A deal between Sudan's military and its factious political elites has opened the door to installing a civilian government. Signatories should work to win broader support during the current phase of negotiations, while outside actors should stand ready to offer financing if the agreement sticks.
A new civilian government may be in the offing in Sudan, but considerable work remains to keep things on track in the country's transition away from authoritarian rule. On 5 December 2022, the military concluded a framework agreement with dozens of civilian leaders, in which the generals promised to relinquish much of their political power. The agreement, which had been under quiet discussion for months, is a major accomplishment, but it faces long odds. It excludes former rebels and others who could undermine the transitional government if not brought on board. Many of those who are against the agreement, including the "resistance committees" at the core of the protest movement demanding civilian rule, doubt that the generals will honour the deal's terms.
Wider talks among civilian leaders, which began in January to address important issues not covered by the accord and build a broader constituency for it, are thus critical if it is to garner the legitimacy it will need to succeed. As part of these "Phase II" negotiations, anti-coup forces should forge a more unified front as well as bring in ex-rebels, tribal leaders and other opposition parties. The U.S and other outside powers that pushed for the deal should urge them to do so. Western and Gulf partners should press the military to abide by its commitments and, if the deal sticks, offer quick financial support to bolster a civilian government and salvage the economy.
A Period of Turmoil
Sudan has been in turmoil since the 2019 popular uprising that ousted long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir. Millions of Sudanese, angered by rising food prices, took to the streets to protest his three-decade rule, which had come to be a condominium of the military and the Islamist National Congress Party. Eventually, on 11 April, some four months into the uprising, Bashir's own military apparatus turned against him.
Since then, Sudan has been mired in political crisis, pitting a military establishment determined to cling to power against a protest movement resolved to bring about civilian rule. Amid large protests and brutal crackdowns, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan's military leader, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo "Hemedti", his deputy, who heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) that control much of the countryside, agreed in August 2019 to share governing responsibilities with a civilian coalition known as the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), and work toward fresh elections and a transition to civilian rule. The FFC included most of the established opposition parties as well as trade unions, civil society groups, some rebel movements and neighbourhood "resistance committees", which have been the primary force mobilising people in the streets. The committees shunned cooperation with the military and, though they coordinated with the FFC, were also critical of how its leaders were performing in the transitional government.
The two years of civilian-military power sharing that followed the August 2019 accord brought some relief to Sudan's economy, which benefited from the lifting of international sanctions following Bashir's ouster, but were marred by tension between the military and civilian camps, as well as infighting among FFC members. While donor commitments trickled in, albeit too slowly, to back the new government's efforts to kickstart the moribund economy, Sudan's new political leaders struggled to loosen the military's grip. The civilian camp itself was beset with squabbles among parties that view one another as future electoral rivals. As a key deadline for the military to hand over the transitional "sovereign council" completely to civilians neared, the military used the pretext of political wrangling to seize full power once again on 25 October 2021, dissolving the government and arresting its top officials, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
The coup plunged Sudan into a prolonged standoff. The generals seemed surprised by the resistance to their power grab, both at home, where they faced protests and civil disobedience campaigns, and abroad, where they met with opprobrium. The African Union (AU) suspended Sudan's membership the day after the coup, while the U.S. and European Union froze hundreds of millions of dollars of development assistance they had pledged to support Sudan's transition. Aid programs from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank potentially worth billions of dollars ground to a halt, as did critical debt relief negotiations. The economy continued a spiral into deep crisis and violent unrest shook far-flung corners of the country. The military failed to gain the full backing of traditional supporters, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia, none of which substantially supported the post-coup government. The generals also failed to lure enough of the political elite to their side to form a credible government, in effect leaving themselves saddled with the blame for the country's steady decline.
The impasse dragged on. One reason was that major politicians in the civilian opposition feared running afoul of the resistance committees and powerful protest movement given their deep distrust of the military, which has repeatedly seized power during the short periods of civilian rule Sudan has enjoyed since becoming independent in 1956. In May 2022, the UN, African Union and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a Horn of Africa regional bloc, launched an initiative known as the trilateral mechanism to mediate among the parties. But neither the FFC nor the resistance committees agreed to join, extending the stalemate.
