On October 23, 2020, Sudan agreed to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. This decision followed U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to remove Sudan from the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list and sharpened divisions between Sudan’s military and civilian authorities. Sudanese Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, and his deputy Mohammed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, supported normalization with Israel. Sudan’s civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, was much more circumspect about engaging with Israel and stated in late September that a normalization would require “a deep discussion of the society.”
These sharp polarizations encapsulate the uncertain future of civil-military relations in Sudan. On a positive note, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have stringently adhered to the July 2019 transition agreement, which created the eleven-member Sovereignty Council consisting of civilian and military representatives, and scheduled elections for late 2022. Despite these pledges, Burhan and other senior SAF officials are engaged in a shadow campaign to entrench their political and economic influence over a post-transition Sudan and marginalize dissent within the SAF’s ranks, which could imperil Sudan’s democratic course.
Throwback: Political Power
The SAF’s power consolidation efforts represent both a throwback to Sudan’s past—prior to former president Omar al-Bashir—and a new trajectory for the Sudanese military. Coups d’état have been a recurrent feature of Sudan’s political life, as the SAF overthrew former president Gafaar Nimeiry’s Islamist dictatorship in 1985 and toppled Sudan’s democratic government in 1989. After facing a coup attempt in 1990, Bashir fragmented the Sudanese military into tribal, Arab nationalist, and Islamist factions and used patronage to ensure that each faction remained loyal to his regime. This strategy prevented the SAF from acting as an independent and unified political force until the establishment of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) in April 2019.
Despite the TMC’s brief unification around the need to topple Bashir and prevent a full-fledged popular revolution, divisions within the Sudanese military swiftly resurfaced. In contrast to the SAF’s cautious approach to repressing demonstrators, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the command of Hemedti, perpetrated a massacre in Khartoum on June 3, 2019, which resulted in as many as 241 casualties. The backlash against this massacre caused Burhan to strike a political settlement with the Sudanese opposition that would secure the SAF’s short-term influence. The RSF grudgingly accepted this agreement.
In spite of its pragmatic compromise with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) opposition bloc, the Sudanese military is poised to maintain its political and economic hegemony for the foreseeable future. The transition agreement secured the military’s dominant role in political life for twenty-one months and allowed the TMC to appoint officials to Sudan’s Ministries of Interior and Defense. The agreement also enshrines the military’s leadership in security sector reform initiatives, denying civilian authorities influence over the resolution of one of Sudan’s most pressing political challenges.
The SAF has also ensured that Sudan’s transition process does not result in sweeping personnel changes. As members of the Sovereign Council are granted immunity from prosecution for Bashir-era crimes and this waiver can only be overturned by a vote from the Transitional Legislative Council, Burhan’s allies have largely retained their privileged positions. By marginalizing regional opposition groups, such as the Darfur Displaced and Refugees General Coordination, the SAF has excluded the most strident critics of the Sudanese military from the transition process. Furthermore, Burhan and Hemedti’s prominent positions ensured that Sudan’s two most powerful military figures temporarily cooperated on their efforts to erode Hamdok’s authority.
Holdover: Economic Patronage
Due to three decades of patronage links between Bashir’s inner circle and the SAF, the Sudanese military also maintains a formidable economic presence, which it seeks to preserve and augment. As a result of Bashir’s military campaigns in Darfur and South Kordofan, the SAF received a growing share of oil and gold revenues, and by the time of Bashir’s overthrow, at least 60 percent of Sudan’s state budget was routed to the country’s military and security forces. The SAF preserved its privileged economic position until Bashir’s fall, even though its primacy was imperiled by the secession of South Sudan in 2012 and Bashir’s wealth transfers to rival security organs, such as the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), during his final years in power.
Since the April 2019 coup d’état, the Sudanese military has withstood countervailing pressure from Sudan’s civilian authorities and maintained its economic hegemony. The restricted growth of Sudan’s private sector—due to limited foreign investments, sanctions pursuant to the country remaining on the U.S. state sponsor of terrorism list, and Hamdok’s struggle to secure $10 billion in investments—further entrenched the SAF’s economic dominance. As a result of its takeover of Darfur’s Jebel Amer gold mine in 2017, which complemented its control over three other major Sudanese gold deposits, the RSF maintains control over Sudan’s most lucrative source of economic revenue. Sudan’s civilian authorities have repeatedly emphasized the need to nationalize Sudan’s gold reserves, but these aspirations have struggled to gain traction.
Although the Sudanese military’s short-term political and economic influence is secure, SAF officials are concerned that its institutional power could eventually collapse due to internal frictions and the takeover of civilian authorities from Burhan in May 2021. In order to prevent this scenario from occurring, the SAF has used coercion to marginalize intra-military dissent and has actively courted international support by advancing a foreign policy agenda independent from Sudan’s civilian authorities.
The Sudanese military’s principal cleavage, which has inspired the SAF’s coercive actions, is the division between Burhan-aligned Sovereignty Council members and extra-systemic forces, such as Bashir loyalists and the RSF. This cleavage surfaced in May 2019, when Burhan resisted the influence of Islamism within the Sudanese military while Hemedti reached out to Islamist factions and pledged to uphold Islamic law in a post-coup Sudan. After the transition agreement, Bashir loyalists continued to disrupt the political process, and insurrections such as the July 11, 2019, coup attempt and the January 14, 2020, NISS mutiny were linked to old regime figures. The RSF publicly distanced itself from these attempts to derail Sudan’s political transition but has continued to operate as a personalistic institution that has ultimate loyalty to Hemedti instead of the Sudanese state, forcefully challenging the Sudanese government’s control over Darfur.
In order to marginalize elements of the Sudanese military that challenge the SAF’s hegemony and preserve the political status quo, the SAF has periodically resorted to coercion. Even though Burhan initially refused to hand over Bashir to the International Criminal Court in November 2019, Sudan’s transitional government dissolved the Bashir-led National Congress Party on November 29, 2020, and replaced then Sudanese intelligence chief, General Abu Bakr Mustafa, after his slow response to January’s NISS mutiny. The assassination attempt against Hamdok on March 9, 2020, has resulted in further crackdowns on Bashir loyalists and caused the General Intelligence Service, the NISS’s successor organization, to be placed under the Ministry of Interior control. These measures have gained the enthusiastic support of Sudan’s civilian authorities and allowed the SAF to frame itself as a stabilizing force deserving of a long-term position of political influence.
In addition to uniting Sudan’s military and disparate security organs under the SAF umbrella, the Sudanese army is courting international support to shore up its institutional strength. Although Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates maintain close relations with the RSF, Burhan’s prior involvement in the deployment of Sudanese forces to the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has allowed him to preserve close relations with leaders in both countries. Burhan has also asserted his independence from civilian authorities in the foreign policy sphere by praising Egypt’s stabilizing role in Sudan, as disagreements between Hamdok and the Egyptian authorities have mounted over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam construction project.
The consolidation of Sudan’s partnerships with Israel and Russia in the fall of 2020 underscores the Sudanese military’s ability to unilaterally dictate Khartoum’s foreign policy agenda. In much of the Arab world, Sudan’s normalization with Israel was viewed as a sign of the SAF’s willingness to coercively steer Sudanese foreign policy in its preferred direction. The chasm between Sudanese public opinion, which strongly supported Palestinian self-determination, and the military’s engagement with Israel was especially striking. Russia’s November 16 deal to construct a naval base in Port Sudan could also be linked to the Sudanese military’s efforts to court Moscow’s support against U.S. demands for liberalization.
Although Sudan has taken notable steps toward a democratic transition, the SAF has capitalized on the terms of Sudan’s political settlement to maximize its short-term leverage and has used a mixture of coercion and diplomatic unilateralism to shore up its long-term influence. The success of the Sudanese military’s power consolidation efforts will depend on the SAF’s ability to unify Sudan’s security organs and preserve its hegemonic role over Sudan’s economy.