When Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok visited a remote, rebel-held town in the restive border state of South Kordofan in January, it was a sign – one among many – of the dramatic changes sweeping Sudan since the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir.
In front of a crowd of tens of thousands in Kauda, Hamdok held hands with a rebel leader al-Bashir had once tried to crush, and shared a stage with senior officials from aid groups long barred from helping a region that sorely needs it.
But a few months on – and just over a year since al-Bashir was unseated amid mass protests – efforts to make peace with some of Sudan’s largest armed groups are stalling, while a tanking economy is undermining Hamdok’s authority, and putting the country’s democratic transition in jeopardy.
The rebel leader that shook Hamdok’s hand – Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu – remains wary of peace negotiations that were supposed to have been wrapped up in February, as does the leader of the largest rebel group in war-scarred Darfur.
With inflation rising, the Sudanese pound sliding, and international donors unwilling to cough up, it’s unclear how the transitional government can even afford the hundreds of millions needed to make a peace deal workable.
As ordinary Sudanese struggle to buy basic goods and discontentment grows, many fear the military generals who now share power with civilian representatives will soon decide to reassert their authority. A bomb attack on Hamdok’s motorcade in Khartoum last month may be an early warning sign.
“If the civilians within the government look like they are unable to respond to Sudan's myriad problems, that leaves space for other actors to pour into the vacuum,” Jonas Horner, a Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The New Humanitarian.
Since the revolution that toppled al-Bashir, power in Sudan has shifted to a sovereign council composed of six civilians and five members of the military, as well as a cabinet of ministers led by Hamdok, a former UN economist. Elections have been promised for 2022.
Al-Bashir, who has long evaded international justice for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur, has been sentenced to two years in a correctional facility for corruption, and faces further charges relating to the 1989 coup that brought him to power and crackdowns on protesters.
Read more → Sudan’s revolution runs aground in Darfur
Al-Bashir’s Islamist National Congress Party has meanwhile been dissolved; conservative morality laws have been scrapped; and conversations that once landed Sudanese in prison are now held freely.
Constraints have been lifted on aid groups too.
“It's a totally different world,” Magdi el-Gizouli, an academic and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, told TNH.
But hanging over the newfound freedom is the same economic crisis that brought people onto the streets to protest against al-Bashir – a fact that now appears to be jeapordising the country’s transition.
“There is no money,” said Hamid Eltgani Ali, a professor at the American University in Cairo. “That could be the biggest issue that's causing this transition to fail.”
Sudan lost most of its oil-producing areas in 2011, when South Sudan broke away and became independent. Today, it is struggling under a mountain of debt, and an acute shortage of hard currency.
“There is no money. That could be the biggest issue that's causing this transition to fail.”
Hamdok has visited Western capitals seeking to rebuild relationships and rehabilitate the image of Sudan, long considered an international pariah under al-Bashir. But donors are demanding further reforms – including the politically sensitive lifting of fuel subsidies – and Sudan remains on a US state sponsors of terrorism list, hampering its ability to access funding.
Many question whether Hamdok can hold on as prime minister given these challenges, and although the military is unlikely to grasp power from the civilians without resistance, Horner said there is concern among some Sudanese that military leaders could use the worsening economy as a “pretext to take a much firmer hold on the transition”.
“The main political threat that comes from economic weakness is really that the civilian component of the government is made to look weak,” Horner said.
Peace talks stall
Troubles, meanwhile, abound in Sudan’s long-neglected peripheries.
Key issues such as justice, the return of displaced people, and security arrangements remain largely outstanding, Horner said, while the leaders of the two biggest rebel groups in the country are not yet on board.
Al-Hilu, who commands the largest faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North – active in the southern states of Blue Nile and South Kordofan – wants the government to commit to secularism before he agrees to a deal.
In Darfur, Abdul Wahid – leader of a faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement – retains a significant fighting force in the mountains of Jebel Marra. The group has recently grown in strength thanks to gold mining revenue.
Both leaders worry that the military and former members of al-Bashir’s regime still retain too much power in Khartoum through the transitional government, said Horner.
Hanging over the talks – as like so much in Sudan at the moment – are questions of money. Who will pay for the demobilisation and reintegration of rebels? Who will pay for security sector reform? How will investment be found so the neglected areas can progress? Donors aren’t yet stepping forward.
“The great risk is that Sudan cannot even afford a peace process,” said el-Gizouli.
“They are not looking comprehensively at the problems of the country, at the root cause of the failure of the Sudanese state.”
A focus on securing armed group representation in various transitional bodies has also come at the expense of examining the root causes of Sudan’s many conflicts, added Ahmed Hussein Adam, a Sudanese writer and former co-chair of Columbia University’s Two Sudans Project.
“They are not looking comprehensively at the problems of the country, at the root cause of the failure of the Sudanese state,” Adam said.
Government restrictions on aid groups – some of which were expelled under al-Bashir – have been relaxed in recent months, with UN agencies accessing parts of Blue Nile and South Kordofan for the first time in years.
But the humanitarian backdrop remains bleak.
There are almost two million internally displaced people in the country, and more than nine million in need of assistance overall. In December, an outbreak of violence in West Darfur left 65 people dead and displaced tens of thousands more to neighbouring Chad and other parts of Sudan.
The fresh violence comes as the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, UNAMID, is set to draw down. A replacement mission is being discussed but it’s not yet clear whether it will have a civilian protection mandate.
An outbreak of COVID-19 is meanwhile expected to cause even more economic damage and increase needs. Social distancing is proving hard, particularly in Khartoum, where shortages of bread and fuel mean residents face long lines outside bakeries and petrol stations.
A committee appointed to investigate the June 2019 Khartoum crackdown has made little progress and prosecutors lack resources, according to Human Rights Watch. The man most implicated in the killings – Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti – is now serving as deputy chairman of the sovereign council.
Hemedti’s role in Sudan’s transition – alongside other al-Bashir-era military generals – leaves little hope of justice for the countless victims of Sudan’s wars, said Ali from the American University in Cairo.
“Justice is important,” he said. “But the question is: how are you going to do it if the people that are committing crimes are still in power?”