NEW YORK – Sudan is on the threshold of disaster. On June 3, paramilitary forces opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Khartoum, killing over 100 and wounding hundreds more. Now, hope for a smooth transition to civilian rule is giving way to fear that the country will go the way of Yemen, Syria, or Libya.
Just a few weeks ago, the military seemed to be on the protesters’ side. In April, following months of demonstrations against President Omar al-Bashir, the military forced Bashir to resign. The commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary group, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemeti), even claimed that he had refused an order by Bashir to open fire on protesters.
Bashir’s regime, in power for nearly 30 years, was replaced by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, with Hemeti as his deputy. But protests continued, now demanding a transition to civilian rule. This spurred the TMC to initiate negotiations with representatives of the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has spearheaded the protests.
Those negotiations were initially promising, but their tone changed abruptly after Burhan and Hemeti returned from visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – countries that previously supported Bashir’s regime. There is reportedly a lot of money on the table for the generals – who have particularly close ties to the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the UAE – if they consolidate power and avoid a political opening.
The Saudis and Emiratis have several goals. They hope to stave off a democratic precedent in the region, ensure plenty of foot soldiers for their wars in Yemen and elsewhere, secure access to fertile agricultural land, and gain a foothold in the geo-strategically sensitive Horn of Africa. Their tactics are not new: in 2013, they backed a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Cairo by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who became Egypt’s de facto leader after a military coup removed the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi from power.
But, as with the crackdown in Cairo and the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are pursuing a half-baked and shortsighted strategy in Sudan. True, Burhan and Hemeti can ensure that Sudanese troops keep flowing to Yemen. But the RSF’s massacre in Khartoum, coming on top of its previous war crimes in Darfur, will effectively prevent the Sudanese people – and the international community – from ever accepting the TMC’s rule. Moreover, funneling cash toward Sudan’s military will do nothing to address the grievances driving social unrest.
Those grievances are partly economic. Decades of mismanagement meant that the economy could not withstand the decline in oil revenues after South Sudan (home to 75% of Sudan’s oil reserves) gained independence in 2011. In the past five years, the government had to slash public spending from 18% of GDP to a paltry 10% today. Military spending now accounts for at least 30% of Sudan’s public budget. In 2018, the loss of foreign support from the Gulf triggered a massive devaluation of the currency, causing the inflation rate to soar to 70%.
But the protesters’ grievances are also political. Large swaths of the population yearn for democracy and the rule of law. They are tired of watching successive governments funnel benefits toward a small group of northern tribes that have looted the rest of the country, in alliance with security forces and crony businessmen.
As long as these grievances persist, so will instability. In fact, for the last 50 years, Sudanese have resisted the government’s violent rule. From Darfur and the Nuba mountains in the west and south to the Blue Nile region in the east, violent conflicts continue to rage.
The RSF’s attack will only exacerbate such strife. Already, protesters have rejected an offer by the TMC to reopen negotiations, and they called for civil disobedience until the military regime falls. It is hard to see how Sudan, already a fragile state, can be governed under these circumstances.
Poor governance has led to a tragic waste of the country’s enormous potential. Sudan has significant oil resources of its own, as well as gold and hydropower – none of which it has managed to develop for the benefit of its population. Moreover, it boasts so much fertile land (including under irrigation schemes) that it could become the breadbasket of the Middle East. Until now, however, regime cronies have been expropriating and exploiting traditional land, generating conflict, misery, and food insecurity.
Sudan will not reverse its slide toward anarchy, let alone reach its full potential, unless the international community steps in. With trust between the military and the protesters destroyed, external mediators are vital to secure a transitional agreement between representatives of the protesters and at least part of the armed forces.
Such an agreement will require a structured peace process, underwritten by third-party assurances to ensure proper implementation. Credible carrots and sticks will be crucial. For example, debt reduction, together with political stabilization, could open the way for a generous international aid package.
China, which has important oil interests in Sudan, will need to be involved, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE must be pressured to cooperate in the search for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The African Union is another critical partner, though, given Egypt’s current dominance, the AU should not take the lead.
The international community is heavily invested in Sudan. It played a central role in the South’s secession, has worked to stabilize Darfur, and finances a large contingent of United Nations troops in Darfur and South Sudan. Now, it must go a step further – and not by issuing sympathetic communiqués. To save the country – and its surroundings – from a new wave of chaos and misery, the international community must mobilize rapidly to support the Sudanese people’s aspirations for better governance.
Ishac Diwan, a visiting professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, holds the Chaire d’Excellence Monde Arabe at Paris Sciences et Lettres.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.