Alpha Lisimba | 15 September 2020
Sudan’s transitional government and the Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) inked an initial peace deal on August 31, 2020 in Juba, South Sudan. This long-awaited deal is an optimistic step aiming to end the 18 years of conflict. SRF is a coalition of rebel groups mainly from the Darfur region, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The final ceremony is scheduled for October 2, 2020. The groups that signed the peace agreement comprise the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Minni Minawi’s Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and Sudan Liberation Army - Transitional Council, all from Darfur, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) led by Malik Agar, active in the states of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The military chairman of the Sudanese transitional Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, who was a close ally of the former dictator al Bashir and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, attended the ceremony and promised to end the conflict and bring peace and security to the whole of Sudan.
Rebel groups have been fighting the former Islamic regime in Khartoum due to its human rights violation, the introduction of Islamic laws, and economic and political marginalization of these areas. The peace deal came after year-long negotiations that involved mediation from the South Sudanese government with support from the United States, the European Union and the African Union. The two parties signed eight protocols which cover issues around security arrangements, land ownership, transitional justice, power-sharing and the return of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who were forced from their villages because of the violent conflict and continued bombardment by the Sudanese government and militias. Furthermore, the agreement deals with the issue of dismantling rebel forces and the formation of a new national army. The largest armed rebel group with a significant political influence in Sudan were privy to the negotiations, and there is no doubt that, if implemented, the peace deal they signed with the transitional government will change the political landscape in Sudan.
Two main major rebel groups, however, were absent. The SPLM-N led by Abdel Aziz al-Hilu and the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Abdelwhid al-Nur from Darfur region did not sign the peace deal. These two groups enjoy popular support on the ground and have more trained military forces than SRF’s forces combined. Consequently, any peace agreement signed without them is partial, at best. Both al-Nur and al-Hilu refuse to join the peace negotiation with the transitional government. Al-Nur of SLM says he does not intend to negotiate peace with General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, the current head of the Sovereign Council. This official body was formed to facilitate the transition of power to civilian rule following the removal of al-Bashir from office by popular sit-in protests in December 2018. Al-Burhan was in the inner circle of al-Bashir’s regime and was among military leaders implicated in the Darfur genocide. Al-Nur says his movement will not negotiate peace as long as al-Burhan presides over the Sovereign Council, but will wait until the military fully transfers power to civilians. Only then will he negotiate with whoever becomes the next head of the civilian government. On the other hand , al-Hilu of SPLM-N wants a secular state, the abolition of Islamic “Sharia” laws and formation of a new Sudan with a secular constitution guaranteeing citizenship rights, religious freedom and the separation of religion from state affairs.
The head of the Sovereign Council, who is considered the head of state, and his deputy, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Janjaweed militias’ leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, however, control the military and militias, are close allies of the former Islamic regime. As a result, they hesitate to agree to the demands of al-Hilu partly because of their loyalty to the former regime. Their hesitation is also due, in part, to pressure from Saudi Arabia, which has been supporting the Islamic regime militarily and financially in order to prevent Sudan from becoming a secular state. The Sudanese military forces and militias who committed mass killings in Darfur are also fighting alongside Saudi led coalition ground forces to prevent Houthi rebels in Yemen from removing the Saudi-backed government of Abdalluh Mansour Hadi.
A final issue is that both the head of the military council and his deputy, the militia leader, have committed genocide in Darfur and fear that genuine peace in Sudan will lead the country to a fully civilian government. If this happens, they fear that the new government will hold them accountable for the crimes they committed under the regime of their former boss, al-Bashir.
Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, a liberal-moderate Muslim, and an economist who worked for the African Development Bank and United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), and mostly lived in exile during the last 30 years of al-Bashir’s rule has no objection to Sudan becoming a secular state. Since becoming Prime Minister by popular demand, Hamdok has been trying to persuade military leaders to accept al-Hilu’s demands, which are the demands of the vast majority of Sudanese people. He has found this transition, however, challenging and now finds himself in a conflict with the military. On September 4, Hamdok met Al-Hilu in Addis Ababa and initiated a preliminary deal as a roadmap for future negotiation over disputed issues such as the relationship between religion and the state, secularism, and the right to self-determination. Nonetheless, the deal is not official until approved by military leaders who are likely to reject the provisions of a secular state. It is likely that al-Hilu will join the peace agreement or negotiate another separate peace deal if the military leaders agree to his demands, but al-Nur of SLM still maintains his position of non-negotiation with the military. Nevertheless, Hamdok says he is trying hard to convince him to join the peace agreement. My theory is that if al-Hilu joins the current peace deal or later signs a separate agreement than al-Nur of SLM will have no option but to follow and either join the signed deal or sign a separate agreement as well. This is because most issues that al-Nur has been advocating and fighting for have already been discussed and addressed in the eight protocols signed between the SRF rebels and the transitional government.
In a general sense, the Juba peace agreement is seen as a significant achievement for the transitional government, despite the diverse reactions inside and outside Sudan, both in favour of and in opposition to the agreement. The question is: will the Juba agreement put an end to the conflict in Sudan without the main rebel movements joining the deal? In Darfur, there was a mass protest against the agreement with protest leaders saying that the deal does not address the root causes of the conflict. Just as some rebels and the government celebrate the deal, there are reports that assaults on civilians and refugee camps, killing, and looting and burning of villages by Sudanese government militias continues, raising concerns that the peace deal will fall short of people’s expectations.
Alpha Lisimba is a Darfuri who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Monash University, and his research focuses on international law and human rights, political economy of resources based development and Chinese investment in Africa.