Trend Assessment: Cold winds sweep ‘Sudan’s Spring’
After three months of negotiations, political activists and the military in Sudan will formally sign a global transitional agreement on 17 August that will end nearly nine months of violent, and regularly deadly, protests. It will also initiate three years of political transition, a period that will be characterised by increased instability and policy uncertainty.
What’s the deal?
While the deal has injected hope in many democracy and civil rights advocates, parts of the deal are contentious, while legacy issues of the three-decade rule of Omar al-Bashir are likely to slow, or potentially upend, the process.
On 5 July, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) – the de facto government composed of senior military leaders that took power after ousting al-Bashir in April – and the so-called Declaration of Freedom and Change (DFC) forces – a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) that have led the protests since January – agreed to a basic power-sharing deal that establishes a ‘Sovereign Council’, which will effectively be the government. It will be composed of six DFC representatives and five from the TMC.
During its first 21 months of implementation, it will be presided by a member of the TMC after which the presidency will shift to a civilian leader. The DFC Sovereign Council members will appoint a prime minister, who will name a cabinet of 20 ministers from a list of nominees from both camps . National government elections are planned after the transitional period, which is subject to extensions. The deal also plans to move the elite paramilitary unit, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – which is widely accused by civil society of killing hundreds of protesters since the uprising began – under the purview of the ministry of interior; it is currently under the direction of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).
Two main points of contention increase the likelihood of extensions to the transition or worse, its collapse. Firstly, the DFC forces have been demanding a civilian-led government, free from military and religious interference. However, key military leaders of the al-Bashir regime remain in strategic positions and are overseeing the transition. This includes the head of the elite military unit the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and deputy president of the TMC, Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo, alias Hemedti.
Although the political agreement removed perpetual immunity for the five TMC representatives who will sit on the Sovereign Council – a key demand by some in the DFC alliance – it is doubtful there will be enough will and capacity to legally pursue high-ranking military officers, who are accused of orchestrating mass killings of protesters in early June, orr for crimes committed under al-Bashir. Some purges are probable, but the armed forces are unlikely to get a comprehensive makeover. That is highly probable to lead to DFC infighting, and potential divisions among CSOs in the three-year outlook, with some favouring government stability over justice.
Secondly, the integration of the ‘peripheries’, such as war-torn Darfur in the west of the country, into the national transition is another one. So far, much of the revolution has been guided by elite networks and returning members of the diaspora from Khartoum, to the detriment of outlying regions such as North Kordofan, Blue Nile state, or Darfur.
This is problematic given the wide-ranging patronage networks that Hemedti is reported to have extended in Darfur since the country lost most of its oil reserves to South Sudan after it seceded in 2011. This means that he and his extended family networks remain influential in Darfur and other parts of the country. In turn, this could increase friction between the Khartoum government and the provinces, potentially creating delays or leading to unrest.
An alleged coup in early July, which the TMC said it had thwarted ‘in recent weeks’ on 24 July, appeared to indicate growing divisions within the upper echelons of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the NISS. The TMC said the coup attempt had been organised by high-ranking politicians from the National Congress Party (NCP) of al-Bashir, and the Islamic Movement, as well as on-duty and retired SAF officers. Among those arrested were former prime minister General Bakri Hassan Saleh, who was dismissed by al-Bashir in February.
Further instability is highly likely over the next three years. A flashpoint for such unrest will be the prosecution of senior RSF or NISS officials which is likely to fuel division among the security forces. Although immunity for Hemedti has been removed under the new deal, he remains very influential both in the Khartoum capital region and in Darfur. Furthermore, since removing al-Bashir the RSF has moved its people to strategic positions within the state and local governments, including to the upmarket Khartoum 2 district, as well as to key positions within the NCP. This suggests the RSF will most certainly remain influential during the transition; any attempt to diminish this position carries risks of instability.
The legacy of an ailing economy
Another element that will threaten the success of the transition is Sudan’s bleak economic outlook. The country has effectively been in a state of perpetual economic hardship since South Sudan seceded, and obtained most of the country’s lucrative oil fields, in 2011. Since then, the government’s ability to collect revenue has weakened significantly, while debt has jumped to 62 per cent of GDP, a good way above the 50 per cent limit which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommends for developing countries.
On life support
Aid from the Gulf region has kept government finances afloat. Shortly after al-Bashir stepped down, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a USD3 billion aid package to Sudan. In early August, the two monarchies announced they were donating 540,000 tonnes of wheat to Sudan, a move which is likely to reduce inflationary pressures over the coming three months.
But apart from aid from the Gulf, Sudan remains commercially isolated. Unless relations resume with major economic powerhouses of the world, such as the US and the EU, the revolution risks being short-lived. Sudan has asked the US to remove it from its list of State Supporters of Terrorism after more than two-and-a-half decades. Such a move would open up financing from the Washington-based lending institutions – the World Bank and the IMF. A US state department official said in early August that the US was not ready to remove Sudan from the list anytime soon, saying there were underlying issues to address before this could happen. Talks to normalise relations were suspended in April, and are likely to remain so until Washington considers there has been tangible progress made in the transition.