World News Sudan on the verge of political change

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Friday, 30 December 2022

Author: Viktor Mikhin


Various centers of power in Sudan, experts say, may have signed a framework agreement designed to return the country to civilian government after the military coup in October 2021. However, doubts from NGOs and academics, as well as persistent street protests in the capital Khartoum, warn against over-optimistic expectations. The agreement announced on December 5 was signed by Sudan’s “ruling” generals Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, along with leaders of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the largest pro-democracy group, and representatives of 40 other parties.

Providing a direct route to a civilian-led transition process, and consisting of democratic elections and the return of the military to their barracks, the framework agreement provides for full civilian control over all aspects of society, with a Security and Defense Council headed by a prime minister.  Commenting on the news, Volker Perthes, Head of the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, called the agreement a “courageous step”. And John Godfrey, US Ambassador to Sudan, wrote on social media of his support for the deal, which he said paved “a credible path… out of the current political crisis”. So how can the Ambassador not support this pro-American move when Washington claims the lion’s share of Sudan’s natural wealth?

Despite positive support from the international community and generals (al-Burhan also chanted one of the protesters’ slogans “the military belongs in the barracks”) the deal has yet to generate enthusiasm among many sections of Sudanese civil society. As the agreement was signed in the fortified compounds of the Republican Palace in Khartoum, protesters took to the streets of the capital to denounce the agreement as more than a means for the ruling generals to retain power, while also removing the political and economic consequences of the 2021 coup. “The goals of the agreement are establishing a fully civilian authority, creating a free climate for politics, and reaching a final agreement with the widest political participation,” Al-Wathiq al-Barir, FFC spokesman, said.

However, Kholood Khair, founder and director of the Khartoum-based think tank Confluence Advisory, describes the deal as essentially a “five-page wish list”, the biggest flaw of which is its ambiguity and lack of detail. The agreement is supposed to be based on the Sudanese Bar Association’s draft, but at best it is an initial agreement, a primary document that does not specify how the Sudanese will be able to reach subsequent stages. For example, who will be prime minister, financial accountability, transitional justice and security reform.  He sees the appointment of a prime minister and a future cabinet as the first stage of the agreement and particularly urgent, given that they must be resolved before the two-year transitional phase enters into force, and this must be done within a month. As someone who expected a number of annexes to clearly outline the mechanisms for selecting a prime minister and the agenda for a transitional government, Khair says the absence of a “vital” implementation phase makes him doubt the viability of the deal.

What has become really difficult is the extent to which a civilian government will have the space and capacity to improve living conditions for all Sudanese, because just being prime minister does not equal having political power. Moreover, within the pro-democracy movements there are significant differences in number and scope, as well as in areas of disagreement. Given the way the deal happened – behind closed doors, without transparency – there is a great deal of mistrust as many of the parties involved have lost the ability to speak, even though they have the support of the street.

And this could be vital, given the level of discontent in society that has risen since the October 25, 2021 coup, with more than 7,000 protesters injured and more than 100 killed, and predictions that a third of the population will need humanitarian aid next year because of the cut-off in benefits.  Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, shares Khair’s skepticism about what the deal really means.  “I do not think it is going to solve the problem. The conditions are even worse than they were after the removal of Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, which has led to mobilization against the coup and the subsequent military rule,” he said pessimistically. “The agreement may say otherwise, but those at the forefront of the opposition to the coup are continuing the fight against the military and rejecting the agreement, which they see as a way for the military to legitimize its rule.”

The text of the agreement itself is also questionable. For example, it says that the military should return to barracks, but points out that the promises lack a timetable and completion measures. Instead, many see the deal as a tactic to “buy some time” for the military and also to divide the opposition. “The coup has been a complete failure by any objective standard, occurring at a moment when the country was already facing a severe economic crisis, and taking place without any signs that it would receive popular support — and it hasn’t experienced popular support,” Achcar told Arab News. “Resultantly, the military has been unable to keep civil peace so they went for this deal as they were facing failure.”

It should be recalled that Sudan has been in crisis since the army ousted former leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019, then military and civilian leaders agreed to form a joint transitional government. But that agreement ended late last year when the military overthrew Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. However, he was reinstated earlier this year but resigned after mass protests. Then the military, in order not to lose their influence, had to act, and they did by approving this deal with pro-democracy groups. But all it cost them was a few empty promises to guarantee that a civilian government would take responsibility for the economic and social crisis now gripping Sudan.

Experts believe that Hemedti will be the “real winner” of the deal. Being the commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces group, he was quickly promoted after the 2019 coup that toppled al-Bashir. Despite numerous accusations of crimes against humanity by the Human Rights Watch group, Hemedti has succeeded by using his domestic and international patronage, most notably that of the US.

For his part, Achcar believes there is room for some optimism, suggesting that the FFC and pro-democracy groups will seek to join the civil society representatives who have largely opposed the agreement. But he is also skeptical about their ability to achieve it. “After 30 years of military rule and all the privileges that entails, the idea they will hand this all over seems fantasy,” he told Arab News.

As might be expected, the Sudanese government’s assessment of the framework agreement is more optimistic. “The signing of the Political Framework Agreement can be considered as an essential step toward the return to a civilian-led transitional government in Sudan,” Ola Elgindi, of the Media and Cultural Section of the Embassy of Sudan in London, noted. In his view, the step can also be seen as a clear indication of the Sudanese army’s determination to cede the right to civilian parties for a final agreement. Looking into the future, Elgindi said: “In the next phase, we hope that the agreement will include other civil-transition-supporting parties that haven’t yet signed the agreement.”

Apparently the Egyptian Al-Ahram correctly assessed the current difficult moment in Sudan, writing: “To everyone who questions the viability of this agreement, we say that it is still too early to judge and make any assumptions, and that we have a great hope that things will go well.” In any case, it is indeed high time for the Sudanese to establish civilian rule, which can bring peace between the various rival factions in the country and improve the economy at least somewhat in the interests of the whole people, not just particular groups.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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