A glimmer of hope among the challenges for Sudan
Devastating floods in Sudan have overshadowed optimism over a landmark peace agreement in August between transitional authorities and an alliance of rebel groups, putting an end to violent conflict in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Since 2011, more than 300,000 Sudanese have perished in a bitter civil war, sparked by the political and economic marginalization of non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities during the Omar Bashir era.
The insurgency against the Bashir regime also drove over 2.5 million Sudanese from their homes into squalid camps, fleeing genocide, torture and other human rights abuses. Months of protests eventually ousted Bashir and his ilk, although not all of them. One of the transitional authorities’ principal negotiators for the peace agreement, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, was actually a Bashir enforcer who commanded paramilitaries that conducted counter-insurgency campaigns against those very same rebel groups.
Perhaps that is a sign of the changing times and tides in Sudan, given increased civil-military cooperation and the willingness of rebel groups to bank on the sincerity of a civilian cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. However, goodwill alone cannot fashion a path to enduring peace, especially when those who ordered or committed the worst atrocities get to pen this peace and dictate its terms. After all, this deal comes with benefits to a military class not keen on shedding its past or reforming itself, but singularly focused on remaining welded to Sudan's power levers. The deal grants the military half of the transitional council international legitimacy — good PR before the gentlemen with the medal ribbons and insignias are forced to a reckoning in The Hague with their bloody past in Darfur.
This is no criticism, however, of the peace process or its lofty aims. It is a welcome development in a transition period teetering toward the crippling limbo, which has already disenchanted youths in Tunisia and is on track to disillusion Algerians seeking greater democratization. Perhaps they should both take clues from their southern neighbor as protests calling for faster reforms and election of a legislative body have not died down in Sudan, even amid a pandemic. Fortunately, what this peace agreement does is give the transitional authorities assurances on long-term stability, which is a crucial backdrop in the pursuit of serious reforms.
The deal will see rebels join the transitional government with allocations of legislative and executive positions, which they will hold until elections three years from now. Rebel-held territories will be granted autonomy under a revised federal system that will delegate more responsibilities to localities. Despite the lack of plans or willingness to reform the armed forces, thousands of rebel fighters are slated to join the ranks of the military as part of the terms of the peace deal. Millions of internally displaced Sudanese will receive repatriation assistance, amidst plans for land reforms and distribution of wealth.
The prescriptions look good on paper and go to the heart of the trauma unleashed on ethnic minorities via discrimination and marginalization. Some, however, have been quick to pan the agreement and deride its fanfare for being premature and amnesiac, given 14 years of "historic" agreements — from Abuja to Doha to Juba — which crumbled in a fairly routine cycle. Claiming that the peace deal is a panacea to all of Sudan’s ills would thus be naive and quite short-sighted.
Initially, two rebel groups were not as enthusiastic to sign on to this peace deal even if most of their substantive demands have been met or addressed. Additionally, the agreement has split the Sudanese public into two on the subject of a constitutionally mandated separation of religion and state, in the absence of which the right of self-determination would be respected. One side agrees state secularism is a necessity to guarantee individual liberties, while the other believes Hamdok’s temporary government has no authority to decide the matter without citizens’ approval via elections. Yet Abdel Aziz Al-Hilu of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North in South Kordofan's Nuba Mountains skipped out on the Aug. 31 ceremony to insist on a secular Sudan and Nuba’s right of self-determination.
Experts agree the solution to Sudan's woes lies in Washington removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which will go a long way toward negotiating debt relief and encourage some foreign investment.
It is not just the lines across the papers signed and ceremoniously waved at that initialing event that is worrying, or the weight of what they seek for a post-conflict Sudan. This peace deal comes with a hefty price tag at the worst of times. Thousands of livestock and agricultural losses, collapsed homes, damaged to hundreds of businesses and even government facilities are just the latest toll after continuous rainfall unleashed devastating floods.
More than 500,000 have been affected with government estimating up to 750,000 will be displaced in a country already reeling from the novel coronavirus pandemic and worsening economic woes. Citizens lack basic goods like bread and utilities, while power outages of up to six hours a day make it more challenging for businesses to operate. Meanwhile, the government has declared an economic emergency as the currency continues its plunge and inflation creeps upwards.
Experts agree the solution to Sudan's woes lies in Washington removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which will go a long way toward negotiating debt relief and encourage some foreign investment. However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent visit was more to secure legitimacy for normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world than to throw Sudan a lifeline even after undergoing a major transformation in pursuit of democratization.
Fortunately, there is a lot of optimism and unprecedented national unity, built on the success of Bashir’s relatively bloodless removal and the ability to secure a peace deal by the Sudanese and for the Sudanese without the usual external wrangling, deadlines and arm-twisting. Surely there is hope that while there will be challenges, momentum on this peace agreement reflects a Sudan committed to a lasting settlement that might just achieve the most elusive goal of all in this part of the world — a fully functional, stable and prosperous democratic state.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell