Elephants in the Room

Sudan Is Remaking Its Relationship With the Rest of the World

From meeting with Netanyahu to working with the ICC, the new government is reversing the foreign policy of the Bashir era.

Sudanese protesters arrive to the town of Atbara from Khartoum on Dec. 19, 2019, to mark the first anniversary of the beginning of the uprising that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir.
Sudanese protesters arrive to the town of Atbara from Khartoum on Dec. 19, 2019, to mark the first anniversary of the beginning of the uprising that toppled former President Omar al-Bashir. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council made a landmark announcement this week. It plans to cooperate with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in prosecuting former President Omar al-Bashir and four of his henchmen, who were indicted for atrocities and genocide in Darfur, as part of an eventual peace deal with the country’s armed movements. This is a watershed moment in Sudan’s rapidly evolving political environment.

But it is only the latest in a dizzying series of major policy reversals in recent weeks that have the potential to fundamentally remake the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. In this case, the government’s offer could transform Sudan from the court’s leading international opponent to an ally by delivering its biggest and most important case in its brief history.

It was only a week ago that heads were already spinning in Sudan when details emerged of a secret meeting between the leader of Sudan’s transitional Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The potential for normalizing relations between the two enemies—and undoing a history of combative relations that saw Sudan targeted with Israeli airstrikes as recently as a decade ago for its role in funneling weapons into the West Bank and Gaza—makes good on Sudan’s new leaders’ promise to pursue a balanced foreign policy and play a positive role in the region and beyond.

This comes on the heels of a leaked letter from Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres last month proposing a sweeping new U.N. political mission in Sudan that would transform that fundamental relationship from one of conflict to abiding cooperation in helping to “consolidate gains in peacebuilding … and provide technical support on judicial and security sector reform.”

It’s a far cry from when the U.N. was labeled a colonizing and invading force by Bashir and its peacekeepers were forced to virtually fight their way into the country in an only modestly successful attempt to protect Darfuri civilians against government bombs and the janjaweed, the notorious Arab militia responsible for some of the Bashir regime’s worst abuses. That conflict ultimately displaced more than 2 million people, killed at least another 300,000 more, and cast a shadow over the country that the new government is only now trying to erase.

The 2008 indictment that the ICC aims to prosecute does not name Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, the head of the former janjaweed militia who in his political second act now serves as the second-in-command on the Sovereign Council. Another senior janjaweed commander, Ali Kushayb, is named in the ICC indictment, suggesting that any cooperation with the court could surface new evidence to indict Hemeti.

This astonishing array of policy reversals is all the more impressive given the divided nature of government in the country. As part of a hastily agreed deal last summer, which walked the country back from the brink of severe violence, a civilian cabinet was brought in to share governing responsibility with a Sovereign Council that the military would, at least initially, control.

Since assuming power only six months ago, many skeptics viewed this “uniquely Sudanese model of transition,” as the prime minister refers to it, as merely an effort by the military to put a civilian face on its effort to attract outside investment and remove remaining international sanctions.

Many observers still believe that civilians will be unable to alter the fundamental power dynamics of a state where military interests and assets are protected and prioritized over all else.

Under this assumption, many governments, including the Trump administration in the United States, have taken a wait-and-see approach to the governing dynamics in the country—praising civilian rule but remaining circumspect in their approach to the big policy incentives such as sanctions removal and debt relief for fear that the military will reassert total control once all of Sudan’s penalties are erased.

Indeed, frustration is growing inside and outside Sudan over the cabinet’s timid approach to policy implementation and its fear of upsetting the country’s political and military leaders on issues large and small. Delaying the replacement of state-level military governors with new civilian officials and walking back the decision to remove treasury-draining subsidies show that the unelected government is not eager to make enemies of these powerful forces.

It is thus hard to explain the dramatic moves by the civilian government in the last few weeks— such as turning over senior leaders to the ICC and radically expanding U.N. operations in the country, both of which seem to run counter to the military’s interests. Indeed, these moves suggest that the military shares the government’s desire to see the country reintegrated into the international community.

After all, the announcement this week that Sudan would ensure those sought by the ICC saw justice served came from a spokesman of the military-run Sovereign Council at the site of the peace talks in South Sudan that the military is leading on behalf of the government. It seems doubtful and out of character for the prime minister to force the military’s hand and box it in on the issue of transitional justice, as some Sudanese commentators have suggested.

And even on the question of Israel, knowing that there would surely be some popular outrage and a political cost in any Arab country from meeting with Netanyahu, why would Sudan’s military leader take the meeting if it wasn’t in the hopes of both advancing Sudan’s chances of being removed from the U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism and advancing the ideals of the revolution?

The reasons for a cooperative approach between military and civilian leaders become clearer when a third leg of Sudan’s power structure is factored into the equation.

Hemeti’s militia, the Rapid Support Forces, arguably remains the single most powerful force in the country and a threat to the military’s traditional role. The RSF controls gold mines and a sizable financial reserve, along with commanding tens of thousands of new recruits. Sudan’s military’s forces have long resented and feared the RSF as a competing power center and an undisciplined force lacking the formal training of a professional military.

If the country pursues a relationship with the ICC, it will be a direct threat to Hemeti: From his view, prosecuting the five indicted parties could lead the ICC lawyers to look into his past transgressions. If he feels that his freedom is threatened, he could use his financial power and fighting force to undermine the still-fragile government.

By allying itself with the country’s civilian leaders, Sudan’s military leaders may well be playing the strategic long game that marginalizes the Rapid Support Forces, secures their survival under a new political dispensation, and advances the revolution’s overall goal of reforming the state and coming in from the cold. Their hope is that those on the outside are not too blind to see it.

Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. Previously, he served as the chief of staff to the U.S. special envoy to Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council. Twitter: @_hudsonc

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