A Controversial Accord
Progress toward a deal came through a separate channel. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which form the backbone of the Quad (a group of external partners that also includes the UK and UAE), began facilitating parallel direct talks between the main FFC bloc and the military. But although these talks made progress, they left out important actors, including several opposition parties, the resistance committees and a number of ex-rebel groups. They also irked AU and IGAD diplomats, who saw them as undermining the trilateral mechanism. In early July 2022, Burhan pulled out of the negotiations, later making the surprise announcement that the military would let civilians form a government themselves. But civilian actors (who largely viewed the military's offer as a ploy to shift blame to them for the political impasse) remained divided on a path forward.
A deal eventually came together after Sudanese lawyers tabled a new draft constitution contemplating restoration of civilian authority during a transitional period, which became the basis for renewed talks through both the trilateral mechanism and the Quad. The main FFC bloc announced on 16 November that it had reached agreement with the military on most of the critical issues. After consultations with politicians outside the FFC coalition, the parties signed the framework agreement on 5 December. Signatories included Burhan, Hemedti and more than 50 civilians, including the FFC leaders, a few non-FFC party heads and professional association representatives, and civil society groups, as well as Malik Agar, a prominent ex-rebel and former governor of Blue Nile state.On paper, the agreement unexpectedly fulfils most of the anti-coup parties' demands. It ends the military's formal political role, in effect dissolving the power-sharing arrangement that lasted from August 2019 until the October 2021 coup. It contemplates a transitional order in which a civilian will become head of state, serving officially as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and high commander of the RSF, though in practice Burhan and Hemedti appear set to continue to lead the army and RSF, respectively. Under the new arrangement, civilians will also appoint the prime minister, a transitional legislative council and an eleven-member interim judicial council. The prime minister will in turn name the cabinet and state governors and chair the Defence and Security Council, where the heads of the various state security institutions will sit (including, presumably, Burhan and Hemedti).
The agreement also contains other provisions that appear intended to reallocate power away from the security forces. Security institutions are forbidden from taking part in politics or commerce. The finance ministry is to assume administration of all state-owned enterprises, which the security elite has dominated, as a kind of shadow economy, since the Bashir era. Meanwhile, the agreement commits the military to enact government-mandated reforms, such as integrating former rebel groups and the RSF in a single professional army. Elections are to take place at the end of the two-year transition period.
Critics, of whom there are many, complain about both the deal itself and the process behind it. They wish to see top military leaders (especially Burhan and Hemedti) held judicially accountable. They also argue that the deal will do little to weaken the military's hold or to set up guardrails against another coup, though it is hard to imagine what could reliably prevent that. Indeed, the military enjoyed powers in the period 2019-2021 that far exceeded the limits of what it was afforded in the deal with the civilian camp, and it is no doubt confident that it will retain expansive prerogatives whatever the current agreement says. In a speech following the signing of the agreement, Burhan assured officers that the new transitional government would leave the military in charge of its own affairs, notwithstanding the provision for a new civilian leadership tasked with directing security-sector reform.
Another worry is that the new accord threatens to upend prior arrangements with rebel groups on Sudan's peripheries, and in particular those that signed the Juba Peace Agreement in 2020, which aimed to expand representation of areas outside the country's traditional riverine power centres. Ex-rebel groups object to language that suggests the Juba deal, which promises the signatories 25 per cent of seats in the civilian administration, among other important concessions, may be renegotiated. While this deal has many flaws, and it has created a new set of problems as various community leaders across the country object to being represented by those who made it, the Juba signatories will resist any attempt to dilute their hard-won gains.Perhaps the biggest and most legitimate concern about the December deal, however, concerns process. Many anti-coup groups have grievances about who negotiated the accord and how it came together. Rather than forging consensus among these actors first (as Crisis Group advocated), the FFC leaders negotiated directly with the military. Many members of the original FFC coalition, including the resistance committees, who proposed their own political roadmap, are infuriated. The talks also alienated other important actors, including ex-rebel leaders and tribal groups with constituencies far away from Khartoum, as well as Islamists who lost power when Bashir fell. That the U.S. pushed hard for the deal and played an inside role in the talks has also upset the deal's opponents, given how much Sudanese resent external influence in their politics, particularly from a country that heavily sanctioned their economy for decades.
