Sudan’s Delicate Transition and the Risk of Unrest

Sudan has been implementing democratic reforms and transition to civilian governance after the deposal of the former military-turned civilian leader, President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. However, the country seems to be moving in the orbit of a troubled transition as prospects for greater democratic reforms and transition to civilian governance remain at risk of military overreach in Sudan’s politics through the power-sharing arrangement.

The Civilian-Military Power Sharing in Sudan

Sudan’s transitional government shares vast power with two military formations, the regular Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the powerful paramilitary force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF was acted like the Praetorian Guard for the overthrown leader, Omar al Bashir. The transitional agreement of 2019 created the 11-member supreme governing body, the Sovereign Council, composed of six civilians and five military representatives. The Chief of the Sudan Armed Forces, Abdel Fattah al Burhan, is the Chair of the Sovereign Council (de facto head of state), and the Chief of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is the Vice-Chair. The Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, is the Head of the Council of Ministers (Cabinet), but the military controls defense and internal security, while finance is under an ex-rebel leader Jibril Ibrahim.

A Worrying Trend

The military component of the transitional government has been increasing its role, power, and functions, and arrogating prerogatives of the civilian component since 2019. In October 2020, a “constitutional declaration” amended the initial transitional agreement and included provisions that extended the military’s hold on power by extending the transitional period to 2023 from 2021, increasing the number of military representatives in the Sovereign Council by three, and guaranteeing the military 25 per cent of the government and the yet-to-be-established Transitional Legislative Council (parliament) respectively.

The military has further seized the internal cracks weakening the civilian arm of the government and tilted the balance of power in its favor. The military increasingly arrogates the functions of the civilian-led Council of Ministers, for instance by cementing its power over foreign policy as seen in its exclusive role in the normalization of ties with Israel and the establishment of the Russian naval base in Sudan’s Red Sea waters. The Sudan-Israel normalization deal, for instance, was concluded between the generals and the Israeli Prime Minister in a secret meeting in Kampala, without the knowledge of the Sudanese Prime Minister nor the Foreign Ministry of Sudan.

By the end of 2020, the Council of Ministers had plunged into power wrangles pitting mainstream opposition parties represented in the Council and the civilian revolutionary movement representatives (Forces for Freedom and Change – FCC). The Prime Minister was forced to dissolve the cabinet in early February 2021 and the new cabinet is even more worrying. The new appointments to the cabinet have expanded the size of government for the cash-strapped country and re-engaged former politicians, security officials, rebel leaders, and possibly Bashir’s allies. The prospect of a technocratic government envisioned in 2019, has significantly diminished as well as space for the reformist civilian government.  Lastly, a key pillar of the transition to civilian governance, the Transitional Legislative Council, is yet to be established to increase civilian participation, facilitate reforms, and guarantee political accountability. The military, thus, chairs three committees: economic, COVID-19 response, and anti-corruption in the absence of the legislative body.

Uncertain Future

The civilian-military relations in the transitional government are under a heavy strain, as the rivalry between General Abdel Fattah al Burhan and the civilian Prime Minister intensify. Lurking in the throes of civilian-military power rivalry, is the RSF Chief, General Hamdan Dagalo who may widen the cracks and help suppress democratic change. General Dagalo has cleverly transformed into a populist figure since the overthrow of Bashir in 2019. In fact, he is perceived by many as a hero, having allegedly abandoned Bashir as his personal protector, seized the chairmanship of the economic committee in 2019, and pumped millions of dollars of his ‘own money’ into the economic stabilization fund, while contributing to the Central Bank of Sudan’s liquidity.

Further, the country is buried in a deep economic crisis worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government revenue has declined by 37 per cent, tax revenue by 21 per cent, donor support by 36 per cent, and the economy was estimated to contract by a further eight per cent in 2020, after 2.3 per cent and 2.5 per cent contraction in 2018 and 2019 respectively. About 9.3 million people, 23 per cent of the population, as estimated by the United Nations are in need of humanitarian support. Unemployment and fuel inflation stood at 16.62 per cent and 569 per cent respectively, while general inflation is soaring over 230 per cent, which could degenerate into hyperinflation. The government estimated the need for external assistance of USD 8 billion for two consecutive years but only got pledges of USD 2 billion in the 2020 economic summit.

The compounding effect of the biting economic crisis, the inevitable adoption of austerity measures, the increasing co-optation of mainstream Bashir-regime politicians, and the weakening government of the Prime Minister, are eroding public confidence in the Prime Minister and have already sparked protests and unrests in several parts of the country. With the balance of power firmly in the military’s favor, Sudan may have yet another long and troubled transition. The transitional government may not guarantee the aspirations of the revolution and the struggle for democratic change, and thus provoke destabilizing unrest, if the international community does not robustly act to limit the military, push for security sector reforms, support democratic state restructuring, and extend significant economic assistance to Sudan.

Internally, the Prime Minister should remain focused on consolidating peace, economic and democratic reforms, and the transition. He should expedite implementation of critical milestones such as the establishment of the Transitional Legislative Council, constitutional review, and prepare the country for democratic elections. The civil society in Sudan should strongly push-back against the military, demand democratic reforms, and a return to civilian rule and the rule of law.

Edmond J. Pamba is a Researcher at the HORN Institute.

Photo: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok at a past press conference (Photo Credit: MEO) 

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