Sudan’s transitional government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) – a Juba-based rebel group – signed a peace deal and mutual agreement for the separation of religion and politics on March 28. The accord was reached just weeks before the two-year anniversary of former Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir’s ousting, which took place on April 11, 2019. Though the move has been celebrated by some analysts, questions remain as to whether it will help the country live up to the hopes of the revolution, amid growing economic challenges and corruption concerns.
Indeed, this is not Sudan’s first attempt to refashion itself as “secular.” In August 2020, Sudan penned a similar peace agreement with five other rebel factions that also entailed joint support for a secular state. Prior to that, in June 2020, Sudan decriminalized apostacy and alcohol consumption.
The latest effort comes in alignment with Sudan securing its removal from the US’ terrorist sponsors listing, where it was placed in 1993 but finally removed from last December. The designation was economically crippling for Sudan as it restricted international investment into the country and imposed various sanctions.
Meanwhile, though some external observers have praised these latest reforms, they do not meet the immediate demands of protestors who pushed for the revolution, suggesting the post-Bashir transition has not fully achieved its intended goals.
People took to the streets in December 2018 to protest corruption and the dire economic conditions within the country, despite popular media narratives framing them as “bread riots.”
After all, people took to the streets in December 2018 to protest corruption and the dire economic conditions within the country, despite popular media narratives framing them as “bread riots,” following the trebling of bread prices that month.
Some positive changes have occurred since the revolution though. The transitional civilian-military government was brokered in August 2019, which prevented the military from taking over and crushing the revolution. Additionally, Sudan agreed to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in February 2020.
However, along with worsening economic circumstances, Sudan has also faced counter-revolutionary actors trying to gain their stake in the post-Bashir government. These factors have jeopardized Sudan’s democratic transition, particularly as people’s livelihoods have not yet improved.
Ongoing Economic Challenges
Sudan has faced a multi-pronged economic crisis, firstly due to hard-currency shortages and rising inflation. Such problems stem from Bashir-era corruption, and the transitional government has so far been unable to provide solutions. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these issues, due to its impact on commodity prices, trade, and travel. Sudan’s GDP was estimated to have shrunk by 8.4 percent in 2020, compared to a decrease of 2.5 percent in 2019.
On September 10, 2020, Sudan declared a state of economic emergency, driven by what the government called the “systematic vandalism” of its currency, blaming black market traders. Government figures, including military leaders, have often blamed external obstacles for the country’s financial difficulties.
Still, protests over poor living conditions have continued across the country, with people accusing government mismanagement of worsening their quality of life.
In January, demonstrations in the capital Khartoum began gathering pace, as citizens condemned the rising prices of fuel, food, and other essential goods that month. People’s circumstances are worsening in the capital city, as they are often forced to queue for hours just for a loaf of bread, while power cuts are becoming more widespread.
Last February, the government imposed a state of emergency in poorer regions such as Darfur, North Kordofan, West Kordofan, and Sennar, after some protestors had looted and burned shops, and stolen food from markets. People were chanting: “No to high prices, no to hunger,” reported AFP.
The government has evidently adopted a more authoritarian response, as shown by its harsh responses against demonstrators. Security forces reportedly fired tear gas at protestors in Darfur during the unrest last year. Human Rights Watch reported last November that security forces even killed demonstrators in the eastern town of Kassala.
This has intensified past concerns that Sudan’s government could be hijacked by counter-revolutionary forces. Indeed, Sudan’s military sought to seize power after it forced Bashir from power and tried to crackdown on protestors in Khartoum who were staging a sit-in, in June 2019.
Though the transitional agreement in July managed to prevent a counter-revolution, which civilian leaders say was owed to US pressure, some controversial figures have remained in the government. Among them is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (or “Hemedti”), who was previously accused of crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region and leading the attacks on protestors in June 2019. Hemedti was the leader of the Rapid Special Forces (RSF) and is now the Deputy Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council.
On the other hand, such fears were temporarily eased after a cabinet reshuffle took place. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok dissolved the previous cabinet on February 7. The following day, he announced a new cabinet which included Darfur rebel leader Gibril Ibrahim as Finance Minister, while a prominent opponent of Bashir, Sadiq al-Mahdi, was named as Foreign Minister.
Interference of External Powers
Though the reshuffle was a reassuring step, there are still concerns that the changes may not meet the people’s wishes, particularly if necessary economic reforms are not made. Furthermore, questions have also been raised over the ongoing interference of external powers. After the revolution, various foreign powers tried to gain influence in Sudan’s government. The UAE and Saudi Arabia were the first to jump in, offering Sudan’s military a combined total of US$3 billion just after Bashir’s ousting. The two also reportedly backed the crackdown on protestors in June 2019.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh wanted to prevent Islamist forces and democratic reforms from succeeding, to ensure the continuation of “stable authoritarianism” across the region. This was particularly true of the UAE, which continued courting Sudan’s military leaders, while Saudi Arabia eventually backed off.
Abu Dhabi and Riyadh wanted to prevent Islamist forces and democratic reforms from succeeding, to ensure the continuation of “stable authoritarianism” across the region.
Though the US-brokered transitional agreement may have hindered the UAE’s objectives in Sudan, some of the secular changes even highlight the UAE’s ongoing influence and soft power in the country, and its desires to ensure a secular but autocratic-leaning government.
Additionally, Washington arguably leveraged the terrorist sponsor listing; particularly as former US President Donald Trump sought another foreign policy “victory” through backing Sudan’s normalization with Israel last October, which was also a condition for Sudan’s removal from the listing. There were some indications that Abu Dhabi tried to broker Khartoum’s normalization agreement with Israel as well.
Such relations were further consolidated after Sudan’s cabinet approved a bill on April 6 which entailed abolishing its 1958 law on boycotting Israel.
Many Sudanese protestors have repeatedly condemned the normalization agreement, showing that it was being pursued without considering the people’s desires.
One positive outcome is that the economic relief from the removal of Sudan’s terrorist sponsors listing will provide a lifeline for the country. A potential recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, should it occur, could also aid Sudan’s economic stability.
Finally, further civilian pressure could ensure that positive reforms are made within the government, as shown from the recent cabinet reshuffle. Continued external support for Sudan’s transition is also essential for ensuring that it meets the civilians’ requirements, even as it seeks to curtail the role of counter-revolutionary actors.