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A proliferation of mediation efforts appears likely to resolve Sudan’s political crisis following the 25 October coup. The mediation efforts recall the diplomacy that took place in 2019 to forge a power-sharing deal between the military and civilian protestors. However, this negotiation effort is fraught with challenges.
What did negotiations look like in 2019?
In the hours after the removal of former president Omar al-Bashir on 11 April 2019, the military reached out to the coalition of civilian parties who backed the revolution, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). Negotiations between the junta and the FFC began immediately but had little initial progress. The FFC struggled with its negotiation strategy and tactics. The FFC negotiators could not agree on a common position and trust within the organization was low. And when the FFC began to negotiate with the military the civilians first presented their minimum acceptable offer rather than starting with an opening gambit. The FFC’s negotiation strategy and tactics were amateurish.
The 3 June 2019 breakup of the sit-in changed the dynamics of the negotiations. Trust between the FFC and their military counterpart was low because of the security forces’ involvement in the massacre. An attempt by Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed to mediate received prominent international attention but failed to bring the parties together in part because of significant animosity that lingered over the sit-in. That tension continued until a late night meeting between the FFC and military counterparts on 28 June at the house of a prominent businessman in Khartoum which was in part brokered by the international community. It was the singular contribution that the international community made during the negotiation efforts. The event served as an ice-breaker between the two sides, and eventually an agreement was hashed out. The philosophy of diplomats at the time was to push for a compromise agreement to avoid bloodshed. “The reality is that you can’t wish away the military,” tweeted then British Ambassador Irfan Siddiq.
The power-sharing deal disappointed activists because they wanted full civilian control. That disappointment was so great that it was a contributing factor to the splintering of the FFC and Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). Core members of the FFC and SPA accused its leadership of selling out, while the organization’s leaders argued they had no option but to compromise.
How is this negotiation different from 2019?
First, protestors and most civilian parties are less likely to accept a military led-government. The prominent resistance committees in Khartoum demanded during the 30 October march that the security forces should immediately be under civilian control. Further, they state the military should have no political role. Anger from demonstrators who feel they were tricked by the military will put more pressure on civilian negotiators to reject a military role.
Second, tension between senior SAF commanders and the head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohammed Hamdan Dalgo “Hemeti” is high. Senior leaders inside SAF do not respect their RSF counterpart, and Hemeti has increased his bargaining position since 2019 in certain areas. Specifically, Hemeti’s force has grown and he has brought politicians from the peripheries, notably Gabriel Ibrahim and Mini-Minawi, into the centre of Khartoum. The alliance of the peripheries has grown. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are more sceptical of Hemeti. They reportedly understand that Hemeti will never be president because of the 3 June investigation and broad resentment against the former janjaweed leader for his role in Darfur’s genocide. The tensions mean that it is difficult to keep the security apparatus in an alliance together.
Third, trust in the FFC is low. The past two years have been a playbook for how political parties can squander support. Unable to form a legislative council in particular and ineffective in general, frustration with the FFC is high with everyone from Hamdok to civilians. The 30 October protests were notable in that they were pro-civilian government and not pro-FFC. It means that the FFC is less likely to be the lead negotiator during this political crisis. Rather, Hamdok has the most legitimacy to represent the democratic movement. However, Hamdok governs by compromise, which may disappoint protestors.
Fourth, there are a plethora of mediators. The South Sudanese government, led by advisor to the president Tut Gatluak, have rushed into Khartoum to mediate. Gatluak led mediations during the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) that was signed in October 2020 but their effort is viewed with scepticism. The JPA was completed but is seen as another example of payroll peace. Few believe it is viable. Gatluak and the South Sudanese have aligned themselves with Burhan during the initial days of the coup and are present in Khartoum to preserve their interests with the military. Specifically, the agreements the South Sudanese have reached with Khartoum regarding oil transit are the lifeblood of the crippled Juba government. Gatluak is eager to see military rule continue in Sudan to preserve their financial interests. Meanwhile, the United Nations, led by Volker Perthes, has taken up another high profile effort. The head of the UNITAMS mission in the country, Perthes has jumped at the opportunity to mediate to bolster the mission’s struggling legitimacy. However Perthes faces scepticism from the international community. In his early days as head of the mission, Perthes managed to alienate the diplomatic community through squabbles over who would lead development initiatives. Hamdok has also privately viewed the mission with scepticism. The dubious mediators mean that any agreement may crumble, once again.
What are the key mediation points?
First, the release of political detainees arrested by the military on 25 October and in the following days. Their release would be a sign of goodwill by the junta. A proper mediation would likely work in stages to build confidence starting with the release of detainees.
Second, the threat of prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The junta is concerned that they would be referred to the ICC prosecution for crimes in Darfur by the civilian government. The threat of international justice has persisted despite reassurances to the military that no names will be added to the prosecution. Former prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made this point implicitly during her visits to Sudan when she met Hemeti.
Third, a review of the Empowerment Removal Committee’s mandate, or the Tamkeen. The body is meant to dismantle the network of corrupt businesses that sprung up under the al-Bashir regime. Those businesses strike at the core of the military’s patronage network. The Tamkeen’s functioning would necessarily limit the military’s patronage network. At the same time, the committee has been criticized for its wide mandate and investigating businesses outside of its boundaries.
Fourth, who is in control? The transitional constitution signed in August 2019 stated a hand-over to civilian rule in 18 months. It has been 26 months since that agreement. Some figures in the FFC argued that the handover from civilian to military rule was scheduled to take place in November. However the consensus among the JPA signatories is that the handover was supposed to occur in July 2022. But if the military has been unwilling to handover power to civilians so far, why would they agree at any point?
Interviews with FFC negotiators, summer 2019, Khartoum.
Interviews with individuals directly in the mediation effort, July 2019, Khartoum.
Interview with individual familiar with Hamdok’s thinking, December 2020, Khartoum.
Interview with diplomats in Khartoum, summer and autumn 2021, Khartoum.
Interviews with individual familiar with Hamdok’s thinking, December 2020 and June 2021, Khartoum.
“This Is Not a Coup” is a daily update from Sudan that gives perspective on the country’s military takeover. The author is anonymous to protect their identity. The title is a reference to the 26 October speech of General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan.