Sudan’s New Prime Minister Grapples With His Country’s Past

Abdalla Hamdok wasn't sure he wanted the job, but six months later there is reason to hope—despite the failed mutiny this week.

By Justin Lynch and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok arrives prior to a bilateral meeting with the European Union's minister for foreign affairs and security policy at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 11, 2019.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok arrives prior to a bilateral meeting with the European Union's minister for foreign affairs and security policy at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 11, 2019. John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

From the moment that Abdalla Hamdok became Sudan’s prime minister in August 2019, he has at times appeared like a novice politician with the odds stacked against him. As the country’s first transitional leader following the overthrow of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, Hamdok was left without a map to navigate the uncharted path to democracy.

The former technocrat and economist has struggled to stem the constellation of tribal conflicts that have dotted Sudan. Some of his agenda and personnel decisions have been torpedoed by Sudan’s squabbling revolutionary leaders. For his first weeks as prime minister, he did not even have an official residence, working and living out of a glittering temporary home because the military said he could not stay in Bashir’s old residence. And a group of intelligence officials attempted mutiny on Tuesday, with gunfire and early reports of a coup attempt temporarily causing chaos in the capital before being quashed.

But despite the fumbling and violence—and a brief tenure already packed with historic highs and bleak lows—Hamdok has displayed a touch of Nelson Mandela’s political brilliance to unite the country around change amid a tortured past. Some policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals are for the first time in decades cautiously optimistic about Sudan’s future, suggesting that if Hamdok manages to continue his reforms, he could alter Sudan’s image as a global problem child—and perhaps even transform it into a democratic success story.

A onetime senior economist for the United Nations in Africa, steeped in the wonky and technical world of economics and trade, Hamdok has charmed officials at the United Nations and Washington during a flurry of diplomatic meetings in which he sought international support for a nation in the midst of reform. He has taken bold steps to liberalize Sudan’s byzantine economic policies, even as they strain under the weight of U.S. and international sanctions. And most significantly, Hamdok made a historic visit to the rebel-held area of Kauda, promising peace to a conflict that has waged for nearly a decade.

Nonetheless, many observers still fear that the remnants of Bashir’s brutal security state could alter or upend the country’s fragile transition to democracy. The violence that erupted in Khartoum on Tuesday offered an ominous preview of what could come. Former elite troops loyal to Bashir attempted to mutiny over the issue of severance pay, leading to gunfire and clashes in Khartoum before the army quelled the rebellion. The episode served as a reminder of how much power the country’s feared intelligence services and military still have, even with Bashir in prison.

A top Sudanese military commander on the country’s ruling Sovereign Council, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, accused the country’s former spy chief, Salah Gosh, of plotting the mutiny. Speaking to Foreign Policy from Cairo, Gosh denied the accusation. “I am not involved of course. It is clear what is the problem—it is just a lack of management,” Gosh said. When asked about Hemeti’s comments, the former spymaster dismissed Hemeti. “I think he is playing political games.”

The accusations exchanged between the two men—each of whom faces a rap sheet of human rights violations—is an indication of the unstable security situation Hamdok himself must balance.

Hamdok’s term will officially end when elections take place in 2022, but even those closest to the prime minister wonder if he will last the whole transition period. This account of the first half-year of Hamdok’s tenure and its lead-up is based on more than two dozen interviews with Hamdok, senior officials around him, protest leaders, Western diplomats, and experts.

Over the course of two interviews with Foreign Policy—one in August just days after he assumed office and one in December during his visit to Washington—Hamdok discussed the country’s revolution, prospects of normalization with the United States, and the lessons he learned from other transitions across the world.

“I remember all the time Mandela saying … ‘It is always impossible until it is done,’” Hamdok said, referring to the former South African president who led the country peacefully out of its apartheid system in the 1990s.

Hamdok’s was the most unlikely of political ascents.

As Sudan’s military junta and civilian protesters were in the final stages of agreeing to a power-sharing deal following the overthrow of Bashir, he became the favorite to lead the country’s transitional government. At first glance, he lacked the charisma and verve of some other world leaders, such as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But because Hamdok was living outside of Sudan and refused to work under Bashir, he was untouched by the widespread disaffection toward opposition leaders and had a respected international profile. Hamdok was initially skeptical of taking the job as Sudan’s transitional prime minister, according to two people whom he consulted with, because of the mountainous challenges he would face. But he was swayed by the once-in-a-generation moment that Sudan found itself in, these people said.

Some experts say such a leader—a wonk who was initially reluctant to take power—might be just what the country needs to extricate itself from decades of dictatorial rule. “Hamdok is a technocratic leader,” said Susan Stigant, the director of Africa programs at the United States Institute of Peace. “He is in this position because he cared, and it’s for all the right reasons. He is the conductor of an orchestra, and his job is to get everyone to play in tune.”

“He is the conductor of an orchestra, and his job is to get everyone to play in tune”

Hamdok still faces daunting challenges: a stagnant economy that is some $60 billion in debt, a “deep state” of Bashir loyalists who up to this point have been subdued but not fully removed from Sudan’s power structures, a dense thicket of international sanctions that can’t be removed overnight, and an eager but impatient population hungry to see quick political and economic wins after the revolution.

Hamdok has also gone out of his way not to directly antagonize Hemeti, a former janjaweed militia commander and the head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces. Hemeti’s men killed more than a hundred pro-democratic protesters during Sudan’s transitional period. Asked in December if he trusted Hemeti, Hamdok did not directly answer. “We are together in this partnership with the military. … We will have to make it work,” he said.

