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Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.
Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: China will appoint a Horn of Africa special envoy, Ethiopia pardons political prisoners, and West African countries agree to an unprecedented economic embargo against Mali.

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: China will appoint a Horn of Africa special envoy, Ethiopia pardons political prisoners, and West African countries agree to an unprecedented economic embargo against Mali.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


What’s Next for Sudan?

The United Nations has started talks with political groups in a bid to salvage Sudan’s democratic transition following its Oct. 25, 2021 coup and civilian Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s resignation less than two months after he was reinstated following his house arrest. While the initial engagements are individual consultations, the U.N. special representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes, cautioned it would be difficult to set a time frame for group negotiations.

Although the United Nations and Washington accepted Hamdok’s Nov. 21, 2021 deal with Sudan’s military, it didn’t win support from opponents of the coup, and key protest groups have rejected U.N.-backed talks. The Sudanese Professionals Association has stood by its motto of “no negotiations, no compromise.” Many Sudanese are fearful of an election like Egypt’s, which helped bring former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power.

“An election organized by the military would be theatrics” in Sudan, Ahmed el-Gaili, a Sudanese lawyer and legal commentator, told Foreign Policy. Protesters demand that a full civilian government lead Sudan’s transition, a process rejected by the country’s generals who say they will only hand power to a technocratic cabinet in elections planned for July 2023.

Meanwhile, the violence has continued. Two demonstrators were killed on Sunday as security forces broke up a protest in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, bringing the death toll from the crackdowns to at least 62 people.

Gaili sees three possible options. That the military steps down in a negotiated exit or via a counter-coup within Sudan’s fragmented military. A third outcome would see Sudan descend into civil war if protesters continue to be killed.

Many Sudanese favor measures proposed by U.S. Sen. Chris Coons and others that would impose sanctions against individuals who obstruct a civilian-led democratic transition in Sudan. According to local media, military commanders control 250 companies in vital areas of the Sudanese economy, such as gold, rubber, and meat exports.

Sudanese Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has defied calls to transfer those companies’ ownership to the government. Washington could blacklist their businesses and employ the Global Magnitsky Act, which bans foreign individuals from entering the United States and freezes their financial assets.

The global community should also put more pressure on regional players to convince the military to step aside, noted Kholood Khair, a Sudanese political analyst and managing partner at Insight Strategy Partners, a Khartoum-based think tank.

The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel wield great influence in Sudan by offering weapons, political support, and financial flows through purchases of gold. Washington could find ways for alternative democracy and governance funding, which could have a greater impact, Khair and co-author Cameron Hudson argued last week in Foreign Policy.

In the 2019 revolution’s aftermath, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed played a key role in simmering down tensions. “There isn’t that kind of leadership right now,” Khair said.

Having helped broker Sudan’s power-sharing arrangement in 2019, the African Union (AU) is seen by some as part of the problem. The agreement featured a clause allowing the military to take power if necessary, which was invoked in the present crisis.

The AU Commission’s chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, is also perceived as a supporter of Sudan’s ousted dictator, Omar al-Bashir. Mahamat, Chad’s former prime minister, told Bashir during a visit to the country he had “nothing to worry about,” despite Bashir’s arrest warrant and Chad being a country that recognizes the International Criminal Court.

“The streets clearly demanded an end to any participation of the military in power, yet the African Union forced this power-sharing deal on Sudan,” Gaili said. He calls for framework discussions with Sudan’s various pro-democracy factions, which could form a unified representative body to eventually push elections forward. If Sudan’s democratic transition is to continue, pro-democracy activists cannot be sidelined.


The Week Ahead

Wednesday, Jan. 12: The Southern African Development Community holds a heads-of-state summit in Malawi to review progress in combating extremism in Mozambique.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias ends his visit to Nigeria and Angola today. His arrival in Abuja, Nigeria, on Monday marked the first time a Greek foreign minister has visited the country.

Monday, Jan. 17: The U.N. Security Council meets to discuss developments in Sudan.


What We’re Watching

China envoy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced plans to appoint a special envoy to the Horn of Africa to foster peace. It came during a four-day tour of Eritrea, Kenya, and Comoros that began on Jan. 4, part of a 32-year tradition that a Chinese foreign minister’s first overseas new year trip is to Africa.

Beijing’s Horn of Africa investments are endangered due to ongoing violence in the region. It has substantial oil stakes in South Sudan; Eritrea joined the Belt and Road Initiative last November; China funded and built a railway line running from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, through its eastern regions to the Port of Djibouti, which began operations in 2018; and Beijing’s first overseas military base was established in Djibouti in 2017.

In an interview with Chinese state media, Wang accused some countries, foremost the United States, of using grievances over human rights as a tool to meddle in other countries’ internal affairs “despite all their own human rights problems,” a possible dig regarding Ethiopia’s civil war. Although Wang did not mention which human rights issues he was referring to, China’s State Council has previously criticized the United States’ human rights record on “gun deaths, racial discrimination and media freedom.”

Notably, Beijing’s announcement came a day after reports of the resignation of U.S. special envoy Jeffrey Feltman, who is to be replaced by David Satterfield, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Turkey. China may be hoping its closer working relationship with leaders can help it succeed where Washington has failed.

Activists of the Yerewolo platform shout anti-French and anti-Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) slogans during an impromptu meeting of Mali’s various pan-Africanist groups after ECOWAS decided to impose sanctions against Mali in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 10.

