Sudan’s Interim Constitutional Arrangement: The Risk of Sharing a Non-Existent Cake

Dr Jan Pospisil analyses Sudan’s transitional power-sharing framework as the process of forming a government continues. Jan is a Senior Researcher at the Austrian Study Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, and a researcher at the Political Settlements Research Programme.

The tense negotiations on a transitional power-sharing framework in Sudan finally appear to have been successful. The Constitutional Charter for the Transition Period, signed on 17 August 2019, establishes a Sovereignty Council with an equal representation of five civilians and five members of the Transitional Military Council (TMC). Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who emerged as the TMC’s interim leader after the ousting of long-time dictator Omar Al-Bashir in April 2019, has taken the oath as the chair of the Sovereignty Council. He guarantees a slight predominance of the military in a structure that is essentially comparable to a shared presidential body.

The civilian opposition, in turn, is in charge of the government. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) nominated the career public servant Abdalla Hamdok as the Prime Minister. Hamdok is a nationally as well as internationally highly respected figure. He served as the Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa from 2011 to 2018. The process of forming a government and naming parliamentarians and governors is ongoing. Finding good nominees is as crucial as it is challenging: the civilian (former) opposition is divided into several blocks. The military, in contrast, seems to have consolidated its structures in recent weeks and the National Congress Party (NCP), the former political party of Al-Bashir, has recently re-emerged in the political debate under the leadership of the former Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour. Even though the NCP voiced its support for Hamdok, its future political positioning remains doubtful.

The upcoming months will be dominated by the factual establishment and formalisation of the institutional structures whose precise roles have yet only been carved out on paper. The wheeling and dealing in the traditionally busy and fast-moving Sudanese political marketplace will not only be about positions but the institutional settlement as a whole. While the political debate focused on the establishment of an interim government, negotiations with the armed groups from Darfur and the ‘new South’, which were going on in parallel, stalled. The deadlock evolved to a point where the main rebel groups from Darfur, most of them members of the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) bloc, disengaged from the dialogues on a power-sharing deal. They publicly declared their dissatisfaction with the Constitutional Charter and the formation of the interim government.

This rejection is a consequence of the approach taken by the civilian opposition. Led by the FFC umbrella coalition, the opposition pursued a two-sided power-sharing deal with the TMC. The deal predominantly focused on establishing a governance structure for the interim period. The armed opposition groups, all long-standing players in the political marketplace with diverse ideological foundations ranging from Islamism to regionalist separatism, have not been part of this equation. Both the FFC and the TMC, at least their dominant factions, treated the armed conflicts in Darfur as an issue to be dealt with later, separately from the national power-sharing arrangement.

The TMC appears to have even used the armed groups and the civilian opposition in putting indirect pressure against each other in the concurrent negotiation processes. Informal talks between members of the TMC and SRF members, especially with Minni Minawi, the leader of one of the main factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-MM), have taken place in Ndjamena, Chad, in late May 2019. Results have never been disclosed. The FFC as well agreed on a Peace document with the SRF in Addis Ababa on 26 July 2019. During the final rounds of talks on the Constitutional Charter, the SRF requested to include this agreement as an annexe to the deal. However, such an ‘add-on solution’ fell through in the end, probably due to the structural challenges such a merger of treaties would have posed. This outcome effectively rendered the FFC-SRF pact worthless and cut the involved SRF groups out of the current power-sharing equation, which led to open discontent.

Prime Minister Hamdok has declared the resolution of the armed conflict in Darfur a top government priority for the first six months of his government. This politically brave move certainly challenges views in parts of both the FFC and the TMC, which aim to first distribute the political cake in Khartoum before opening up to a wider political deal. The Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N), the – however loosely affiliated – Northern ‘branch’ of the South Sudanese SPLM active in Sudan’s ‘new South’, seems willing to settle. The SPLM-N may accept a quick deal despite recent harsh political clashes with the TMC, which ended in the deportation of its leaders Malik Agar and Abdel Aziz al-Hilu to Juba in June 2019 (they have meanwhile returned to Khartoum). The Darfuri groups, in contrast, might not settle without a tangible political offer. Even though the situation in Darfur is calm at current due to a unilateral ceasefire by the SRF groups, the SLM-MM already hold a troop parade to show its military capacity. Their chairman Minni Minawi called the Sudanese revolution ‘hijacked’. Abdel Wahid al-Nur, the leader of another faction of the SLM, SLM-AW, called the Constitutional Declaration ‘patently illegitimate and exclusionary’ and demanded a national plebiscite.

The approach taken in the power-sharing negotiations bears considerable risks. It aims to share a not yet existing cake. This cake perhaps won’t ever come into existence without searching for a working compromise on which every twin transition – a parallel transition from both authoritarianism and armed conflict – is based. The democratic transition in Myanmar shows that without actively engaging in peace negotiations as a structural part of the transitional process the democratic opposition might find itself in a situation of an ongoing armed conflict with quickly diminishing room for political manoeuvre. While the situation in Darfur and the South of Sudan appears to be calm at the moment, the turmoil created by armed violence in the East is currently providing a new violent challenge. Sudan remains under pressure from all its borderlands.

The required compromise will likely take the form of a formalised political unsettlement that is hard to be liked by all involved actors. Yet, it may represent the pivotal backdrop that enables the possibility of the transition in the first place. The military is a long-standing, experienced and rather unified player in the Sudanese political marketplace. It enjoys the financially viable support of wealthy neighbouring countries and increasing goodwill by leading power blocs, such as the EU’s support for Hemeti and his Rapid Support Forces (SRF) in the migration-related Khartoum process.

The examples of both Myanmar, where the civilian opposition got dragged into the brutal war, and Nepal, where the political parties were willing to carve out a substantial deal with the armed actors, demonstrate the urgency of the challenge. Indeed, these cases are different in history and structure. But they show that, whether it is fair or not, the ball is in the court of the opposition. Path trajectories are hard to overcome once the critical junctures that allow for structural change have passed.

Sudan is at a critical juncture at current. Comparable examples suggest that, in order to be successful, the national compromise needs to include the armed opposition. The FFC and the newly appointed civilian Sudanese government needs to put all possible effort into offering a tangible political compromise to the armed opposition. The inclusion of the SRF may soon turn into the litmus test of the Sudanese twin transition. The government priorities laid out by newly appointed Prime Minister Hamdok give ample reason for optimism in this respect. The need for a compromise is acknowledged. Striking an acceptable deal, however, will need extraordinary skills, efforts and luck to be successful. The conditions are still favourable in the currently fast-moving political re-settlement, but this window might close soon if the opportunities it provides are not taken.

For more information about Sudan, read our Spotlight report, Sudan’s Enduring Transition: Evolving Arrangements after the Fall of Bashir or visit our publication database for more resources.

Photo: Jan Pospisil