Sudan is at a defining moment. The country’s history and legacy of military rule and conflict leaves it at risk of continued violence.
As part of the transition deal after the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir, it was agreed that Sudan would be governed by three institutions: the Sovereign Council, the Cabinet, and the yet to be appointed legislative council. The Sovereign Council is the head of state and symbol of Sudan’s sovereignty, and the cabinet is the supreme executive authority.
The Sovereign Council and the cabinet are struggling to come to an agreement at the ongoing peace talks in Juba. The talks are intended to bring peace between Khartoum and various rebel groups. If new prime minister Abdalla Hamdouk is not able to conclude the talks quickly and amicably, Sudan could regress to an autocratic state.
Members of his cabinet have been sidelined by the direct involvement of the Sovereign Council, an 11-member body comprising civilians from the Forces for Freedom and Change coalition and military men from the former regime. It is headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a general with links to the former regime.
The council, which was formalised by Sudan’s new Constitutional Charter, is empowered to sponsor the talks. It can also play a symbolic, and unifying role. It is not mandated to negotiate, which it has been doing. This has created a power struggle with the cabinet.
The talks are intended to resolve the conflict between the new Sudanese government and various rebel groups. But if an agreement is not reached they risk plunging Sudan back into instability. Hamdok needs to conclude the negotiations quickly so that he can divert funds from military functions to revive Sudan’s economy.
It is clear that Sudan’s reconstruction needs are immense and complicated. The new leadership faces a number of challenges. These include mistrust and uncertainty, massive debt, poor governance practices, weak institutions, as well as unresolved conflict in marginalised areas.
While there has been renewed international confidence in Sudan’s transition agreement, threats in the form of a backlash from the security forces and Islamic elites remain intact.
This is partly because Sudan does not have any party that can govern without the support of Islamist groups or the security forces. No political group has been able to govern without the support of Islamist elites. Similarly, anyone who previously aspired to lead in Sudan has not been able to without the military on their side.
The leaders of the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance are inexperienced and fragmented. They are up against the unrealistic expectation that they can quickly transform Sudan’s political institutions and socio-economic framework. This inexperience, coupled with divisions within the alliance, is being felt during this current Juba process.
The rebels see the alliance as representing the privileged Khartoum elite while ignoring Sudan’s marginalised minorities. This friction has the potential to derail the peace process, leading to a delay in appointing a transitional parliament. The rebels are demanding more than the 30% representation they have been promised in the legislature.
As the talks move along slowly, Hamdok remains unable to divert needed funds from the military and other security expenditure to boost the economy.
His reform agenda, which has included the dismissal of diplomats affiliated to the old regime, has also put him at odds with the Sudanese generals, elites and Islamists who are accustomed to exercising considerable powers.
Additionally, many of the security officers who previously reported to Bashir do not currently have a clear representative. This makes it harder for a strong military leadership to emerge. Attempts to enforce military rule, therefore, could produce an unstable regime.
For Sudan to consolidate peace, all parties need to work together or risk falling into chaos, as has been the case in Libya.
Moving Sudan forward
Diverse Sudanese civic groups will need to continue building political consensus to bring together competing interests and divergent political priorities. The prospect of a coalition government remains likely, but with this comes the increased potential for further fragmentation and weakening of the state.
Thus, during this political transition, Sudan’s political elites will need to put their differences aside. They need a robust road map that clearly outlines practical steps towards democracy.
The government will also need support for its social and economic reforms to improve the country’s socio-economic situation. And it needs to reform public sector financing and spending.
Sudan has to focus on building domestic capital to invest in infrastructure, education, health and agriculture. It must also tackle corruption and strengthen trade links with its neighbours.
Furthermore, to consolidate peace the leadership must contend with the influence of Islamic groups and elites that make up Sudan’s deep state. The deep state controls state institutions and key sectors of the economy.
Finally, as the country moves towards elections in 2022, electoral support will be essential. This will ensure that the gains of the transition are not lost in electoral manipulation or violence.
Crucial to this is the appointment of transitional governors and parliamentarians who reflect Sudan’s diverse people. Any constitutional amendments being pushed through by the Juba talks will require discussions between the Sovereign Council, the Freedom coalition, and the cabinet.
Sudan should consider appointing independent provisional parliamentarians who can hold all three bodies accountable during this transitional period.