Instead, some believe that Hamdok is trying to quietly outmaneuver Hemeti, for example by liberalizing the gold sector and choking off the revenue the commander receives through mines he has stakes in. “He knows that you will likely lose a fight with Hemeti and the military head-on. Instead, you bite away at the edges,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

But Hamdok’s early days in government were defined by growing pains. Disagreements broke out in meetings between Hamdok’s staff and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the umbrella group of organizations that led the country’s revolution, particularly over personnel issues. Senior government officials and diplomats described to Foreign Policy how the frantic pace meant meetings were long but results were few.

In late 2019, Hamdok faced his first international test with a high-profile visit to the United States, a key test for the new leader in a country that could hold the key to reversing Sudan’s economic malaise.

During his visit to Washington in December, Hamdok sought to bring a message of hope. “A peaceful revolution that lasted for over five, six months. Very resilient. Every time we thought it’s dying, it surprises, it’s taking more momentum. So that gives us not only hope but also certainty that Sudan will never be the same again,” he told Foreign Policy during his visit.

“That gives us not only hope but also certainty that Sudan will never be the same again”

U.S. policymakers and lawmakers who met him were eager to give assurances that the United States would support Sudan in its democratic transition. During his visit, the Trump administration agreed to upgrade diplomatic relations with Sudan and exchange ambassadors for the first time in more than two decades. In a flurry of meetings with administration officials and on Capitol Hill, Hamdok stayed on message and convinced his U.S. counterparts he was genuine in his push for democratic reforms, according to a senior U.S. official familiar with the matter.

“By all accounts, he’s trying to do the right thing,” said Jon Temin, the director of Africa programs at Freedom House, a U.S.-based nonprofit advocacy organization. “I think he has a lot of support here.”

Hamdok’s biggest request to the United States, however, is still in limbo. Since 1993, Sudan has been designated a “state sponsor of terrorism” (SST) by the U.S. State Department, a label that imposes strict unilateral sanctions and wards off serious financial investment from much of the world. Hamdok inherited the designation from his predecessor, but getting it lifted involves a monthslong technocratic process and U.S. congressional approval.

“It’s a multistep process, and Sudan will have to meet the statutory and policy criteria for the lifting of SST,” U.S. envoy to Sudan Donald Booth said in a speech at the Atlantic Council in October 2019. He also pointed to other congressional restrictions on assistance to Sudan related to religious freedom, trafficking in persons, and child soldiers from the Bashir era that are still in place. “There are many areas where we have restrictions on what we can do. But I want to assure everyone that the U.S. government is doing what we can based on the restrictions we have and are currently engaging the U.S. Congress to look at how those restrictions may be interpreted or modified going forward,” he said.

Hamdok said lifting the designation was key to helping Sudan turn around its economy and open access to support from international financial institutions to help address its crippling debt. “Any progress in this would require good cooperation with the international financial institutions, the World Bank, [the] IMF. There’s no way we could reach any understanding on this under the shadow of the SST,” he said during his visit in December.

If Hamdok inherited Sudan’s SST designation and staggering debt, then he also inherited the crimes of the past regime. Bashir’s government in the early 1990s loaned support to terrorists including Osama bin Laden. Sudan was implicated in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed more than 200 people and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole that killed 17. Families of the victims of those attacks have lawsuits pending in U.S. courts.

If Hamdok inherited Sudan’s SST designation and staggering debt, then he also inherited the crimes of the past regime

Even before Bashir was ousted, analysts said, Sudan in recent years reversed its support for extremist groups and began to cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism.

Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who met with Hamdok said, despite progress, Sudan needs to reach a settlement with the families before they would agree to back the lifting of the SST designation. Hamdok indicated a willingness to reach a settlement, but the cash-strapped country may have trouble finding the money to do so.

Hamdok has trumped up the lifting of the SST designation as a major political win at home. That’s become a problem according to Temin. For starters, it backs Hamdok into a political corner with his impatient constituents if the United States can’t deliver lifting the label soon. It also boils down U.S. commitments to Sudan to one issue in the eyes of the Sudanese, even though Sudan’s challenges go way beyond whether the designation is lifted or not.

“I’m worried about the way that’s been elevated and the way that it’s become this test of the overall U.S. commitment to democratic reform in Sudan,” he said.

Returning to Khartoum without a commitment to remove Sudan from the U.S. sanctions list, Hamdok faced another blockade from the FFC. A draft budget that lowered food and energy subsidies was rejected by leaders of the protest groups, and Hamdok had to submit a new draft with the funds. The loss stung even more because of the unquestioned economic drain of the subsidies on Hamdok’s first budget. “If he removed the measures, the streets would turn against him,” said Muhammad Yousif, a civil activist. Hamdok has “wide support” among Sudanese, but his job has been “hampered by the military,” Yousif said.

Officials in both Khartoum and Washington said they did not expect Sudan to be removed from the SST list anytime soon. And on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition by the Sudanese government to review the nearly $4 billion in damages the country owes to family members of those killed in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Addressing the claims is a condition for full normalization with Washington.

But Hamdok shows no signs of letting up. Feeling shut out of international support and his economic agenda stifled, Hamdok became a peacemaker. After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations, Hamdok on Jan. 9 traveled to Kauda, a rebel stronghold in the Southern Kordofan region that has seen conflict for nearly a decade. The risky trip paid off. Hamdok graced a stage to thousands of cheering people and raised the hand of the rebel leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu. “Hamdok’s visit to the rebel stronghold was successful,” said Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher in Sudan. “Hamdok had started to compete with Hemeti and some officers in the military council for support in the peripheries.”

But Hamdok, balancing on a precarious political tightrope, is careful to portray the military as a partner. “It is in the interest of both parties, the military and the civilian government, to work together to move Sudan to the next stage,” he told Foreign Policy.

Update, Jan. 19, 2020: This article was updated to clarify how the United States would like Sudan to address claims for damages to family members of the victims of the 1998 al Qaeda terrorist attacks. 

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer