December 6, 2021 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 342

Fatefully Kicking The Can Down The Road In Sudan

December 6, 2021 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 342

It is still early days in the Biden administration, but as far as foreign policy is concerned it has been a difficult year with a seemingly relentless flood of crises. The dramatic events in Afghanistan, with terrorism and people falling off airplanes, was certainly the most high-profile debacle. And while the AUKUS agreement against China seems promising, the year also saw Russia rewarded with Nord Stream 2 and undaunted on Ukraine's borders. Elsewhere repression in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela continues mostly unanswered, while Iran, the likeliest biggest debacle of them all, looms. In Africa, the unfolding tragedy (begun during the Trump administration) in Ethiopia is clearly the primary challenge, with the volatile situation in Sudan in second place.

Sudanese protestor on December 6: "This revolution is like the sun, It is never extinguished."

Sudan certainly looks today like a failure of U.S. diplomacy, given reports of bureaucratic infighting in Washington over how to respond to the October 25 military coup against the country's civilian part of the government.[1] Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman reportedly wanted to punish the Sudanese generals for the coup, while newly confirmed Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Molly Phee wanted a softer line towards Sudan's military. The infighting within State in the Biden administration on Sudan is an interesting contrast to the Trump administration, where the bureaucratic struggle eventually led the White House to take over the Sudan portfolio from State in a largely single-minded pursuit of the Abraham Accords.

Instead of punishing the generals, Washington seems to have decided that rewarding them is the better path, at least for now. The November 21 agreement between Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok (overthrown the month before by the generals) and coup leader and Sovereignty Council chairman General Burhan definitely seems to reward the coup plotters. While Hamdok returns as PM and supposedly can name his own cabinet, the generals solidified their control over the ruling Sovereignty Council (including appointing a former Bashir regime supporter to the council). The coup unmasked an authoritarian alliance between the military and Darfur rebel leaders now in positions of power and allied against the civilians that seems set to continue.

Meanwhile the generals appointed a new head of the Sudanese intelligence service (GIS, formerly NISS), General Ahmed Ibrahim Mufaddal, an intelligence veteran who had served as GIS deputy since 2019. More significantly, Mufaddal has a long track record in both Islamist activism and politics and in intelligence.[2] The dictator Bashir appointed Mufaddal to the sensitive role of Governor of South Kordofan in 2018, a position where he also functioned as local head of the National Congress Party (the NCP is now banned in Sudan) in a sensitive province where the opposition SPLM-N, under the charismatic Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, has maintained a long-standing insurgency against Khartoum for decades and where (like Darfur) the military exploited local gold mines.

Intel chief Mufaddal also has expertise in the field of economic intelligence, a specialty expected to loom large as Sudan's civilian government tries to correct the economic disasters coming from 30 years of Islamist dictatorship. The drawing together of Sudan's Islamists and its military in unholy alliance seems inexorable.[3]

Washington may well have feared greater immediate turmoil in Sudan in the short run, prompting the deal with the generals that leaves their power intact or enhanced. They will also go unpunished for 49 dead protestors and hundreds wounded since the October coup while some lower ranks are offered up as scapegoats. Such fears of instability have been stoked by General Burhan and others warning of the possibility of civil war. Burhan's close collaborator, General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (AKA "Hemeti"), also warned in press interviews of the dangers of massive flows of migrants north to Europe (a warning aimed at the EU) and of renewed jihadist terrorism (a warning to both the Americans and the EU) should Sudan descend into chaos as a result of too much pressure on the military.[4]

While Hemeti threatened, Burhan said that he will retire after the scheduled 2023 elections in Sudan and soothingly spoke of his, and the military's, commitment to handing over power to civilians after the elections. While the "good cop (Burhan)/bad cop (Hemeti)" routine may have convinced some foreigners who applauded the seeming reconciliation between Hamdok and the military, Sudanese demonstrators have shown their disapproval in repeated mass rallies.

The Americans, distracted by the colossal tragedy and carnage unfolding in Ethiopia (Feltman's portfolio includes both Sudan and Ethiopia, a massive mandate), have in a sense kicked the can down the road as far as an eventual confrontation with the Sudanese military over human rights and democracy concerns. The Administration has reportedly tried to head off congressional sanctions against the military, counseling patience. Washington actually has an excellent chance to show some resolve on Sudan this week with sanctions connected to the upcoming Democracy Summit.

While that event is mostly talk, Treasury Department sanctions "targeting people engaged in corruption, serious human rights abuse and who undermine democracy" are expected in conjunction with the conference.[5] Sudanese with whom I have spoken see Hemeti and his brother Abdul Rahim as obvious candidates[6] for such a list, but activists are very skeptical that Washington will make such a move.

While the West's taking tough steps now could have broken an already fraying military-civilian relationship in Sudan, the new arrangement creates problems in the near future in three ways.

First, an emboldened military – whether or not Burhan keeps his word and retires – has ample time to set the rules of the game leading up to elections and the summation of the democratic transition in 2023. The only power Hamdok has is to resign in protest. The military can shape the judiciary and other institutions to favor whatever outcome it sees fit and do so even by rehabilitating individuals associated with the previous Islamist dictatorship.

Second, the November 21 agreement between Hamdok and Burhan created a dangerous split between the prime minister and one of his most powerful advantages, the Sudanese street. This increases Hamdok's dependence on international support and decreases confidence in forming a broad front in the civil society and grassroots organizations that played such a vital role in the fall of Bashir in 2019.

The new agreement also enshrines a type of economic schizophrenia in Sudan hardly conducive to a stable democratic future. The coup shook international confidence in Sudan's transformation and naturally lessened Western enthusiasm for the current political leadership and economic governance in charge in Khartoum. The United States is then in the uncomfortable situation of looking at both ways to punish Sudan (the military) and to help Sudan (the country and people, mostly controlled by the military).

Meanwhile, it is the civilian government that will bear the cost of dashed hopes of desperate Sudanese while the generals will blame civilian ministers. And, of course, there is a direct contradiction between the impunity and kleptocracy of the Sudanese military and the type of transparent, reformist economic governance the international community would like to see as part of Sudan receiving debt relief under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative.

To put it charitably, Washington blinked on Sudan, fearing worse outcomes than enhanced military rule and abandoning a genuine popular movement towards democracy to its fate, while hoping that it can somehow influence results down the road over the next 18 months. If Sudanese history is any guide, regimes in Khartoum are often far better situated to manipulate and subvert lengthy and complicated processes than well-intentioned but distracted Westerners are to prevent them from doing so. The Sudanese people, who have labored so long and so nobly for their own dignity and freedom, deserved somewhat better from us.


[1], December 3, 2021. 

[2], December 7, 2021.

[4], December 1, 2021.

[5], December 3, 2021.

[6], November 26, 2019.


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