Is independent Sudan’s history the haunted tale of military generals meeting their fates on the economic paths they were trying to avoid?
Sudan’s deadly fighting is tragic, but it did not come as a surprise. In the eighteen months before the war erupted, violent repression had killed 125 peaceful protestors in Khartoum alone. Inter-communal clashes broke out in various regions, causing hundreds of fatalities and thousands of displaced people. The country was obviously marching to the cliff’s edge as the military and paramilitary ripped up the country seeking to hijack its political transition to democracy.Indeed, the rampant conflict will further wreck what was already a fragile political and economic situation. Any new political deal will not last long if it does not address, in the first place, an immediate stop to the war, the integration of the RSF into the Sudan Armed Forces and the withdrawal of the military and paramilitary from politics and the economy.
In addition, clear measures must be implemented to ensure transparency and combat corruption at all levels. Finally, accountability is equally vital, particularly towards those responsible for killing the peaceful protestors.
1. Sudan after Bashir and the hijacking of the civilian revolution
Four years since Omar al-Bashir was ousted, Sudan continues to face chaotic economic and political conditions, and, since 15 April, a fierce war. None of the revolution’s “Freedom, Peace and Justice” claims have been honoured. People’s hopes for a better life and political freedoms slipped away in the face of a self-proclaimed president, a prime minister’s vacant office, and a pending parliament. Freedoms were restricted, justice was violated, and those responsible for killing peaceful protestors have never been held to account. Now peace is gone with the outbreak of war.
On 25 October 2021, Lieutenant General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the Chair of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, deposed the civilian authority. “This was not a coup. It was correcting the track of the transition,” he claimed. The coup, however, may have been at least partly motivated by Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok’s crackdown on the financial empires of the Sudan Armed Forces “SAF” and the paramilitary militia, the Rapid Support Forces “RSF”.
Since then, Sudan’s economy has been in a death spiral. The government has been incapable of providing any essential services. Salary arrears are accumulating, commodity prices are uncontrolled, inflation soared to 382% in 2021, and the currency black market thrives. GDP growth has been negative since 2018, and foreign debt reached $64 billion qualifying Sudan as a state in debt distress (See Annexe). The military coup undoubtedly worsened the situation as aid and debt relief were suspended.
The negotiation between the military and the civilians led to the signature of a framework agreement in December 2022. However, the process reached a dead-end over the security sector reform and the timeline for integrating the RSF into the Sudan Armed Forces. Was this the last straw that exposed the silent battle between the military and paramilitary forces? Quite likely. Nevertheless, the inevitable battle in Khartoum broke out, possibly precipitating cleavages in other regions. But how did we get here?
2. Sixty-five years of strife
Sudan has known three successful popular uprisings since its independence in 1956. All were fuelled by the belief that governments had mismanaged the economy. General Ibrahim Abboud, Field Marshal Jaafar Mohamed Nimeiri and Field Marshal Omar Hassan al-Bashir were all brought down by widespread anger provoked by increased food prices. Paradoxically, these same dictators took power claiming to rescue the failing economy, yet they further damaged it. Successive governments did not only wreck the economy but also instigated civil wars, first in southern Sudan and then expanding to the western and eastern parts of the country. As a result, the armed and security forces have consumed the largest share of the government’s budget.
Nimeiri’s economic policies were a mess. He seized power in 1969, backed by the Sudan Communist Party. The Revolutionary Command Council undertook a policy of nationalising and expropriating private businesses. This policy damaged the agricultural sector, the backbone of the economy. After the communist-backed coup d’état in 1971, Nimeiri changed his political affiliation and shifted to economic liberalisation. But he veered to the left again by establishing the first military corporations. The 1980s witnessed a rapid expansion of military businesses, and Nimeiri turned to international institutions for financial support. However, debt prompted the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to intervene, pushing through a structural adjustment programme that, among a slew of austerity measures, increased basic food prices. Protests broke out; Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985. An elected government took over for three turbulent years, ending with a coup d’état in 1989.
Omar Hassan al-Bashir took power in 1989, helped by Hassan al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front. In his first address to the nation, al-Bashir made a long list of promises with three main priorities: end the war in South Sudan, redress the economy and heal the regional divide. None of his promises was realised. On the contrary, he oversaw the separation of Sudan, losing a third of the country’s area and population. He waged wars in Darfur, Kordofan and the Blue Nile regions and ruined the economy. Furthermore, he refined his apparatus of repression, killing anywhere between 200,000 and 450,000 Darfuris and hundreds of peaceful protestors nationwide.
The regime staggered through the tough first years of a ruined economy and sanctions. Government debt to GDP reached 495% in 1992. The USA and the UN sanctions further destabilised the economy. Ironically, in today’s multipolar world, sanctions might have extended the al-Bashir regime’s life: faced with few options, al-Bashir turned first to Iran, then to China, and finally to Russia.
Not concerned with people’s dire conditions, the government started developing a weapons industry with Iranian help in 1994. Since then, the military has dominated the country’s economy. Sudan’s short-lived oil boom from 1999 to 2011 helped to expand the military industry and enriched al-Bashir’s family and his cronies in the National Congress Party. The gold windfall mainly benefited (and continues to benefit) the RSF.
The outbreak of civil wars in Darfur in 2003, the ICC arrest warrant against al-Bashir and the secession of South Sudan, which cost Sudan about 75% of its oil wealth, all combined to send the country into deep economic decline and isolation. But only after the regime was deprived of its oil resources did it start to feel the effects of Western sanctions; neither China nor Russia could offer the kind of financial support the al-Bashir regime needed. Al-Bashir’s wheeling and dealing with Iran and then his invitation to Vladimir Putin to build a naval base by the Red Sea was a survival strategy dictated by his growing isolation. However, the removal of wheat subsidies in 2018 triggered widespread protests that ejected him in April 2019.
3. The troubled transition to democracy
The constitutional declaration of 2019 established a transitional government and sovereignty council for 39 months. Abdalla Hamdock headed the civilian-led government taking office in August 2019; the Sovereign Council is led by General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and his vice president Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemedti’. Both men cannot be dissociated from the former regime of al-Bashir. Al-Burhan was the Chief of Staff of the Sudanese Army. Hemedti, a warlord who was heading the Janjaweed militia that committed mass killings in Darfur, now re-branded the Rapid Support Force.
Together, they perpetuate the military’s domination of the economy and their false political promises. No one trusts them as they keep sending conflicting speeches contradicting their acts. Al-Burhan claimed to propose converting army companies into joint management with civilians, but his declarations say the contrary. Hemedti continues gold smuggling while heading the Committee for Economic Emergencies, intended to fight economic irregularities. Protesters continued to demand their removal. But, neither al-Burhan nor Hemedti is willing to quit; their power struggle has now driven the country into this bloody war.
The transitional government inherited a fragile economy rife with corruption and controlled by the military and RSF. About 400 military-controlled enterprises were identified in vital sectors (banking, gold production, communication, farming, armament and pharmaceutical industries, etc.). These are opaque enterprises that the government has neither control over nor access to their accounts. Hamdok was reported to say, “Only 18% of the country’s economic resources are under government control”.
Fearing the confiscation of their assets by the anti-corruption committee, al-Burhan and Hemedti staged a coup d’état on 25 October 2021. As a result, the debt relief process and the flow of foreign aid were stopped, and Sudan’s membership in the African Union was suspended. Furthermore, Hamdok’s economic achievements quickly vanished.
Hamdok made great efforts to mend the economy. As a result, after 27 years of isolation, Sudan was removed from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism, opening the door for debt relief negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF. After that, Sudan received debt relief under the enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative in June 2021. So, Sudan could finally reintegrate into the international finance community and access grants from multilateral and bilateral donors.
Internally, Hamdok’s government started tackling the public sector inefficiencies, such as tax exemptions and bank financing favouring the military enterprises and planned reform of the Central Bank of Sudan. Moreover, the government was set to regulate the gold and oil sectors by amending the oil and mineral resources law. Another key task the government undertook was improving essential services such as health and education. People started to enjoy regular food prices and better electricity and water services. However, Hamdok failed to address the danger of the expanding RSF and Hemedti’s oversized ambition. He also could not heal the mounting divisions within the civilian and military forces.
4. The generals’ friends
External calls for the return to civilian rule were multiplying. But not all initiatives are sincere. The military coup provided Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Turkey an excellent opportunity to escalate their support to the military generals. Their support is motivated by the economic dealings of some and the strategic interests of others. Russia and China vetoed the draft resolution against the military coup at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Egypt openly backed the coup, Israel relied on al-Burhan for normalising relations, and the red carpet was rolled out in Istanbul for al-Burhan and Hemedti. On the other hand, the U.S. suspended its aid measures while observing the state of play from a distance. However, the generals are ready to shuffle alliances for those prepared to keep them in power.
Sudan’s deadly war has been going on for six weeks. The casualties are mounting, but neither the SAF nor RSF is keen to stop the war or minimise the people’s suffering. Today, Sudan’s political forces are silent and more divided than ever. There are various initiatives to reconcile the belligerents and bring the country back to stability and civil rule. But unfortunately, these initiatives exclude the civilian forces from the negotiation table, as witnessed in the negotiations in Jeddah. The Jeddah declaration was signed on the 11 May, 2023, and was meant to protect civilians. Neither the SAF nor the RSF respects it.
