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Sudan’s hard-won transition to civilian rule faces a precarious moment

A man in a suit and face mask stands next to a man in military uniform and face mask; other men in face masks stand behind them
Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok (foreground centre) and Sovereign Council chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (right) tour the armed forces general command in Khartoum. Photo by Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of thousands of people staged marches in Sudanese cities on 21 October in support of civilian rule. The demonstrations followed protests backed by rebel groups and some political parties which support a return to military rule. The latest marches started on the anniversary of the 1964 October Revolution, which overthrew a military government and led to a period of parliamentary democracy. They highlight the crisis in the country’s troubled transition from authoritarian rule. Joseph Siegle explains the background.

To what extent is the new civilian government exercising control over the country?

Arguably, Sudan is still waiting for a civilian government to be established. Following the sustained protests that led to the ousting of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, the 2019 Constitutional Charter instituted a transitional government. It was composed of a civilian cabinet (headed by a prime minister), a Sovereignty Council (chaired by the military), and a still non-existent Legislative Council. Presently, the cabinet and the Sovereignty Council jointly function as the transitional government.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his cabinet ostensibly have responsibility for the day-to-day management of the government. However, their efforts have often been handcuffed by the structure of the transitional government.

The Constitutional Charter specifies only limited authorities for the chair of the Sovereignty Council. Yet, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has acted as the head of state. He sits in the presidential palace, receives foreign visitors, and takes decisions shaping Sudan’s domestic and foreign policy – at times undercutting the civilian leadership.

Burhan has recently called for the dissolution of the civilian government. And security for the civilian-led commission investigating the abuses that took place under the Bashir regime has been withdrawn. There are reported travel bans on civilian members of the commission, cabinet and Sovereignty Council.

These are widely seen as an effort to derail the transition process in which the chair of the Sovereignty Council should hand over to a civilian leader in 2022. This would culminate with an elected, democratic government.

These moves highlight an apparent lack of commitment by the military to the democratic transition. Military governments have led Sudan for all but 10 years since independence in 1956. So, giving this up is difficult.

What are the transitional government’s achievements and challenges?

Despite its limitations, the power sharing government has scored some notable achievements. A peace agreement was negotiated with several longstanding armed opposition groups who had fought against the repressiveness of the Bashir regime. For the first time in more than 30 years, Sudan is not facing significant civil conflict.

The transitional government banned the feared National Congress Party of Bashir. Over the three decades of Bashir’s rule, the Islamist party had become institutionalised within virtually every government ministry, including the military. This created a pernicious arrangement whereby party interests superseded those of the state and the religious hardliners controlled the party. The result was deep-seated corruption, inequity and incompetence.

The launching of Sudan’s democratic transition opened the door to a groundswell of international goodwill. The US removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the sanctions this carried. International donors pledged $2 billion in assistance and the Paris Club agreed to rework $23.5 billion in debt.

But civilian leaders have faced many obstacles. Having been shut out of national government for so long, they lack experience – a challenge inherent to virtually all democratic transitions. Civilians, moreover, inherited deeply dysfunctional institutions. Minimal familiarity between civilian and military leaders meant they were also starting from a deep trust deficit. Therefore, change has been slow and halting.

Reflecting disparate backgrounds, the civilian coalition has faced factionalism and charges that it has not sufficiently represented interests from Sudan’s peripheral regions.

The military has exploited these divisions in its calls for dissolution of the civilian government. For instance, the recent protests against the civilian government were well orchestrated and blessed by the military. Reports indicate that the protesters travelled to Khartoum in dozens of buses and that there was little effort by the military to impede their movement, unlike other protests.

It would seem this is an effort by some in the military to foster the impression of popular discontent with the civilian government. Along with reports of expanding crime and the blocking of goods from Port Sudan, these protests provide a ready pretext for the military to derail the transition.

Read more: Blockade of Port Sudan: what's behind it and what can end it

The transition process is additionally complicated by rivalries within the security sector, especially between the Sudanese Armed Forces led by Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces commanded by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo. The reality of multiple armed security factions with separate lines of authority is a powder keg for the transition.

Divisions within Sudan have also been fanned by external actors who are plying for greater regional influence. These include Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia. For varying political and geostrategic reasons, each would like to see the military retain control in Sudan.

An alleged coup attempt on 21 September from elements within the army (reportedly loyal to Bashir) and rumours of other coups have accentuated a sense of crisis.

Beyond the political intrigue of the transition, Sudan confronts fundamental economic challenges caused by years of mismanagement. In recent months there has been a degree of stabilisation. But the economy has contracted sharply since 2015. Job opportunities and daily goods remain scarce, inflation is at 400% and the national debt is projected to balloon six-fold to $1.2 trillion by 2025.

It is such economic hardships that triggered the mass protests against the Bashir regime.

What’s likely to happen?

The situation in Sudan remains highly fluid with multiple divergent trajectories possible. These will depend on the calculations made by the respective military and civilian leaders as well as the responses from key external actors. Four primary scenarios seem most likely.

The first is that Lt. General Burhan unilaterally dissolves the Sovereignty Council and assumes all governmental authorities to himself. Burhan would justify the move on the pretext of “national security” and the need to respond to “the will of the people” clamouring for greater stability.

A second scenario would be that Islamist and Bashir loyalist factions of the army would stage their own coup, displacing Burhan and derailing the transition. They might attempt to impose a harsh crackdown on any dissent while reinstituting the authoritarian structures of the Bashir regime.

A miscalculation in either of these two scenarios – or a provocation between the competing security factions – could precipitate a third scenario. Fighting between armed factions could quickly spiral out of control and the possibility of rival Gulf State actors sponsoring different sides of these clashes would dramatically escalate the costs. This could potentially lead to a prolonged conflict such as seen in Yemen.

A fourth and most stabilising option would be to follow through with the transition to a civilian led Sovereignty Council. This would be widely welcomed by citizens and would reduce social tensions. This scenario offers the best prospects for sustained international financial investment and reforms to propel economic growth and deliver services more effectively to citizens.

Sudan thus faces a precarious moment in its transition. Competing visions of its future are coming to a head with the democratic aspirations of millions of Sudanese hanging in the balance. A peaceful path forward remains possible. But this will necessitate enhanced trust-building between civilian and military leaders and active international diplomacy to navigate a path through the uncharted waters of Sudan’s democratic transition.

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