, who could have represented a source of support as N’Djamena and Khartoum have clashed in the past. However, Deby made a statement on December 2 affirming his support for the disarmament, suggesting that this will be limited and, instead, Bashir’s willingness to arrest Hilal may have involved a signal from Deby that he would not interfere. Deby and Bashir have made a number of public steps in recent months to demonstrate improved relations, including discussions of a joint border force. It is possible that Deby sees the disarmament campaign as potentially stabilizing the Darfur region, which would improve the security situation on his eastern border. In this case, this suggests that Hilal will see little support from those familial ties, which could have been considerable given Chad’s formidable military. With that being said, it is unlikely that Chad will actively participate in any of the ensuing conflict in Darfur, instead tacitly allowing Bashir’s plans to go forward without interference on Hilal’s behalf.

Conflict Likely to Remain Localized with Tribal Features, Have Indirect Effects on Other Regions

The most substantial risk in the coming weeks and months is intra-tribal. Hilal’s precarious situation with Khartoum in 2014 was exacerbated by President Bashir taking the second-in-command of the Border Guards, General Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hametti’, who once served under Hilal in the Janjaweed, and appointing him to a coveted role as the head of the RSF, which reports directly to Bashir. Crucially, Hametti is the head of the Amhary clan, also in the Rezeigat Arab tribe, and in addition to the RSF troops that he commands, this directly pits him against Hilal both within the military as well as the tribe.

FORECAST: As a result, the coming conflict is likely to be within the Rezeigat tribe, dispersed across Darfur, between the factions backing their respective leaders. Although elders have been attempting to mediate in recent months, the arrest of Hilal is expected to ignite the in-fighting. Arresting Hilal’s sons and other SARC leadership may have been an attempt to eliminate potential replacements that could organize the movement, but the SARC’s immediate response suggests they nonetheless retain these capabilities. Both the ambushes and targeted attacks on RSF troops near Misteriya as well as the SARC statement swearing revenge are indicative that those loyal to Hilal are ready and willing to escalate the conflict. Furthermore, given the role that Hilal played in the formation of the Janjaweed, his popularity among his compatriots and disillusionment due to his treatment by the government may trigger defections from the RSF to the Border Guards and the SARC.

FORECAST: Following Hilal’s arrest, there is likely to be a continuation of the backlash that was seen with the immediate fallout, namely deliberate attacks and ambushes on RSF troops in the Misteriya area in North Darfur. However, this is liable to spread throughout northern and central Darfur, where the Rezeigat Arab tribe is located, and see tribal clashes that extend beyond specific attacks on militia forces to violence against rivaling villages and towns, including in al-Fasher and its environs. This comes amid the ongoing withdrawal of the UN-AU Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), which has been in the process of handing over 11 military bases in Darfur to the RSF and SAF, better positioning them in the impending fight while removing a source of international oversight. Furthermore, as conflict intensifies between the Border Guards and RSF, President Bashir has little incentive to intervene or otherwise de-escalate the situation, as allowing the groups to fight each other necessarily weakens both, therefore relieving pressure on the government in managing the security threat of reining in the militias he first empowered years ago.

Given this dynamic, the forthcoming escalation is likely to be restricted to the Darfur Region. However, the re-deployment of troops from other conflict zones to Darfur as reinforcements may result in an uptick in militia activity in Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, as other rebel groups seek to take advantage of any additional security vacuum.

Recent developments in Darfur highlight Sudan’s security dilemma of past armament of local militias; local escalation of conflict likely - Sudan Special Analysis | MAX Security

Recommendations

Travel to Khartoum can continue while practicing security precautions regarding the threat of criminality.

We advise against travel to outlying areas of Sudan, particularly Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile States, given the volatile security situation caused by ongoing fighting between the government and armed rebel groups, the threat of kidnapping, as well as intercommunal clashes.

 

This report was written by:

Rachel Jacob– MAX Security’s Associate Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa Division

And reviewed by:

Tzahi Shraga – MAX Security’s Chief Intelligence Officer, ret. LTC from the Israeli intelligence community
Oded Berkowitz – MAX Security’s Regional Director of Intelligence, Sub-Saharan Africa Division, Europe and the Americas Division