The signing of the Framework Agreement (FA) on 5 December 2022 between Sudan’s military leaders and its leading pro-democracy parties is a major step to reversing the damage done by the disastrous military coup in October 2021. The FA removes any formal role for the military in Sudan’s politics. A civilian head of state and prime minister will select the cabinet and chair the Defence and Security Council. The armed forces will be prohibited from non-military business activities and security sector reform will lead to a unified, professional and non-partisan national army. Elections are due to take place at the end of a two-year transitional period.
Signatories included General Abdel Fatah Al Burhan, chair of the Sovereign Council and head of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), his deputy and Commander of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and more than 40 civilian entities, including the Forces of Freedom and Change- Central Council (FFC-CC), a few other political parties, former armed movements, civil society organizations and professional associations. However, the agreement has faced criticism from the street for not being sufficiently radical, has been overshadowed at times by heightened tension between the two military leaders, and has seen sabotage attempts by supporters of the Bashir regime.
Building consensus on the Framework Agreement
The agreement meets most of the demands of the anti-coup camp, at least on paper. Yet doubts persist as to whether the military are genuine about handing over power, particularly among the neighbourhood-based resistance committees – the heart of the youth-led mobilization that forced the military to recognize the failure of their power grab. Peaceful protests against the coup have seen 125 killed and over 8,000 injured by government security forces. Many want to see Burhan and Hemedti held accountable.
Doubts persist as to whether the military are genuine about handing over power, particularly among the neighbourhood-based resistance committees.
Recognizing the need to expand popular support, FFC-CC leaders have been reaching out to other pro-democracy forces to build a united civilian front. They report increased buy-in from some resistance committees in the last few months, recognizing that street protests alone were not sufficient to overthrow the coup, and that engagement with the military is necessary to find a way out of the impasse.
The FA offers the only currently available path to embedding civilian politics in Sudan and has received active diplomatic support from UNITAMS, AU and IGAD (who form the Tripartite Mechanism), the Troika of the US, UK and Norway, alongside the EU, as well as Saudi Arabia and the UAE (who are members of ‘the Quad’ with the US and UK). Broader public participation has also been developed through a series of conferences, facilitated by the Tripartite Mechanism, on five contentious issues – dismantling the old regime, the Juba Peace Agreement, Eastern Sudan, Transitional Justice and Security Sector Reform. Recommendations will be incorporated in a final political agreement.
In a significant breakthrough, both sides have now agreed to begin drafting the final agreement and transitional constitution, with the aim of forming a civilian government by 11 April.
The political process has been overshadowed by increasingly visible tension between Burhan and Hemedti, seen in parallel foreign visits, conflicting public statements, and a heavy military presence in Khartoum. But concerns that SAF and the RSF were heading towards confrontation appear to have been assuaged thanks to international pressure and preliminary agreements reached between military and civilian signatories of the FA on security sector reform and integration. In a significant breakthrough, both sides have now agreed to begin drafting the final agreement and transitional constitution, with the aim of forming a civilian government by 11 April.
Potential spoilers and interests from Sudan’s regions
Progress has been made, but significant challenges remain, notably from supporters of the former Bashir regime in ‘the deep state’ and from Sudan’s historically marginalized peripheries. Old regime elements have been intensifying social media campaigns to derail the agreement and drive a wedge between the SAF and RSF, and have been accused of deliberately inciting instability in the peripheries to undermine the democratic transition.
The Popular Defence Forces, established by the National Islamic Front in the 1990s, have been reactivated under different names in several parts of the country and there are reports of mobilization and recruitment of armed militias in Darfur. The recent public appearance of Ali Karti, the Secretary-General of the Islamic Movement, who has close relations with Islamists in SAF, has also caused renewed concern.
Two Darfuri armed movement leaders who signed the October 2020 Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) and are members of the current military-led government, have not signed the FA, allegedly due to concerns about their representation in the next government. Despite intensive efforts to bring them on board, there is continuing disagreement over the inclusion of other members of ‘the Democratic Bloc’, a political alliance backed by Sudan’s influential neighbour Egypt, which is reportedly angry at being excluded from the Quad. The FFC-CC say that the door is open for the two Darfuri leaders and some other political parties, but they will not allow the agreement to be ‘diluted’ with political forces who intend to torpedo the transition, including by imposing a weak prime minister.
Supporters of the pro-democracy movement outside Khartoum, particularly the resistance committees, recognize the organic link between peace and democracy.
Both Burhan and Hemedti have courted support from the regions. Burhan used the 2020 SAF takeover of Al Fashaga in the contested eastern border region with Ethiopia to boost his national standing and secure backing from local tribal leaders; while Hemedti has sought to position himself as a champion of the peripheries, particularly in his Darfur heartlands, while simultaneously advancing his business interests. Competition between them in building domestic powerbases, as well as alliances with neighbouring states, risks reigniting tensions, particularly given deep grievances and contrasting ambitions between and among Sudan’s diverse regional leaders and communities.
Supporters of the pro-democracy movement outside Khartoum, particularly the resistance committees, recognize the organic link between peace and democracy. They also acknowledge that a sustainable settlement demands addressing the roots of conflict in poverty and under-development in Sudan’s regions, alongside mobilizing international finance to implement peace agreements. This in turn depends on political leadership from a reform-minded civilian government. Cementing the FA in the short term offers the best – and perhaps last – chance to make this a reality.
Reaching a final agreement and establishing a civilian government
So, the coming month will be critical for Sudan’s democratic transition and requires high-level international attention. Following a visit to Khartoum in February, Special Envoys and Representatives from France, Germany Norway, the UK, the USA, and the EU pledged to ‘stand united in promoting accountability for those who attempt to undermine or delay Sudan’s transition to democracy’. Continued strong international pressure is essential if a credible reform-minded civilian government is to be established, together with the rapid formation of a Transitional Legislative Assembly, the absence of which was a failing of the last transitional period
Concerted international support for the new government’s priorities will be vital if Sudan’s democratic transformation is to take root.
But this is just the starting point. Any new government will face an extremely complex set of challenges, including managing relations with the military, building legitimacy for the new administration by prioritizing engagement with the public and youth, improving living standards and service delivery, ensuring greater protection for civilians, reforming state institutions and dismantling the deep state, pursuing justice and accountability, launching a constitution-making process for the post-transition period, negotiating a comprehensive peace with two important armed movements that did not sign the JPA, and creating a conducive atmosphere for elections. This is a highly ambitious agenda for a two-year transitional period.
Given military-civilian power dynamics, the potential threat from spoilers, fears of another coup, continued local conflicts, and the humanitarian and economic crisis facing the country, concerted international support for the new government’s priorities will be vital if Sudan’s democratic transformation is to take root.