Nurturing Sudan’s Fledgling Power-sharing Accord

Sudan’s military junta and opposition have agreed to form a
civilian-led administration to steer a transition toward free and fair
elections. But the generals signed only under pressure. All Sudanese –
and outside partners – will need to remain vigilant lest they try to
restore autocracy.

Source: International Crisis Group
20 AUGUST 2019

On 17 August, four months after the most sustained protest campaign in
Sudan’s modern history swept Omar al-Bashir from power, the Forces of
Freedom and Change opposition coalition signed a power-sharing accord
with the ruling military junta. The deal is a milestone in the
country’s sometimes stumbling transition away from autocracy. If
honoured in full, it will pave the way for elections at the close of a
three-year period of reforms overseen by a civilian-dominated cabinet
and legislature. Within the week, the opposition and the generals are
expected to announce the members of a new Sovereign Council tasked
with steering the transition. It will consist of five opposition
representatives, five members picked by the security forces and a
civilian jointly nominated by both parties. The opposition will then
name a prime minister and a cabinet, though the military will assign
the interior and defence portfolios.

Yet formidable challenges lie ahead. The generals who have monopolised
power in Sudan for three decades will not share it easily. And the new
administration will inherit an economy in deep distress.

To give the transitional authority the best chance at success,
external actors, notably the African Union (AU) and its partners,
should act as guarantors of the agreement. They should help bridge
gaps in trust between the parties to ensure that the accord’s
timetable stays on track. Meanwhile, both Western governments and Arab
Gulf states should stand ready to offer substantial financial
assistance to the new administration, contingent on the generals
respecting the accord’s provisions for civilian control, both in
principle and in practice.

The achievements of the Sudanese people are remarkable, not just in
ending Bashir’s rule but also in standing up to the junta’s series of
schemes to seamlessly replace the ousted strongman with a like-minded
lieutenant. Beginning in mid-December, in towns and cities across
Sudan, a diverse coalition of protesters drawing in the urban middle
classes, rural farmers and herders, traders, students and a
cross-section of professionals, notably doctors, defied repression
including the killing of dozens and arbitrary detention of hundreds to
demand change. Women were often at the vanguard of the protests,
presenting a pointed challenge to a regime that had long sought to
still their voices. The four-day sit-in at the beginning of April that
ultimately persuaded the military to turn against their patron Bashir
was stirring as both a display of civil disobedience and a celebration
of Sudan’s ethnic, cultural and political diversity.

The protesters underlined the wide support they command from ordinary
Sudanese at the 17 August ceremony. Ahmed al-Rabia, the man picked to
sign the power-sharing agreement on their behalf, is a teacher who
supplements his income by driving a taxi at night. Mohamad Nagi
al-Asam, a 28-year-old doctor who was detained and tortured in January
after he emerged as one of the movement’s early spokesmen, delivered
one of the main speeches. It was such everyman figures who helped
topple one of Africa’s most entrenched regimes. It is understandable,
given the David-versus-Goliath story to date, that many Sudanese
rejoiced long into the night after the endorsement of a deal they hope
will turn the page on their country’s troubled past.

Caution is warranted, however. The junta signed the agreement only
under intense external pressure from parties that included the AU, the
U.S., the UK and the EU. Many of its members are beneficiaries of the
patronage-based economic system that Bashir created. They accumulated
vast wealth not only from extravagant budgetary allocations to the
defence sector but also from controlling sectors such as gold mining
and sending thousands of Sudanese to fight as mercenaries in foreign
wars. They will be loath to let civilian authorities audit or control
these two sources of foreign exchange. The junta has been unafraid to
use deadly force to get its way. On 3 June, troops stormed the sit-in
outside the military headquarters, then ten weeks old, killing more
than a hundred protesters, raping dozens and reportedly burning some
alive, in a burst of brutality that shocked the world.

The junta could henceforth confine soldiers to the barracks but still
find ways to derail the accord. The 17 August agreement is carefully
crafted to prevent the military from overriding decisions by other
organs, including the prime minister and the cabinet. The Sovereign
Council – whose duties include overall responsibility for defence and
foreign affairs – must confirm all the prime minister’s appointments
but will enjoy no veto over these choices. Decisions the Council
rejects are to be sent back to the appointing authority and, if the
prime minister reaffirms them, they are to take effect immediately.
The prime minister and cabinet will take effective charge of running
the country, including managing the civil service, drawing up the
budget and overseeing all state agencies outside the security sector.
The cabinet will also report to a legislative council, two thirds of
which the civilian opposition will appoint. A general will head the
Sovereign Council for the first 21 months of the transition before
handing over to a civilian for the remaining 18 months pending
elections. Despite these safeguards, the generals could stall or block
decisions, particularly as they control the country’s armouries and
also have considerable funds they have already used to buy off

A further concern is that important constituencies have not endorsed
the power-sharing agreement. Commanders of longstanding insurgencies
in Darfur, Blue Nile State and South Kordofan rejected the accord,
saying they were insufficiently accommodated in transitional
structures. The junta has reached out to some of these rebel leaders,
seeking to cut separate deals that would lie outside the scope of the
transitional agreements and thus undermine the civilian-led authority.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have also been in touch with some of these
groups, as has Cairo, which hosted some of the main armed group
leaders shortly after they rejected the deal endorsed on 4 August in
Addis Ababa. Given the junta’s desire to divide and rule, the civilian
opposition cannot afford to be seen as excluding the rebels from the
transition. They should, together with the security forces, continue
to seek an accommodation with the insurgents that signals the new
rulers’ intent to break with Sudan’s history of centralised power that
neglects and abuses the periphery.