Any future deal will be doomed to failure if it does not address the withdrawal of the generals from politics and the economy. Establishing a civilian-led government cannot guarantee stability and resume the transition to democracy unless given adequate economic support by resuming aid and debt relief processes on the one hand and, on the other, weakening the military and paramilitary financial empires. Concrete measures should be implemented to block SAF and RSF businesses internally by resuming the work of the anti-corruption committee and internationally by working with regional powers, particularly the United Arab Emirates, to freeze their assets abroad. In addition, clear measures must be implemented to ensure transparency and combat corruption at all levels.
Addressing the bigger problem of integrating the RSF and other armed movements into the Sudan Armed Forces is most urgent. Whether based on the United Nations Commission for Disarmament, Integration and Demobilization program or any other agreed-upon mechanism, these armed militias should be rapidly integrated into the national SAF or demobilised. However, most people stick to the revolution’s slogan: “The military should go back to the barracks, and the Janjaweed should be dissolved”. That would be the best hope for Sudan’s transition to democracy, peace and prosperity.
Annexe: GDP rate and debt in redline.
 “Sudan’s Burhan promises return to democracy in 2023“, the Financial Times, 24 November 2021.
 A full floating policy of the exchange rate of the Sudanese pound against the US dollar was adopted in march 2022.
 In debt distress is one of four categories used by the IMF and the WB to assess The Debt Sustainability Framework that guides the borrowing decisions of low-income countries in a way that matches their financing needs with their ability to repay.
 On 28 June 2021, the Executive Boards of the IMF and World Bank approved debt relief for Sudan under the HIPC initiative reducing the country’s foreign debt arrears from about 56 to 28 billion US$.
 In the 1970s, the military’s economic activities were rudimentary: Munition and uniform productions were the only army-related industry.
 Omer al-Bashir first address to the nation in 1989. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwAqHIq_Vcs
 The United States has applied multiple legal authorities’ sanctions on Sudan, which were executive orders issued by the President or public laws passed by Congress. In 1993 the United States designated Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism by the Clinton administration for supporting terrorist organisations. In 1996 U.S. Embassy operations were suspended (reopened in 2002). In 1997, a presidential document issued further economic sanctions, “Blocking Sudanese Government Property and Prohibiting Transactions with Sudan“, and in 2006 additional sanctions were published. In addition, in 2006, sanctions related to the Darfur situation were issued, “Blocking Property of Persons in Connection with the Conflict in Sudan’s Darfur Region”. In 2017, the United States revoked longstanding economic sanctions against Sudan, and in 2021 Sudan was removed from the list of states sponsoring terrorism.
 The UN Security Council resolutions 1556 (2004), 1591 (2005), 1945 (2010) and 2035 (2012).
 The first warrant for arrest for Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir was issued on 4 March 2009, and the second on 12 July 2010. He is suspected of five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war, and three counts of genocide allegedly committed in Darfur, Sudan.
 The constitutional declaration was signed on 4 August 2019 by Ahmed Rabie of the Forces of Freedom and Change and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti” of the Transitional Military Council.
 “‘Unacceptable’: Sudanese PM criticises army’s business interests“, Aljazeera, 15 December 2020.
 The most popular measure put in place by the transitional government was the establishment of the Committee for Dismantling the 30 June 1989 Regime, Removal of Empowerment and Corruption and Recovery of Public Funds. The committee was set up in November 2019.
 Article 30 of the Statute of the African Union prohibits governments that seized power through unconstitutional means from participating in its activities.
 Sudan debt arrears with the IMF and other multilateral donors have been ongoing since 1984.
 IMF has estimated that Sudan’s tax collection is low, at about 6 percent of GDP in 2019.
 Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates signed a joint statement with the U.S. and Britain, calling on the Sudanese military to restore the civilian-led government. In contrast, Egypt did not sign this statement.
 “Netanyahu, Sudanese Leader Meet in Uganda, Agree to Start Normalizing Ties“, Haaretz, 4 February 2020.
 The reported death toll is undoubtedly underestimated. UNHCR estimates the death toll to be more than 700 people and over 900 thousand displaced people.
Selma el Obeid is an independent researcher. Her multidisciplinary background includes research and development within SECADEV in Chad, the Ministry of Environment & Tourism in Namibia and the Institute of Developmental Studies in Sudan. She co-authored seven books on Namibia’s environmental and rural conditions. She conducted research for the Institut français des relations internationales (IFRI). Selma is a graduate of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Khartoum, and has a Master’s degree in Social and Economic Development from Sorbonne University and a Master of Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School.