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Political parties are negotiating a new path to elections while the generals protect their interests and militant oppositionists take to the streets
The bold hopes surrounding fresh talks between Sudanese political parties on 9 January to agree a final deal for a transition to civil rule 'within a few weeks' look overblown.
The parties have left until last some of the trickiest issues on the agenda: transitional justice; review of the Juba peace accord; governance in the east of Sudan; and financial accountability. On top of that, they have to choose a new prime minister to steer the transition over the next two years.
The negotiating parties are working on the basis of the framework agreement of 5 December between senior military officers and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC)-Central Council. That framework agreement, endorsed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and United States ambassador to Khartoum John Godfrey, is not the breakthrough that its supporters had expected.
It calls for the restoration of a civilian cabinet, a two-year transition once the prime minister is appointed and the review of important decisions, including the Juba Peace Agreement and the appointment of dozens, if not hundreds, of high-ranking civil servants.
Hours after the ceremony hailing the framework agreement, it became clear that again General Abdel Fattah el Burhan, the junta leader, and his deputy Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' interpreted the text differently.
After the military's seizure of power and ousting of civilian prime minister Abdalla Hamdok in October 2021, Burhan and Hemeti have differed publicly on several occasions (AC Vol 62 No 22, General Al Burhan's power grab). Hemeti has been trying to distance himself from the 2021 putsch, deeming it a political mistake.
Now, Gen Burhan sees the framework agreement as leaving the military prerogative untouched in a future transitional government. But Hemeti, with his base in Darfur and as commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which rival the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) under Burhan's command, talks volubly if improbably of promoting democracy and devolution.
Most of the Resistance Committees, the backbone of Sudan's 2019 revolution, together with the Communist Party, vehemently criticise the accord. As does the FFC-Democratic Bloc which broke with FFC-Central Council which signed the deal.
Opponents of the deal lambast the highly secretive talks that produced it, criticising it for being Khartoum-centric, ignoring most demands from the regions, and allowing the military to 'lead from behind' and discreetly control the civilian political arena.
Whichever of these interpretations is proved correct, the outcome will be different from the military's offer nearly a year ago to reinstate ousted prime minister Hamdok. This isn't due to the semantics of the framework agreement but the context in which it has to be implemented.
It will take much work and political will to ensure this agreement leads to more democratic rule in two years. Burhan is at loggerheads with the Islamists he helped, willingly or unwillingly, to regain their jobs in the state apparatus after the 2021 putsch.
Late last year, Burhan realised that his coup was becoming a Trojan horse to restore the Islamists' lost influence. Further, he saw his support for cadres of the National Congress Party (NCP), the ruling party ousted and then proscribed after the 2019 revolution, had led to the risk of him being overthrown by party militants in league with other Islamist factions (AC Vol 60 No 16, From revolution to realpolitik).
The SAF, the biggest but not the best armed force in the country, was never purged after the revolution. Islamist influence among SAF officers is as powerful, if not more so, than in the ministry of justice which has become a stronghold for Islamist militants since the coup.
They see Burhan, a former acolyte of ousted President Omer Ahmed el Beshir, as betraying the Islamist project. Burhan thinks taking a public stance against Islamist factions in Sudan will help secure the confidence of regional leaders such President Abdel Fattah el Sisi in Egypt, Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahayan (MBZ) in the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia who share a visceral hatred of Al Ikhwan al Muslimun (Muslim Brothers).
Despite its posturing, the NCP regime in Sudan was ideologically aligned to the Ikhwan. Burhan knows that publicly distancing himself from Sudan's Islamists also wins points with western governments who control most of the aid taps.
To reassert his command over the SAF, Burhan may arrest of the Islamist leader, former NCP minister and head of the Popular Defence Forces, Ali Ahmed Karti. We hear that Karti, reported to have gone into exile, has been staying in Khartoum where he uses different houses, some that belong to rich relatives.
The old links remain tight: one of Karti's daughters married Burhan's personal secretary. Burhan may be keeping open the option of arresting Karti if he faces more pressure from his fellow officers or western governments.
A natural revisionist unlike Burhan, Hemeti has been broadcasting his aggiornamento, whether sincere or not. He explicitly describes the 2021 coup as a failure, nor does he try to hide that it was western pressure that prodded the military into negotiating the framework agreement. More improbably, he presents himself as a proponent of civilian and democratic rule. Hemeti's hostility to the Ikhwan and Islamist factions is widely taken as political fact, reinforced by his close ties to the UAE's MBZ.
