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CWA # 733, 11 May 2022
Conflict Weekly #123, 11 May 2022, Vol.3, No.6
An initiative by NIAS-IPRI and KAS-India Office
After the regime change in April 2019, which overthrew the Omar al-Bashir government, there was a hope that the country will slowly march into democracy and economic prosperity. However, the developments in Sudan since October 2021 have placed them in a situation that existed in 2019, with the rolling back of civilian rule within the transitional setups, military in political command, rampant economic crisis and widespread violence.
Sudan, a North African State, has witnessed unprecedented political upheaval since October 2021. This is in continuation to April 2019 developments when Omar al-Bashir, the ruler of a long-standing dictatorial regime, stepped down from Presidency. The regime change brought hope, both at the international and national levels, that the transitional government[i] under Abdella Hamdok and a future government in power through elections would change Sudan’s destiny. As part of the Agreement, a transitional government took office on 17 August 2019. However, despite the promises, the transition government reverted to the lame-duck situations due to immense power rivalry and opportunistic military interventions. The recent overthrow of Prime Minister Hamdok, his reinstatement and subsequent resignation, and the parallel wave of protests brought Sudan back where it was before April 2019. These developments impel one to have a fleeting glance at Sudan’s political history, beginning with its independence from Britain and Egypt.
The current crisis in Sudan is part of a larger trend; since the 1950s, the country has been witnessing civil wars, violence and suppression of rights, and the stifling of democracy. Sudan has had a history of military coups. Out of the total 16 coups since its independence in 1956, around five military coups were successful. The country was under military rule for 52 years out of 65 years of its independent existence. The most notable feature about Sudan is the consistent grip of civil war except during 1972-1983.
In 1983, Northern Arabs in Sudan imposed the Islamic Sharia law across the country (even in areas where the majority of the inhabitants were non-Muslims), leading to friction and tension between the Arabs in the North and Animists and Black Christians (practicing traditional religions) in the South. The Southern population, led by the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the mainstream rebel group, resisted and took up the cause of people of South Sudan, that ultimately led to the bifurcation of the country into two - Sudan and South Sudan in 2011. The referendum held under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) in 2010 paved the way for the partition of the country. During the decades-long civil war, around two million people died, four million were uprooted, and 6,00,000 people fled the country (UNIMS, 2022).[ii] In addition, over 1.5 million people perished due to the famine.
Meanwhile, the discovery of oil strengthened the Sudanese economy, at certain levels and at another level, intensified the civil war. The involvement of multinational oil corporations, especially from the West, at the beginning of the millennium and their entanglements within the Sudanese political system vitiated the domestic situation. They had to withdraw following the clamour from civil society organizations, and human rights organizations. To a large extent, the vacuum created by the western companies was filled by Asian corporations from China, India and Malaysia. Even these countries were dragged into the crossfire of civil war.[iii] However, the oil economy of Sudan declined after the partition of the State since a large portion of the oil resources went to the newly created South Sudan, though Sudan continued to generate and receive a certain amount of revenue emanated from the transportation of the oil to the major port - Port Sudan on the Red Sea on the Sudanese coast.[iv] Notwithstanding the partition, Sudan still experiences conflicts in the Darfur[v] region, the western part of the country. Having outlined the background to the current crisis in Sudan, one needs to understand the strategic significance from the standpoints of global and regional contexts.
Sudan: A State with extreme strategic significance
Sudan is a prominent state in North Africa, otherwise known as Maghrib Africa and attained its independence on 1 January 1956, from Britain and Egypt. Sudan represents an Afro-Arab society and shares borders with nine states with an area of 2,505,810 sq. km, making it the largest state in Africa and the Arab world. The White Nile, whose course is through the middle of the country, merges with the Blue Nile at Khartoum-Sudan’s capital, one of the most prominent rivers in Africa. Sudan is surrounded by Libya, Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, Uganda, Central African Republic, Congo and Kenya. Geographically, Sudan is closer to West Asia, which deepens the country's importance to both West Asia and North Africa (West Asia and North Africa-WANA region). Sudan’s proximity to the Suez Canal makes it a critical geographical site of commerce, trade and geostrategic issues; also, the major port - Port Sudan, is positioned on the Red Sea (90 per cent of Sudan’s external trade operates through Port Sudan). In addition, Sudan has a long coastline of 700 km on the Red Sea, thereby making it an opening point to the north, east and central Africa. Sudan assumes a strategic role in the Horn of Africa and on the Red Sea, which witnesses 30 per cent of global constrainer ship traffic and around 12 per cent of the global trade.
Sudan’s political churning Since 2019
In April 2019, when Omar al Bashir was removed from power after three decades (1989-2019), through massive protests, there was hope that the country would finally adopt democracy as one could witness its flashes during the Arab Spring days in North Africa. The ‘African Renaissance’, which was transcending on the African horizon for some time with the promise of democratisation and economic progress, hit the roadblock in Sudan, at least for the time being. The key developments since October 2021 show that the democracy initiative of the interim transitional government was merely superficial, and promises made were utterly hollow.
