A group of Sudanese politicians and military leaders resumed talks on Jan. 9 to form another transitional government, having signed an initial framework agreement on Dec. 5. This marks the second serious attempt by Sudanese leaders to agree on a transition to civilian rule and democracy. The first attempt, after the ouster of longtime authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, abruptly ended when the military staged a coup a little more than two years later, on Oct. 25, 2021, arresting dozens of civilian leaders and reversing nearly all their gains.
Sudan’s revolutionaries who led nationwide protests that helped oust al-Bashir are objecting, saying they won’t support another deal with the military. They have intensified protests, just as they did four years ago when the military was slow to cede power after al-Bashir’s fall. Angry and distrustful of the generals and elite politicians who betrayed them the first time around, they are demanding more than just civilian rule. As one protestor told The Guardian earlier this year, “This time we have our eyes wide open, and will not accept anything other than all our demands: peace, justice and freedom.”
This is not surprising. Security forces have not stopped violently repressing protesters, and the first transitional government — sworn in weeks after a pre-dawn operation to violently disperse a protest camp in Khartoum killed at least 120 people – failed in a number of ways. A committee to investigate and identify those responsible for a notorious massacre of protesters by armed forces in the capital Khartoum on June 3, 2019, stalled; an October 2020 peace deal between the government and former rebels failed to end conflict in the western region of Darfur and elsewhere in the country; and despite some reforms to repressive laws, police and security forces continued to abuse women and activists.
To be fair, the transitional government faced many obstacles. Its leaders were saddled with a bulky military-civilian power-sharing formula, made more complicated by the 2020 peace deal. And they struggled under an overly vague constitutional document, beyond-dire economic conditions, and a dearth of qualified bureaucrats to engineer the envisioned reforms.
It is a wonder they made as much progress as they did in the 25 months before the military’s coup swept it all away in what Army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan called a “course correction.” The government’s gains had included a proactive minister of justice taking up proposals to amend laws and pass new ones, abolishing some corporal punishments, repealing apostasy as a crime, and outlawing the practice of female genital mutilation. The minister also pushed for ratification of several important international human rights treaties, helped Sudan shake off longstanding U.S. sanctions, and began critical reforms in banking and finance that were needed to attract investment. Many others in the transitional government were equally hardworking and should not be disparaged for what happened.
But as months ticked by, these successes could not carry the day, especially as economic conditions worsened and international loans and investments were slow to materialize. For many reasons — political infighting, poor management, and lack of political will — the civilian and military components, uneasy partners from the start, failed to set up the basic structures of government. A legislative council was never formed, nor were commissions to work on key reforms, nor the constitutional court that would have been necessary for reviewing challenges to their decisions. It didn’t help that the transition’s standard-bearer, the committee to dismantle the former ruling party’s influence (by purging apparatchiks and seizing ill-gained assets) wielded power without oversight, giving disgruntled parties more reason to complain.
By the summer of the second year in 2021, nearly all projects had stalled amid rising tensions between civilian leaders and the military. An attempted military coup in September, a month before al-Burhan’s coup on Oct. 25, provoked rounds of recriminations, as each side blamed the other for the country’s problems. Former rebels who had joined the transitional government after signing the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (named for neighboring South Sudan’s capital, where it was signed) decided to cast their lot with the military, calculating they would hold onto power that way.
Now, more than a year after the coup, many politicians are back at the table with the military, discussing the terms of another transition. In some ways the new deal looks better than the last, creating a purely civilian executive power and limiting the role of the military. But, as critics have rightly pointed out, these changes don’t address the underlying problems. Civilian members of the former transition also recognized this in a lessons-learned workshop in Khartoum last July, in which they offered up dozens of recommendations.
The military coup not only reversed the work of the first transition, it re-entrenched itself in the economy and forged new ties with regional allies, making resumption of the transition even trickier. The issues the parties deferred for further discussion this month – transitional justice, security sector reform, dismantling the former regime, potential changes to the Juba Peace Agreement, peace in the east – are the true test. How they are handled will determine the likelihood of success for another transition.
Build on Past Efforts
In the justice sector, a priority area, the parties should build on past efforts and revive the committee to investigate the June 3, 2019, crackdown with strict deadlines, allow it to seek whatever external support it needs, and instruct prosecutors to pursue individual cases simultaneously where possible. They should agree on the appointment of accountability-oriented heads of prosecution and judiciary as soon as possible, and on a much-needed constitutional court. They also should agree to appoint the transitional justice commission, created in a 2021 law but never formed, and other relevant commissions to coordinate strategy and reforms across the sector.
And they can show commitment to justice in Darfur – where victims have been demanding it for 20 years – by cooperating with the International Criminal Court, which has outstanding warrants for al-Bashir and two other men reportedly still in detention. Al-Burhan has publicly pledged to cooperate since 2019 but never allowed discussion of the options. Cooperation means a response – whether handing the men over, or submitting them for credible trials at home, or a combination of the two – not silence.
If these leaders want to show they are serious about justice, they should also dispel a rumor that civilians offered immunity to the generals for protester killings since 2019 in exchange for a deal. International law, which Sudan commits to uphold, prohibits amnesty for the most serious crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Since the justice system already contains a patchwork of immunities and obstacles to prosecution for serious crimes (for example, it has no provision for command-responsibility, a form of liability that would be needed to prosecute top brass), one wonders why the military should ask for more protections at all.
As experience shows, agreeing to principles and broad goals isn’t enough. If these actors are serious about taking a second bite of the apple – serious about respect for human rights, justice, reform, and credible elections during the coming transitional period — they should also agree to a clear strategy with priorities, actions, benchmarks, and timelines that the public can use to hold them accountable. They owe at least this much to the protesters who continue to be targeted, giving life and limb for a real chance at democracy, not more empty promises.