Pulse Report (June 2019)
RISK LEVEL: HIGH
RISK OUTLOOK: DETERIORATING
Popular protests which have shaken Sudan for more than five months broke out over a decision to triple the price of bread and a shortage of fuel, these protests quickly became politically opposed to the regime of President Omar al-Bashir. As a result of poor economic decisions by al-Bashir’s government the country is now facing a fuel crisis and worsening cash crisis. On April 11, after months of protests against Bashir’s thirty-year rule, the military ousted him and installed themselves as the Transitional Military Council (TMC).
The TMC was set to govern Sudan for a two-year transitional period, after which it has promised to hold general elections, but protesters demanded that it hand over power to a civilian government sooner. Recent military crackdowns points to the military leadership staying in power for quite some time. Gulf countries would rather a military leadership, which they believe would maintain stability in the country and across the region, but the West would rather a civilian lead government. The chief of the TMC, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemedti’, toured Khartoum’s regional allies, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates immediately after the removal of al-Bashir to ensure they had their backing. The oil-rich Gulf states and Egypt were unequivocal in their support, pledging USD 3 billion in aid to shore up Sudan’s economy, they want to ensure stability in the country and see military rule as the best way to achieve this, even as a number of western nations call for the establishment of civilian rule.
Sudan’s public prosecutor has ordered al-Bashir to be interrogated on charges of money laundering and financing terrorism, other senior figures will also be investigated. Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes in Sudan’s Darfur region. He is currently being held in the Kobar high-security prison under heavy guard. The TMC and protesters had been negotiating the formation of a joint civilian-military body to oversee the country until elections, but were deadlocked over who would control the new council and what form the transitional government should take. This resulted in a two-day general strike, bringing much of the country to a standstill. This resulted in briefly renewed negotiations, however, the deadly suppression of a protest in May by Sudanese security forces scuppered a deal which would give opposition leaders two-thirds of seats in a proposed legislative council. This violence came just two hours before said deal was supposed to be signed. The TMC denied they were responsible and blamed ‘rogue units’ for trying to destabilise the peace process.
The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government militia separate from the army, were openly blamed by the protestors present and by protest leaders, with many claiming that the RSF had been deployed to derail negotiations whilst providing the TMC with plausible deniability. The RSF has been turned from a counter-insurgency militia into a force that can rival the army. Around 10,000 RSF soldiers are deployed in or close to Khartoum according to observers. Having origins in the Janjaweed militia the RSF are accused of atrocities in Darfur. A 2015 Human Rights Watch report found the RSF had “committed a wide range of horrific abuses”, such as destroying wells, plundering livestock, displacing entire communities, torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes. Hemedti, the commander of the RSF, is known to be backed by an informal coalition of diverse supporters who see him as an ally against the Islamist movement; he supplied the majority of Sudan’s contribution to the ground forces of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, and can personally count on Saudi support, as well as that of Egypt and the UAE. He is not trusted by elements of the Sudanese army and other institutions which have been long linked to Islamists. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE provide Hamedti and his forces with weapons and equipment. He is in a powerful position; leading his own loyal army, backed by a number of powerful domestic and foreign actors, it is entirely possible he will use these forces to take control more overtly if he deems it necessary.
Sudan’s protest movement must take care not to repeat the mistakes of previous uprisings by rushing into a quick takeover of power, building the solid foundations of a successful, democratic and peaceful civilian rule will be a lengthy process which cannot and should not be expected to end with the first election. They are faced with the formidable task of dismantling al-Bashir’s 30-year regime, and the apparatus he had constructed to prop it up. One such challenge is the relationship between the state and the army, three military coups and 52 years of governments headed by generals has shaped the military perception of its role; the saviour of the nation with the best interests of the people at heart. The military installed al-Bashir’s regime, and at times enjoyed as much as 70 percent of the budget, depoliticising the military and getting its officers accustomed to a new power distribution will take time and carries risk. The protest movement also has the difficulty of undoing 42 years of Islamist influence on the country, failure to do so will risk Sudan backsliding into autocracy. Sudan must avoid a recurrence of the situation witnessed in Egypt, where rushed elections allowed the well organised Muslim brotherhood to gain power. Sudan needs time to develop its political parties so that any election can be fairly contested. Part of this will involve the Sudanese people having to ‘learn’ democracy; decades of authoritarian rule and conflict has eroded people’s trust in political forces and the state, this trust will have to be re-established if democracy is to succeed.
Discussion about what protestors will have to do once they are in charge are academic if they do not achieve their aims. The recent violent dispersal of an established protest camp outside the military headquarters in Khartoum resulted in the death of hundred and is likely to serve as a catalyst that forces the opposition to reassess their approach and objectives. The protest leaders have rejected al-Burhan’s call for negotiations until those responsible for shooting and killing protesters are brought to justice. They have since launched a campaign of civil disobedience to get the TMC to acquiesce to their demands, which in turn has been violently suppressed by security forces. Due to the violence Sudan’s membership in the African Union has been suspended “until the effective establishment of a civilian-led transitional authority”. However, little is likely to change whilst Sudan has the backing of Gulf states who can afford to prop up a military regime. Increasingly entrenched divisions and outside drivers make the prospect of civil war increasingly likely.
RISK LEVEL: MODERATE
RISK OUTLOOK: DETERIORATING
A recent economic crisis which led to shortages of fuel and cash helped trigger the 16-week mass protest which resulted in al-Bashir’s ousting, recent strikes have not helped the financial sector to recover. Across the mining and agriculture industries the shortage of fuel, and in remote places the complete lack thereof, has brought businesses and transport to a standstill. Incremental restrictions have been implemented on internet access, resulting in a near complete shutdown at the time of reporting.
Land in Sudan, fed by the river Nile, is increasingly being bought in large quantities by food-insecure Gulf countries, who through mismanagement of water resources and growing populations are increasingly looking abroad to feed their people. The food price crisis of 2008, where many food exporters reduced what they exported preferring to feed their own people, allowed Sudan to market itself as a food producer. Another 3.4 million hectares of land are currently under negotiation by investors from Gulf countries. The National Investment Encouragement Act of 2013 offered foreign investors remarkable tax exemptions and strong bureaucratic support to investors; intended to diversify the country’s economy after Khartoum lost access the majority of its oil fields with South Sudan’s secession. Sudan produces 5 of the 20 million tonnes of Alfalfa the Arab market needs for industrial farms and animals, possibility for expansion are large, with Sudan conducting feasibility studies for future alfalfa projects. Pastoralists require large tracts of land in which to move their cattle, and search for the most fertile land, because of the vast quantities of land being sold off for the export market conflicts will inevitably arise over control of land and water, as we have seen in the plateau states of Nigeria.
Many businesses profit from connections to the governing elite, and some of the protesters demands involve dismantling the systems these companies benefit from. Dismantling and overhauling this network of companies headed by former government officials and family members would involve forcefully removing them and breaking up the larger companies which effectively form monopolies in key industries; telecoms, construction, oil and banking. Such extensive economic liberalisation risks creating a power vacuum both industrially and politically, weakening the Sudanese economy, as well as creating grievances amongst the politically powerful, increasing the chances of a civil war. There are many businesses in Sudan that have been marginalised and shut out by the al-Bashir regime which could slowly take on more business within their sector given an appropriate transition period.
Although the US government lifted sanctions on Sudan in February 2017, it kept the country on its list of state sponsors of terrorism, making it essentially impossible for business to operate in USD transactions and cutting it off from international capital markets and many other sources of funding. However, both countries recently agreed to begin negotiations to remove Sudan from the US terror list, which may unlock a global debt-relief agreement for the country under the IMF and World Bank’s Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative, allowing it to restructure the roughly USD 50 billion of external debt. Sudan is one of only three eligible countries to not yet benefit from debt relief. The IMF expect the economy to shrink by 2.3% in 2019, though this has much to do with the political upheaval and lack of fuel and cash, both of which could be solved relatively soon.
In the short term the TMC must ensure a steady flow of bread, currency and fuel. The Gulf countries recently deposited half of the USD 500 million promised for the central bank, which will help to keep the country running for now. During this time the TMC must ensure that ousted officials do not siphon money from the economy, as with the current turmoil assets are likely to disappear, especially as the previous regime kept plenty of transactions, companies and activities off of balance sheets
RISK LEVEL: HIGH
RISK OUTLOOK: DETERIORATING
In 2003 Khartoum faced two separate rebel groups in Darfur; the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), these two groups cooperated militarily and politically. A government aligned Arab militia, known as Janjaweed made of roughly 20,000 fighters burnt villages, looted, raped and killed people in the areas inhabited by ethnic groups of African origin, which created mass refugee flows inside Darfur and across the Chadian border. By 2014 large parts of the Janjaweed were reformed into a government paramilitary force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). The RSF has continued to attack civilians. It is the Darfur conflict for which Omar al-Bashir has been indicted for war crimes by the ICC, and the current head of the TMC Lt-Gen Burhan is accused of involvement in atrocities during his time as chief of ground forces in Darfur. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005 included a referendum on independence in the territory of southern Sudan, to be held in 2011, it brought relative peace to Darfur.
