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Sudan: Developments in the transition to a civilian government

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Picture: Ebrahim Hamid / AFP – Sudanese protesters gather for a collective Iftar fast-breaking meal during Ramadaan as they demonstrate against the army and paramilitary forces in southern Khartoum on April 6. The date is symbolic for Sudan’s civilian opposition as it marks the anniversary of uprisings in 1985 and 2019, ousting two coup leaders.

By Yonas Berhane

On March 19 this year, Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) – the country’s civilian force – and the Parliamentary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) struck a deal to form a new transitional administration and signed the final agreement paving the way for the transfer of power to a civilian government.

Since the end of last year, Sudan’s political faction groups – the military leadership and civilian political parties – have been negotiating a peace accord aimed at reinstating a civilian administration.

The parties have agreed to set up an 11-member committee to draft a new constitution, including nine members from civilian organisations, one from the army, and one from paramilitary forces. In light of this agreement, the transitional constitution was scheduled to be adopted on April 6 and the institutions of the transitional authority to be established.

This peace agreement builds on the political process launched on December 5, 2022, by the Trilateral Mechanism comprised of the AU [African Union], the Igad (the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an eight-country trade bloc in Africa), and the UN [United Nations], in which the SAF and RSF signed a framework agreement with Sudan’s political parties, including the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a civilian coalition, and some smaller groups, to establish a transitional civil administration and settle the dispute that sparked on October 25, 2021.

Located at the crossroads of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, Sudan has been in crisis since the popular uprising that toppled the long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The military coup led by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan in October 2021, however, aggravated the country’s complex political and economic realities and ruined the democratic transition achieved following Bashir’s three-decade dictatorship.

Sudan’s history and political culture is dominated by military coups d’état, filled with various successful and unsuccessful coups and military rule. The military has a long history of meddling in politics, having ruled the country for 54 of its 67 years of independence.

After three decades of dictatorship, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ascended to power in a bloodless coup was overthrown in a classic military coup on April 11, 2019, led by the former Defence Minister and vice president of Sudan, Lieutenant-General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf.

However, after staying in power for just a day, Auf stepped down owing to continuing demonstrations calling for a democratic change, and was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan as chairperson of the Transitional Military Council (TMC).

On May 14, 2019, the military and the representatives of the protesters, led by the FFC, agreed to a three-year transitional arrangement, and after months of intense discussions, violence, and contestation, Sudan’s TMC and the FFC reached an agreement in July 2019 to share power during the transitional period until elections, in which the Sovereign Council would be formed of five civilians and five military members, with one remaining seat to go to a civilian chosen by both sides.

The council was to be governed for 21 months by a military figure, followed by an 18-month civilian leader, and on August 20, 2019, the TMC transferred power to the Sovereign Council, with Burhan as chairperson and Abdalla Hamdok as Prime Minister for the transitional cabinet. Following this, various plans to improve institutions and establish accountability for atrocities were outlined in the Constitutional Charter.

State authorities were given the responsibility to hold former regime members accountable for crimes against Sudanese people since 1989. The charter also calls for the establishment of a national and impartial investigating committee to look into the June 3 massacre. In addition, it establishes 11 independent bodies, one of which is a transitional justice commission.

Once the newly installed civilian-led government was in place, the AU removed Sudan’s ban the next day. Looking at the promising transitional development, Sudan’s pro-democracy supporters were optimistic about the country’s future after power was transferred from the TMC to the Sovereign Council.

However, there were intense working relationships between civilian and military members of the council. As a key deadline for the military to completely hand over the transitional “Sovereign Council” to civilians approached, the military used the pretext of a political dispute to seize full power once more on October 25, 2021, dissolving the civilian government and arresting its top officials, including Prime Minister Hamdok, effectively ending the military-civilian power-sharing partnership aimed at bringing Sudan closer to democracy, with elections scheduled for 2023.

The AU suspended the country once again, and the coup was met with protests, strikes and civil disobedience in Khartoum, Omdurman, and other locations across the country. Due to the strong condemnation of the AU and the International Community, Hamdok, however, was freed on November 21, 2021, and reinstalled as prime minister while maintaining power-sharing with the military.

The agreement, however, was rejected by the FFC and many other groups, who felt deceived by Hamdok and believed that the new agreement helped to legitimise the military takeover, and protests persisted. Thus, faced with an increasingly volatile situation, Hamdok resigned on January 2, 2022, citing his failure to bring the various political forces to agree on a political declaration. His resignation marked the departure of Sudan’s final remnant of a civilian administration, leaving a constitutional vacuum in its aftermath.

Following Hamdok’s resignation, Burhan established a new ruling Sovereign Council, declining the AU’s, as well as the EU Troika’s mediation attempt to resolve the country’s protracted problem. In addition, the May 2022 trilateral mechanism attempt facilitated by the UN, AU, and Igad to negotiate between the military and civilian parties was not effective, as neither the FFC nor the resistance committees agreed to join, extending the standoff.

However, after months of negotiations and peace talks, various political forces, including the civilian opposition bloc, the FFC-Central Council and the military leadership signed a framework agreement on December 5, 2022, to end Sudan’s turbulent political landscape.

The deal, among other major aspects, addresses demonstrators’ demands, such as removing the military’s involvement in the government and commerce. It also establishes a two-year transition period with a civilian-led administration prior to elections.

Although progress and consensus-building have been gradual since the December 5, agreement, the imminent agreement by Sudan’s civilian forces, SAF, and RSF, to create a new transitional administration appears to pave the path for the country to soon have a new civilian government.

However, major political players who were excluded from the negotiations in December and March, ranging from former rebel leaders to grass-roots pro-democracy networks, such as the Democratic Block, which includes Sudan’s finance minister, Jibreel Ibrahim, and the governor of Darfur, Minni Minnawi, as well as numerous other smaller political figures and parties, remain opposed to the deal.

Moreover, many Sudanese are still sceptical that the military will completely give up power, regardless of any deals that are struck. Despite these circumstances, it is hoped that the signing of a political framework agreement in December 2022 and the April 2023 agreement to establish a new transitional administration will put an end to the political impasse and drive Sudan towards a civilian government.

This article was first published in ACCORD