World News Sudan’s Political Process and Hopes for a Civilian Government

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Kholood Khair

After months of negotiations, in December 2022, a limited selection of Sudan’s military and civilian political actors signed a Framework Agreement (FA) in order to relaunch the country’s transition to civilian government. Sudan’s first attempt at transition was violently upended in October 2021 in a coup carried out by the very same military signatories. This time around, the agreement’s champions hope to convince the Sudanese people that this deal will pave the way for both civilian rule and a functioning government that will set Sudan on the path to transformative democratic change.

The December agreement saw the conclusion of Phase I of the deal, which consisted of an opaque and exclusive negotiation process directed by the beleaguered United Nations­–African Union–Intergovernmental Authority on Development tripartite mechanism, with hefty support from the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. It also ushered in Phase II, which is intended to lead to a final agreement and the subsequent formation of a civilian government. Upon its signing on December 5, the signatories promised that Phase II would conclude within a month. But the fact that it then did not officially commence until after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays when representatives of the diplomatic community were back in Khartoum betrays the extent to which the process, from beginning to end, is mostly an international construct, one that is dependent on a constituency made up of the international community and that is supported in order to facilitate the aims of said community.

Chief among these goals is bringing pro-Moscow paramilitary leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti) to heel and setting up a political process in which the international community can at last engage and funnel suspended financial support to a new government. The trouble is that, setting aside the egregious lack of concern for domestic legitimacy, this deal delivers none of these aims. The political process that has been established in Sudan did not even stop Hemedti’s recent intervention, with no sense of irony, in helping to thwart a coup in neighboring Central African Republic against the pro-Moscow Touadera regime. To be sure, the political process is fraught with both risk and design flaws, and any government that results from it is sure to lack legitimacy, broad-based support, and the bureaucratic competence to incorporate international funding.

The Placebo Effect

The problems with the political process are numerous. For a start, the entire process and its central assertion that Generals Hemedti and Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sovereignty Council, will actually hand over power to a civilian government relies either solely on their word—the word of military actors who staged a violent coup in 2021 in order to avoid the formation of a purely civilian government that would have held them accountable—or on pre-agreed arrangements that would undermine current consultations and render them merely a formality.

The Sudanese people’s everyday concerns around the cost of living and increasing poverty do not even remotely feature in the political considerations or indeed in the process arising from the agreement.

Since the signing of the Framework Agreement—which occurred with much applause from the international community—the generals have made no concessions or good will gestures regarding human rights abuses or the sham trials of protesters where child defendants have almost certainly been tortured; nor have they curbed violence against protesters during ongoing demonstrations. Certainly, in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region and in its next powder keg in the East, conflict has not abated since the signing of the deal, but has instead flared up in what is surely both a sign of the limitations of a Khartoum-only process and a dramatic harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile, the Sudanese people’s everyday concerns around the cost of living and increasing poverty do not even remotely feature in the political considerations or indeed in the process arising from the agreement. Instead, Phase II—optimistically referred to as the final phase—aims to hold workshops on perennial headline issues only in Khartoum and among a selected audience, creating a process that is relevant to only a small proportion of the Sudanese people.

Phase II somewhat attempts to address, through dialogue, the very issues that undergird Sudan’s enduring militarism: lack of reform in the security sector, forgoing genuine transitional justice, failed peace agreements, restive regions threatening to secede (this time, the East), and a lack of ways to achieve economic accountability. However, Burhan has already repeatedly stated that he will not allow civilian oversight over reform of the armed forces—surely a key element in any such reform. Meanwhile, the review and revision of the troublesome Juba Peace Agreement may well be relinquished in a cynical bid to include former rebels in the deal. And loud secessionist voices in the East continue to be tolerated by the regime, and members of the country’s erstwhile Empowerment Removal Committee and their families have already been threatened—and even attacked—on the eve of Phase II.

Still, at the very least, Phase II has some potential to undo the opaque and exclusive methods under which Phase I was conducted. So far, however, the first of the phase’s five workshops, held to gain consensus around the economic dismantling of former President Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime, was mostly attended by the deal’s signatories and their supporters. Despite this, a lively discussion around economic accountability, which is the least contentious of the five issues under discussion (provided that military-held assets are not examined) has resulted in dozens of recommendations. In a move that has become characteristic of this process, some of these recommendations have not been released for public consumption and review, and this discrepancy is likely to fuel misinformation, as well as concerns that the terms of the final agreement have already been agreed upon by the signatories.