But while critics make valid points, especially regarding the insufficiently inclusive negotiations, the accord they reached offers the sole available path toward the handover of political power to a civilian government. Sudan faces urgent economic, security and humanitarian challenges that only a functioning transitional government can hope to address. To prevent a deepening crisis and provide a way out of the long political impasse, Sudanese actors should thus support the deal even as they seek to build the broader support the agreement will need to stick.
An Inclusive Process
The framework agreement signed in December dealt with the critical questions of how the military will hand over authority to a civilian government and what its powers will be going forward. It did not, however, address a number of important issues that the FFC preferred not to negotiate on their own, in part because of the risk of public backlash.
Against this backdrop, the round of Phase II negotiations that commenced in January - primarily to begin addressing these issues and build broader support for the deal - will likely play a crucial role in determining the agreement's viability. To help the cabinet-in-waiting build a larger coalition and bring more actors on board, FFC leaders have announced plans for nationwide workshops, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, to try to develop consensus regarding the contentious issues under discussion, including security reforms, transitional justice and the status of the Juba Peace Agreement. The various civilian groups opposing the deal should not squander this opportunity to shape the next government's agenda, recognising that the more opposition factions are engrossed by infighting, the weaker - and the more susceptible to yet another coup - the government that emerges from this process will be.
Key players should take the following steps aimed at expanding the constituency that backs the civilian transitional government that will be formed following a final agreement:
First, the FFC leaders who stand to form the next government should urgently seek a modus vivendi with other civilian political factions. They should focus in particular on resistance committees and civil society organisations such as professional associations, labour unions and women's groups that were core to the original FFC alliance but have increasingly butted heads with the FFC leaders over the course of the transition. They are unlikely to win over all these critics, but recreating as much as possible of the 2018-2019 coalition that generated the energy behind the uprising against Bashir will be key to sustaining pressure on the military for reform. While resistance committees are already protesting the framework agreement, many are divided on the way forward, and some believe it would be pragmatic to engage with the negotiations. Additionally, some in this camp understand that a divided opposition only strengthens the military.
It may be difficult, or even impossible, to convince many resistance committees to bless a deal they have already denounced, but FFC leaders should keep trying to find common ground. One useful reference point for discussion with the deal's opponents might be a political charter signed by more than 50 resistance committees in September 2022, which proposed a way forward for Sudan's transition, and contains many points in common with the December framework agreement - including provisions for a fully civilian government and commander-in-chief.
For their part, the resistance committees - which can participate in Phase II negotiations among civilians without compromising their refusal to engage with the military - should join the discussions. Rather than undermining the December deal, they should recognise that it creates (at long last) a basis for moving to fully civilian rule and work to strengthen the relevant provisions. They should also use the opportunity to press for progress on another major demand - bringing perpetrators of atrocities to justice. In cases where resistance committees are simply not willing to endorse the deal, the FFC might consider trying to negotiate a "ceasefire" in which the committees stop campaigning against the accord, redirecting their energies toward holding signatories to account for what they have agreed to. This tack should also allow those who want to work within the new framework to do so without facing censure from their peers.
Secondly, the framework signatories need to better factor into the final agreement the concerns of the Sudanese who live in the vast rural and often restive regions outside Khartoum. The framework deal remains Khartoum-centric, in that most of the signatories are based in and around the capital, even after decades in which the centre has dominated the country to the detriment of Sudan's broader stability.
