Six months since the start of the transition to civilian rule, the process in Sudan is increasingly in question as Bashir-era generals work to retain their power.
Sudan’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, last week survived an assassination attempt targeting his convoy in the capital, Khartoum. It will be difficult for him to escape the lesson that he is acutely vulnerable and that his personal safety depends on the goodwill of the generals – the men who ousted Omar al-Bashir last year at the height of a revolutionary uprising, and who for months resisted the idea of civilian government.
Six months since the appointment of Hamdok, a popular former World Bank economist, Sudan’s transition to civilian rule is in deep trouble. The downward spiral of the Sudanese economy that triggered the revolution in late 2018 has only continued since. The prime minister was appointed by the Forces of Freedom of Change (FFC), the revolutionary coalition but, since that time, it has stymied his freedom of manoeuvre. The FFC blocked his move to cancel subsidies for fuel, which he sought to do in order to woo the Friends of Sudan group of foreign donors. Meanwhile, ordinary Sudanese wait in line for hours every day to buy fuel and bread, and the Sudanese pound continues its inexorable slide. Hamdok does not seem to have a plan B.
Last summer, the FFC and the military junta that ousted Bashir worked together to hammer out a power-sharing deal that culminated in a constitutional declaration. The declaration set out a transition agenda, which included a new institutional set-up for Sudan. In this agenda, securing a peace deal with armed groups was a priority for the first six months of the transition. The post-revolutionary civilian-led cabinet, headed by Hamdok, was meant to act as the supreme executive authority. But it has lost ground to the Sovereignty Council, the mixed civilian-military body that collectively acts as the head of state. Though it has a civilian majority, the Sovereignty Council largely abides by the wishes of generals inherited from the Bashir era.
Amid this complex tug of war, the ambitious promise of the constitutional declaration of August 2019 – a rapidly concluded peace agreement with armed groups, followed by a constitutional conference ahead of elections – is waning. The peace talks, which began in Juba in South Sudan in September 2019, should have been only a first step in a broader process, yielding a truce in exchange for the safe participation of rebel leaders in the national political process in Khartoum. Instead, they have turned into the central forum for Sudanese politics with all sorts of matters playing out there, shunting institutional transition far down the agenda.
The Sovereignty Council has used the peace negotiations to grab yet more power at the expense of the civilian-led cabinet
Under the influence of the generals – and of the United Arab Emirates, which backs the process – the Sovereignty Council has used the peace negotiations to grab yet more power at the expense of the civilian-led cabinet, in direct contradiction of the constitutional declaration. The government delegation in Juba, which is dominated by members of the Sovereignty Council, has chosen a wide focus for the talks, striking deals with representatives of political groups from regions not at war. In the process, the Sovereignty Council has made a show of its power and sidelined the cabinet from decision-making on issues central to Sudan’s future. The agenda of the talks has ballooned to something of a national political process rather than the initial step it was meant to be.
The Sovereignty Council’s negotiators have now declared that the constitutional declaration could be amended in light of the peace talks, allowing armed groups to demand that crucial facets of the document be re-examined. These include the duration of the transition period, and the composition of the cabinet and of the Sovereignty Council. This chips away at the framework designed to hold the transition together.
The most relevant rebel factions – those led by rebel figures Abdelwahid al-Nur and Abdelaziz al-Hilu – have largely remained on the sidelines of the talks: they are convinced that power in Khartoum remains in the hands of Bashir’s repressive apparatus, a belief that recent events have done little to dispel. It is doubtful that an agreement without them would bring lasting peace to the country’s peripheries.
Nevertheless, the pace of the talks has accelerated in recent days. A partial deal – between the government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front, an umbrella organisation for armed groups – appears to be just weeks away. Such an agreement could upend Sudanese politics. By bringing together senior political figures from the country’s peripheral areas – the leaders of armed groups and some members of the Sovereignty Council, such as its deputy, an Arab general from Darfur popularly known as Hemedti – the deal would end the central Arab elite’s decades of dominance over the state.
The FFC, whose leadership disproportionately hails from central regions, is anxiously watching a process that has escaped its control. Due to divisions between them, members of the FFC have otherwise been unable to proceed with the institutional agenda of the transition. The transitional parliament, which should have been appointed by early November 2019, exists only on paper. The FFC blames these delays on the peace process, but has not even begun to discuss how seats will be apportioned to its members. Regional executives remain in the hands of military governors that Bashir put in place, but Hamdok has refrained from appointing new civilian governors: in the lists of names they submitted to him, members of the FFC shared the spoils with seemingly little concern for local representation – and Hamdok is worried that going ahead with the appointments would spark protests across the country. Caught between the fractious FFC and the generals, Hamdok is looking weaker by the day. If these trends continue, the generals may well bring an end to his government and reassert military rule.
Restoring prospects for genuine democratisation would require Hamdok and the FFC to quickly begin vigorous institutional reforms in Khartoum. There is little European influence can achieve if Hamdok continues to largely confine himself to the role of an economic administrator, or if the FFC does not work seriously to organise beyond its narrow social base and appoint governors and transition parliamentarians who genuinely reflect Sudan’s diversity.
Europeans should insist that the constitutional declaration serve as the basis for the transition, and that any amendment follow a three-way discussion between the Sovereignty Council, the cabinet, and the FFC. The appointment of the transitional parliament, which alone would provide accountability for the Sovereignty Council, should be an urgent priority.
In anticipation of a peace deal, Europeans could also coordinate with Hamdok’s cabinet, the FFC, armed groups, and civil society groups to identify opportunities to support a new national process. This process should take place in Sudan, offer representation to civil society groups that are currently on the sidelines (such as neighbourhood resistance committees, women’s organisations, and internally displaced persons groups), and provide a legitimate forum to address the grievances of Sudan’s regions. Such a process could take place in the transitional parliament, in a constitutional conference, or in thematic conferences. Failure to bring together representatives from the various constituencies that welcomed the revolution will make authoritarian restoration inevitable.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.