Africa Democratic Transitions East Africa Sudan
AfricaSource January 15, 2020

Sudan’s uncertain road ahead

By Cameron Hudson

Sudan has been wracked by nine months of civilian-led protests that had seemed to give way, by the end of 2019, to a period of relative stability. A civilian-led transitional government was established, and the country’s affable new prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, returned from a historic visit to Washington in early December, to focus his administration on preparing the country’s first post-Bashir national budget.

The quiet was short-lived. In the days leading up to the new year, violence erupted in the far-western Darfur region, and more than sixty civilians were killed in intense fighting fueled by long-simmering tribal tensions. Concurrently, the far eastern city of Port Sudan was also rocked by violence from intercommunal quarrels killing fourteen and injuring sixty. 

And now this week, for the first time since the height of the revolution last summer, the threat of violence has returned to the capital, Khartoum. In a reported effort to disarm and retire members of the general intelligence services operational unit (which is the overt paramilitary arm of Sudan’s otherwise secretive spy agency), members of the unit resisted efforts to dislodge them peacefully, firing their weapons in the air, reportedly taking several of their own leaders hostage, and causing Sudan’s military to redeploy heavy equipment on the streets of Khartoum. As a precaution, the country’s international airport was also briefly closed and a curfew imposed, igniting concerns that more serious and widespread violence could again befall the capital.

There is so far no evidence to suggest that these geographically and politically diverse episodes of violence are linked or directed by a single source, as some on the ground may be fearing. But that doesn’t quell the near constant churn of the conspiracy theorists, who are serving up new rumors on a daily basis: blaming Islamist factions for inciting chaos across the country, blaming Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) allies for engineering widespread dissent, or fingering the influence of powerful outside actors, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE). (In an unfortunate coincidence, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash happened to be in Sudan yesterday, meeting with some military and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia leaders just prior to the intelligence revolt.)

There is a more likely cause of the tensions underlying the nation, one that might be influencing the political mood and enabling this sort of seemingly random violence. I would hazard that the common element underpinning these episodes is not any unidentified spoiler, but rather, the pervasive uncertainty that overhangs Sudan’s ongoing political transition.

Nearly six months in, the governing bargain between civilians and security forces seems to be holding strong, but there has been little concrete progress towards determining which side will emerge as the dominant actor at the end of the transition. That means that there is ongoing uncertainty over who ultimately is in charge, not only today, but well into the future. And uncertainty over what the political future will be means uncertainty over whether – and which – people will have jobs and the resources they need to support their families.

The military-appointed state governors around the country don’t know how long they will remain in their jobs, who they should be answering to, and what their responsibilities are as unelected stewards in a civilian-led transitional government.

Military and militia forces, from the leadership to the front lines, are uncertain about their future in a country where security elements may no longer be the protected class and may in fact be held accountable for their past crimes.  To those with purer intentions in these organizations, who see themselves and their institutions as guarantors and protectors of the state, they too are mired in uncertainty over their responsibilities as the nation now openly debates reforming and reducing the role of these powerful actors in the country.  

And so too are the intelligence officers uncertain about their future livelihoods – as evidenced yesterday, when many were handed pink slips and severance packages. Their unwillingness to quietly accept their new future is most likely what provoked yesterday’s standoff, despite the healthy array of conspiracy theories on offer. 

That vacuum of uncertainty surely also helped contribute to an environment where intercommunal violence outside the capital could re-emerge.

To be sure, periods of transition are defined by uncertainty. Uncertainty around which elements of the previous political dispensation will survive, which ones will be eliminated, and what the individual and collective consequences of these changes might be. These all remain open questions in Sudan today and are creating dangerous anxiety among those armed actors who for so long in Sudan rested easy in the certainty of their positions.

I would argue, however, that after not-yet six months of transitional rule, these periodic outbursts should be neither particularly surprising nor particularly alarming. Power vacuums are bound to emerge as elements of the old system are eliminated or cast aside, and power struggles are a natural result.