Signatories should continue engaging those parties to the 2020 Juba agreement who did not sign the framework deal. Two ex-rebel leaders in particular, Gibril Ibrahim (now finance minister) and Minni Minawi (now governor of Darfur), backed the 2021 coup but reject the new accord, which they worry could undermine the concessions they received in the Juba accord. The framework signatories should also reach out to the leaders of the two largest rebel groups - Abdulwahid al-Nur (whose forces operate in Darfur) and Abdulaziz al-Hilu (whose forces control much of South Kordofan state on the border with South Sudan) - both of whom refused to sign the Juba agreement. Consulting with them now on the priorities for a new government could open doors for future peace talks, which should be a top priority for any new government.
In addition to these organised political groups, signatories should make a broader effort to include traditional and community leaders (such as tribal chiefs), many of whom are significant local power brokers, in the discussions. The framework agreement already says the next round of negotiations should address the peace process in the east, where Beja chieftains rejected the 2020 Juba deal, shutting down key roads and ports in protest. But other areas of the country also risk sliding into unrest should they continue to be sidelined in elite deals at the centre. Negotiators should additionally consult representatives of displaced people throughout the countryside, who have fallen victim to rampant insecurity.
Thirdly, the FFC elite in particular should reconsider their cold shoulder to Islamists who are not affiliated with Bashir's National Congress Party. Treating all Islamists as presumptive Bashir sympathisers and excluding them from negotiations will only nurture a ready-made and well-connected opposition that retains plenty of support among conservative Sudanese.
Fourthly, recognising that outreach to all these groups will be a tall order, and will require a neutral facilitator, the FFC leaders should help empower the UN-AU-IGAD trilateral mediators to step in. While the trilateral process has thus far struggled to find its niche in helping broker a path out of Sudan's political quagmire, the moment is ripe for it to take the lead. A stronger role by the trilateral process may help placate those who accuse the FFC elite of monopolising the negotiations. It would also help corral outside actors behind a single inclusive and transparent framework they can all support. To further address processual grievances from the last round of talks, the mediators should ensure that agenda items are open for input beyond what the December agreement designates for further discussion, so as to attract more parties to the table.
Finally, in order to create the best odds that the next transitional government will succeed where the last one failed, Phase II negotiations should develop a clear action plan designed to help it steer clear of the turf battles that beset its predecessor. The plan should direct the government to confine itself to core areas of state- and nation-building - eg, designing economic reforms, establishing an independent electoral commission, enacting basic legislation to restore credible government agencies and administration, overseeing peace processes and pursuing a national constitutional dialogue.
A Time for Patience
While outside actors will want to see Phase II wrap up quickly and a civilian government rapidly installed, they should give Sudanese the space and time to find a more unified approach forward, despite the urgency of halting the country's crisis. The U.S., in particular, but also the EU, the UK and other Western powers, should resist the urge to push the parties to move too hastily toward forming a government. Washington should instead lean heavily on its allies among the FFC elite to make the concessions necessary to widen the next government's base of support, even while pressuring the military to abide by its commitments.
Meanwhile, regional powers close to the military, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, should support the transfer of authority to civilians, cognisant that the aftermath of the 2021 coup proved once again that the military is too unpopular to rule the country. Western and Gulf countries should continue to coordinate on a shared message to the main players in Sudan, so as to avoid a sense of competing outside agendas. All should work to make sure the military does not use messy negotiations as an excuse to back out of the December deal.
Western and Gulf countries, along with international financial institutions, should also start lining up development and financial aid for a new civilian government immediately after the military meets its commitment to step aside. While donors may understandably fear that another coup is around the corner, hesitancy in opening their purses would almost guarantee that Sudan's transition will fail to meet a major expectation among the masses, which is to bring about better living conditions for ordinary citizens. In particular, the Friends of Sudan group should work to coordinate relief.
Any new government will face the immediate challenge of governing a country in disrepair, with the economy in a tailspin, a plethora of armed groups jostling for advantage and fundamental disagreements over Sudan's political identity unresolved. Finding a path forward in Sudan will require a range of key actors to make compromises, work with those they do not fully trust and agree on a set agenda for pulling the country back from the brink. That will be tough, but it is incumbent on Sudan's leaders and engaged citizens to try.