By: Mat Nashed
Sudan’s transitional government inked a peace agreement with a loose alliance of rebel groups from Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile on October 3, 2020. The agreement was brokered in South Sudan’s capital of Juba and celebrated by the global community as a pivotal step in bringing longstanding conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries to an end.
However, experts and activists are less optimistic. Many claim that the agreement won’t stop the mounting urban and ethnic violence that has tormented Darfur since the fall of former dictator Omar Al Bashir in April 2019. Factions in the largest grouping that inked the deal – known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) – haven’t even been active in Darfur since 2016.
The two biggest factions in the SRF are the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese Liberation Army of Minnie Minnawi (SLA/MM). The former is an Islamist leaning group that has been active in Chad, South Sudan, and most recently in southern Libya. The latter was also forced to move its fighters to Libya in 2016 following a brutal counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur. The offensive was carried out by the notorious state paramilitary the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an incarnation of the Janjaweed militias that spearheaded the genocide in Darfur.
Fighters from the SRF will soon be subsumed into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and police force to prevent the destabilization of Darfur. The unrest in Mali – spawned by Tuareg rebels after they returned with an accumulation of weapons from Libya in 2011 – is a cautionary tale. But while coopting JEM and SLA/MM prevents a blowback in Darfur, the Juba agreement risks emboldening these groups and aggravating divisions in Sudan’s security sector.
Equally concerning is that Sudan will have to muster up millions of dollars to integrate rebels into the army. That’s easier said than done considering that Khartoum is on the verge of an economic collapse. The culprit is years of mismanagement under former dictator Omar Al Bashir, who divested from vital service provisions while bankrolling a myriad of security apparatuses. Now the covid-19 crises and crippling floods has exacerbated the economic crisis.
Not even military officers have been spared the financial crunch. In September 2020, Sudan’s Minister of Finance apologized to SAF for the delay in payment. At the time, other security branches such as the RSF had received their salaries weeks after they were due. With the economy in shambles, it’s unclear just how the Sudanese government intends to pay the salaries of thousands of new fighters.
Khartoum won’t have a chance to come up with the funds without support from the European Union (EU). So far, the EU has failed to deliver on its promise to support Sudan’s transition, arguing that several subsidies on staple goods have to be lifted as a condition for financial support. However, lifting subsidies without a cushion of financial relief to support the poor could trigger unrest.
Sudan also needs to be removed from the U.S list of states that sponsor terrorism. In the eyes of most experts, the listing is outdated by more than 20 years. It nonetheless prevents Sudan from accessing international loans and attracting foreign investment.
Using the listing as leverage, the Trump administration has pressured Sudan’s interim Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok to recognize Israel. But Hamdok argues that recognizing Israel is a decision best left to an elected Sudanese government.
Hamdok’s position was undermined by RSF leader and deputy of the Sovereign Council Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, who is also known as Hemedti. On October 2, 2020, he said that Khartoum would likely establish some ties with Israel, yet it wouldn’t fully normalize relations out of solidarity with Palestinians.
In any case, the Juba agreement looks doomed, along with Sudan’s democratic transition, unless it secures support and concessions from the global community. Along with integrating rebels into the armed forces, money is needed to compensate thousands of people who have been displaced from the fighting in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The Juba agreement also promises to lend more power and resources to local administrations in Sudan’s peripheries – areas that have been traditionally neglected by the central government.
Edward Thomas and Alex De Waal, experts on Sudan at the Rift Valley Institute in Kenya and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy respectively, warn that if the global community abandons Sudan then the UAE will fill the vacuum. That would give the de-facto leader of the UAE, Mohamad bin Zayed (MBZ), unparalleled influence in the country. MBZ, of course, has made no secret that he believes that democracy won’t work in the Arab world since it could lead to the election of Islamists. He instead prefers to coopt a clique of autocrats that function under his sphere of influence.
Abu Dhabi already has close ties with Hemedti. The SLA/MM also built strong ties with the UAE during its time fighting as mercenaries for the rogue General Khalifa Haftar in Libya. Financial support from the EU, and Sudan’s removal from the U.S list of states that sponsor terrorism, is thus essential to limit UAE influence in Sudan.
However, the most obvious challenge to the Juba agreement is that it doesn’t include the most powerful groups that still control territory in Sudan. Hamdok, for his part, has tried to bring them on board. Shortly after the Juba agreement, he struck a deal in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa with Abdelaziz El Hilu, who is the leader of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement-North (SLPM-N). The two men agreed that Sudan will not establish an official religion, and that it would respect the diversity of the country. The agreement paves the way for future negotiations between Khartoum’s Sovereign Council and SPLM-N.
Despite the positive development, Hamdok has little power to stop security services from tormenting civilians in Sudan’s peripheries. That’s the view of Abdul Wahid Al Nur, who heads another faction of Sudan’s Liberation Army in Darfur. Unlike Minnawi’s group, the SLA/AW actually controls territory in Darfur, specifically in the mountain region of Jebel Marra.
The SLA/AW vows to never cede its territory unless humanitarian access is allowed into the region and perpetrators of the genocide are brought to justice. Rights groups share similar concerns and are particularly worried that UNAMID, a peacekeeping force tasked with stabilizing Darfur, is scheduled to leave the country in late 2020. The absence of peacekeepers could lead to a spike in violence against civilians. It could also prompt the birth of new rebel factions since the region is flooded with weapons.
It’s clear the Juba agreement is far from perfect. The deal has already fueled communal tensions by empowering representatives of the SRF in areas where their legitimacy is contested. Nevertheless, the agreement lends momentum to the government to strike peace with armed groups that actually control territory in the country. That alone should compel the global community to help Sudan implement the terms of the Juba agreement to bring protracted conflicts to an end.