EU support for Sudan’s new prime minister is welcome in addressing the urgent challenges of the country’s political transition. But it will take more than economic reform to bring peace and stability to Sudan.
During Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s visit to Brussels earlier this week, the European Union pledged support to the historic political transition under way in Sudan. The bloc’s officials are preparing to pledge €100 million to the country at a crucial Friends of Sudan donor meeting in December. They seek greater coordination with the United States, Norway, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank in securing support for the Sudanese government’s economic reforms. Sudan has also asked the EU’s to push for its removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism – a move that would complete the process of normalisation between Washington and Khartoum, thereby facilitating international lending to the country.
Hamdok faces daunting economic challenges. Since late 2017, Sudan has suffered a currency and fiscal crisis that has led to hyperinflation, a collapse of the banking system, and shortages of basic goods, such as fuel. This economic crisis – Sudan’s deepest in decades – was crucial in mobilising the forces that deposed authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir in April. Yet, now that he is gone and civilians are nominally in charge, the economy continues to spiral. Inflation has declined, but only to 57 percent. Crippled by debt arrears, Sudan has no access to funds from international financial institutions. Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Badawi said last week that the country needed $5 billion to avoid economic collapse.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have provided a lifeline, disbursing half of a $3 billion payment they pledged to Sudan earlier this year – but this is not enough. The details of the economic plan put together by Badawi, a World Bank economist, appear designed to please international financial institutions. The plan includes projects that will have a swift impact – such as a census to map the needs of the population, with a view to providing jobs for young people – followed by the creation of a cash-transfer programme for the poor and the removal of costly subsidies on fuel and wheat. Hamdok’s goal is to redirect spending towards healthcare and education, as well as to eventually float the Sudanese pound. It remains to be seen whether Sudan will secure the funding needed for this ambitious plan. The road to Sudan’s economic recovery will be slow and difficult in even the most optimistic scenario.
But these urgent economic issues should not monopolise the attention of the government and its foreign backers. For Sudan to become a stable democracy, the government will need to extricate the state from the tentacular power of the military and security apparatus – whose abusive hold over society is at the centre of the public’s grievances.
The issue follows Hamdok everywhere he goes. The main slogan of the revolution – “freedom, peace, justice” – may be broad but, in the coming months, the Sudanese citizens who chanted it will judge Hamdok based on his approach to a few specific issues: whether Bashir, former defence minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein, and others wanted for war crimes in Darfur are turned over to the International Criminal Court; whether the commission of inquiry into the massacre of revolutionaries in Khartoum on 3 June is able to do its work; whether the National Intelligence and Security Service, the backbone of Bashir’s rule, is reformed and held accountable for its numerous crimes; and whether the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), most of whose members were recruited from the Janjaweed that spread terror in Darfur, are curbed or disarmed.
It is essential to meet civilians’ demands for freedom and justice, but this will create a clash of interests between the government and the heads of the military, paramilitary, and security forces. Given that, by Hamdok’s estimate, the government spends 60-70 percent of its budget on defence and security, placing new limits on these forces should also be an economic priority.
Former members of the TMC have all the trappings of power but little accountability.
Unfortunately, there are few signs that the prime minister and his team see things this way. In private meetings with EU and US officials, both Hamdok and Badawi described the military as an ally in the political transition. Speaking at the EU Parliament on Monday, the prime minister hinted that spending would only be redirected away from defence and security when the government has reached a peace agreement with armed groups from the Blue Nile, Darfur, and South Kordofan provinces. Asked last month about his strategy for dealing with the parastatal companies linked to the military and the security services that sprawl across all sectors of the economy, Badawi answered that his priority was to simply levy taxes on them.
The government has good reasons to fear the generals. Hamdok was appointed following a deal between the revolutionary opposition and the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the junta that deposed Bashir. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as “Hemedti”, leads the RSF – which carried out the 3 June massacre – and now sits in the Sovereignty Council, whose members collectively serve as Sudan’s head of state.
In these conditions, it could be tempting for Hamdok to pay respect to the generals, take the path of least resistance, and focus on a narrow economic programme. But he must weigh the risks of undermining the former members of the TMC against the costs of inaction. Time may favour the generals, as Hamdok will bear most of the responsibility for Sudan’s economic problems. Former members of the TMC, in contrast, have all the trappings of power but little accountability. Hemedti, for instance, uses his position on the Sovereignty Council to meet foreign dignitaries and run public relations campaigns, recently deploying the RSF to implement a health programme in the east that bypassed the Health Ministry.
As the generals largely oversee negotiations with armed groups from the Blue Nile, Darfur, and South Kordofan, any peace agreement that emerges from the talks could strengthen the military and the RSF. This would make civilian rule more difficult to achieve. If the economy struggles to recover and Hamdok remains unassertive, he might find himself at the mercy of the generals once the international community stops paying attention to Sudan. In this way, he would miss the opportunity for genuine democratisation.
Therefore, the government should work to establish civilian rule now that it has the chance. As a technocrat with no political base, Hamdok needs to bolster his public standing by achieving results in a broad range of areas. By taking clear steps toward justice and civilian rule, he will ensure that the Sudanese people remain patient with the government even if there is no progress on economic issues. So long as the world pays attention to Sudan, Hamdok may be able to assert himself without former members of the TMC – particularly Hemedti – attempting a coup.
This will take skill and careful sequencing. But the events of the past six months have shown that the generals will only cede power under pressure. After months of intransigence and the crackdown on 3 June, the TMC eventually only accepted a compromise later that month because it was under pressure from popular mobilisation in Sudan, as well as from the US, the EU, and the TMC’s Gulf backers.
The EU should use its support for Sudan to demand that the government prioritise civilian rule and justice, alongside economic recovery. This will require the bloc to coordinate with Sudan’s international partners and press Hamdok to take measures that establish him as the country’s political leader. In the short term, the EU should publicly insist that Khartoum bring Bashir and other alleged war criminals before the International Criminal Court without delay. European diplomats should also systematically favour meetings with civilian ministers and representatives of the Sovereignty Council over those with a military or paramilitary background. In private, they should encourage Hamdok to take a more prominent role in negotiations with armed groups, so that he can reap the political benefits of any peace deal. By standing on the side of civilian leaders, the EU will show that it is supports lasting peace and stability in Sudan.
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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.