by Paul Pryce. With degrees in political science from both sides of the pond, Paul Pryce has previously worked as Senior Research Fellow for the Atlantic Council of Canada’s Canadian Armed Forces program, as a Research Fellow for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and as an Associate Fellow at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs. He has also served as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces.
In January 2020, soldiers from Sudan’s General Intelligence Service (GIS) threatened to derail that country’s democratic transition, which tentatively began in April 2019 with the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir by civilian protesters and the Sudanese Armed Forces. Three people were reportedly killed, and two were wounded as GIS troops, who comprised the secret police of the al-Bashir regime. They attempted to seize control of their service’s headquarter buildings in the Riyadh district of the Sudanese capital Khartoum, issuing demands for severance pay from the transitional government.
This recent violence underscores the fragility of the Sudanese state, with forces both inside and outside the country seeking to carve out their sphere of influence in Sudan or to topple the Sovereignty Council (SC), which currently holds power in Sudan. The SC alleges that Major General Salah Gosh, the former Director-General of the GIS, fomented the January 2020 uprising from his exile somewhere in Egypt. For its part, Egypt supported the al-Bashir regime amid the upheavals of 2018-2019 in hopes of preventing any instability from spilling across its border with Sudan and to ensure Sudanese support in contentious talks with Ethiopia, which seeks to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive hydroelectric facility on the Blue Nile. It is possible that Egypt shelters Gosh and even offers tacit support for his efforts as part of a low-risk strategy. Should the strategy succeed despite all odds, it could render some quid pro quo for the Egyptian government, such as a recognition by a Gosh-led regime of Egypt’s claims on the Halayeb Triangle, lands on the Red Sea coast that have been disputed by Egypt and Sudan for more than 60 years (see map below).
Meanwhile, Israel has stepped up its diplomatic outreach to Sudan. For example, in February 2020, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Uganda with SC officials to discuss the normalization of relations between the two countries. Whether this will be realized remains to be seen; as news of the talks broke, protesters took to the streets in Khartoum. For the SC, the establishment of formal relations with Israel could help build the case for Sudan to be removed from the US Department of State’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism“, opening up opportunities for trade and investment. For Israel, the SC could become a valuable customer for defence equipment and, more importantly, ensuring friendly relations with Khartoum would help add to Iran’s isolation on the world stage.
Beyond Israel and Egypt, the US has extended an invitation for Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the SC, to visit and discuss the resumption of formal relations after a 23-year hiatus. China, for its part, has been more discrete, completing the launch of Sudan’s first military satellite in November 2019. The Russian Federation had a vested interest in the preservation of the al-Bashir regime and now finds itself lacking cache with the new Sudanese authorities.
Sudan itself is rife with ethnic and religious fault lines. In August 2019, the SC committed to resolving longstanding internal conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile state within six months (in short, no later than the end of February 2020). This is an incredibly ambitious goal, given that the conflict in Darfur has raged since 2003, and an estimated 300,000 people have been killed, many of whom were civilians. However, negotiations did not wrap up as expected and are still going on. The failure to deliver peace agreements in any of these regions could lead to a secessionist resurgence in the long term. Furthermore, under-performance from the SC could inspire the creation of a new rebel group based on the Eastern Front, a coalition of Eritrean-backed secessionists in Sudan’s eastern Kassala, al-Qadarif, and the Red Sea states that mostly disbanded after a peace agreement signed with Khartoum in 2006 granted the region increased autonomy. As the Eastern Front previously agitated for Sudan to enforce its claim over the Halayeb Triangle, however, the threat of renewed civil war in the east would be at its peak were the SC to be replaced by an Egypt-friendly Gosh.
With an agreement on GERD, which was expected by the end of February 2020, the SC seems to have stacked its commitments too heavily toward the beginning of its mandate. Until yet, they did not reach an agreement either as Ethiopia feels the US has adopted a pro-Egyptian position rather than serving as a neutral mediator. After all, the Draft Constitutional Declaration agreed to by the various forces opposed to al-Bashir in August 2019 envisions free and democratic elections in October or November 2022 and the disbanding of the SC at that time. Under the SC’s current timeline, voters in the Blue Nile state will have no say over GERD and how this project may affect their daily lives. There is much here that could go wrong fast, a succession of disappointments or perceived insults building into new violence in this long-suffering east African state.