Commentary: The stalled transition in Sudan: Misunderstandings and exclusionist Politics

Mukerrem Miftah (Ph.D.), For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, June 12/2019 – April 2019 represents something significant in the modern political history of Sudan. It was in the early days of this month that decades-long popular discontents against al-Bashir’s rule suddenly moved from fragmented and less sustainable protests to more protracted and systematic nationwide protest, resulting in the ousting of al-Bashir. Although there have been some commentators who would simply-and-solely credit the protestors (and the opposition) for what had actually happened on April 11, 2019, there were important conditions that cannot just simply be downplayed.

First, distrusts and divisions within the military complex helped pave the way for a relatively frictionless toppling of al-Bashir. We should not underestimate the fact that the military complex has never been enjoying internal cohesion and unity for a long time. There have been different convictions, affiliations, or proclivities within the military-which, even as of now, will be its point of weakness in sustaining the crackdown on protestors and TMC’s (Transitional Military Council) transitional rule. Although not necessarily overt enough, we know that there are internal frictions simmering beneath the TMC’s military complex between young officers who have been relatively sympathetic to protestors and senior leaders who have been, in many ways, benefiting from al-Bashir’s almost three decades old rule[1].

We also know that there are groups, which have been very much closer to al-Bashir’s rule, such as the Rapid Support Force (RSF) and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). However, given the preferential treatment of these forces over and above the regular Sudanese army, there is a growing fear that a group of soldiers may come out from this block and turn the already stalled transition in Sudan into a never-ending bloody civil war[2]. In other words, the ousting of al-Bashir must have been facilitated by these fertile grounds in Sudan’s military complex and security apparatus. 

Second, days before the ousting of Al-Bashir, the Sudanese people staging a sit-in outside army headquarters were faced with heavy gunfire and attacks. Despite TMC’s claim, the same was recycled throughout May as well, that it was carried out by some “infiltrators”, we know that it was actually the starting point of RSF’s actual violent intervention under the leadership of Dagalo (Hemeti). At this point, rather than working with the militia and closely affiliated security forces, police forces refused to attack protestors. In fact, we know that they had issued a communique making it clear that they will never attack protestors[3]. This, thus, adds to the above internal division in the security and military complex in Sudan, effectively making the protest more meaningful and successful at ousting al-Bashir.

Beyond these key players, what are some of the key sticking points that led to the stalling of transition to civilian transitional rule? The following two are of critical importance.  

Misunderstanding democracy in Underdeveloped Countries

In many underdeveloped or developing countries in Africa, Asia, or South America, there has always been a problem of disentangling the state or the government from the military, party politics, and “state” ideology. In these countries, Sudan included, the state has often been part and parcel of the military and security complex, party politics, and ideology.  In other words, the state has an ideology, runs party politics, and effectively uses the security apparatus as its own recruitment ground and implements its aspirations. In such conditions, individuals, civil societies, NGOs, political parties, and other institutions are not treated like citizens and members of the wider society and nation. Rather, it makes some of them as friends and some others as enemies of the state (the ruling party, its ideology, military, etc).  

In countries like Sudan where the military has been the recruiting ground for state governance for many years and decades, the problem even becomes more complex as the marriage between the above institutions has been solidified through successive regimes and the extension and devolution of closely affiliated actors and institutions. This may include the media, paramilitaries, training facilities, international relations with like-minded political actors, and so forth. In short, this slowly evolving and snowballing condition of the state-party-ideology-military (synchronization) effectively turned it into a powerful stumbling block in the way of democracy. This is what happened in Sudan. This also works to explain the challenges of democracy in other countries like Russia and China.  

Now, how can we relate this to the current political deadlock in Sudan? If what has just been mentioned makes any sense, the response will be very much obvious. For better or worse, to totally disengage the military from the body politic of Sudan through weeks or months-long protest is beyond unrealistic. Ideally, this should happen slowly through a long period of time, either through a deliberate process of facilitating its [marriage] demise or allow it to die its natural death, as the case in many countries with a relatively mature democracy. Now, despite being part of the process of ousting al-Bashir, even at the eleventh hour, the totally exclusionist demands of the opposition from the outset must have been tacitly unacceptable to the military. For this, we know that the discourse and rhetoric of the military fundamentally shifted from its apologetic and diplomatic stance in the first few weeks of ousting al-Bashir to a rejectionist position and harsh measures since the beginning of June.

