Can Sudan Achieve Peace and Democratic Transition?

Sudan has a unique opportunity to embrace democratic transition but there is no room for complacency. Comprehensive reforms and a united democratic front will be key to achieving peace, freedom and justice, as will continued international pressure.

Expert comment Published 9 August 2019 Updated 10 February 2020 3 minute READ
Sudanese demonstrators in Khartoum celebrate a hard-won transitional agreement on 4 August 2019. The agreement provides for a joint civilian-military body to oversee a civilian government and parliament for a three year transition period. Photo: Getty Images.

Sudanese demonstrators in Khartoum celebrate a hard-won transitional agreement on 4 August 2019. The agreement provides for a joint civilian-military body to oversee a civilian government and parliament for a three year transition period. Photo: Getty Images.

A compromise agreement

After more than seven months of peaceful pro-democracy protests, leading to the fall of former President Omar al Bashir’s regime in April, Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition coalition of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) agreed on 4 August to form a civilian-led transitional government, paving the way for democratic transition.

The agreement is a step forward but still leaves considerable power in the hands of the military. Given the power imbalance between the military and unarmed civilians, the FFC concluded that a compromise was needed in order to establish a transitional government, however imperfect, so that civilians could push their reform agenda from inside government and avoid a political vacuum. Such a vacuum could leave room for counter-revolutionary coups or escalating violence by Sudan’s many security forces.

The TMC realized the limits of its power when its attempt to halt the revolution with a brutal crackdown on 3 June backfired, sparking international outrage. Defiant protestors continued to demonstrate, with many Sudanese determined to sustain the revolution and the FFC able to mobilize mass support.

Strong African and international pressure for the rapid formation of a civilian-led transitional authority, US/UK diplomatic intervention with the TMC’s backers, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, and a coup attempt by counter-revolutionary Islamist forces may all have persuaded the TMC that they had to strike a deal with the pro-democracy movement.

Will Sudan have a genuinely civilian-led transitional government?

Mediated by the African Union and Ethiopia, the deal provides for a transitional period of three years and three months to prepare for national elections in 2022. During this period, the government will be composed of three transitional bodies: a joint military/civilian Sovereign Council acting as a collective head of state, with six civilian and five military members; a civilian prime minister and Cabinet of technocrats; and a Legislative Council to be formed within 90 days.

The constitutional declaration initialled on 4 August builds on a power-sharing deal agreed in July and details the powers and responsibilities of the three bodies. A signing ceremony is expected to be held on 17 August with the members of the new government to be announced shortly afterwards.

Some opposition forces have criticized the agreement for being too weak, particularly as the military will chair the Sovereign Council for the first 21 months and will be able to veto its decisions. FFC negotiators point to gains made in the constitutional declaration, such as confirmation that the FFC will have 67 per cent of the seats in the Legislative Council, the increasingly powerful RSF Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia will come under army control and government officials will not enjoy blanket immunity from prosecution.

But political dynamics will matter more than pieces of paper. The unity of FFC forces has been strained by the negotiation process, continuing street violence and internal bickering. If civilian authority is to prevail, the FFC will need to create a united political front.

Ending Sudan’s internal wars

While civilian rule and civic rights are the main demands of protestors in urban areas, Sudanese living in conflict zones attach more importance to achieving peace and ending the marginalization of Sudan’s peripheries.

The armed movements in the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which fought for years against Bashir’s regime, have stressed that peace and democratization must go hand in hand if the revolution is to enable people in the peripheries to become equal citizens and take full part in national elections – putting an end to long-established forms of governance which favoured a privileged political elite in Khartoum.

The constitutional declaration recognizes that achieving a comprehensive peace settlement should be the first priority for the transitional period and includes a peace agenda developed with the SRF.

However, the SRF are calling for the constitutional declaration to be amended before it is signed so that formation of the transitional government can be calibrated with the peace talks. Solutions will also have to be found for the armed movements who remain outside the agreement.

Other challenges facing the new transitional government

The incoming transitional government will face huge challenges, including strong public pressure for justice and accountability, especially for the 3 June massacre, and a national economy in collapse that will require immediate stabilization and fundamental structural reforms.

The biggest challenge facing the government will be dismantling the Islamist deep state created over thirty years by the former regime, which took control of all state institutions and key sectors of the economy, including hundreds of businesses owned by the military-security apparatus.

Key to dismantling the deep state will be the implementation of a comprehensive programme of security sector reform aimed at establishing a professional and inclusive national army and reducing the power of the intelligence service.

Much will depend on whether it is possible to control the RSF by reducing its funding from the Gulf states and the gold trade, as well as containing the political ambitions of its commander, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemeti), who will be an influential figure during the transition.

Recruiting from Chad and Niger as well as from the Janjaweed Arab militia in Darfur, the RSF is an ill-disciplined transboundary militia, which could destabilize Sudan as well as the wider region. As a first step, the RSF should be withdrawn from all law enforcement activities across Sudan.

Another challenge will be to ensure proper representation of youth and women in the new governance structures. These groups were the driving force of the revolution but have been largely excluded from FFC decision-making bodies. Including these new social forces and other marginalized groups in the political process will be crucial if Sudan is to transform established patterns of power and privilege.

Robust support for security sector reform, as well as political and economic restructuring should be prioritized by the international community if there is to be any prospect of democratic transition, development and stability. Given its size and strategic geopolitical position, the stakes in Sudan and for the wider region are high.

With its vibrant civil society, plural political environment and new social forces, Sudan has a unique opportunity to embrace democratic transition and equal citizenship. If this opening is wasted, the country could be plunged into further chaos or revert to military dictatorship.