In a purely political space, necessary struggles to rebalance power will appear as cacophonous, treacherous, and perhaps even treasonous acts. In an environment like Sudan’s – where the principal actors are not politicians but armed soldiers – power struggles end up looking a lot like events of the past twenty-four hours. Fortunately, yesterday’s confrontation was largely contained, and Khartoum has today returned to something resembling normal. The worst-case scenario feared from the very beginning of the revolution – that Sudan’s often competing security forces would have to battle it out on the streets of the capital to determine their dominance – was avoided. In many respects, that is a win.

But it can also be viewed a near-miss, and at the very least, the episode suggests that the specter of mass civilian casualties, the destruction of physical infrastructure, and the unraveling of state institutions is still casting an eerie shadow over the transition.

If widespread violence occurs, it will signal the end of Sudan’s experiment in civilian government and suspend any further talk of generous international engagement plans and sanctions removal. Fortunately, at this time, neither military nor civilian leaders can see any benefit in this scenario, especially as a much-improved future for the country appears tantalizingly within reach. The shared vision of prosperity was enough to dispel the threat of violence and return Khartoum to calm.

The responses to yesterday’s drama by Sudan’s leading figures, however, do present some clues to how both sides view the journey ahead. In the hours following the start of yesterday’s mutiny, the Prime Minister offered a calming and unifying assurance to the nation, praising his partners in government, “the military and RSF” for their joint response to the situation and offering his full confidence in their ability to de-escalate the skirmish responsibly and restore calm to the capital.

Even Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, head of Sudan’s Supreme Council (and who is believed not to harbor grander political ambitions) echoed the Prime Minister later in the day, offering little in the way of blame and asserting that “… the armed forces and political forces … all stood together against this conspiracy against the Sudanese people’s revolution…and we will protect this transition term and anyone who tries to disturb the security and stability of citizens will be defeated.”

But hours later, General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, who is the deputy head of the ruling Supreme Council and arguably the strongest armed actor in the country, struck a different tone, asserting without evidence that his rival Salah Ghosh, Sudan’s much-reviled former head of intelligence, had orchestrated the mutiny. Hemedti claimed that Ghosh “has many generals active within the security sector with an aim to create confusion and fighting.”

Khartoum has long been rife with rumors that Hemedti is secretly plotting to assert control over Sudan’s powerful intelligence apparatus, which if coupled with his Rapid Support Forces militia, would give him unequaled power inside the country and fundamentally alter the balance of power between the civilian and security forces in the transitional government. The resignation today of the head of intelligence gives him a prime opportunity to do just that.

For now, any ambitions that Hemedti may have had have been kept in check. An overt power play at the expense of civilian rule – by any member of the security apparatus, including Ghosh – would doom any hope of advancing Sudan’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and would dramatically reduce the likelihood of future investment and aid to Sudan. (US officials view the SST designation as their best leverage for promoting civilian rule.) More importantly, any explicit consolidation of power by armed actors would send the masses of people back into the streets to resume their protests. The Sudanese remain undeterred in their goal of civilian government and skeptical of anyone appearing to upset the current political agreement. Neither Hemedti’s efforts to expunge his past atrocities through charitable acts and public relations, nor the military leaders’ continued attempts to portray themselves as champions of the revolution, will pacify the protestors, many of whom have died in their pursuit of civilian rule.

In the end, as much as the current political uncertainty is unsettling to many and may cost lives, it has so far proven to be a powerful tool for keeping the leading actors honest and bound to a common agenda. If it means preserving the revolution, extending the transition, and offering a better future for Sudan, perhaps everyone inside and outside the country should learn to accept uncertainty as a necessary evil.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously he served as the chief of staff to the special envoy for Sudan and as director for African Affairs on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter @_hudsonc.

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Image: A civilian walks past members of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF) are seen near the area where gunmen opened fire outside buildings used by Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) in Khartoum, Sudan January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah