Can external mediation break Sudan’s political stalemate?


October marks the first anniversary of Sudan’s second military coup, which removed the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and triggered a state of emergency. Mediation efforts to overcome the political impasse between the junta and civilian opposition groups have thus far failed to reach a political settlement and negotiated plan for a transition. 

With no legitimate government, Sudan faces the challenges of an economic downturn. Inflation is at an all-time high and there’s a shortage of basic supplies, including bread and fuel – factors that triggered the 2019 revolution. The economic situation is exacerbated by international partners’ halt of development aid, and foreign currency is scarce due to fewer exports.

Beyond the economy, Sudan faces significant humanitarian emergencies from flooding in many parts of the country and intercommunal conflict in Darfur, Blue Nile and Kassala states. Resolving Sudan’s political impasse and installing a legitimate government are therefore crucial.

A trilateral mechanism comprising the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU) and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has mediated among Sudanese stakeholders since June for a negotiated transitional agreement. The UN has engaged in shuttle diplomacy among stakeholders through the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan. The AU and IGAD have enlisted the special representative and head of the AU office in Sudan and the IGAD peace envoy. 

With no legitimate government, Sudan faces the challenges of an economic downturn

Major negotiations are expected to cover the appointment of a civilian-led government, setting the time frame for elections and defining the military’s role in the transition. Although the trilateral mechanism has garnered support from national, regional and international actors, obstacles hinder its success.

Sudan’s 2021 coup happened a month before the military, headed by general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, was scheduled to hand over power to the civilian component of the Sovereign Council. The council is the joint military-civilian body that has governed Sudan since the fall of former president Omar al-Bashir in 2019.

Civilians accuse the military of never intending to cede power to a civilian-led government. Over the past year, violent repression of anti-coup protests has further hardened civilian anti-military sentiment, particularly among resistance committees calling for ‘no negotiation, no legitimacy, no partnership’ with the military. Civilian opposition groups accuse the military of trying to consolidate its economic and political grip on power over the past year, while ostensibly being open to negotiating with civilians.

Following the coup, the military announced it would disband the Sovereign Council and form a security and defence council. Opposition groups expect the new council to take over the powers and responsibilities of both sovereign and legislative councils. In addition to control over the security forces, it would also have a broader mandate over foreign affairs, judicial appointments and management of the central bank.

According to civilian opposition groups, including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and resistance committees, the military supports the gradual return to power of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP). In addition to appointing former NCP members to foreign affairs and intelligence, it’s accused of releasing jailed NCP leaders. Civilian actors subsequently refuse to participate in efforts to mediate between them and the military. The alleged alliance between the military and Islamist groups has made the civilian opposition even more wary of negotiating with the military.

Civilians accuse the military of never intending to cede power to a civilian-led government

Despite being united in opposing the military, civilian actors are divided among themselves and unable to agree on a transition plan. The FFC – the civilian alliance established in 2019 to oppose al-Bashir’s government – contributed significantly to the revolution’s success. But it has since split into at least three groups: the FFC Central Council, National Consensus Coalition and Forces for Radical Change.

These groups are further fragmented based on their stance on the October coup. While groups such as the FFC Central Council, comprising mainly political parties, are open to negotiating with the military, the Forces for Radical Change and resistance committees strongly oppose it.

On the other hand, the military has garnered support from some members of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, former armed groups and the civilian Call of Sudan’s People initiative. These groups include parties who were excluded from the transition process on grounds that they collaborated with al-Bashir’s government before the revolution. The Call of Sudan’s People initiative has expanded the civilian component of post-coup negotiations, adding a new dynamic of civilian actors that support the military.

The trilateral mediation team faces the challenge of uniting these actors with sometimes diametrically opposing positions to reach a negotiated plan for a political transition. Despite this, opportunities can be exploited. In July, the military undertook to hand over power to a civilian government and withdraw from the political arena if civilians could reach a negotiated agreement on a transitional plan.

Although political parties and resistance committees have questioned the military’s sincerity, the call has put the onus on civilians to overcome their differences and move ahead. The FFC Central Council, National Consensus Coalition, Forces for Radical Change and Call of Sudan’s People recently formed an alliance. Each has developed proposals for a transition, which have been submitted to the trilateral mediators facilitating negotiations.

The constitutional dialogue should ideally happen before elections to ensure an independent and inclusive process

The resistance committees are also submitting their proposals. Previously they lacked political direction and did little beyond organising demonstrations and rallies because of the diversity in their ranks. Currently more than 50 groups signed a Revolutionary Charter which includes their vision for the transition and beyond.

The recommendations from various opposition groups have been reflected in a draft constitutional framework developed by Sudan’s Bar Association. Internal and international pressure has also made military leaders reiterate their willingness to engage in the trilateral process. 

The trilateral mediation is expected to bridge the divergent positions of civilian groups and the military and help them negotiate an agreement for a transition. Immediate issues include appointing a civilian-led government, setting the time frame for elections and the military’s role in the transition.

While these are urgent issues, the trilateral process should also help parties set a time frame for the national constitutional dialogue. This engagement will help Sudan address major outstanding issues that have caused conflict since independence. Ideally, dialogue should happen before elections to ensure the process is independent and inclusive. This process can be overseen by a legitimate transitional government and an inclusive legislative council.

The trilateral process should thus also try to achieve consensus on forming a legislative council that includes all parties. Failure to form a representative council was a significant shortcoming of the transitional period before the October coup.

For this to happen, Sudanese stakeholders must agree on a vision for a transition that will lead to a civilian-led government and pave the way to a peaceful Sudan after the transition.

Shewit Woldemichael, Researcher, Africa Peace and Security Governance, ISS

This article was first published by the ISS’ PSC Report.

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