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The unlikely prospect of civilian rule in Sudan

The unlikely prospect of civilian rule in Sudan
6 min read
05 April, 2023
Analysis: Activists and analysts are sceptical that talks between factions to form a civilian government will succeed as transitional justice initiatives remain limited and rival security forces vie for power.

Sudan expects to sign a new political agreement that will task a transitional government with steering the country towards democratic elections in two years.

But Sudanese activists, lawyers, and analysts say that powerful security forces are determined to maintain de-facto control over the state for fear of losing their wealth, impunity, and support from foreign patrons.

Sudan’s two most powerful armed actors are the military and the feared paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Both led a coup in October 2021 to upend a democratic transition that had commenced months after a popular uprising toppled former autocratic president Omar al-Bashir in April 2019.

The October coup saw tens of thousands of protesters face down harsh repression for more than a year. At least 125 people were killed, while others were badly injured or subjected to enforced disappearances.

In December 2022, the military and RSF finally inked a Framework Agreement along with a bloc of political parties known as the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and some civil society groups.

The agreement enjoyed backing from regional and global players and promised to address key issues such as transitional justice and security sector reform through a series of workshops before a final deal is signed.

However, security forces have undermined both tracks, raising fear that they will also hamper the incoming government. Western powers have still supported the process, pressuring all parties to agree to a deal that looks more like a power-sharing arrangement between civilian and security elites than a genuine attempt to address core issues.

“There is a lack of trust that a fully independent transitional government will come in place,” said Hamid Murtada, a Sudanese analyst and a member of a resistance committee, neighbourhood groups that mobilised mass protests against al-Bashir and the coup.

“People think that the [incoming government] will do whatever the military asks of them.”

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Hungry for justice

Across Sudan, persecuted communities and young activists are calling for transitional justice. The task is a steep one since army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader Mohamad Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo – the two men most responsible for committing grave human rights abuses since al-Bashir’s fall – remain in power.

Still, the tripartite mechanism, which consists of the UN mission in Sudan, the African Union, and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, organised six sessions on transitional justice between 11 and 15 March.

Each session was hosted in a region where crimes against humanity have been committed both during and after al-Bashir’s rule. Two of the workshops were prohibited at the last minute based on ‘security grounds’ by Sudan’s Humanitarian Aid Commission – an entity created under al-Bashir to monitor, restrict, and profit from aid organisations.

About 30 civil society groups attended the other workshops, yet some boycotted. Most notably, relatives of those who died in the sit-in massacre of 3 June 2019 believe the workshops were not a serious attempt to bring them justice.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo attend the ceremony held in Khartoum, Sudan on 5 December 2022 for the signing of the 'framework agreement' that will start a new transition period between the military and civilians. [Getty]

The massacre, which evidence indicates was a carefully coordinated attack carried out by the RSF, military and other security forces, killed at least 120 people outside the defence ministry in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum. Many more went missing and are presumed dead.

“[The Sudanese authorities and global community] just want to demonstrate that they addressed [the topic of] transitional justice, but they are not sincere about it. Justice is not a priority for all of these parties involved [in the political process],” Rifaat Makawi, a human rights lawyer representing many of the families who lost loved ones in the sit-in, told The New Arab.

“The issue for them is political stability, but we can’t get political stability without justice,” he added.

Makawi acknowledges that pressing criminal charges against al-Burhan and Hemeti is unlikely and procedurally and politically difficult – a message he has communicated to victims’ families.

However, he stressed that reforms of repressive Bashir-era laws and the establishment of a fact-finding mission are imperative. Those measures could provide a legal framework that stops future abuses, while giving closure to families who want to learn exactly what happened to their loved ones.

The New Arab saw a summary of the workshops on transitional justice, which stressed the importance of institutional reform and a national truth commission, yet it offered no plan to undertake these measures.

“All the words for transitional justice and restorative justice were included in the summary and recommendations... but there is no commitment to timeframes. How can the UN and international community accept this?” Makawi said.

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Rivals in arms

Security sector reform is the largest obstacle to a political agreement, particularly since the RSF and army are competing for power and relevance in the next transitional government.

The former emerged from the Arab tribal militias that spearheaded government-backed massacres in the early 2000s in the western province of Darfur. In 2013, al-Bashir repackaged many of the militias into the RSF in order to coup-proof his regime from senior military officers and his feared intelligence service.

The RSF was placed directly under the control of the president, giving it a separate chain of command from the military. Since al-Bashir was toppled, the group has continued to operate independently from the army, amassing its own wealth and building separate relationships with foreign patrons such as Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Both the RSF and military often cooperate to thwart attempts by civilian groups to dilute their respective power, as they did with the coup. But in the long run, their interests diverge as they each seek to consolidate power at the expense of the other.

Sudanese protesters demonstrate against a tentative transitional deal aimed at restoring civilian rule after last year's military coup, in Khartoum on 19 December 2022. [Getty]

“Tensions are high between the two right now and that will be the case for as long as Hemeti does not integrate [into the army],” Kholood Khair, the Founding Director of Confluence Advisory, a think-tank in Khartoum, told The New Arab.

The hostility was evident during talks with the RSF to discuss security sector reform on 29 March. The army reiterated its demand to absorb Hemeti’s forces in two years, yet the RSF said that it wants to integrate in ten. Hemeti fears integration would effectively erode his power base.

The disagreement prompted the military, police, and intelligence forces to walk out of the meeting. The FFC has taken Hemeti’s side in hopes that he can thwart the revival of Bashir-era Islamists, many of whom occupy high positions in the army.

Rumours are swirling that al-Burhan is under pressure from Islamists not to sign a new political deal unless the RSF is reigned in, otherwise they may attempt a coup of their own.

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The stand-off has distracted from important issues such as when and how the security forces will be subjected to civilian command and whether security sector reform will be a civilian or military-led process.

“The military has been sending clear signals that security sector reform is an affair that civilians have nothing to do with,” said Suliman Baldo, the founder of the Transparency Policy Tracker, a think-tank covering Sudanese political affairs.

Even if a political agreement is signed, al-Burhan has said that the army will only surrender control to an elected government and not to the incoming administration.

His message suggests that the military and rival security factions are more concerned with preserving their relevance and power over supporting civilian rule.

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile.

Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed