PSC Interview: Sudan’s uncertain transition

After four months of non-violent street protests, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was deposed in a coup on 11 April 2019, putting an end to his 30-year rule. The African Union (AU) termed the move a ‘military take-over’. Uncertainty looms over the future of Sudan and the implications for its neighbours. Prof. Atta El-Battahani of the University of Khartoum, Sudan unpacks the situation for the PSC Report.

What are the main reasons for the protests that led to the fall of Omar al-Bashir?

In brief, there are two sets of reasons for the protests: structural reasons, and triggers. Structural factors stem from the 30-year rule of an Islamic autocracy that imposed harsh Sharia rule, suppressing civil and political rights, enforcing an archaic code of ethics on women and youth and interfering in the way of life of ordinary Sudanese; transformed civil war into holy war and jihad, leading to the secession of South Sudan in 2011; implemented aggressive structural adjustment policies benefiting crony capitalism and the ruling party leadership; and involved the country in foreign policy adventures.

Sudan's economy has been struggling over the past decade, with inflation spiking over the past year

The trigger of the December 2018 protests was a government decision to remove subsidies on wheat and electricity. Sudan's economy has been struggling over the past decade, with inflation spiking at around 70% over the past year alone. The austerity measures adopted by the government are part of larger economic reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund. This has caused the price of bread to double, and has led to cash shortages and salaries being left unpaid. All over the country people spend hours in long queues in gas stations, bakeries and banks.

Unlike the usual pattern of anti-government protests, this time demonstrations did not begin in Khartoum but in the regions

Unlike the usual pattern of anti-government protests, this time demonstrations did not begin in Khartoum but in the regions, where people chanted slogans expressing discontent with economic grievances that soon developed into political calls for regime change. Protests then gained momentum when the Sudanese Professionals’ Association organised youth and women’s movements that rapidly turned into larger protests against the rule of the 75-year-old al-Bashir. 

How can the transitional authorities address the grievances that caused the protests in the first place?

The transitional authorities’ ability to address the grievances depends on, firstly, credible measures to deal with the deteriorating economy, by shifting from rent-based, speculative interests to productive sectors. This necessarily entails taking drastic measures against corruption, crony capitalists and rent-seeking formal and informal warlordism.

Secondly, it depends on transferring power to a mixed civilian–military government for an agreed-upon transition period before general elections. And lastly, taking steps to ensure transitional justice and national reconciliation. This is essential if members of the current Military Council are to prove that they are not, in any way, a re-invention of the deposed al-Bashir regime.

A lot depends on how the current transitional authorities will navigate through the intricate post-al-Bashir context

Given the fluidity of the political situation, each one of these conditions is a formidable challenge. A lot depends on how the current transitional authorities will navigate through the intricate and complex post-al-Bashir context, involving various competing power coalitions. 

What are the potential implications of the unfolding situation in Sudan for the broader Horn of Africa, and for neighbouring South Sudan, which is facing its own challenges?

Recently, the deposed Khartoum government played a leading role, with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the AU, in stabilising South Sudan and the Central African Republic; working with the European Union in policing the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean; collaborating with the United States in tracing and combating terrorist networks; sending Sudanese soldiers to fight in Yemen, etc. Thus, Sudan stands as an Achilles' heel at the centre of a regional geography of violence in East-Central Africa, the collapse of which will threaten the stability of an already security-fragile region. Some press reports have already hinted that the outgoing regime of al-Bashir poses challenges to South Sudan as a guarantor of the peace agreement signed in 2018.

Sudan stands as an Achilles' heel at the centre of a regional geography of violence in East-Central Africa

Do you see a role for the AU and/or IGAD in assisting Sudan in the transition? What could it look like?

Showing remarkable resilience, the Sudanese people marched peacefully for about four months, leading to regime change. This poses a test for both the AU and IGAD to rise to the challenge and show viable African agency in endorsing the march of the Sudanese people to overcome the combination of long-running stagnation and crisis, i.e. ‘stagcrizatoin’ [referring to stagnation and crisis combined in a state of retrogression], and render the critical support needed to ensure sustainable peace and democratic reforms.  After gaining the trust of the opposition and young change agents (youth and women) and proposing a successful way out of the Sudan conundrum, one hopes that the AU and IGAD interventions in Sudan will have far-reaching consequences and send positive signals for the capacity of African institutions to challenge and fix authoritarian state-building. 

One hopes that the AU and IGAD interventions in Sudan will have far-reaching consequences

Before the wave of current events in Sudan, the AU played a facilitating role in mediating between the Khartoum government and rebel groups and the civilian opposition, in what was known as the ‘roadmap’ from conflict to peace, with a grand objective to ‘silence the guns and ensure sustainable peace’. However, the last round of talks broke up due to accusations by both rebel groups and civilian organisations that the AU was not an honest broker. It was seen as taking the side of the Sudanese government.

What are the prospects/scenarios for the future of Sudan?

It is hard to speculate at this point in time, but a lot depends on how the Military Council that deposed al-Bashir deals with four major power coalitions.

The first is the armed groups, including the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), Rapid Support Forces (RSF), National Intelligence and Information Service, People’s Defence Forces, and other militias that favoured the ruling party. Of course, there are also the rebel groups fighting the government – the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North – and the Darfur rebels – the Sudan Liberation Army (Abdelwahid), Sudan Liberation Army (Mini-Minawi) and Justice and Liberation Movement (Jibriel Ibrahim). The SAF and RSF are leading the transitional authority, but the position of the other groups is not clear.

Secondly, there are the civilian political forces, at the top of which stands the Freedom and Change Coalition (FCC) led by the Sudanese Professionals’ Association and which includes other opposition parties and associations. Though the FCC seems to command the support of the streets, its overarching leadership is becoming increasingly contested by other civilian and political groups, some of which defected recently from the al-Bashir government and are now talking the language of change. 

Thirdly, the National Congress Party (NCP), the defunct ruling party, is still in control of economic and financial institutions, the judiciary, universities, civil service, etc. Whether we call this ‘clientelist’ or ‘deep state’, the NCP cadres are not going to stay idle and will do whatever it takes to disrupt a peaceful transition.    

Lastly, there are the regional and international actors who have interests in Sudan and regard peace and stability as their top priority, not democratic transformation.

These four power coalitions have divisions in and among them, and it is going to be a tall order to forge a consensus acceptable to all.

The military authorities can use brutal force, while the civilian opposition commands the streets

Each one of these power coalitions has an edge to use in the process of negotiating political goods. The military authorities can use brutal force, while the civilian opposition commands the streets, the defunct regime has sleeping cadres and armed cells, and regional and international actors can use foreign patronage to finance and protect their clients. I feel, as things stand now, actions and choices by outside actors are likely to play a considerable role in shaping the calculus of choice in Khartoum. At this stage, negotiations and mediation are taking place inside and outside the country, but in case of a failure to produce an amicable solution, the law of naked power would set in.

David Landes writes in The wealth and poverty of nations that in unsettled conflict situations, three factors cannot coexist: a marked disparity of power; access of one group to the instruments of power; and equality among groups or nations. This means that if one group has access to power and is able to deliver a decisive strike and hold the balance of power, it will do so. While al-Bashir’s rule is over, Sudan’s current political deadlock bears all the hallmarks of an uncertain transition.

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