Understandably, although the transfer of power to a civilian rule seems commendable and desirable, its feasibility does not appear to have been critically well thought out. The disunity and disorganization of the opposition claiming to represent civilians hiding behind, in some cases, mutually exclusive ideologies and contradictions, was sending the message that it was not really ready to take up such serious responsibility. Considering the contradictory claims and positions of the communist, nationalist, conservatives to “Islamists”, it was very clear to any outsider reader of Sudan’s current political fiasco that something was eventually to happen. For instance, at the end of May, one of the strongest oppositions, Umma Party under the leadership of Sadek al-Mahdi, rejected the call for a two-day general strike which was spearheaded by the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA)[4].

Apart from internal weaknesses, the military also worked hard to make sure that a strong unified opposition is not a reality. We know that the TMC attempted to create discursive fissures between “pro-Sudan” and Islamist (“Islamic”) groups and anti-Sudan, “infiltrators”, and foreign-funded political entrepreneurs. Furthermore, on May 31, 2019, a rally was organized to support the TMC. Hundreds of conservative Sudanese rallied in the capital Khartoum, chanting that they “support the military” and that “freedom, peace, justice, Shari’a is the choice of the people”[5].

On the other end of the spectrum, the TMC, after attacking the sit-in protestors in Khartoum, announced for a general election to be held within nine months. Apart from nulling the recently negotiated three years transition period, it went on to accuse the opposition of conspiring to “exclude the other political and military forces” and   “clone another totalitarian regime” drawn from al-Bashir’s affiliates[6]. Except perhaps for the former, the later ludicrous claim was basically what the TMC itself was accused of in the first place.  Understandably, it also points to the fact that there have always been fissures within the military establishment itself as noted above.

Exclusionist Enclaves

Since the first week of June, apart from attacking and imprisoning protestors and opposition leaders, despite the ongoing efforts under the African Union and Ethiopia’s government, the opposition alliance and SPA called for a nationwide disobedience aiming to shutdown Sudan, at least in major cities, of its transportation, social services, and others, from root-to-branch. It is not clear, however, where this exclusivist proclivity leads. No doubt international pressure will increase against the TMC, adding significant energy over and above the already internal strife and division. However, the experience from the neighboring country Egypt, highly suspected of being one of those international actors standing behind the TMC, tells a bitter story.

Despite massive international disparagement and negation, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not only unseated the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi (ironically, he is now fighting for his life in an Egyptian prison and nobody cares!!) but also went on to assume the role of the presidency in Egypt. Even worse, el-Sisi now leads the very regional organization, the African Union (AU), that rejected him and suspended his country from AU membership in 2013[7]. If anything, exclusivist tendencies on behalf of both the TMC and opposition may rather end being counterproductive. Both parties must realize that Sudan needs its freedom, freely elected government, and the security if it is going to function as another peaceful nation state. There cannot be a one-formula-for-all solution to the multilayered and complex problems of Sudan, be it economic, religious, peace and security, freedom and democracy, and so forth.

Unfortunately, it appears that AU is making the same mistake with Sudan’s TMC. It could be argued that AU has not exhaustively and actively exploited peaceful approaches and strategies for resolving the deadlock. Except for occasional visits to Sudan and throwing almost inadequate and meaningless press releases, it did not wholeheartedly engage with the problem in Sudan. Even worse, the decision to suspend Sudan from its membership is another instance of AU’s misdiagnosis of problematic situations and interventions. We already know that AU is known to have failed the African people in such matter as peace and security in Africa on multiple occasions[8].

Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed’s style peaceful round-table discussions and diplomatic channels can potentially reduce the tension and ultimately help contending parties reach a negotiated solution(s). This approach also needs to take into account “other” actors, but evidently the integral part of the problem in Sudan, to be critical actors in the negotiation. If we have enough evidence suggesting that UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are supporting the TMC (or if they are part of the problem), they will need to be brought into the peace-building processes.

Certainly, we know that these actors are playing active roles in Sudan in many ways, rendering strategic and financial supports to TMC[9]. In other words, a discussion that sidelines and ignores the role of UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt will not go further and deeper. That’s actually what we are seeing now in Sudan. Yet, very recently, the U.S. administration through its officials, such as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, have been discussing and putting pressure on Saudi and Emirati officials to put more pressure on the military junta to transfer power to civilians[10]. Unfortunately, Ethiopia and AU are only attempting to reconcile the opposition (Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and TMC, but both failed to include the above three in their initiative for a meaningful mediation.

In spite of all the challenges and problems facing the transition in Sudan, it appears that there are some signs that may help deescalate the ongoing friction between the TMC and FFC. Following PM Abiy’s initial reconciliatory effort and mediation, there is a claim from the opposition that the TMC has, though not yet made official, accepted the opposition’s demand for leading the Sovereign Council and take the majority out of the 15-member presidential body[11]. Similarly, there are also claims that the FFC is going to propose the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Abdalla Hamdok, to lead Sudan[12].

Nevertheless, there are many things unclear and thus no one can possibly predict what will be happening after hours, days, weeks, or months from now. Ultimately, the future of Sudan’s transition will depend on whether or not the following sticking points are acknowledged and clearly addressed. This includes whether or not the TMC accepts the proposals of Abiy Ahmed and fulfills (or at least negotiates) the conditions spelled out by FFC. On top of this, whether or not AU reverses its decision to suspend Sudan and the threat to sanction TMC; the future of the people and opposition leaders detained in various prisons in Sudan; the issue of transitional justice; and finally, the inclusion of directly or indirectly involved local, regional, and international actors, among others. AS


Editor’s Note: Mukerrem Miftah (Ph.D.) is Assistant Professor, Institute for Eastern and Africa Studies (DOAF) Social Sciences University of Ankara ULUS/Ankara, Turkey. He can be reached at



[1] The Guardian. (6 June, 2019). African Union suspends Sudan over violence against protesters

[2] France 24. (7 June, 2019). Sudan suspension, African Union’s bold move against strongmen

[3] VOA. (9 April. 2019). Sudan Police Ordered Not to Shoot Protesters

[4] VOA News (26 May, 2019). Sudan’s leading opposition party rejects strike call

[5] France 24. (1 June, 2019). Hundreds rally in support of military council in Sudan”.

[6] Sudan Tribune. (4 June, 2019). Al-Burhan cancels agreement with Sudan’s opposition, calls for election in 9 months.

[7] World Bulletin. (26 June, 2014). AU council approves Egypt’s return from suspension

[8] African Arguments. (9 January, 2014). Why is the African Union still failing its people on peace and security?

[9] The Guardian. (5 June, 2019). “Saudi influence in spotlight as US calls on Riyadh to end Sudan violence”.

Reuters (12 April, 2019). Saudi Arabia, UAE to send $3 billion in aid to Sudan

[10] Sudan Tribune. (11 June, 2019). U.S. administration to appoint special adviser for Sudan

[11] Sudan Tribune. (11 June, 2019). Opposition FFC to lead Sudan’s Sovereign Council

[12] Sudan Tribune. (11 June, 2019). Opposition FFC to lead Sudan’s Sovereign Council


Postscript: Ambassador Mohamoud Dirir, the Ethiopian Special Envoy to the Sudan, held discussions with the two sides.Accordingly, the two sides have agreed: to uphold what they have agreed upon before the suspension of the negotiation; to resume their talks in good faith; to refrain from inflammatory statements and de-escalate tensions; the TMC has agreed to take confidence-building measures including the release of Political Prisoners; and the FFC has agreed to call-off the Civil-Disobedience.

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