Hemeti was a key architect of the Juba Peace Agreement signed in October 2020 but now supports its review. He has also criticised his former allies Minni Arkou Minnawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Movemment, and Jibril Ibrahim, the Islamist leader of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) (AC Vol 60 No 15, Parties divided on sharing power).
Minnawi was unable to travel to Darfur without Hemeti's protection. He is losing further credibility in the region, failing to answer concerns from regional governors on the implications of three provinces being reunified under one Darfur.
Jibril Ibrahim has visited Darfur secretly under heavy protection as he is involved in a family feud and held responsible for the killings of several Zaghawa who had challenged him and his late brother.
Claims against both Minnawi and Ibrahim for corruption abound. As former minister of finance, Ibrahim was a gatekeeper for some of the big importers and procurement on foreign (especially Qatari) projects. These critiques of Minnawi and Ibrahim have escalated – and few, even in the civilian opposition, are defending them. Nearly all civilians back a review of the Juba agreement, which might explain why Hemeti has adopted this stance.
This year may see the pendulum on regional issues start swinging the other way. Minnawi and Ibrahim went to the UN envoy in Khartoum, Volker Perthes, to complain about their predicament (AC Vol 60 No 19, Junta's double-talk on transition). But Perthes did not mollify them.
Both factions of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-North), led respectively by Malik Agar and Yasser Arman, signed the framework agreement on 5 December. Agar was less enthusiastic but he needs to work with Arman to keep a stake in the negotiations in Khartoum.
As a raft of new negotiations start up with the armed groups, some new movements have emerged in central Sudan, made up of former SAF officers and pensioned soldiers. The plan may be to reduce the importance of those groups which signed the Juba agreement and bolster Burhan.
More widely, it looks certain that the latest round of talks on the framework agreement will last much more than the two months initially planned. The issues in dispute are intricate and challenge vested interests.
As the US has endorsed the direction of the negotiations, the SAF may harden its stance, reducing its flexibility in the next round of talks. Although the framework agreement text indicates that the security services and the army would be under civilian control, Burhan already has stipulated that the SAF would not accept any 'civilian interference' in its affairs.
The agreement also calls for Hemeti's RSF to be integrated within the SAF – another cause of friction between the junta leader and his deputy – but does not propose any mechanism to achieve this.
There are several points omitted by the framework agreement, such as any discussion of the economic and financial strategy that the transitional cabinet should adopt. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the US, the European Union and the World Bank could be riding on these issues.
Also missing are details on regional policy. Relations between Khartoum and Ethiopia have recently improved. But the fight over Nile waters and the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam overshadows everything, given the worst drought in the region for 40 years.
Another question is the management of crises in Western Sudan and neighbours Chad and Central African Republic. Russia's Wagner Group of mercenaries operates in both CAR, hired as an anti-insurgent force by President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and in Sudan using Hemeti as its main contact point. Wagner is involved in mining operations both sides of the Sudan-CAR border.
Hemeti's recent, probably exaggerated, claim that his RSF fighters with Wagner helped to avert a coup against Touadéra's regime points to collaboration between the two forces, and the commercial interests that bring them together. Wagner cooperates with Hemeti on mining but is closer to Sudan's Military Intelligence in other areas.
We hear that Hemeti's claim about the averted coup relates to an armed group known as Siriri in CAR, led by Mustapha Sabone. With several dozen fighters riding 'technicals', it planned to cross into CAR from Darfur.
Asked by Wagner to close the Sudan-CAR border as President Touadéra felt threatened, Hemeti complied.
Siriri fighters would not have been able to reach Bangui but they could have looted some big towns in north-east CAR. There were some secondary diplomatic concerns for Hemeti: some of the Siriri fighters were wearing RSF military fatigues. They were not signed up recruits but were ex-Janjaweed fighters for hire.
Any such project would have complicated Hemeti's bid to remake his image as a civilian politician. And he suspected the Siriri fighters may have been backed by the SAF Military Intelligence.
The recent disappearance of Gen Ahmed Abdel-Rahim Shukort Alla, a Sudanese military intelligence officer in charge of CAR affairs, shows how turbulent the border areas have become.
If the negotiating parties in Khartoum are to produce a practical plan for a civilian government to steer the country through the two-year transition to free elections, they will have to reach agreement with credible representatives from Sudan's regions as well as their military counterparts.
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