After the overthrow of the Bashir regime, a transitional arrangement was installed, involving Forces for Freedom and Chance (FFC) and the military, by forming a coalition government in August 2019. In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Bashir regime, the military leaders who were leading the Supreme Council and the government, led by Abdella Hamdok, managed the transition arrangements reasonably well for quite some time; later, they turned hostile to each other on different issues, including economic issues which confront the nation in a significant fashion. On the one hand, the transition government also promised elections in July 2021 (which was not realized). On the other hand, the military wanted to postpone the elections by a year. On 25 October 2021, Prime Minister Hamdok was overthrown through a military coup, led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, the military chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces. Interestingly, the military cited the economic crisis as its intervention.
Once in power, the military Chief dissolved the government and the Supreme Council. However, after the coup in October 2021, widespread protests, spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which included doctors, nurses, teachers and so on, erupted across the country; the government of Abdella Hamdok was reinstated in November 2021 through an interim agreement. Notwithstanding the reinstatement, there was criticism that Hamdok compromised on certain provisions of the deal, which gave enormous power to the military, to control the supreme council. It was a fragile compromise agreement between Hamdok and the military. Finally, Hamdok resigned on 2 January 2022, citing the deadlock and inability to run the government.
Though the protesting groups lost more than seventy people in the first three months (after 25 October till 2 January 2022) to the violence and military actions, their resolve to oust the military from the country's political processes is strengthening day by day. The international community led by the United Nations (UN) and the Western States are intervening in Sudan, first by the United States blocking the financial assistance to the tune of USD 700 million, which was promised after the fall of the Bashir regime for the re-building of the nation, and then by European Union and the other Western States. The African Union (AU), Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) are at the forefront of striking negotiations and reconciliations, but the progress is slow.
Meanwhile, following the ouster of the Hamdok government, the military regime has been under tremendous pressure from the international community. Though certain powers like China continue to be engaged in Sudan with the policy of ‘non-intervention’, with an approach of ‘ready to negotiate for peace-building’, Western States are not willing to recognize the political change in Sudan; this could have serious economic implications for the country. Emerging powers like India had already withdrawn from the Sudanese oil sector, a major area of economy, much before the military coup in October 2021, citing a lack of cooperation in Sudan (though India had long successful cooperation in the Sudanese oil economy through ONGC-VL since 2003).
However, the western blockades and collapse or slowing down of negotiations could have serious repercussions on Sudan. The people in Sudan have mobilized all sections of the society and are tagitating to overthrow the military, irrespective of the violence unleashed by the military. The military might employ different strategies, including aligning with other non-western powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and so on, to offset the restrictions put forth by the Western powers, led by the US. The UN and African multilateral interventions in long as the State assumes a strategic role in Horn of Africa and the the Sudanese crisis is a welcome step in the right direction The world cannot afford to throw Sudan into an absolute political instability for on the Red Sea as mentioned earlier. In the political sphere, pulling back Sudan on the promised democracy course is a long haul, especially amid the backsliding of democracy in Africa in contemporary times. In general, authoritarianism and anti-democratic trends were quite visible across the African continent in 2021, with at least four states showing a return to non-democratic regimes such as Chad, Guinea, Mali and Sudan.
Sudan after the resignation of Hamdok: Key Developments
The developments in Sudan in the last six months have attracted global attention, first for the overthrow of the government of Hamdok on 25 October 2021 and his reinstatement on 21 November 2021; later, his resignation on 2 January 2022 and then the willingness of Forces of Freedom and Change (CFF), the civil society leadership, to negotiate with the military government, led by General Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, under the auspices of the UN from 8 January 2022. Hamdok’s resignation and dissolution of the coalition government hampered the possibility of democratization, as promised in the deal between the military and civil society after the fall of the Bashir regime in 2019. Of late, UN-facilitated Consultations on Political Process for Sudan (CPSS), a new process, was set in motion to negotiate among various stakeholders to find a solution to the current wave of crisis in Sudan. Developments in Sudan that started with the 25 October military coup after the promise (transitional government made) to the country to show in democracy have disappointed people and Africa observers alike.
Hamdok’s resignation has led to a spate of violence and protest across the country, with CFF leading the agitation for the restoration of democracy and the holding of the promised elections. The Doctors Union and several other professionals’ groups have joined CFF in their protest against the military takeover. Around 1000 people have been detained since the current crisis unfolded since October 2021.[vi] Simultaneously, the high-profile members of Bashir’s party, the National Congress Party (NCP), were released from the jail to take up significant positions in the government to quell the violence. One such member is Ibrahim Grandour, the former Foreign Minister of al Bashir regime. However, the protest against the military government continues unabatedly, led mainly by neighbourhood resistance committees. The new demands also include a transitional government headed by a prime minister elected by the resistance committees, and restructuring the country’s military and security structure and leadership.
