Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok speaks during a news conference in Khartoum, Sudan 2019 (AP Photo, File)
Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has named a new cabinet in keeping with the Juba Agreement. But is this new government a genuine step towards meeting popular demands or simply a smoke screen for keeping the military in power?
On 10 February, Sudan’s new cabinet was sworn in by chairman of the Sovereignty Council General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Prime Minister Hamdok. The announcement of the new government was announced two days prior, with Hamdok naming 20 new ministers.
“This cabinet came as a result of a political consensus over a long period of discussions that took months, and we were all concerned about how to steer the country from the brink of collapse. As you have been observing in our regions, there remains many conflicts and challenges,” Hamdok said in his address.
A new strategy? A band-aid?
Among those appointed in the new cabinet is a Darfurian rebel leader of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, Gebril Ibrahim, who is now finance minister. And Mariam Sadiq Al Mahdi, the Umma Party leader and the late Sadiq al-Mahdi’s daughter, is the new foreign affairs minister.
“The new cabinet is definitely an attempt to rein in on the multiple challenges of insecurity in the various regions, the pressing issues of economic recovery and the restless population about reforms,” says Jok Madut Jok, professor of anthropology at Syracuse University and analyst on security governance in Sudan.
The appointments were the outcome of the Juba peace agreement signed in October. The deal ended a 17-year-old conflict and aims to bring peace to Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
While choosing a Darfurian leader supports the accord, the peace treaty dictates that there should be four more positions assigned to meet Darfur’s share in the government.
“It may not be a mere band-aid [solution] but it will fall quite short of the popular expectations, especially in view of the fact that the military and the entire defence system remains in the hands of the former regime’s stalwarts,” Jok tells The Africa Report.
He adds that this is a cabinet tasked with giving a sense of power sharing between Sudan’s embattled regions: “In this regard, the ministers will be more focused on keeping the peace within the council of ministers and not so much in addressing the needs of people, especially in the poor urban centres and in Darfur.”
Where does the rest of the country fit in?
Since the transitional government represented by Hamdok appears to be moving in the direction of enacting the peace treaty, people are asking whether the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions will be granted self-rule as promised and if 30% of their rebel forces will be integrated into the peacekeeping forces in the region.
Jok argues other marginalised groups are also looking to get more from the new government: “People in Darfur, Blue Nile, Nuba and eastern Sudan will be looking for signs that this is their government. The first and most important sign being improving services they have been denied.”
However, the government is broke, so it will not be able to respond promptly to those demands.
The Juba agreement invites the warring factions in the region to dismantle their own militias and be integrated into Sudan’s national army. Jok, however, thinks the matter is more complicated than that.
“That is a long-term project that must be seen as something that cannot be rushed to meet the deadlines of the interim period. The rebel forces will need to be put through training and then gradually merged into the current Sudanese armed forces in order to create a unified national army,” he says.
Can the new cabinet help the ailing economy?
The Sudanese economy has been reeling since South Sudan gained independence on 9 July 2011, taking the majority of Sudan’s oil with it. The government of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir was unable to stop the downward economic spiral and was overthrown in 2019.
Decades-long sanctions did not help either. Sudan was for a long time on the US’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SSTL).
That was the case until then president Donald Trump removed Sudan from the list. But by then, the Covid-19 pandemic’s arrival further weakened the country’s frail economy, leading to higher inflation and costs.
This in turn pushed people back to the streets calling on the government to improve economic conditions and push ahead with reforms.
Sudanese journalist and activist Shawgi Mahadi Mustafa argues there are plenty of opportunities for the country. “[The removal] from the SSTL improved the country’s international image and will attract foreign direct investment (FDI) from the international community,” he tells The Africa Report.
Mustafa says now is the government’s chance to tighten control over state resources long-controlled by the military and security forces. “The only path that the new cabinet should take is to prove its seriousness in dealing with the economic crisis, taking advantage of Sudan’s new international situation and entering into negotiations with the Gulf states,” adds Mustafa.