Activists of the Yerewolo platform shout anti-French and anti-Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) slogans during an impromptu meeting of Mali’s various pan-Africanist groups after ECOWAS decided to impose sanctions against Mali in Bamako, Mali, on Jan. 10.FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images

Mali sanctions. West African countries agreed to cut financial links with Mali over delayed elections following coups in August 2020 and May 2021. After an extraordinary summit held in Ghana’s capital, Accra, on Sunday, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) said it found the military-led government’s proposal to postpone elections, scheduled for February, by up to five years “unacceptable.”

Steep sanctions imposed include road and air border closures with neighbors and the suspension of nonessential financial transactions. Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo called the move “unprecedented” but warned ECOWAS “will not accept unconstitutional takeovers.”

Although Mali’s junta condemned the embargo and recalled its ambassadors in West African states, the economic bite brought on by an ECOWAS exit will likely bring about a compromise.

Military leaders in the capital, Bamako, maintain it is impossible to hold elections due to Islamist insecurity in the north. French troops have begun a gradual pullout, and authorities planned a Russian replacement with security firm Wagner Group despite heavy criticism. Last week, hundreds of Russian military advisors reportedly arrived in Timbuktu, Mali, to train Malian security forces.

State capture. The first findings of a three-part report into how the state was “captured” during former South African President Jacob Zuma’s tenure detailed the seizure of the country’s tax agency.

The inquiry, headed by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, found that Boston-based global consultancy firm Bain & Company met with Zuma and former tax commissioner Tom Moyane before a tender process had begun to restructure the South African Revenue Service. Zondo concluded in his 874-page report published last week that the appointments were made to control the tax agency because “[it’s] investigatory and enforcement capacity presented a hurdle to those involved in organised crime.”

The report advised a review of all public contracts with Bain. The firm denied being party to corruption and blamed the decisions on “significant errors of judgement.”

Ethiopia amnesty. Ethiopia’s government said last week it would release several prominent opposition figures, including members of the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as the country slowly moves toward what could be a peaceful resolution of its 14-month civil war—although recent drone strikes in Tigray have dampened the hopes for peace.

Government opponents to be released include Jawar Mohammed, a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress charged with terrorism in September 2020. Jawar was arrested after the killing of musician and Oromo people’s rights activist Hachalu Hundessa, whose death sparked unrest in July 2020. That death was blamed on a military splinter wing of the opposition group: the Oromo Liberation Front.

Jawar, a media mogul, had been fiercely critical of Abiy’s government. Sibhat Nega, a founding member of the TPLF, and Abay Weldu, former president of the Tigray region, were among those released in conjunction with Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7.


This Week in Culture and Sport

Ugandan film debut. The Girl in the Yellow Jumper became the first Ugandan film on Netflix, added on Dec. 26, 2021. The movie is about a man who escapes a hostage situation and begins to tell his ordeal to a stranger who picks him up from the roadside. Several twists ensue.

Director Loukman Ali said he faced a number of obstacles in making the film, including a lack of financial resources. Originally set for a theater release in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, in April 2020, its premiere was halted due to the pandemic.

As Netflix’s user base in the United States and Canada becomes saturated, the streaming giant has made a calculated bid to invest in Africa as a market for new subscribers—a move welcomed by critically underfunded African filmmakers. Netflix has an estimated 2.6 million African subscribers on a continent of almost 1.4 billion people.

AFCON kicks off. Despite significant backlash from European clubs about whether the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) should take place during a pandemic and in Cameroon, a country currently embroiled in a brutal conflict between the government and Anglophone separatist groups, the 33rd Africa Cup of Nations began on Sunday.

Leading European clubs had threatened to withhold players from competing. But having been delayed due to the pandemic, Cameroon’s government was determined to push ahead by building the $290 million, 60,000-seat Olembe Stadium in the capital Yaoundé. The stadium was designed with exterior panels resembling the scales of pangolins, a treasured and endangered mammal. The country last held Africa’s prized tournament 50 years ago.

Algeria, the current cup holder, and Senegal are the favorites to win, according to bookmakers—followed by Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, and Morocco.


Chart of the Week

Young Sudanese make up more than 60 percent of the population and are overwhelmingly on the streets protesting military involvement in Sudan’s democratic transition. Ultimately, they see no role for any of Sudan’s military factions in government.


What We’re Reading

Bread politics in Egypt. Sisi’s August 2021 announcement of harsh austerity measures, in part to secure a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, wasn’t surprising to Egyptians. However, the fact that economic austerity was being directly applied to bread—by raising the prize of a subsidized staple—was symbolic.

For decades, Egypt’s bread subsidy remained off-limits, a potential powder keg that was avoided by successive governments, reports Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr in an eight-part series. While Sisi prides himself on taking steps his predecessors never dared to, raising subsidized bread prices could severely affect the president’s popularity. Sisi promised in 2016 that “bread has not been touched and never will be.”

Drought impact in Kenya. County governments in northern Kenya are being forced to reallocate development resources to address climate-induced emergencies, even though they are poorly equipped to respond effectively to droughts, reports Kenyan publication the Elephant.

The 2021 budget allocation of $7.4 million for the water department was spent entirely on rehabilitating boreholes. The climate crisis has led to dwindling resources that has triggered conflicts among communities, leading to the deaths of more than 20 people in the last two years alone.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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