Sun, 14 May 2023 Article

Democracy at a Crossroads: The Quest for Hope in Sudan

By Samir Bhattacharya
Democracy at a Crossroads: The Quest for Hope in Sudan

Sudan is bleeding. Since the early hours of 15th May, violence broke out between Sudan National Army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudanese National Army, also known as the SAF (Sudanese Armed Force), and General Muhammad Hamdan' Hemedti', Dagalo, commander of the paramilitary group RSF (Rapid Support Force).

So far, more than 604 people, including civilians, have been killed, and thousands more injured. Another 700000 people got displaced internally. This is on top of 3.7 million people who were already internally displaced before the conflict began. Thousands more have fled to neighbouring countries like Chad, Central African Republic, Egypt and South Sudan. There have been reports of looting and robbery. Civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict as they're faced with a shortage of food and water supply as well. Meanwhile, multiple cease-fires between the warring parties have been regularly violated and have failed to stop fighting.

Genesis of the war
The current power struggle dates back to the years before the 2019 uprising that toppled tyrant, Omar al-Bashir. During that time, he built powerful security forces that he purposefully pitted against one another. A transitional administration was established in 2019 after Bashir was overthrown in a coup. Elections were expected to be held following the political transition by the end of 2023, as promised by Burhan. However, Sudan saw a second coup in 2021 when Burhan's armed forces overthrew the interim administration. RSF, under the direction of Hemedti, aided Burhan in this effort. Burhan, the leader of the coup, has been Sudan's de facto president since the army took over.

Recent disagreements about how to integrate RSF paramilitaries into the Sudanese army and who should oversee the process served as the background to the violence. A political framework agreement was signed on 5th December 2022, following a protracted period of political stalemate since the October 2021 coup d'état. Prima facie, this accord has successfully resolved the political impasse that followed the coup, but it has failed to win over the general public.

The leaders fought repeatedly over the terms of the deal, which was initially supposed to be finalised by 1st April with a goal of having a new civilian administration in place by 11th April. A crucial requirement of Sudan's unwritten transition agreement is the merger. In order to neutralise his adversary and ensure the SAF's dominance, General Burhan wanted this to happen within two years. Hemedti wants it to happen over ten years, though. Islamists in Sudan were alarmed by disagreements over Hemedti's promotion as Burhan's equal inside the army. In the most recent round of negotiations, he also demanded the removal of more than 800 senior officers from the SAS as part of the unification process.

Sudan's democratic transition delayed, again

A power-sharing agreement between the military and civilians was negotiated after Bashir was overthrown in order to facilitate the transition to a democratic government. The transition process was halted when a coup against the transitional administration occurred in October 2021. After the coup, the army regained power, but it was met with a fresh round of isolation, weekly protests, and worsening economic conditions.

The civilian demand for military oversight and RSF absorption into the regular armed forces was the main barrier to the transition plan's implementation. Additionally, civilians have demanded the transfer of valuable military holdings in trade, agriculture, and other sectors. These assets are a vital source of funding for an army that frequently outsources combat operations to local militias.

The search for justice for accusations of war crimes committed by the military and its allies in the fight in Darfur starting in 2003 was another area of dispute. Bashir and other Sudanese suspects are seeking trials from the international criminal court. In June 2019, military personnel were involved in the killings of pro-democracy protestors, and justice is also being sought in these cases. They also demand justice for the at least 125 protesters who have been killed by security personnel since the coup in 2021.

The accord between civilians, the military, and paramilitaries intended to relaunch the democratic transition in Sudan following the 2021 putsch appears to be frozen once more. It will likely remain so for an indefinite period of time. And the rivalry between the nation's two most powerful leaders, not the struggle between civilians and the military, is the cause of the delay in the democratic transition.

The way forward
This is, first and foremost, a personal power struggle where neither of the factions fighting for control of Sudan and its precious resources has shown any willingness to compromise. While Burhan ordered the dissolution of the RSF calling it a "rebellious group", Hemedti called Burhan "a radical Islamist who is bombing civilians from the air". Despite the promises of transition towards civilian government, it appears that neither Burhan nor Hemedti has any intention of relinquishing power. One can certainly interpret both men to be obstacles to any chance of Sudan transitioning to civilian democracy.

And the Ordinary Sudanese are paying the price of decades of misrule. Once again, they are hostage to violent military officers' intent on pursuing their own narrow interests. Meanwhile, inflation is more than 60%, almost a quarter of Sudanese can barely feed themselves, and millions live in refugee camps. As the African proverb goes, "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

The author is a Senior Research Associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University