Who Is In Charge? The Evolving Power Dynamics in Sudan

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Shannon Beacom

This essay is the second in the MEPC’s Emerging Voices series, highlighting scholarship from rising academics focused on Middle Eastern studies. Author Shannon Beacom is a M.A. Candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her studies focus on the Middle East and North Africa, protest movements, and political systems.

Eight months of sustained protests in Sudan led to a military coup that deposed long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. Four months later, the Transitional Military Council, the group that took over after the coup, signed a power-sharing agreement with the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of civil-society actors that led the protest movement. The end goal of the transition period is to hold free and fair elections in 2024. However, the elections depend on who wins the ongoing struggle between the military and civilian sides of government over the next four years.

Currently, the military holds more power than the civilian side of  the government authorities. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo (“Hemeti”) are the three power players. Hamdok represents the civilian side of the transition period. As a former UN economist, he is expected by the Sudanese people to fix the dire economic situation. Al-Burhan represents the military in the transition, as he is the chair of the Sovereign Council and acting head of state. Hemeti also wields enormous power as the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, and a Sovereign Council member. On top of his military influence, Hemeti controls four gold mines and is a director of his family’s gold-mining and trading company, Al Gunade. Whoever controls gold-mining operations in Sudan essentially controls the Sudanese economy as gold is the only profitable resource Sudan has since the loss of the oil fields through the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

While the head of state is currently a military officer, most of the expectations for fixing societal and economic ills fall to Hamdok and his civilian administration. Sudanese citizens are looking to him to improve the economy, rein in the military, redistribute the power of the Nile Delta elite across the country, fight the Islamist agenda, and end Sudan’s peripheral conflicts.

The lack of progress on some of these issues has begun to undermine support for Hamdok and his administration. Civil-society groups are unhappy with the lack of progress on investigating and prosecuting military participants in the June 3rd massacre. The decision to freeze the part of education reform that offended the Islamists has angered secularists and former rebel groups. In addition, senior SRF figures view Hamdok as “lacking the clout to deliver transformational change to Sudan.”

On the military side, al-Burhan has increasingly exerted power in diplomacy and domestic politics. A source in the Sudanese Foreign Ministry told Middle East Eye that the army had hijacked foreign policy in the aftermath of Bashir’s overthrow. Examples of foreign-policy actions include al-Burhan’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, about which al-Burhan did not inform the Foreign Ministry, the Cabinet of Ministers, or the FFC. Additionally, the deal to establish a Russian naval base in the Red Sea went through army leaders, completely bypassing the Foreign Ministry. Domestically, al-Burhan announced the creation of the Transitional Partners Council at the end of 2020 to help direct the interim period. Hamdok in addition to other officials rejected the move, while others accused al-Burhan of abusing his power to control Sudan’s constitutional institutions.

Hemeti, meanwhile, is shoring up his own power base. When the government failed to pay the police, Hemeti personally handed over the funds to the commissioner. Reports indicate that political backers of Hemeti are the same Arab politicians who created the Janjaweed, an Arab militia accused of ethnic cleansing in Darfur in the early 2000s. Finally, some rebel groups that signed the Jubal Peace Accords appear to be allying with the military sector, and Hemeti specifically, to outmaneuver the social and political elite and move closer to what they perceive as the real center of power.

With the military exerting control over foreign policy and moving into domestic politics, all signs point to it having the upper hand. Hamdok and the civilian side of the transition seem to have few options to use and even less desire to use them. The military is currently in charge, and unless Hamdok and the civilian government start making moves to undercut its growing power, Sudan seems to be repeating the past rather than creating a new start.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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