By Jacopo Resti
One year has passed since the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir by a military coup ensuing from several months of nationwide protests. Raising from the ashes of a thirty-year authoritarian regime, Sudan’s new transitional government appointed in September has taken its first steps on the uncharted path to democracy, achieving encouraging success while shedding light on the magnitude of the challenges ahead.
One of the major achievements in this early stage of transition has been the rather smooth implementation of the peace agenda. Notwithstanding foreseeable delays and nefarious political tactics, the peace process which officially kicked off in Juba in October last year, has yielded promising results.
PM Abdalla Hamdok’s “truly historic” visit to the rebel headquarters in the city Kauda in the restive state of South Kordofan in January, confirmed the transitional governments’ commitment to bringing sustainable and inclusive peace to one of Africa’s most conflict torn countries over the last few decades. The image of Sudan’s PM raising the hand of rebel leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), the largest and most powerful armed group in the country, is iconic and marks a new era of centre-periphery relations in Sudan. The long-awaited ceasefire and the unprecedented agreement on a common peace agenda, has enabled humanitarian access to reach conflict-affected areas for the first time in a decade.
The transitional government is also a few steps away from reaching a comprehensive peace agreement with the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF), the umbrella group which includes a plethora of armed groups from Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. Indeed, major deals on power sharing and redistribution of wealth were successfully settled and described by rebel factions as “meeting the requirements to eliminate marginalisation and injustice, and to tackle historical injustices and unbalanced regional development”. However, the SRF is still reluctant to appoint the eighteen civilian governors and the Legislative Council before a peace accord is reached.
As peacekeeping might become old-fashioned, the time is ripe for peacebuilding in Sudan. In a letter addressed to the UN Secretary General, PM Hamdok requested “the United Nations to seek a Security Council mandate to establish, as soon as possible, a Chapter VI peace support operation in the form of a special political mission with a strong peacebuilding component”. The preparation of the new mission, entitled United Nations Political and Peacebuilding Integrated Mission in Sudan (UNPPIMS), would be set up for an initial period of one year and would follow UNAMID’s drawdown now due to begin in June.
Normalization of foreign relations
In a short time, remarkable progress has been made in the normalization of Sudan’s foreign relations. Once a rogue State and international pariah, Sudan no longer seems an outcast in the international community. The repeal of repressive legislation such as the Public Order Act, the disbandment of Bashir’s former ruling National Congress Party and seizure of its ill-gotten assets, has contributed to ward off Sudan from its heinous human rights record. Following the dismissal of the diplomatic corps affiliated to the former regime, the country’s international rehabilitation has become increasingly palpable as PM Hamdok notched up a series of successful high-level visits in the West.
In the course of his visit to Washington in December 2019, the thaw in bilateral relations was formalized with the exchange of Ambassadors for the first time since 1996. Moreover, the process for the removal of Sudan from the States Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list, which still hinders access to international financial assistance and debt relief, is fuelled by concrete steps of rapprochement. To a $ 30 million worth settlement agreement signed by Sudan offering compensation for the victims of the bombing of the American destroyer USS Cole in 2000, the US have reciprocated by officially ending the embargo on Sudan, enabling 157 Sudanese institutions to undertake international transactions. In early March, Washington went as far as introducing the Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Financial Transparency Act of 2020, marking the first comprehensive and multi-sector effort to meaningfully support Sudan’s democratic transition. For the first time since 1993, Sudan has been excluded from the U.S Department of State’s list of Countries Certified as Not Cooperating Fully With U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts.
Sympathetic support for Hamdok’s political engineering at home has also stretched to the other side of the Atlantic. His rendez-vous with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, transcended cosmetic bilateral support and achieved a resounding endorsement of the transitional agenda. Most importantly, it prepared the ground for a broader and targeted EU intervention. In late February, during High Representative and Vice President Josep Borrell’s official visit, the EU announced €100 million in aid to support the democratic transition and related reforms, stressing that “Sudan now has an historic opportunity to transform into a democratic society. The European Union is fully committed to supporting the Sudanese people to succeed”. These ground-breaking achievements in the past few months have nonetheless revealed thorny corresponding challenges.
The way in which peace negotiations have recently unfolded, suggested the predominance of the role of the Sovereign Council, notable of its military component, over the Transitional Cabinet in setting the agenda and in “bargaining” with armed groups, unduly reversing their mandates, as enshrined in the constitutional declaration, to “sponsor the peace process” and “work to stop wars and conflicts and build peace” respectively.
The Sovereign Council, the 11-member civilian-military body led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has alone pushed for constitutional amendments in light of the ongoing peace process, prematurely inflating it into a national political process. This highlights the urgency for transitional authorities to strengthen democratic accountability and avoid any further delay in establishing a Legislative Council, an independent judiciary and appointing civilian state governors. A faithful implementation of the constitutional declaration would also foster the “normalisation” of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the controversial albeit powerful paramilitary group led by Sovereign Council Vice Chairman Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, enabling the blending of all armed groups under a single state military command and establishing a monopoly on the use of force. The sooner these checks and balances are introduced, the more likely Sudan will avert an authoritarian backlash, initiate a genuine process of transitional justice and successfully include in the constitutional process side-lined forces and groups. PM Hamdok needs to ease stiff resistance from Sudan’s security and Islamist forces, as demonstrated by security forces’ mutiny over the issue of severance pay in January and by his assassination attempt on March 9.
The achievements related to Sudan’s rehabilitation in the international arena carry an even greater economic challenge. The benefits of this hard-won international overture and pledged donor support at the highest political level, will have to swiftly trickle down to the poorest cohorts of the Sudanese population, whose dire economic condition has not improved since December 2018 when mass protests began. Things might even take a turn for the worse, as the IMF projected Sudan’s economy to shrink until 2021 with inflation rates as high as 80 percent, fuelling an “unsustainable” debt of some $ 60 billion.
This alarming macroeconomic backdrop, has seen millions of Sudanese from the lower and middles alike, watch their purchasing power slashed every month. Large queues in front of bakeries and petrol stations have become commonplace in the highly import-dependent nation as it continues to struggle with an enduring hard currency shortage. Economic reforms, including budget retrenchment and the imminent withdrawal of fuel and electricity subsidies, will hardly be viable unless they are backed by generous donor assistance for the development of safety net programmes and basic service delivery. At the same time, government policies will have to be oriented at mobilizing national resources, reducing socio-economic inequalities and facilitating humanitarian assistance to more than 9 million people in need.
Needless to say, the Covid-19 pandemic may compound the political and economic costs of the transition, and especially of the country’s humanitarian crisis. Politically, a protracted and mismanaged emergency may prompt an authoritarian drift, neglecting political accountability by concentrating political power in the hands of the military, the only well-established institution in the country. Economically, newly introduced mobility restrictions and curfews are already hitting the large informal sector and daily labourers, causing considerable losses of income and causing the cost of basic items and commodities to soar. Finally, the forced postponements of the National Economic Conference and the Donor Conference for Supporting Sudan to be held in Kuwait are slowing the momentum for timely action to be taken.
Sudan is heading for a showdown with history. Time will tell if it seized the chance.