[September 11, 2020]: In a major development in Sudan’s transition to democracy, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok agreed to a deal that effectively ends 30 years of rule under Islamic law. The agreement, signed with Abdelazziz Al-Hilu, leader of rebel group SPLM-N, declares: “the state shall not establish an official religion. No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion.” Hilu leads one of the holdout groups to the peace deal detailed below, and his decision to remain steadfast in his demands clearly paid off. This is a pivotal moment in Sudan’s transition, which will hopefully lay the foundation for peace in Darfur and throughout Sudan.
[Spetember 8, 2020]: On August 31, Sudan’s transitional government and the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) – an alliance of nine political and armed groups from the Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile regions – signed a landmark peace agreement aimed at ending almost two decades of conflict. Following ten months of negotiations in Juba, South Sudan, the peace agreement represents a ray of hope for the people of Sudan’s war-rife regions, who have endured horrific mass atrocity crimes for decades, with inadequate protection and zero justice.
Though past attempts at peace have failed, what distinguishes this newest accord is that it was brokered with a post-revolution transitional government working towards democratization and full civilian rule. Despite the opportunity for real change embodied in this agreement, Sudan continues to face many challenges as it strives towards democracy. The real test to the agreement’s success will be whether its groundbreaking promises of peace can actually be implemented. Jewish World Watch, an organization started in response to the Darfur genocide, welcomes this historic peace deal with cautious optimism.
The peace agreement covers a broad range of issues, including protocols on the dismantling and integration of armed groups into the national army, wealth sharing, power-sharing, the return of displaced people and refugees, land ownership, and transitional justice. With regard to the Darfur region, the parties agreed to form a hybrid force of government troops and former rebel combatants to maintain security in the region, with a longer-term goal of incorporating all former rebel fighters into the Sudanese army. The agreement also promises to create a special criminal court for crimes committed in Darfur and to foster cooperation with the International Criminal Court in its prosecutions of the architects of the Darfur genocide.
The peace agreement creates an unprecedented opportunity for Sudan to come to terms with atrocities perpetrated against civilian populations during the reign of former genocidal dictator Omar al-Bashir. It also represents the latest in a string of positive post-revolution developments in Sudan. In July, a series of legal reforms were introduced, including the eradication of female genital mutilation and the protection of freedom of religion and belief. Deposed dictator Bashir, who is in jail in Khartoum convicted of corruption, is now on trial for the 1989 coup through which he grabbed power. One of his henchmen, notorious war criminal Ali Kushayb, surrendered to the International Criminal Court in June after 13 years of evading justice. While it is unclear whether Bashir will follow suit and be extradited to the ICC, the wheels of change are continuing to turn domestically. Plus, diplomatic relations have improved across the board under the committed leadership of Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok.
What are the challenges?
Despite these positive developments, many obstacles stand in the way of successful implementation of the peace deal. Each of them will need to be resolved carefully so that lasting peace and transitional justice can be realized.
- Economic instability: Though Bashir’s ouster ushered in many reforms, it also caused Sudan to plummet into a deeper economic crisis that threatens the future of the country’s democratic transition. Few benefits of the revolution have trickled down to the masses, and chronic corruption and mismanagement persist. Plus, as long as Sudan remains on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list, it is precluded from receiving much of the foreign direct investment and debt relief that could improve its economy and open up the significant resources needed to fund sustainable democratization. The US has made compensating victims of terrorist attacks during Bashir’s rule a condition for removal from the SST list – a move that has understandably angered Sudanese civilians who are struggling to feed their families amidst skyrocketing inflation, chronic food shortages, severe unemployment, and the poorly mitigated spread of COVID-19.
- Mounting insecurity: As Jewish World Watch reported in July, inter-communal violence, militia attacks, and human rights violations are on the rise in Sudan’s restive regions. Until the security situation on the ground can be controlled, there will be no tenable way of implementing the peace agreement. A ceasefire announced by all parties to the talks is a positive first step, but reconciliation and development efforts in the conflict-affected areas will be essential to laying the groundwork for the peace plan’s effective implementation.
- Past regime retains power: One of the biggest challenges to achieving sustainable peace is the unsettling reality that many of Bashir’s former cronies retain immense power in the transitional government. This is particularly true of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemeti,” who was Bashir’s heir apparent and is now the deputy head of the Sovereign Council governing Sudan. Hemeti is the gatekeeper of the Rapid Support Forces, the current incarnation of the janjaweed or “devils on horseback,” who perpetrated the atrocities in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Jebel Marra beginning in 2003. Hemeti is the one who signed the peace deal on behalf of the government of Sudan. His continued hold on power makes many skeptical of the country’s ability to truly move on.
- Major rebel groups haven’t signed on: The peace deal was “initialed” but not signed, as a way of leaving the door open for two critical holdout rebel groups. An SLM faction led by Abdel Wahid al-Nour and a wing of the SPLM-N headed by Abedlaziz al-Hilu have refused to join the deal. Nour claims it does not address the root causes of Sudan’s conflicts, especially the lack of separation between religion and state, and Hilu refuses to negotiate as long as Hemeti is the government’s chief representative. Nur’s group is a pivotal player in Darfur, while Hilu’s controls swaths of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Their buy-in will be critical to the peace agreement’s success, and it seems progress is already being made on this front.
What can be done?
The United States has had a complicated history with Khartoum, but now is the time for it to seize the momentum created by this historic peace deal and make a concerted push towards normalization. While the removal of Sudan from the SST list is complex and highly politicized, the Trump Administration can and should immediately move forward with supporting Sudan’s democratic transition and call for peace, even without formal removal.
On July 20, House leaders re-introduced the Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Financial Transparency Act of 2020 (H.R. 7682). This marks the first comprehensive effort on behalf of the U.S. government to strategically support Sudan’s transitional process in a multi-sectoral and meaningful way. If enacted, the legislation will provide assistance for democratic institutional building, support development programs, help with debt relief, and impose sanctions on those who abuse human rights. These are all critical to implementing the goals outlined in the peace agreement.
Please ask your representatives to support this groundbreaking legislation to help realize the vision of the people’s revolution of Sudan.
Fifty percent of Sudan’s population is under the age of 18, which means they have never known anything but conflict. Despite the challenges ahead, the transitional government represents the best chance Sudan has ever had to achieve true democratic rule and peace. The United States must take proactive measures to support justice and development at this critical juncture, so that the people of Sudan can finally return home and begin to rebuild their lives in dignity.