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By: Mat Nashed
Sudan’s security sector requires fundamental reforms to safeguard the country’s fragile transition to democracy. Most imperative is redefining the role and makeup of security units and enforcing civilian oversight over their shadowy financial assets.
Under the regime of former dictator Omar Al Bashir, rival security forces were created along ethnic and tribal lines to crush rebellions and protect him against a possible coup. The leadership of the Sudanese Armed Forces, like Bashir, hailed from elite circles in self-identified Arab tribes around the riverbank. Bashir’s regime later armed Arab pastoralists in Darfur to fight against self-identified African tribes. These Arab militias – known as the Janjaweed or Devils on Horseback – were notorious for spearheading mass killings in Darfur at the turn of the millennium.
In 2013, the Janjaweed militias were rebranded as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and tasked with guarding Sudan’s frontiers and protecting Bashir from a coup. Bashir once referred to the head of the RSF – Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, who is better known by his nickname Hemeti – as “Hemeyati” which means ‘my protection.’
The National Intelligence Security Service (NISS) also helped Bashir preserve his grip over the country by disappearing activists and opponents and gunning down protesters. Bribing these various security units drained Sudan’s rich resources over his 30 years of repressive rule. Military expenditures still account for nearly 10 percent of the national budget, a figure that doesn’t include the shadowy economies that security officials control. Security sector reform is thus impossible without auditing and taxing these economic activities. That’s the only way to disrupt the revenue stream that enables security forces to subsume so many new recruits.
Hemeti, for his part, controls lucrative gold mines across the country, which he sells privately to the UAE to enrich his entourage. These gold mines have made Hemeti one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Sudan. In December 2019, Hemeti allegedly was preparing to hand over control of the gold mines, yet a lack of transparency makes it impossible to assess how proceeds are being managed and spent.
Other security forces, including the military, control the telecommunications, banking, aviation, and construction sector. They even run limousine services and manage tourist parks and event venues. Establishing civilian oversight over these activities is vital to saving the economy and curtailing the power and influence of warlords over civilian officials.
The Juba Agreement – a landmark deal inked by Hemeti on behalf of Khartoum – also poses a challenge to reforming the security sector. The agreement, to its credit, attempts to bring simmering conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains to an end. A semblance of stability may be achieved by ensuring compensation and land rights to those displaced despite the challenges to implement these arrangements.
However, the Juba Agreement promises to incorporate thousands of fighters from a web of armed groups into Sudanese security services. The Democratic Republic of Congo is a cautionary tale. The country’s decision to subsume tens of thousands of militants into the military and police contributed to a bloated and highly abusive security sector. Many integrated fighters maintained their loyalties to their former militia leaders rather than follow orders from their new commanders.
In Sudan’s case, Khartoum simply can’t afford to pay thousands of new fighters since the country is teetering on economic collapse. Inflation already stands at one of the highest rates in the world, with runaway prices making basic staples unaffordable for many. The global community is also reluctant to foot the bill for peace, with many countries struggling to overcome poor economic activity spawned by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Expenses aside, the military should be scaled down to reflect the current and historical realities of Sudan. It’s worth mentioning that Sudan has never fought another nation since gaining independence in 1956. Security services were traditionally deployed to crush internal rebellions, and then later recruited as mercenaries in regional conflicts.
Creating a military tasked with protecting citizens requires a new social contract that ensures security forces answer to civilian bodies and are respected but not feared. Nationalizing security units by removing – or at least minimizing – the ethnic makeup of each force could help achieve this task. Doing so is essential to convince fighters to buy into a national mandate and to restore civilian trust in security apparatuses. This is where the Juba Agreement poses another obstacle since it dilutes civilian representation in government, while rewarding brutal rebel leaders with status and power. This is clear from observing the “Supreme Joint Council” which excludes civilians and tasks senior officers with implementing Darfur’s security arrangements.
The Juba Agreement thus risks cementing Sudan as a militia state unless civilians officials can overcome their divisions to play a prominent role in decision making. Efforts by Sudanese civil society groups and civilian officials need to be aided with coordinated international pressure. The U.S is in the process of removing Sudan from its list of states that sponsor terrorism – after strongarming Khartoum into formalising relations with ‘Israel – paving the way for international investment.
The incoming U.S administration, African Union (AU) and Europe must discourage investors from cooperating with security forces, whose economic activities are undermining the democratic transition. The three blocs also need to pressure the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, who are respectively committed to emboldening the RSF and military. Failure to mitigate the influence of these countries will result in a missed opportunity to secure a democratic ally in a tumultuous region.
Equally important is ensuring that economic investment is used to develop Sudan’s historically neglected peripheries. Without creating viable economic alternatives, Sudan has little chance to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate ex-rebel fighters into civilian life.
Providing adequate compensation and centring communities in reintegration programs is key. Otherwise ex-combatants may be reluctant to disarm, as was the case last January when ex-agents from NISS clashed with the RSF and the military in protest about their severance packages.
Governments should nonetheless avoid creating reintegration programs that cater solely to the interests and incentives of ex-fighters. A broader strategy is needed to ensure that former combatants have access to sustainable livelihoods so that they don’t become security threats later on. That will require international assistance, cooperation between civil activists and civilian politicians, and a joint courage to establish oversight over the shadowy financial assets that belong to security forces.