Apart from the political crisis and protests in Khartoum, clashes have erupted in El Geneina, the capital of Darfur, between non-Arab Massalit community and Arab fighters which left around 200 people dead.[vii] This incident surfaced when Internal Criminal Court began the trial of a key accused – Al Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, for the crimes committed by the militia Janjaweed, against the common people in the Darfur region twenty years ago. Massive sexual crimes, commited by Janjaweed are one of the serious allegations against Abd-al-Rahman, apart from mass killings and torture. This is the first major trial, being taken up by ICC on the genocide accusation in Sudan. Former leader Omar-al Bashir is under house arrest after he was removed from power (whom ICC had indicted earlier) and is to face trial at ICC for the crimes like genocide.
In the social front, around 20 million people are likely to go hungry in Sudan due to violence and Russia-Ukraine crisis, according World Food Programme.[viii] It is to be noted that Sudan imports more than 80 per cent of wheat from Ukraine and Russia. The price rise is at an all time high. Apart from this, there is serious economic crisis that is currently ongoing with inflation at 260 per cent and depreciation of 26 per cent of the national currency (since October 2021).[ix] The Western aid and lending agencies have paused the flow of aid to Sudan to the tune of $ 1.4 Bn.[x] All these developments have made the United Nations (UN) Envoy to warn recently that ‘Sudan is heading for an ‘economic and security collapse’ unless it addresses the political paralysis following the coup’.[xi]
In fact, Sudan, a State which witnessed enormous degree of political churning process in the last decade has been aspiring for durable peace. A generation old civil war in the country ended with the division of country into two States in 2011 - Sudan and South Sudan, though violence in Darfur in Western Sudan, continue to be active in the country. After the regime change in April 2019 which overthrew the Omar al-Bashir government, there was a hope that country will slowly march into democracy and economic prosperity. The transitional governance arrangements were made through negotiations and compromises, strengthening a strong belief among the people of the country who suffered decades long crisis and pain that elections and new constitutional mechanism would usher them into a new era, like the promises embedded in Arab Spring. However, the developments in Sudan since October 2021 have placed them in a situation that existed in 2019, with the rolling back of civilian rule within the transitional setups, with military in political command, rampant economic crisis and widespread violence. The rebuilding of Sudan which unravelled after the entry of transitional government has come to a halt with the withdrawal of aid from the West which in a way can deepen the problems of people significantly. The continued violence on the part of regime, resurfacing of Darfur civil war, along with economic crisis (caused due to internal and external factors), unless dealt with comprehensively, can lead to a security, political and economic collapse which bodes ill for the peace in the region and the world at large.
[i] The proposed Agreement stands for a Joint Military –Civilian Council of Sudan with a Head of State, a new Chief Justice leading the Judiciary and a Prime Minister. Transitional Agreement envisages a national election which has to be conducted by 2023. Please see: the Meeting Coverage, “Sudan’s New Transitional Government Presents Chance to Restore Long-Term Stability”. Media Coverage, UN Security Council, 28 August 2019, https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/sc13929.doc.htm, Accessed on 21 April, 2022.
[ii]Please see: “UNMIS Background’’, the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), https://peacekeeping.un.org/en/mission/past/unmis/background.shtml, 25 April, 2022. Accessed 25
[iii] Sometime before the partition of Sudan into two States, there was a complaint that 60 per cent income emerged out of oil trade went into arms purchase which intensified the civil war. Please refer to: “Sudan: Oil Companies Complicit in Rights Abuses”, http://www.hrw.org/africa/sudan.php, Accessed on 20th May 2007
[iv] The partition of Sudan in 2011 into two nation-states posed new challenges as oil fields are largely concentrated in South Sudan (upstream activities) while oil infrastructure and other business/development projects are heavily concentrated in the North Sudan.
[v] As the conflict between North and South began to decline in the first decade of the century, a new one began in the Western State of Darfur between Non-Arab Communities and Janjaweed, a militia supported by al-bashir Government. The militia was accused of ethnic cleansing which al-Bashir Government (at that pointed in time denied). Several thousand of people have died and several others fled the region for the fear of violence.
[vi] News Report (2022) “Sudan: Hundreds of Protesters Detained, Mistreated”, Human Rights Watch, 28 April, Accessed on 28 April 2022
[vii] “Sudan West Darfur Clashes Leave 200 Dead’’, All Africa, 27 April 2022, ttps://allafrica.com/stories/202204280031.html, Accessed on, 28 April. 2022
[viii] Please see Simon Marks (2022) “Ukraine War combines with Coup to leave Half of Sudan Hungry”, Bloomberg, March 15, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-15/ukraine-war-combines-with-coup-to-leave-half-of-sudan-hungry. Accessed 20 April 2022.
[ix] “Sudan’s Crisis: After the Tyrant”(2022), The Economist, 9 April.2022
[xi] “Sudan: Political paralysis could lead country to collapse, U.N envoy warns”, Africanews, 30 March 2022. https://www.africanews.com/2022/03/30/sudan-political-paralysis-could-lead-country-to-collapse-u-n-envoy-warns//, Accessed on April 27, 2022.
About the author
S Shaji is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.
(This essay was first published as a Cover Story for the NIAS-IPRI-KAS Conflict Weekly)
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