Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Sudan cuts a bold path to keep transition on track

But recent reversals of longstanding policy could backfire, experts say

Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok addresses a press conference in Berlin during a visit to Germany on February 14, 2020. Reuters
Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok addresses a press conference in Berlin during a visit to Germany on February 14, 2020. Reuters

Sudan’s swift moves to resolve long-standing issues that kept the country isolated and in turmoil for decades could smooth its transition from dictatorship to democracy but also carry political risks, analysts say.

The flurry of developments under Sudan’s transitional leadership this month shocked observers. On February 11, it announced that it would hand over toppled dictator Omar Al Bashir to stand trial before the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and genocide for which he was indicted more than 10 years ago.

Two days later, the government announced an agreement with the United States to compensate the families of 17 sailors killed in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. The justice ministry however maintained Khartoum’s long-standing claim that it bore no responsibility for the attack in Yemen’s Aden port, which was claimed by Al Qaeda.

Earlier, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok took the unusual step of asking the United Nations to send a “peacekeeping” mission with a large political component to supervise Sudan's transition to democratic rule and to oversee negotiations to end long-running rebellions west and south of the country and monitor peace there after settlements were reached.

If Omar Al Bashir does end up in The Hague, the International Criminal Court had better be ready. AFP
If Omar Al Bashir does end up in The Hague, the International Criminal Court had better be ready. AFP

Nearly a year after the overthrow of Al Bashir’s authoritarian 29-year rule, Sudan appears to be casting off the shackles of the former president’s rigid, anti-western ideologies. But analysts believe these steps, inspired at least in part by the need to address the political and economic flux the vast African-Arab country is experiencing, are almost equally likely to fail as to succeed.

“It’s fairly impossible to predict Sudan’s future with any accuracy in light of those moves,” said Amani Al Taweel, a Sudan expert at Cairo’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “But there is a more than 50 per cent chance that all these things could lead to the stability of Sudan and civilian rule,” Ms Al Taweel told The National.

There are signs the decisions could pay off. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking at the Munich Security Conference where he also met Mr Hamdok, said the USS Cole settlement was an “important” step towards removing Sudan from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Taking Sudan off that list would allow the impoverished nation of some 40 million to receive desperately needed foreign investment and assistance.

People queue to buy bread at a bakery in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on February 11, 2020. AFP
People queue to buy bread at a bakery in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on February 11, 2020. AFP
Motorists wait to fill their tanks at a petrol station in Khartoum as shortages of essentials continue because of Sudan's economic crisis. AFP
Motorists wait to fill their tanks at a petrol station in Khartoum as shortages of essentials continue because of Sudan's economic crisis. AFP

For weeks now, long lines have been forming at petrol stations and outside bakeries in Khartoum, recalling the chronic shortages that defined life in Sudan during nearly three decades of financial mismanagement under Al Bashir, who was convicted of corruption in December.

The economic hardship was exacerbated by the secession of South Sudan in 2011, taking with it most of Sudan’s oil wealth, and ultimately led to the mass protests that toppled the president last April.

The continuing economic crisis risks re-igniting public anger that could be taken advantage of by either militants loyal to Al Bashir or, given Sudan’s record of military coups, disgruntled army officers.

Sudan’s transitional leadership is already a delicately balanced sharing of power between civilians and the military officers who removed Al Bashir from office. This was illustrated by the recent meeting between the top general, Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in neighbouring Uganda.

The surprise meeting contrasted sharply with the perception of Sudan as a strong, pro-Palestinian player in the Arab-Israeli conflict but was strongly backed by the military establishment as a positive development that would serve the national interest.

However, the meeting appeared to have been arranged without the knowledge of Mr Hamdok. The prime minister’s response was carefully weighed, but he did make clear that going ahead with the meeting without his knowledge infringed on his position as head of the executive branch.

Gen Al Burhan heads the Sovereignty Council, an 11-member body of generals and civilians operating as a collective presidency during the 39-month transition until elections are held.

“The regional climate for that meeting is agreeable,” said Ms Al Taweel, alluding to signs of growing ties between Israel and Arab nations. “The size of opposition to such meetings has greatly weakened.”

Mr Hamdok’s request for a peacekeeping UN mission, meanwhile, also involved a set of risks, according to Mohammed Anis Salem of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs.

Some of the typical models used by the UN might not be suited for Sudan’s culture and sometimes they end up not functioning well, he explained, pointing out that the overriding motive for the request appeared to be to head off any attempt to sabotage or derail the transition to democratic rule.

“It’s a complex, nation-building process that involves a massive investment. The UN will have to lay down some ground rules,” Mr Salem told The National.

“Mr Hamdok is sticking his neck out because the chances of failure are high.”

Updated: February 18, 2020 09:04 AM

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