Thus far, there is little clarity on who would choose the prime minister, the cabinet, the judiciary, and, chiefly for areas outside of Khartoum, provincial governors to serve in the next transition.

Once Phase II is concluded on a breathtakingly brisk, if not egregiously optimistic, proposed timeframe of a few weeks, the real political struggle will commence around who will lead any emerging government. Thus far, there is little clarity on who would choose the prime minister, the cabinet, the judiciary, and, chiefly for areas outside of Khartoum, provincial governors to serve in the next transition. It is this step that is likely to cause intense competition among signatories and holdouts even though the agreement and its process will very likely only see bureaucratic and not political power handed over to a civilian government. Competition will arise because despite said government inheriting the poisoned chalice of a country ravaged by political, military, humanitarian, and economic crises, and because the absence of transitional programs and a parliament, alongside a purely symbolic presidency, will bestow relatively great—and unchecked—powers on the premiership.

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

If all this seems familiar, that is because it is. Sudan is no stranger to political processes, workshops, and agreements. Indeed, such performances have become the means by which elites, who are often out of touch with popular demands, have eked out or maintained political power. And if these attempts to engender civilian rule appear Sisyphean, it is simply because such attempts have never adequately and openly contended with the core issues related to Sudan’s entrenched militarism; rather, they have further entrenched the military state’s grip on the levers of power.

This agreement, then, is the mere semblance of a deal for a genuine transition to civilian government, and will likely lead to a weak and barely legitimate Potemkin village of a government that is unable to deliver real change. Meanwhile, the role of the military during this transition is unclear, and concerns linger about its propensity to stage coups when things do not go its way. The next government will be both damned if it makes consequential changes and damned if it does not.

It is therefore unsurprising that neither the majority of Sudan’s neighborhood resistance committees—the backbone of the revolution that in 2019 unseated military dictator al-Bashir after nearly 30 years in power—nor prominent human rights activists have given their support to yet another deal like that made with Bashir’s security council. The euphoria that accompanied the signing of the Constitutional Declaration in 2019 just months after Bashir was ousted is almost entirely missing this time. The Sudanese people know full well that they cannot trust the country’s putschists, no matter how jolly the tone attendees took at the Framework Agreement signing ceremony on December 5. The observable reality of wide-spread strikes, pervasive violent conflict, and biting food insecurity have also undermined any trust in Sudan’s politicians, and reveal a country with a very loose grip on itself.

The deal’s main civilian signatories, who come from the Forces for Freedom and Change’s Central Council (FFC-CC), stress that the FA will be a success because it forces the country’s generals to cede power to a civilian government. But Sudan has been here before, facing a deal with the country’s generals and made to fix economic and security woes of their own making, with solutions for both lying firmly outside the control of any civilian government. And, as in 2019, if a civilian government is formed, it is by no means certain that it will be able to govern a country whose fortunes have so sharply dwindled since the 2021 coup. Even those in the international community who support such a deal may hesitate to once again pour significant amounts of money into a weak and uncoordinated government

If by overcoming some of its hurdles the Framework Agreement succeeds in producing a civilian government, it will be a pyrrhic victory at best, one in which civilian political actors gain political positions while simultaneously alienating their bases.

This process underlines several missed opportunities, such as more clearly parlaying the more legitimate constitutional draft penned by the Sudan Bar Association into a transitional agreement and using Phase II to take the discussion to Sudan’s marginalized provinces. If by overcoming some of its hurdles the FA succeeds in producing a civilian government, it will be a pyrrhic victory at best, one in which civilian political actors gain political positions while simultaneously alienating their bases. Sudan’s civilian coalition is in an unenviable place, caught in a terrible catch-22: it will not be able to make significant changes in government without popular support and will struggle to gain popular support through the very deal that may restore them to government.

