Kholood Khair | Founding director at Confluence Advisory, a Khartoum-based think tank
Sudan’s framework agreement has been lauded by many as the first step to end the 2021 coup, which overthrew the civilian government of Abdullah Hamdok. Signed on December 5, 2022, it was significant in several ways—none of which, however, looks set to restore genuine civilian rule. The agreement is essentially between two weak coalitions: pro-coup forces, led by ousted president Omar al-Bashir’s Security Committee, which realized that they were unequal to the burden of governing a country beset by economic, political, and military crises, many of their own making; and a fractious pro-democracy camp that lacks the support of its key constituency: the protestors who led the uprising against Bashir and who view this deal as an ersatz attempt at engendering civilian rule.
At best, the deal could hand over bureaucratic power to civilians while maintaining political power in the hands of a constellation of security actors, chiefly the putschists themselves. Indeed, comments by the head of Sudan’s regime, General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, to Saudi news channel Al-Hadath following the deal have exposed the generals’ true intentions regarding a handover of power to civilians. Few in Sudan were surprised to learn that Burhan was not planning to make himself beholden to a civilian leader. In a political system that creates only winners and losers, by far the greatest winner from this deal is General Mohammed “Hemedti” Dagalo, head of the deadly paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, whom the deal promotes from Burhan’s deputy to his equal (both will answer to a symbolic presidency), a move that sees Sudan take a step further away from civilian rule and closer to potential civil war.
The deal, having been negotiated over several months, ostensibly through the United Nations-African Union-Intergovernmental Authority on Development trilateral mechanism, is a muddled attempt at international intervention, with much heavy lifting by the so-called Quad—the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It gained traction when Sudan’s generals and their patrons in the region, chiefly Egypt and the UAE, realized that they could manipulate the deal, buy time, and refuse to commit to any concessions, all the while receiving international plaudits for their seemingly conciliatory move. Thus, the deal enjoys far more international than domestic support.
Nevertheless, the deal now represents an awkward fact on the ground. It has caused realignments among erstwhile allies, fragmentation across Sudan’s already fragile political blocs, and introduced an overly ambitious timeframe for the second phase that has already lapsed. Prospects for Phase II to gain public legitimacy look dim. Still, the deal’s champions hope that recently launched consensus workshops on sticky issues will rally the Sudanese public behind the deal’s supposed potential and usher in the signing of a final agreement, one that insiders say has already been drafted, rendering the current workshops mere theater.
Edward Thomas | Teacher, human rights worker, and researcher in Sudan and South Sudan; author of South Sudan: A Slow Liberation (Zed Books, 2015) and Islam’s Perfect Stranger: The Life of Mahmud Muhammad Taha, Muslim Reformer of Sudan (IB Tauris, 2010); on Twitter @eddiethomas88
The urban protesters that brought down the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019 ushered in a power-sharing deal between the security forces (military, militia and intelligence) and technocrats backed by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of political parties, trade unions, and autonomous local resistance committees whose young members faced down Bashir’s snipers and won. In 2020, the power-sharing government negotiated a peace agreement with a coalition of rebel armed movements who joined the government in 2021. The deals among these coalitions held Sudan’s fragmented political forces together for a few months before the military commander-in-chief and effective head of state, Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, organized a putsch, backed by some former rebels.
The military feared that civilians in the power-sharing government would force them to give up the military-dominated trading companies that control Sudan’s key export sectors, and were looking for a sweeter deal from the civilians. On December 5, 2022, an FFC faction signed a vague framework agreement with the military that aimed to guide Sudan toward elections and civilian rule. In an avuncular interview with Al-Hadath TV in December, Burhan explained how sweet his new deal was: Sudan would have a civilian commander-in-chief who would “agree and ratify” whatever the military proposed. Most embassies welcomed the deal. Former rebels who supported the 2021 coup reacted nervously. Resistance committees protested it. The Rapid Support Forces, the militia commanded by Burhan’s resourceful deputy, went on the attack in Darfur as the deal was signed.
The deal may survive if embassy support brings access to foreign currency. Huge budget and trade deficits upended Bashir’s regime. Technocrats and former rebels implemented macroeconomic measures that were supposed to help the government finance those deficits. The measures did modestly reduce the deficit, but failed to secure new loans or investment, and they were reversed after Burhan’s 2021 coup. The measures were savage: They brought unprecedented inflation and hunger, without addressing the structural causes of hunger and inequality in Sudan, namely the military-dominated mercantile system that controls the country’s surplus. Burhan’s sweet deal is aimed at ensuring that this system lasts.
