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The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement - Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168 | 23 February 2021

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Sudan’s October 2020 peace agreement, involving the interim government and rebel movements in Darfur and the Two Areas, among others, is an important step in the country’s transition after the ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir. The deal allows for representatives from armed groups in the country’s peripheries to take government posts and for significant public money to go to these areas. It is a way to rebalance the Nile Valley elites’ decades-long domination of Sudan’s political system. But it also creates new problems. Some of the rebel movements that signed on to the pact are divided; the two strongest remain outside it. Khartoum also lacks the billions of dollars it needs to meet its obligations under the deal. The government should bring in the holdouts and incorporate rebel factions in security institutions without bloating the military, which would drain the treasury and sink the civilian cabinet’s reform agenda. While Sudan’s backers press Khartoum to reform the security sector, they should fund demobilisation programs and support the cabinet’s commitments to invest in peripheral areas.

Although they fought Bashir’s repressive regime for years and can claim some credit for weakening it, members of Sudan’s main armed opposition coalition, comprising groups spanning parts of the Darfur region and South Kordofan and Blue Nile states, were largely bystanders when the long-ruling autocrat fell. Bashir was toppled in April 2019 after months of sustained protests by an organic, diverse civilian movement, propelled into the streets by the economy’s collapse.

In August 2019, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which took power after Bashir’s downfall, and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), representing the protesters, signed a power-sharing deal. That in turn led to formation of a hybrid civilian-military government tasked with revitalising the ailing economy and steering the country to elections. The signatories also agreed to talks with insurgents to end decades of conflict in areas neglected by Khartoum. The talks took place in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, leading to an accord on 3 October 2020.

The Juba Peace Agreement seeks to redress the historical imbalance between the country’s centre and periphery by devolving power and wealth away from Khartoum. In early February, representatives of armed groups from Darfur and the Two Areas (as South Kordofan and Blue Nile are known) were appointed to the cabinet and Sovereign Council, which oversees the transition. They will also take up seats in the yet-to-be-formed legislative council, which is expected to oversee the executive and craft laws, including those designed to pave the way for elections. Because they have divergent interests and perspectives, the ex-insurgents could, however, jostle with one another as they seek to dominate a limited amount of institutional space allocated to them.

Many aspects of the agreement’s implementation could throw up new problems. Crucially, two of the biggest rebel groups on the ground did not join the talks. Politicians in other parts of the country have protested what they perceive as Khartoum’s undue focus on Darfur and the Two Areas compared to other historically marginalised regions. Nor is it clear, given the near empty treasury, where the government will find the funds it has promised to pay to compensate war-affected civilians and support recovery and development programs in the peripheries.

While it is encouraging to see rebels integrate into the political system and the security services, their entry comes with risks. With a professed hope for a more inclusive Sudan, the ex-rebels on paper have more in common with the FFC and the transition’s other civilians than they do with the security forces. But some already appear to be allying with the interim government’s military component, believing that by supping with their old battlefield enemies, whom they consider the real centre of power, they will extract greater political and economic concessions from the system. Merging yesterday’s rebels into the security services means that these forces are likely to strengthen and swell in size, adding more pressure to an already strained public purse and increasing pressure on the civilian cabinet members who carry the unenviable burden of reforming a venal political system historically dominated by the military.

The answer is not to abandon the long-overdue push to recast centre-periphery relations in Sudan. Indeed, the interim government and its external partners should try to expand that effort by bringing holdout groups into the tent or risk prolonging their rebellions. Yet in moving ahead with integrating them, Khartoum and its partners must ensure that the security services do not become so swollen that they deplete state funds or make work even more difficult for the civilian cabinet. That cabinet is already struggling to reform a Sudanese state long dominated by military factions that retain a vice-like grip over the country’s political economy. To manage these risks, while also maintaining fair representation within the military, some rebels will need to demobilise, as will some existing military factions, so as to make room for other rebels to integrate into the security forces.

Sudan’s parlous economic state means that international assistance will be vital to help soldiers and rebels lay down their arms but also to underwrite the government’s spending commitments in the peripheries, which according to the October deal should amount to billions of dollars. The country’s partners, the European Union, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the U.S. and the UN should provide financial and technical support for the deal’s implementation, even as they keep encouraging the civilian cabinet to make economic reforms that will give donors confidence. The peace agreement’s success will be more than worth the price, as it will help Sudan move to more stable and representative governance.