For the many losers in this deal, there is one clear winner: General Hemedti, who is head of the country’s feared Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary force that dates from the Bashir era. Hemedti, who has assiduously worked on improving his image on the international stage, and who has had some success in doing so despite his forces’ involvement in the genocide in Darfur, has seen himself promoted through yet another political agreement. Hemedti has used both the signing of the FA as well as the launch of Phase II as campaign events, making nods toward human rights and the involvement of women, youth, and internally displaced people, and also expressing rehearsed remorse over the death of protesters in speeches that are a master class in empty gestural politics. This may be enough to convince those who want to see a final agreement signed at all costs, but there is little to suggest that these tactics garner much traction with the Sudanese public.

The FA has therefore polarized the political landscape and realigned Sudan’s political actors. Once delineated along military or civilian lines, they are now either pro-deal or anti-deal, pro-Hemedti or pro-Burhan. And while Hemedti remains committed to a deal that elevates his status from Burhan’s deputy to his equal, Burhan is hedging.

Hindrances Abound

For a deal that has not captured the hopes of Sudan’s weary population and is symptomatic of the country’s susceptibility to regional influence, the agreement has, unsurprisingly, many opponents. For example, the deal’s favoring of Hemedti over Burhan has triggered a backlash from Burhan’s long-time patrons in Cairo. Sensing a potential loss of influence and economic advantages with a civilian government in Khartoum, the Egyptian authorities, who host key figures from Bashir’s security regime, have planned a parallel track to the FA, ostensibly to open the door to the inclusion of the deal’s holdouts, all of whom supported the 2021 coup. Insiders say that this Egyptian initiative could see key members of the FFC-CC split ways, as some of its members, uncomfortable with the prospect of backing Hemedti’s ascent to power through the FA and with interests in Cairo, are incentivized to join the pro-Burhan camp instead. In the meantime, holdouts from the deal, ranging from traditional authorities to former rebels and sectarian-based parties, are all publicly calling for slower reforms to the military sector and a return to a military government with Burhan at the helm—a call he no doubt tacitly supports. Burhan’s position thus exposes the presence of both internal and external opponents to the Framework Agreement.

Holdouts from the deal, ranging from traditional authorities to former rebels and sectarian-based parties, are all publicly calling for slower reforms to the military sector and a return to a military government with Burhan at the helm.

Civilian signatories should be careful of how much they rely on international, as opposed to domestic support. But unlike the vicissitudes found in the rights-based international community, there is a predictability and inevitability to Egypt’s interference, since it is neither a champion of democracy at home nor abroad. After all, Egypt’s enduring interest in maintaining a dominant relationship and extracting resources through Sudan’s military leaders has been a mainstay of its policy on its southern border, one that refuses to see Sudan as a sovereign nation but sees it rather as an extension of Egypt—a status to be maintained at all costs, especially given Egypt’s recent sharp economic spiral.

Despite the risks posed by the deal and its political process, the agreement has ushered in a new political reality, one that has shut the door on several other initiatives, including those led by university chancellors and the Sudan Bar Association. Even if the Egyptian track is successful and reinvigorates other pro-Burhan initiatives, the momentum around the FA is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, and those favored by the Egyptian initiative will have to reconcile themselves to the need to merge with the FA—a fraught process—before any government is formed. Undoubtedly, a government of both pro-coup and anti-coup forces who support different generals and are supported by different regional actors will be unlikely to work in concert to achieve national transitional aims, thereby further destabilizing Sudan and paving the way for yet another military takeover.

A Time of Monsters

The most egregious of the framework agreement’s many faults is that it has brought out the worst tendencies of Sudan’s political actors, whether military, civilian, former rebel, or traditional leader. It has raised tensions even further between Burhan and Hemedti—which could result in armed confrontation if the stakes are high enough—and it re-entrenches Sudan’s cardinal weakness: its political settlements only create winners and losers and thus do not result in a government for all, but rather in a minority government of elite interests.

It is this tendency that pro-revolutionary groups want to combat, for they recognize that the old Sudan is cannibalizing itself while the new Sudan struggles to be born. Therefore, as the saying goes, now is the time of monsters. Knowing this, Sudan’s protest movement—one of the world’s most sustained pro-democracy movements—continues to organize and protest, waiting for the day when it can break the cycle of chaotic and unstable elite deals and set the stage instead for a new politics.

Feature image credit: Twitter/Transitional Sovereign Council of Sudan

   * Kholood Khair

Founding Manager Confluence Advisory

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