Maintaining the opposition coalition’s cohesion will be tough. Its
members are inexperienced, and they were unable to muster a united
front in negotiations with the junta until the 3 June massacre
galvanised them into action. Some political parties, including the
Communists, rejected the accord, saying it did not go far enough in
seeking justice for those killed during the protests. Opposition
leaders, acknowledging that the hopes of millions of Sudanese rest on
their shoulders, should be as inclusive as possible and avoid early
own-goals, such as their decisions to include only one woman in their
initial list of Sovereign Council nominees and only a handful of women
in the cabinet – missteps that have already provoked protests. It will
take time to revive normal political life after decades of
authoritarian rule, diaspora flight and forced inactivity. In the
interim, the coalition should avoid internal squabbling and keep its
eyes on the prize of reform.

The opposition has taken an encouraging first step by tapping an
experienced and well-respected economist, Abdalla Hamdok, as its
nominee for prime minister. This choice illustrates its understanding
that it needs a figure with the right credentials to tackle the
country’s most significant challenges, particularly retooling a rigged
economy that has immiserated millions of Sudanese. A number of quick,
early steps would help support the new team as it navigates this
crucial transition:

1. The AU, which played a critical role in negotiating the deal,
should stay at the helm going ahead. Experience in transitions
elsewhere shows that power-sharing pacts often founder when there is
no guarantor who can offer an avenue for talks if the parties become
deadlocked. Given the mistrust between the opposition and the
generals, the AU, backed by other parties – including the UN – should
play this role for the duration of the transition leading up to
elections. Accepting an outside guarantor would allow the junta to
show its good faith to a sceptical public. A guarantor would also give
the opposition coalition confidence and help redress the asymmetry of
power between the two sides, given that the generals retain effective
control over the security forces and much of the formal and informal

2. The AU should also appoint a special envoy and expand its liaison
office in Khartoum, given recent events. The UN can channel technical
backing to the office-holder who, given Sudan’s needs, should ideally
be someone with a background in macro-economic management. The joint
AU-Ethiopian mediation team that helped broker the deal deserves
commendation but a more permanent arrangement will be necessary to
help the transitional administration. The proposed envoy should report
to the Chair of the AU and provide regular briefings to its Peace and
Security Council, which ought to monitor the agreement’s
implementation. The Council should not lift its 6 June decision to
suspend Sudan’s AU membership until the country’s new administration
is fully operational.

3. The new cabinet and the generals will also need to seize the
opportunity to end Sudan’s long-running insurgencies. As a first step,
the transitional government and rebel groups could observe a six-month
ceasefire as suggested in earlier rounds of talks, allowing all
parties – perhaps with the support of others, such as the AU – to
address the roots of the insurgencies, including the concentration of
power and resources in Sudan’s wealthier centre.

4. External partners, including the U.S., EU and international
financial institutions, could assist the civilian-led transitional
authority’s efforts to jump-start the economy. They should coordinate
their work with Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates (UAE), which have sent significant financial support to
transitional authorities already and continue to compensate Sudan’s
military for several thousand troops fighting in Yemen. Thus far,
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have spoken primarily to the generals, though
they have made overtures to the civilian opposition. The U.S., which
enjoys relations with the Sudanese, their key Gulf backers and Egypt,
can play a leading role in coordinating aid and ensuring that special
interests do not capture or compromise financial assistance.
Washington should demand that all funding, perhaps through the pooled
coordination mechanism outlined below, be channelled through the
central bank and not into individuals’ pockets, to give the new
administration the best chance of stabilising Sudan’s finances and to
avoid empowering spoilers. The U.S. also has the leverage of tying
Sudan’s progress toward complete civilian rule to its designation as a
State Sponsor of Terrorism, which Washington could eventually lift.
The U.S. should in particular demand reforms to public sector
financing and consistently lean on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to end the
practice of sending funds directly to their clients in the security
sector.  Following on its success in persuading Gulf powers and Egypt
to push their military allies to the negotiating table, the U.S. might
convene a meeting of potential funders to pool financial support for
Sudan’s transition. These could include the World Bank, the
International Monetary Fund, the African Development Bank, the Islamic
Development Bank, the Saudi Fund for Development and the Abu Dhabi
Fund for Development. Historical allies of Sudan, including Turkey and
Qatar, could also be invited to participate in this joint mechanism as
leaving out these past donors may risk further exposing Sudan to
intra-Gulf competition. The funds raised could then be managed and
disbursed jointly, perhaps under the auspices of the UN Development
Programme, which has the requisite experience. The overriding message
should be that with debt in excess of $55 billion, sky-high inflation
and widespread shortages of essential goods, no number of ad hoc cash
infusions can resolve Sudan’s economic woes. Instead, the country
needs reforms championed internally and supported externally,
including debt relief. Partners should offer this support only if the
junta respects the wishes of the Sudanese people for a civilian-led
transition. They should stagger the resumption of financial assistance
to accompany various phases of the accord’s implementation, including
the naming of a cabinet and the formation of a legislative council,
expected by the end of November.

It was the Sudanese people who brought the country to this moment of
great hope mingled with anxiety, and ultimately, the task of
consolidating the gains of Sudan’s revolution will fall to them. With
their repeated mass strikes and, particularly, their million-man march
on 30 June, Sudan’s citizens have shown that they will not accept
superficial change, let alone a return to the old ways. They are the
arbiters of their country’s future – but they deserve all the support
they can get from Sudan’s friends.