It’s been over two months since Sudan’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was overthrown by the country’s military following months of popular protests. On June 3, the Transitional Military Council (TMC)—which has been ruling since Bashir’s ouster—escalated its lethal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Khartoum and other cities. The protesters say that their demand is the same as before—a transition to civilian rule—but that they will not negotiate with the TMC unless it first meets certain conditions. What’s happening in Sudan? When will negotiations on the country’s transition resume? How can the international community help? USIP’s Elizabeth Murray discusses the latest on the situation in Sudan.

A train carrying demonstrators from al-Atbara arrives in Khartoum, Sudan, April 23, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
A train carrying demonstrators from al-Atbara arrives in Khartoum, Sudan, April 23, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

What is happening in Sudan?

The June 3 clearing of the sit-in site and crackdown around the country is a continuation of violence that the Bashir regime and the TMC have carried out since the protests began in December and over the course of Bashir’s long rule. Since April 6, the protesters, under the leadership of the opposition umbrella Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), had been holding a large sit-in at the army headquarters in Khartoum, among other locations, calling first for the removal of Bashir’s regime and then for a full transition to civilian rule. The sit-in followed months of peaceful demonstrations across Sudan, which began on December 19 in response to economic concerns, in particular rising prices of basic goods, and frustration with corruption and poor governance.

The scale of the violence remains unclear, as the government has imposed a near-total internet blackout and limited journalists from reporting outside of Khartoum. We do know that more than 100 were killed in the violence in Khartoum, more than 700 were wounded, and several hundred remain unaccounted for. The death toll is certain to rise in the coming weeks as more information becomes available, particularly from outside of Khartoum.

It has been well documented by international and national human rights defenders that most of the perpetrators of this violence—in Khartoum and elsewhere—are members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), whose leadership draws heavily from former Janjaweed. The Janjaweed are known for the mass violence that they committed against civilians in Darfur in the early 2000s. RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as “Hemmeti,” is also the vice president of the TMC. After his forces were renamed as the RSF and began reporting directly to the presidency in 2013, they have been deployed in Khartoum to violently suppress peaceful protests and have continued their abuses elsewhere in the country, including Darfur and South Kordofan. Abuses of unarmed civilians have continued to be a hallmark of the RSF. In other words, while the timing and the intensity of the crackdown on the sit-in may have come as a surprise to some, the capacity of the RSF for lethal violence was never in doubt.

In response to the violence, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the leading organization in the FFC, called for a nationwide strike on June 9, which lasted for three days. The FFC has called for citizens to engage in further protests, including nighttime demonstrations around Khartoum, to increase the pressure on the TMC to hand power to civilians and hold accountable those responsible for the June 3 massacre.

After heavy criticism from the international community, the TMC said it was ready to resume negotiations with no conditions. What is the status of the negotiations?

There are no direct negotiations underway as of June 19. There have been some very tentative steps to attempt to build confidence between the parties and set the stage for negotiations. In his capacity as chair of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed traveled to Khartoum on June 7 to meet with the parties separately. They indicated their willingness to engage with him and his envoy, Mahmoud Dirir.

The FFC has set forth its preconditions for negotiations. As the large opposition umbrella that has been the interlocutor with the TMC on the transition to civilian rule, it has the credibility to set these conditions. The FFC’s credibility draws from its broad base. It includes political parties and coalitions and civil society organizations, including the very credible SPA that has served to unify the opposition and lead the protest movement. These conditions are: that the TMC release political prisoners; allow for an independent, international investigation of the June 3 violence; redeploy the RSF outside of Khartoum; and restore internet access.

The TMC’s progress on these has been minimal. Some political prisoners were released over the past week in response to the FFC calling off the general strike; many other prisoners remain in detention, and still others arrested. The blockage on mobile internet access is still in place, severely hampering communications. The TMC has not indicated its willingness to redeploy the RSF outside of Khartoum. There have been no visible, concrete steps from the TMC or the international community to convene an independent, international investigation of the violence.

In order to meet the FFC’s conditions and agree on a transition to civilian rule, members of the TMC, and those under them, may need assurances that they will be able to live with whatever deal eventually emerges. Sudanese and the international community will need to work together to identify what those assurances will be. This will require creativity and likely some degree of compromise, in the spirit of reaching a deal that staunches violence and puts Sudan on a path to peace.

What can the international community do to support Sudan's transition and stave off more violence? What about the African Union?

On June 6, the African Union’s (AU) Peace and Security Council suspended Sudan’s membership until the establishment of a civilian-led transitional government. This decisive action was a strong response from the AU and conveyed to the TMC that its actions carry consequences. IGAD Chair Abiy Ahmed also arrived in Khartoum within a few days of the violence. The AU and IGAD should focus on advancing confidence-building measures and de-escalating violence. The FFC’s conditions provide a clear roadmap. This will position the AU and IGAD to make credible progress toward negotiations.

The broader international community, including Sudan’s neighbors, the Gulf, Russia, China, the EU, and the U.S., should also strongly push the TMC not to engage in further violence to meet the preconditions set forth by the FFC. This will require diplomacy, including the use of carrots and sticks, to get the TMC to agree to an independent, international investigation, as well as deft coordination to pull together various international entities that can carry out that investigation. The U.S., EU, AU, and IGAD, relying on the documentation of human rights organizations, should continue to signal that they are aware of the prisoners being held by the TMC and are anticipating their release.

The U.S. and other United Nations Security Council member countries should recalibrate their positions vis-à-vis Sudan, particularly around the drawdown of UNAMID, which was underway before the current crisis began. The drawdown brings increased risk to civilians, particularly amid the recent political developments, and could inadvertently serve to empower and legitimize the forces responsible for the June 3 violence.

The presence of the RSF in Khartoum continues to be a significant trigger for violence. International partners should immediately offer support and leverage in the development and implementation of a plan to bring the RSF under control and remove them from Khartoum. This should be undertaken immediately, and a longer-term strategy of security sector reform should follow.

The TMC has been empowered by its support from the Gulf. The U.S. should undertake sustained engagement at the senior level with the Gulf countries to identify common interests toward a peaceful, civilian-led Sudan. Yet another important step by the international community is the development of an economic roadmap—including coordination of prospective donors—for the significant economic recovery that will need to take place following a transition to a civilian-led Sudan. Equally pressing is the question of if and how the international community takes action in the plausible scenario that the TMC continues to rule Sudan over the medium term and the foundering economy continues to have a severe impact on citizens.

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