Conflict & Resilience Monitor

Navigating Sudan’s quest for democratic transition

10 Dec 2021

ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Restructuring how Sudan is governed is essential to placing Sudan on the right course towards sustained democracy, especially given the military’s restructuring process that has been in play for over 50 years.

On 25 October 2021, Sudan succumbed to yet another coup leading to the dissolving of parliament and the declaration of a state of emergency. The coup dismissed the African Union’s mediated agreement of August 2019 – the joint civilian-military council designed to steer the country to democratic elections in 2023. The move was viewed as a way for the military to circumvent handing over the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council (SC) to a civilian government on 17 November. 

There are several reasons why the partnership fell apart. First, the fragile agreement was primarily held together by a web of weak stipulations but celebrated by western powers, the regional and the continental body as a successful model for African democracy

Prime Minister Hamdok was arrested at his residency during the early hours of the morning, and Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the SC, framed the coup as an attempt to push Sudan toward stability and progress. Appeal and pressure from the International community and shuttle diplomacy from the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission (UNITAMS) in Sudan to release officials detained and reinstate the civilian-led authority grew. The African Union (AU) suspended Sudan’s membership, and efforts by the AU to nudge al-Burhan and others to return to the transitional agreement seemed to fall on deaf ears. Even the AU mediator, pivotal to the negotiations in 2019, was not granted entry into Sudan, while the Regional Economic Community or Intergovernmental Authority of Development (IGAD) released a statement. The coup dismissed  the African Union’s mediated agreement of August 2019 – the joint civilian-military council designed to steer the country to democratic elections in 2023. 

Al-Burhan pressed on to form a Transitional Government, appointing himself as head of the SC. Some armed groups joined the pack. Internal and external pressure led to the reinstatement of Hamdok as PM, leaving Troika states applauding the move and alienating civilian protestors asking for a civilian only government. The UN and AU, in a joint statement, even called on protestors to support the agreement. Although this was later clarified by the UN Secretary General’s spokesperson to mean support for the new government based on the Constitutional charter signed in 2019.

Why did the civil-military partnership fail?

The transitional agreement is anchored on eight arduously negotiated protocols, such as regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing, and repatriation of internal refugees and national political institutions linked to the legislative and executive branches. This is governed by an eleven-person team—five civilians, five military and one joint appointment.

There are several reasons why the partnership fell apart. First, the fragile agreement was primarily held together by a web of weak stipulations but celebrated by western powers, the regional and the continental body as a successful model for African democracy. Part of the failure of this agreement was that the FCC was composed of several armed groups, civil society organisations, women’s groups, and political party’s all with their different visions and positions of Sudan’s future. Second, the coup was the consequence of weak civilian politics with no dominant civilian political party to lead the transition. Over the decades, this has repeatedly encouraged the military to intervene, thereby creating a ready-made excuse for future interventions. This has meant that the military have been more successful than civilians in governing Sudan, allowing security forces to focus on restructuring and controlling the state. 

Third, during periods of parliamentary authority, civilian leaders often mobilised regional or sectarian sentiment in their quest for power. This mix of localised patronage politics and national competition meant that elected governments were ill-suited to face other problems bequeathed by colonialism. In addition, extreme gaps in wealth between the centre of Sudan and peripheries supported additional grievances. With this came the emergence of armed groups and state-backed militia like the Rapid Support Forces birthed out of the conflict in Darfur. Consequently, when civilian members of the SC called for security forces to come under the civilian leadership, to slowly empower the civilians and strip the lifestyles and finances of senior officers, the move was seen as a direct threat to the security forces control over the state and its resources. 

Fourth, a complication arose from the Juba Agreement. The 2020 Juba peace agreement was designed to allow armed groups to integrate under the security forces. Many groups demanded government positions and rewards for their followers, making the deal complex and unrealistic. Some did comply, for example the Sudan Liberation Army’s Minni Minnawi was appointed the Darfur Governorand the Justice and Equality Movement’s leader, Jibril Ibrahim was appointed finance minister.

Fifth, international creditors insisted that Sudan follow a complex debt relief programme for loans that everyone knows Sudan can never repay. While basic goods remain scarce, inflation has risen above 400 per cent, and the national debt is projected to balloon six-fold to $1.2 trillion by 2025. These policies are ill-suited for a state recovering from decades of state mismanagement, and one could argue have contributed to rising discontent and the coup. Despite this, spending on the army continued while the national economy was in crisis.

Six, the transitional government failed to convert announcements into concrete policy reforms and could not manoeuvre through existing state structures controlled by security forces. In contrast, many had applauded the evicted transitional government’s progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. A forthcoming paper demonstrates that the transitional government struggled to convert these announcements into solid policies, leaving civilians discontent with the pace of reform. Finally, the Empowerment Removal Committees approach, an ad hoc group formed to recover stolen state assets from top officials implicated in corruption and other crimes during the Beshir era, was operating in legal limbo and became a threat to former regime members.

What now for Sudan?

Restructuring how Sudan is governed is essential to placing Sudan on the right course towards sustained democracy, especially given the military’s restructuring process that has been in play for over 50 years. However, the current agreement is non-pragmatic, lacks an understanding of the needs of everyday Sudanese and what Sudan’s future should look like. Support for the deal undermines existing peace talks between Sudan and South Sudan because many actors will now lack trust with those they are negotiating with. This is important for security arrangements that are an outstanding and critical component of the revitalised peace and the Juba agreement  – not fully implemented. Efforts must be scaled-up in Sudan while ensuring the PM can support the two arrangements and be an effective chairperson of IGAD. This is especially important given both countries have not brokered an agreement with each other’s dissident armed groups. 

While the masses continue to protest for a full-civilian led government, now is a significant opportunity to rethink the support given to Sudan, given the increasing isolation of the regional and continental body in these matters. As the events in Sudan, Ethiopia, and even the sluggish peace agreement in South Sudan demonstrate, the effectiveness and credibility of the AU and IGAD are up for question, especially since the recently signed agreement will start from a deep deficit of trust. 

It is crucial for the AU and IGAD, with the support of Trokia states only, to consider a coherent stabilisation strategy for Sudan as a part of a broader regional stabilisation strategy anchored on AU principles that take into consideration the fluidity of the context on the ground and put in place sustained security guarantees, economic, political and technical support with a variety of measures that help to stabilise the country and its future.

Dr Andrew E. Yaw Tchie is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), where he coordinates the Training for Peace Programme.

Article by:

Andrew E. Yaw Tchie
Senior Research Fellow at the Training for Peace programme

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