In October 2020, Sudan’s transitional government – a coalition of military and civilian politicians – signed the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) with several of the country’s armed rebel groups (collectively known as the Sudan Revolutionary Front). The peace agreement gave some leaders of these groups powerful positions in the transitional government or state administrations, thus providing them with a tangible stake in Sudan’s evolving political order following the fall of long-time president Omar al-Bashir. When the military launched a coup against the leadership of the civilian government in October 2021, some of the rebel leaders sided with the country’s generals, rather than its civilian leadership, many of whom had been their allies in opposing the previous regime. Why did a collection of long-time opponents to Sudan’s military-led dictatorship do this?

The Juba Peace Agreement gave some leaders of Sudan’s rebel groups powerful positions in the transitional government or state administrations, thus providing them with a tangible stake in Sudan’s evolving political order.

Borderland Rebels

Most of Sudan’s armed movements originated in the country’s peripheries, where wealth has been systematically drained through decades of exploitative and violent rule by an elite from the country’s metropolitan centre, enforced by a system of rural militias, armed and backed by the government. The main rebel groups originated in Darfur, Sudan’s expansive western region bordering Chad and Libya; and the borderlands between Sudan and South Sudan, specifically South Kordofan and Blue Nile states (known as the ‘Two Areas’).

In the latter years of the Bashir regime, the wars in Sudan’s peripheries had effectively ground to a standstill. Previously, the rebel groups in Darfur and the Two Areas had received significant support from neighbouring countries (mainly Chad, South Sudan and Ethiopia), but this had dried up. While the remaining rebels were not a large threat to the government, they also couldn’t be completely defeated and these long-running conflicts stuttered on with little prospect of resolution while Bashir remained in power.

When Bashir was deposed by his generals in 2019 after months of mass civilian protests, the new government developed plans to end the conflicts in Sudan’s peripheries with one, overarching peace agreement that was split into several regional tracks. Drawing on earlier ‘pay-roll peace’ deals, notably the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended Sudan’s north-south civil war in 2005; and the Darfur Peace Agreement, which attempted the same in 2006, the Juba Peace Agreement was born.

Destabilising the Peripheries

While the designers of the peace agreement had ambitions to craft a national, all-inclusive arrangement that would solve all of Sudan’s festering conflicts in one go, the reality was somewhat different. The peace agreement has shifted the balance of power in various local contexts and, as a result, has at times fuelled more conflict. For example, in Darfur, after the fall of Bashir, the (mostly Arab) groups that had generally benefitted from his rule feared that they would lose out. Particularly in North Darfur, the peace agreement has contributed to an increase in violence as Arab, mostly cattle herding communities have sought to strengthen their positions to avoid losing out in any political reorganisation.

In the Two Areas, the Bashir regime’s collapse created a power vacuum. Before the former president’s fall, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement – North, which had been fighting the government since 2011, had acrimoniously split into two factions (one in South Kordofan and the other in Blue Nile). While the South Kordofan group rejected the peace agreement, the (weaker) Blue Nile faction chose to sign, and its leadership sided with the military during the coup in October 2021. The peace deal further entrenched splits in the group and isolated the South Kordofan faction, which has shown no serious inclination of signing.

In Eastern Sudan, military leaders have played divide-and-rule with the different communities in the region. In the run-up to the coup, they looked to exploit communal differences by securing the allegiance of the dominant Beja community through promises to renegotiate parts of the peace agreement. As a strategically important region that hosts Sudan’s largest sea port, its political elites have significant leverage over the Khartoum government and have not been afraid to use it – for example, during the blockade imposed on Port Sudan in 2021, which further damaged Sudan’s struggling economy.

Rebel Realpolitik

The peace agreement has emboldened opportunistic rebel leaders from the peripheries who had been on the political back-foot for years to trade their support for positions of power in national and regional administrations. This has helped buttress the country’s military leaders, who have side-lined the civilian members of the transitional government and appear determined to remain in power for the foreseeable future.

Sudan’s pro-democracy coalition, whose mass rallies and street protests were central to the removal of Bashir and his regime from power, expected that the returning rebel leaders would help tip the balance of power towards the civilian component of the transitional government, helping to off-set the creeping authority of Sudan’s military appointees. However, during the months that led up to the peace agreement, the Sudanese military successfully imposed itself on the process, signalling to the rebel leaders that it was in a better position to grant access to political power than the civilian members of the transitional government.

With the civilian administration unable to govern effectively, the economy in free-fall, and the military showing no desire to relinquish power, much of the rebel leadership took the practical political position of siding with the group most likely to help it assert its own interests. The political deal-making of rebel leaders in the wake of the coup reveals their calculations and objectives to safeguard their own positions within Sudan’s future governance arrangements. While some leaders share the pro-democracy agenda of the civilian government and the revolutionary movement that fuelled its rise, others are led by local political interests and may feel little connection to the urban-based revolutionaries. For many, the military appeared to be a more powerful partner in asserting, or protecting these interests, even if this is little more than a marriage of convenience.