Inside Sudan’s Transitions: More Targeted Engagement Needed

19 May 2021   ·   Kholood Khair

Sudan is undergoing several transitions, from the political level to shifting UN missions, while economic challenges remain. The German government should re-evaluate its engagement to support a peaceful process and prioritise its support for economic growth. Following the revolution’s example, successful approaches must involve marginalised populations including women.

Two years ago, people from broad swathes of Sudanese society participated in protests leading to the fall of military dictator Omar al-Bashir. The 2018 revolution was a culmination of preceding protests due to dire economic hardships, including lines for basic necessities. The writing was on the wall, following decades of mismanagement, war and kleptocracy.

Since Bashir’s fall, several transitions emerged in Sudan: transitions that set the country on a course from militarised autocracy towards civilian democracy, from multiple regional conflicts towards a broader, if flawed, peace deal, and, crucially, a transition from Sudan as a pariah state to one that is attracting vast international support. Within these political transitions, enduring political contestations between and within military and civilian groups remain.

Some Successes for Sudan’s Bifurcated Transitional Government

Sudan’s partly civilian, partly military transitional government is still grappling with the transition period’s challenges, chief of which are the economy and peace. Its domestic successes include Sudan’s recission from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List, the unification of the currency and the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA). Moreover, the transition brings with it renewed international engagement. Donors are eager to financially support Sudan’s civilian transition. However, more targeted interventions are needed to maximise the impact of broader changes and to better respond to transition opportunities.

Since the beginning of the transition period, balancing the interests of the military, who remain in charge, and the popular movement for civilian rule has been the central challenge. In 2019, the revolutionary Forces for Freedom and Change agreed to share power with the Transitional Military Council, which far outmatched the civilians owing to better funding and a unified vision. 

A Complex Set of Transitions: From UNAMID to UNITAMS

This encouraged Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to request the UN Security Council to set up a new political mission, timed to start operating before the mandate of the pre-existing United Nations African Union Mission In Darfur (UNAMID) would eventually expire in December 2020. At its core, the civilian government requested the new UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) as a buttress against military incursion into transition priorities. 

UNAMID and UNITAMS are part of a complex set of transitions: from a mission created and operating under intense governmental scrutiny, to one that has broad political support; from UNAMID’s chequered legacy towards more accountability with UNITAMS’ nationwide programme; and from having armed peacekeeping capability to having none, while protection of civilians remains central to the mandate. These transitions are underpinned by dynamic changes to political circumstances and interests. 

Economic Challenges and Insufficient Representation of Civilians, Especially Women

Transition stakeholders, domestic and international, tend to think of Sudan’s political transition as a series of linear structural changes that will inherently show the value of (partial) civilian rule. But the transition’s touted successes so far have not resonated with the broader Sudanese public: this is, firstly, because the economic challenges that existed prior to Bashir’s fall remain. While ongoing smaller scale protests against the unavailability of wheat and fuel have been localised and dissipated quickly, they could soon again become mass demonstrations if civilian governance does not show enough dividends. 

Secondly, while the revolution was based on diverse civilian interests, unfortunately, the resulting government is not. In addition to the continued presence of the military in all key decisions, the Forces for Freedom and Change, once the stalwart civilian umbrella of diverse political interests, is now largely defunct as many senior figures accepted governmental positions. Women were at the forefront of the revolution, but have been largely excluded from senior positions: only four out of 26 ministers and two out of 18 governors are women. The women’s participation quota of 40 percent set in the Constitutional Document applies only to the still-pending Transitional Legislative Council, women’s participation at the JPA negotiations has been negligible and the government’s recent acceptance of CEDAW contained more reservations than Bashir’s.

Peace Remains Elusive 

Thirdly, while peace has been made in Khartoum and brought former rebels into Hamdok’s second cabinet since February 2021, flare-ups of conflict in the East and in Darfur show the limits of a partial peace process. Increased inter- and intra-communal fighting in West Darfur has led to the death of hundreds and the displacement of thousands. Instability in Chad will likely reverberate on Sudan’s porous western border. 

Lastly, as a mission within a broader political transition in the country, the abrupt shift from UNAMID to the vastly different UNITAMS mission is difficult. Due to its meagre budget of less than $50 million, UNITAMS is dealing with its own transition challenges. Instead, it should engage more diverse stakeholders and navigate the already fragile power balance between civilian and military actors. UNITAMS is inapt as a follow-on mission for UNAMID, especially in the key area of protection of civilians, when peacekeepers are replaced by a civilian force made of the security services, the feared Rapid Support Forces and police. 

Germany Should Increase Its Representation of Economic Entities

It is no secret that the civilian government wanted a Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) for UNITAMS that would guarantee increased funding for the country’s transition. Sudan selected academic Dr Volker Perthes due to, amongst other reasons, his German nationality, hoping to increase access to funding from Berlin and to build closer ties following Germany’s enthusiastic hosting of the Friends of Sudan conference in June 2020. It is, however, unlikely that Germany would increase its funding to Sudan merely due to a German SRSG without mutual long-term economic interests. 

Germany was mainly involved at the multilateral level as co-penholder at the UNSC for UNITAMS’ establishment. Bilaterally, however, Germany can support Sudan in much more targeted ways. With both humanitarian and development funding and stabilisation funding, Germany is one of Sudan’s biggest financial backers, contributing €330 million to the transition. Currently, the German government funds existing programmes mostly through GIZ or Sudanese policy programmes. 

Limited by the transitional government’s well-intentioned but ultimately flawed and short-term policies, German bilateral aid will not be effective. Rather than a sweeping approach to funding the transition, Germany should prioritise a more targeted approach that maximises opportunities for economic growth and civic education, beyond the transition period, and fills the gaps in the Sudanese government’s long-term thinking.

As Sudan’s transition struggles with economic stability, inclusivity and demonstrating peace dividends, Germany should bring in the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) and the German Chambers of Commerce Abroad (AHK) who currently have no representatives in Sudan and Germany Trade and Invest (GTAI) which has no correspondents in the country. Although sanctions on Sudan have been lifted, there need to be concerted efforts to encourage German companies to invest in Sudan. This could lead to greater reliance on domestic resource mobilisation through taxation, industry, and exports rather than a dependence on aid.

Funding Should Be More Long-Term and Support Local Actors

This year, the German government launched the Ta’ziz Partnership fund targeting Sudan. The fund aims to strengthen transitions to democracy, focusing on civil society engagement. To be most effective, funding must reach marginalised populations, like women, young people, and those outside Khartoum, by targeting the local level, adapting activities to Sudan’s diverse contexts and embedding a matrix for gender-transformative approaches. A contextualised Sudan Ta’ziz framework with long-term funding and a robust social scaffold for democratisation would go a long way to support the momentum cultivated by civil society, well after the transition period is over.

Lastly, to support Sudan’s successful transition, Germany should employ a whole-of-government approach, requiring greater coordination between the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development and the Federal Foreign Office. The government should enhance its expertise on Sudan and deploy additional staff and institutionalised coordination at the Embassy in Khartoum. Moreover, Sudan’s diverse needs require the targeted interventions to complement long-term engagement, building on different strengths of German ministries and existing programming.

Afrika Peacebuilding Development

Kholood Khair

Kholood Khair is Managing Partner of Insight Strategy Partners, a think-and-do tank, based in Khartoum. @KholoodKhair