With the upcoming secession of South Sudan, Khartoum worried about fighting a war on two fronts, in 2010 they launched several offensives in Darfur seeking to crush as much resistance as possible, after the secession of South Sudan fighting continued albeit at a lower intensity.
In addition to the violence in Darfur, Khartoum began fighting a new rebel group the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North (SPLM-N) in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, close to the border with South Sudan. Although the CPA placed the regions within the borders of Sudan, many in the regions identified with and fought alongside the South. The CPA stipulated that a popular consultation about security arrangements would be held between Khartoum and these states, however no such consultations were held, elements of the SPLM remained in the regions and called themselves the SPLM-N. When the Sudanese army tried to disarm the SPLM-N they refused and fighting erupted, the group later announced they would work to remove the government.
In 2011 four rebel groups formed an alliance to create the Sudan Revolutionary Front, this rebellion continued into 2016 despite internal disputes which resulted in SPLM-N separating from the alliance. Several peace initiatives failed, but unilateral ceasefires and talks between rebel groups and the government continued throughout 2018, resulting in a level of violence similar to the peaceful era before the independence of South Sudan.
The leader of the SPLM-N, Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu ordered a three-month ceasefire “…to give a chance for an immediate transfer of power to civilians…”, this came days after the TMC announced a ceasefire in all three of the country’s conflict zones. Though there is evidence that this did not stop the RSF from committing atrocities against civilians. The SPLM-N has several thousand fighters, tanks and other heavy weapons, and controls large swathes of territory especially in the Nuba mountains area, making them the largest and most powerful rebel force. The ceasefire is delicate, based on the belief that eventually the TMC will hand over control to civilian authorities. If the SPLM-N and others start to believe that this won’t happen, or at least not to their timetable; it is likely that hostilities will resume, and for far greater stakes. The insurgency will no longer simply be about autonomy, but about who should govern the country and under what system, such a war is likely to be long and hard fought, reminiscent of the situations in Syria and Libya. They will also have greater popular support, as the ruling military council will be seen as an illegitimate government, this could translate into more recruits and a greater level of financing, not just for SPLM-N but other rebel groups as well.
The recent arrest of senior rebel leader of the SPLM-N, Yasir Arman, who returned to Khartoum to take part in talks with the military will push the ceasefire ever closer to breaking point. Professors belonging to the Association of Higher Education Professors have emphasised the need to dismantle jihadist units among students, remove weapons from mosques and stores at educational institutions before students are allowed to return to their universities. Studies were suspended at the end of December to prevent students organising protests against the government, but the suspension was cancelled by the TMC in early June.
Due to the prolonged nature of the Sudanese conflicts there are a huge number of small arms in Sudan which can be easily obtained/utilised, decreasing the development time for any escalation of hostilities and increasing the likelihood of descent into civil conflict.
RISK LEVEL: HIGH
RISK OUTLOOK: DETERIORATING
Given the current political and security climate we recommend against any and all travel to the region. Although protests started out peaceful they are quickly turning violent with the military opening fire on protestors, the death toll has reached well over 100. There is a very real possibility, as openly suggested by the former Prime Minister that the military will seek to further entrench power if provoked by further protests, this will undoubtedly result in further violence and potentially spiral into civil war. There is also the possibility that the deputy leader of the TMC, who is the commander of the RSF, might attempt a coup against the head of the TMC and defence minister. The chances for de-escalation and eventual peace and stability are slim in the short term.
RISK LEVEL: MODERATE
RISK OUTLOOK: DETERIORATING
Sudan has a long history of hosting training camps for terror groups dating back to the early 1990s when Osama Bin Laden came to the country and built the infrastructure for a training camp, as well as setting up a business and finance network. Since then Sudan has provided military training camps to Hezbollah, Hamas, other Palestinian armed groups as well as several Islamic groups across the Middle East, North Africa and East Africa regions. Though it does experience terror attacks, they are infrequent in comparison to other more terror-prone countries nearby, this may all change with the growing instability in the country. Sudan is the third-largest African country, it provides ample space for terror groups to hide, part of the reason it has suffered so long with insurgencies. As Islamic State declines in Iraq and Syria it’s surviving fighters, financiers and ideologues will be looking for somewhere to reorganise and rehabilitate. A fractured Sudan is the perfect incubator for a resurgent Islamic State. Regardless of who assumes control of Sudan they will inherit economic conditions which are ideal for recruitment into, and exploitation by Islamist extremists and insurgencies. The first step in tackling this issue will be to improve the economic conditions felt by the poorest, and to drive toward an inclusive political process.
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