Both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia promised to give $3bn to Sudan in 2019, but they stopped when Hamdok took over. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh then saw Sudan’s prospects as shaky and uncertain.
Senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) Joseph Tucker says the US is one of the international partners that will be watching Sudan closely as the new cabinet works together to address the country’s unprecedented economic problems.
“External assistance with arrears clearance and access to international funds are critical, and decisive action by the civilians in Sudan’s government is needed to increase faith among both Sudanese citizens and international donors,” Tucker tells The Africa Report.
In December 2020, the US announced a bridge loan of $1bn to the World Bank to help clear Sudan’s arrears. In January, the UK also announced a bridge loan of $465m to help Khartoum clear more than $400m in arrears to the African Development Bank.
With a new cabinet, where does Sudan stand regionally?
Sudan is facing a series of challenges in the region, from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that the government says is a threat to 85% of Sudan’s water and the border clashes between Sudan and Ethiopia since November.
Both Ethiopia and Egypt blamed Sudan for an impasse during the January GERD talks, making relations between neighbours more fraught.
The USIP’s Tucker says that although tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia appear to be related to the second filling of the GERD, it is more about the escalating hostilities at their shared border.
“Regionally led mediation efforts on both fronts are important,” he adds. “But a united approach among both civilian and military officials in Sudan’s transitional government is needed to reach solutions.”
Jok says this new government will give Sudan breathing space in regional geopolitics, especially in view of the rapprochement with Washington. “The Ethiopian civil war in the north will delay the completion of the GERD, and Sudan will not be under the same pressure as they were [earlier] under Egypt to do something about it immediately,” he says.
But there are also problems related to other neighbours. “Especially Libya and Chad remain a source of trouble for Sudan. The flow of guns into the country is a big problem, and the new government will find itself damned if it [tries] to control any further inflow of arms and damned if it does not because the restive Darfur will remain a thorn in its side,” adds Jok.
Can Israel tap into Sudan’s market?
Like other Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Sudan was strongly encouraged by the US to make peace with Israel. While Hamdok was reluctant to do so, removing Sudan from the SSTL would clearly open up new opportunities.
“The issue with Israel is complicated,” says Kholood Khair, managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a Khartoum-based think tank. “While the Abraham Accords (AA) may have been important for Sudan to sign, the country did so under duress, in a very transactional arrangement with the Trump administration.”
Khair adds that rather than a peace agreement between countries, the AA constitute a security pact between leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudan’s General Burhan. The two had allegedly met in 2020 in Uganda.
“That meeting has pretty much set the scene for Sudan-Israel relations, with a secret visit by an Israeli delegation in January to meet with the military on Sudan’s military-industrial capabilities and other correspondences between the two countries have largely excluded the civilian government,” explains Khair. “This hardly bodes well for any Israeli investment away from the military, which will undermine the transition to civilian rule in Sudan.”
Inbal Ben Yehuda, a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking, a Jerusalem-based think tank, says it is hard to tell for sure whether Israel is in fact committed to collaborating with Sudan.
“One example of this political ambiguity for this is the rise in propaganda of those advocating for the deportation of Sudanese refugees following the normalisation of relations. These include some right-wing civil society organisations, members of [the] Knesset and government ministers. They set this issue as an integral part of their agenda. At the same time, the head of the Immigration and Population Authority in Israel, a governmental body, testifies that the agreements do not entail prospects of deportation,” Ben Yehuda tells The Africa Report.
She adds that stakeholders in both countries are interested in collaborating, but historical animosity remains due to Israel’s aggression towards Palestinians. “Aside for some hardcore normalisation agents, Sudan’s main interest in Israel [is in] regards to its messy relations with the US.”
The transitional government has begun improving its image in the international community, and the recent change of cabinet is helping to consolidate the peace deal signed in October 2020.
Being open to FDI is another step that would help the economy, but investors will want to see it matched by stability and complete respect for the Juba peace agreement.
With a weak economy, the new cabinet will have to work hard to find ways to keep its promises to the people before the transitional government is due to end in 2022 with elections.
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