Sudan has swung between hope and despair since April 11, when the most sustained civilian protest movement in the country’s modern history swept the president, Omar al-Bashir, from power.
Many Sudanese celebrated his ejection, seeing him as responsible for economic ruin and severe human rights abuses. But the generals who sought to placate the demonstrators by deposing Bashir showed reluctance to cede power.
The security forces’ June 3 attack on protesters in Khartoum repulsed the world and galvanised support for mediation that yielded a power-sharing agreement on August 17. Still, more outside support is needed to keep the transition on track.
The African Union should appoint an envoy to help bridge the gap of mistrust between parties. For their part, Western powers should signal willingness to open the taps of badly needed financial support, encourage Khartoum to make peace with rebel factions on Sudan’s periphery and sustain pressure on the generals’ Gulf allies to ensure that all sides abide by the deal Sudan needs to move ahead.
There have been encouraging steps since the military leaders and civilian opposition signed a constitutional declaration sealing the power-sharing agreement at a ceremony next to the Nile in Khartoum.
The parties named representatives to an 11-member sovereign council that is to steer the country to free elections over the 39 months from August 17. A widely respected economist, Abdalla Hamdok, became prime minister four days after the ceremony, and a new Cabinet took office on September 8.
But the generals continue to wield influence, and they have shown few signs that they intend to respect the Sudanese people’s demand for a civilian-led administration. In Sudan’s lopsided, patronage-driven economy, the top brass has a clear interest in clinging to political power.
That is just one problem among many. In addition to being a potential spoiler, the security establishment is fragmented, unaccountable and subject to dangerous internecine rivalries.
The once-dominant army has lost its primacy to the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group formed from the remnants of the Janjaweed militia — of Darfur infamy — and run by Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti”, who may be the most powerful man in Sudan.
The country’s primary military and paramilitary organisations should be unified under one command, but that project will require patience and encouragement from outside powers such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Forcing the issue could result in confrontation at a time when the last thing Sudan needs is more conflict.
Then there is the issue of maintaining the unity of the extraordinarily broad civilian coalition — the Forces for Freedom and Change — which has been at the vanguard of the uprising. Comprising professional associations, civil society groups, unions, political parties and armed groups, the coalition has had its own internal struggles. It will need to deftly manage them lest the security establishment use fissures in its unity to peel off constituents and weaken it politically.
There are also wars on the country’s periphery — in the Blue Nile, Kordofan and Darfur regions — that tear at national cohesion. The transitional government should focus on ending these conflicts.
Yet for all the problems standing in Sudan’s transitional path, there are reasons for hope. For one thing, the protest movement’s strength and increasing sophistication set it apart from anything in the country’s recent history.
The generals have already seen that strong-arm tactics of the sort used to quell prior movements — for example in 2013 — are not likely to work here. For another thing, a botched transition could stymie prospects for a surge of desperately needed international support and investment in Sudan’s flailing economy. That is an outcome for which the security forces will almost certainly not wish to be blamed.
Against this backdrop, there is a good deal that outside actors — including African powers, Khartoum’s backers in the Gulf, Western states and multilateral organisations — can do to help the power-sharing arrangements succeed and nudge Sudan along the path of transition.
Diplomatically, regional actors (especially Ethiopia and the AU) played a key role in unlocking talks after the June 3 massacre and should continue to stay closely involved. The AU should dispatch an envoy to support the transition by mediating between the two sides and helping guard against the possibility that the security establishment (with all its structural advantages) will steamroll the civilian opposition if there are disputes over the deal’s details.
The deal will be all the stronger if Western powers, including the United States, keep up the pressure to honour it and press Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — all with close ties to the generals in Khartoum — to do the same.
There is also much to do on the economic front. Rescuing Sudan’s anaemic economy will require international support through a major multilateral donor initiative. Hamdok has estimated that the country needs a $10-billion infusion over the next two years. Donors, including the US, the European Union and its member states, and Gulf countries, should begin taking steps to support this request.
The US should also move expeditiously to rescind Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which forbids international financial institutions from issuing loans and impedes other foreign investment, thereby hobbling Sudan’s private sector.
Lifting the designation would help the newly appointed, civilian-led cabinet by giving it an early win and would be an important step toward Sudan’s qualifying for debt relief. External partners should couple these supportive measures with stern warnings that spoilers in Khartoum who impede the economic and political reforms necessary for Sudan’s successful transition will be subject to targeted sanctions on the part of the AU, EU and US.
Sudan is one of Africa’s most important countries, sandwiched between two major powers, Ethiopia and Egypt, abutting the Red Sea and located in a region scarred by instability. The benefits of a successful transition are potentially enormous, and the cost of state failure would be vast. Until recently, it was hard to imagine a moment of opportunity like the country now faces. It would be a mistake to squander it.
This is an edited extract from an International Crisis Group report