Amal Hamdan | Senior electoral systems, governance, and legal framework expert working on Sudan and its transition.
While the agreement could potentially usher in a civilian government, by no means is this tantamount to Sudan becoming a civilian-ruled state.
One of the signatories to the deal is Mohammed “Hemedti” Dagalo, leader of Sudan’s most powerful paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), and probably one of the most dominant figures in Sudan today. As a former leader of the Janjaweed, the militia deployed by ousted president Omar al-Bashir to violently suppress insurrection, Hemedti has been accused by Human Rights Watch of overseeing torture, extrajudicial killings, and mass rapes in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and South Kordofan states. More recently, the RSF under Hemedti’s leadership has also been accused of killing prodemocracy demonstrators in Khartoum. Hemedti denies the RSF was involved.
Although the framework agreement stipulates that all government forces must be under civilian leadership, it fails to take into account gross human rights violations in Darfur and also defers transitional justice issues to a second stage of talks. This is just one reason that the groups known collectively as the Resistance Committees, which spearheaded protests demanding civilian rule and the removal of the military from political life, oppose the agreement. The Resistance Committees want the process of establishing civilian rule to include substantial accountability measures.
It is widely believed that the military is seeking amnesty for atrocities committed. Amnesty, combined with the formation of a civilian government, could pave the way for elections. Given that Sudan’s current electoral system fails to incorporate transitional justice mechanisms that would hold accountable individuals accused of abuses under the previous regime, Hemedti could stand for election as president. Without robust transitional justice mechanisms, the agreement may well bring about civilian rule—with Hemedti at the helm.
Yezid Sayigh | Senior fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, focusing on the comparative political and economic roles of Arab armed forces, the politics of postconflict reconstruction, and security sector transformation in Arab transitions.
On paper, the Framework Political Agreement (FPA) signed on December 5, 2022, is a startling departure from the Interim Constitutional Declaration (ICD) that governed Sudan’s transitional process between August 2019 and the military coup d’état of October 2021. First and foremost, the FPA asserts that the country’s new governing authority shall be wholly democratic and civilian, with no participation by the armed forces. In 2019, the military, in the form of a Transitional Military Council, was a signatory to the ICD and a member of the Sovereignty Council that assumed presidential powers. The Sovereignty Council took precedent over the civilian council of ministers, which had mainly a service delivery role. The commanders of Sudan’s two principal armed forces, moreover, held the positions of chairman and deputy chairman of the Sovereignty Council until the coup. Under the FPA, in contrast, not only has the Transitional Military Council disappeared, but the armed forces are not represented in government at any level and are explicitly forbidden from intervening in politics.
A comparison of the FPA and the ICD shows that this divergence is carried through on a range of issues of fundamental political importance for Sudan’s civil-military relations, both transitional and, hopefully, future. Instead of coming exclusively under the control of the supreme commander of the armed forces and the military-headed Sovereignty Council, the armed forces will now answer to the head of state (who can only be a civilian if the rest of the FPA’s provisions are to be met), while a new Security and Defense Council will be headed by the prime minister, necessarily a civilian. The requirement in the ICD for the defense minister to be nominated by the “military component of the Sovereignty Council” has been dropped; nor, if the FPA requirement that the transitional government be wholly civilian is to be respected, may the minister be a uniformed officer. The FPA prohibits the armed forces from engaging in commercial activities or investments. The ICD had not mentioned military control of hundreds of state-owned companies at all, while government attempts to wrest these back to civilian control almost certainly contributed to the 2021 coup d’état. Military reform is once again on the agenda, but this time following a plan to be set by the transitional (civilian) government, rather than left to the military.
The above may be honored more in the breach than the observance in the remainder of the transitional period. However, harder to fudge will be the formal commitment to merging the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the armed forces. Created as a second military by ousted dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2009, and running its own extensive commercial interests, the RSF is perceived by the armed forces as a rival and resented. RSF commander General Mohammed “Hemedti” Dagalo has moreover sought since 2019 to place himself on a par with armed forces commander-in-chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan in terms of his domestic and international standing. Hemedti’s acquiescence in the RSF’s proposed merger is therefore little short of astonishing.
It is difficult to believe that any of these military actors are genuinely committed to the FPA’s far-reaching agenda, but it is equally striking that they felt compelled to accept it, even nominally. They may have signed on to these provisions only to buy time, but in doing so legitimized them. So even if they renege, which is likely, prodemocracy activists—including the Revolutionary Committees who continue to protest the FPA—should adopt this agenda as the baseline for all future politics or negotiations with domestic or foreign actors.