Since the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, the civilian Council of Ministers headed by Abdullah Hamdok has been tasked with realising the aspirations of the Sudanese people who took to the streets to protest for a better future. All the while, they are hindered economically by the legacy of Sudan’s affiliation with transnational terrorism. Meanwhile, the presence and influence of Sudan’s military officers remains significant, especially in the face of myriad security concerns, whose political ambitions are undimmed.
A recent outbreak of violence in El Geneina, a town in Sudan’s Darfur province, has now claimed over one hundred and thirty lives. It is the worst incident since the end of the 13-year combined UN-AU peacekeeping mission deployed to Darfur, and the signing of a peace agreement between the transitional government and main Darfuri rebel groups. In response, the Sudanese authorities dispatched troops to restore order, alongside a delegation which included both a leading member of the military-led Sovereign Council, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, a civilian economist at the head of the technocratic Council of Ministers. That the situation required the presence of both men underscores the gravity of the tragedy. Perhaps more significantly, it also sheds light on the two competing sources of authority which have sought to shape Sudan since the ousting of former President Omar al-Bashir following popular protests in 2019.
Sudan since al-Bashir
Whilst the need for reforms united Sudanese from many spectrums of society to call for al-Bashir’s removal, translating those reforms from vision to reality takes time, especially when capital is limited. According to a statement by Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Badawi in May 2020;
“government revenue was down 37 per cent from previous projections, tax revenue was 21 per cent less than projected and donor support was 36 per cent lower compared to amounts anticipated in the December 2019 budget”
To reform in the dramatic fashion sought by many of those who took to the streets requires capital; whether granted by donors, or raised domestically. This creates a tension when the populace seeks an improvement in living standards, greater provision of services and reductions in poverty. The protests which led to al-Bashir’s overthrow were inspired by governmental efforts to reduce subsidies on wheat and fuel, raising the cost of living to unsustainable levels. However, those subsidies account for almost half of the Sudanese budget according to estimates. Preserving those subsidies, so as to prevent a backlash, leaves Hamdok’s government financially and politically constrained. This situation has become a vicious cycle, inspiring further demonstrations by Sudanese citizens unhappy with the glacial pace of reforms and lack of the improvements they sought through protest.
Meanwhile, events across the border in Ethiopia have presented further challenges. The two nations have long been in dispute over the al-Fashqa region, with Sudan censuring Ethiopian farmers for settling and cultivating fertile land on the Sudanese side of the border. These tensions have been exacerbated since the outbreak of the Tigray crisis. As 50,000 refugees sought to cross the Sudanese border, Sudan has accused Ethiopian troops of ambushing Sudanese soldiers, and breaching its airspace. Shortly after these incidents, Sudan began operations to reclaim “seized lands” along the border, provoking Ethiopian counter-accusations of looting and illegal occupation.
Political cooperation needed to offset military ambitions
When combined with the pressures rising from the Sudan-Ethiopian border tensions, the most insidious consequence of a deterioration in Darfur’s security is that it provides a convenient pretext for Sudan’s military leaders to seek further delays in the transition to full democratic governance. Capitalising on discontent with the pace of reform achieved by Hamdok’s civilian government, it is not inconceivable that Sudan will find itself once again ruled by a military council, citing the primacy of ensuring “national security” in the face of complex and deteriorating security situations. The military sought total control in the immediate aftermath of al-Bashir’s fall, and many of the military personnel appointed to the Sovereign Council were senior officers and men of significance under the previous regime. Of all, General Dagalo’s presence is perhaps the most controversial since he remains the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary formation which, along with complicity in crimes against humanity in Darfur, was also unleashed upon the civilian protesters in June 2019, killing over a hundred people. Dagalo’s place on the Council is symptomatic of the cynical desire of the military to maintain the political influence it previously wielded.
Yet, this backslide is not inevitable. Sudan has enjoyed an upsurge in political capital and an opportunity to re-engage with the wider international community. Recent months in particular have seen a plethora of significant accords. Beyond the arrangement to host a Russian naval base on the country’s Red Sea Coast (see my previous analysis), Sudan has also secured its removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. This designation long proved a barrier to Sudan accessing funds from institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, funds which will prove essential in repaying the country’s accumulated debts of $60 billion. To that end, a notable boon was the Trump administration’s offer to loan Sudan almost the entire sum of its balance owed to the IMF, so as to better rehabilitate Sudan’s relationship with the organisation. Whilst this may appear to simply trade one creditor for another, it provides Prime Minister Hamdok an opportunity to approach the World Bank and IMF for much needed debt relief under the auspices of programmes such as the Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) initiative.
Having reached this critical milestone, Sudan needs the consistent and unwavering support of the international community. Now that the terrorism designation is lifted, those donors and organisations who lauded Sudan’s desire for change must support and bolster these ambitions ahead of the elections in 2022. Both the fate of Sudan’s transition to a more democratic and accountable system of government, and the legacy of the protests which saw the fall of Sudan’s last military dictator are at stake.