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Sudan: UN supports proposal to sideline army but opposition unimpressed

Sources tell MEE the UN initiative endorses limited role for military in new political arrangement, but experts and pro-democracy groups fear it changes nothing
A Sudanese man carries a national flag during a protest against the October 2021 military coup, in the capital Khartoum, on 9 January 2022 (AFP)
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Khartoum

A limited role for the military, a new sovereignty body and a transitional legislative assembly. 

This is what the United Nations' new initiative for Sudan, announced last week, promises to deliver.

But despite optimism after the UN launched talks to solve the ongoing political crisis triggered by the military coup in October last year, experts and opposition groups fear the initiative will just be more of the same.

Sources told Middle East Eye the UN’s proposal, the full details of which are not publicly available, includes removing the military from power and dissolving the ruling Sovereign Council led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.  

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Under the initiative - which is backed by the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - a new body called the Council of Defence and Security will be formed and will be headed by a new civilian prime minister, two sources (who are not authorised to speak to media and did not want to be named) told MEE. 

A transitional legislative assembly will also be formed after consultations with political parties.

It is unclear what role the military, which currently shares power with a civilian government, will play in the new administration. Sources told MEE the military is pushing for a leading role in the Council of Defence and Security.

“There are still talks about whether coup leaders will be given a safe exit or participate in the government within a limited and clear role,” one of the sources said without elaborating further.

The office of Volker Perthes, the UN’s special representative for Sudan and head of its mission UNITAMS, denied the existence of such a proposal, saying it was "absolutely not true".

"We are not promising anything," Perthes's office told MEE. "We are not creating an initiative, it's up to the Sudanese to determine." 

Perthes told reporters last week that consultations will be held with all political and social actors, as well the military. 

UN mediation was welcomed by the military but opposition organisations were not impressed. Civil society and protest groups have questioned the UN’s integrity and the ability of Perthes to bring about any meaningful solutions. 

'Revolution, not a crisis'

The current political impasse in Sudan started after the military overthrew the government of former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok and placed him under house arrest on 25 October. 

On 21 November, Hamdok was reinstated as part of a political agreement with the military. The civilian leader quickly faced a backlash from the streets.

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Protesters demanded that coup leaders be sidelined from power and held accountable for the brutal crackdown that followed, which left at least 71 dead. 

Amid mounting pressure, Hamdok stepped down from office in early January, leaving behind him a power vacuum and pushing the country further into uncertainty. 

The UN’s initiative, which was announced a little over a week after Hamdok's resignation, aims to “end the violence and enter into a comprehensive consultative process," Perthes said at a press conference. 

But Perthes’ public support of the November agreement between the military and Hamdok is not a promising sign for opposition groups, who refuse to sit down with the military. 

Pro-democracy organisations fear any new political arrangement will be a repeat of the 2019 power-sharing deal, and will likely absolve military leaders of their role in the coup and the violent crackdown. 

The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a leading pro-democracy group, told MEE it has adopted a strategy of three noes: “No negotiation, no partnership and no compromise,” referring to any potential talks with the military. 

“We keep monitoring the movement of this controversial man Perthes and his intervention in the domestic issues of our country and how we are looking to solve our problems,” Walid Ali, SPA spokesman told MEE. 

Another key grassroots force, the resistance committees, share the same concerns over the “unacceptable external intervention”. 

'Our future can’t be determined behind closed doors under the auspices of the westerners'

Mohamed Abdallah, resistance committee member

“Our future can’t be determined behind closed doors under the auspices of the westerners and the intelligence of the regional and international communities who impose their agenda on Sudan,” Mohamed Abdallah, committee member, told MEE.

“Sudan is in a revolution, not a crisis like the UN envoy says."

The Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a prominent pro-democracy group, took a softer tone towards the UN initiative, saying it conditionally accepted the mediation but echoed a similar position on the military.

“We welcome the UN Volker’s initiative unless it will call us to sit with the military or negotiate with them,” FFC spokesman Wagdi Salih said during a press conference in Khartoum earlier this week.  

“We won’t repeat our experience and build another partnership with the military, the place of the military is only the barracks.”

Failures in Syria 

One of the main sticking points for those who oppose the UN effort lies in the previous role that Perthes played in Syrian peace talks.

Between 2015 and 2018, the German political scientist was an adviser to the UN’s envoy in Syria and chaired the International Syria Support Group’s ceasefire task force. 

Perthes addressed the media in Khartoum on January 10, 2022 to annouce that the UN will launch the Sudan talks. (Afp)
Perthes addressed the media in Khartoum on 10 January 2022 to annouce that the UN will launch Sudan talks (AFP)

Firas al-Khalidi, who represented the Syrian opposition in the international-led negotiations at the time, told MEE that the Sudanese people must not repeat the same mistakes made in Syria. 

“[International mediations in Syria] opened the doors widely for [foreign] intervention and took the ownership away from Syrians,” Khalidi told MEE over the phone. 

As peace talks grew bigger, Khalidi said, more rival countries got involved, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, among others. This eventually led to the failure of the talks. 

“Despite the mobilisation against Assad in the international community, Perthes’s efforts allowed the regime to manoeuvre and buy some time, as these talks did not put pressure on him,” Khalidi, who was in direct contact with Perthes at the time, said.

“I fear that there are signs that this mistake by the same person will be repeated in Sudan.”

'Not fully baked'

Endorsing the November agreement between the military and Hamdok is another hurdle that Perthes will have to overcome to appease the opposition. 

Cameron Hudson, former chief of staff of the US special envoy to Sudan, believes Perthes is working with a “reputational deficit” since supporting the deal that “seemingly absolved the military for their coup.”

“To regain that credibility, all actors would be well served to be seen as taking a harder line on the military than on civilian actors, which has not been the case thus far,” Hudson told MEE. 

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The ex-diplomat believes Perthes’s chances of success with the initiative are slim, with growing public anger against the military and little backing amongst influential international actors.
 
“It certainly feels like this initiative launched without being fully baked and without having all the needed stakeholders fully on board,” Hudson said. 

“Even the fundamental question around who will lead this initiative seems to be an open question.”

The timing of the UN initiative after Hamdok’s resignation may have been a necessary step to stop the military from making unilateral decisions, Hudson said.

But any real progress will only be achieved by reducing the military role in government.

“Unless the military takes certain actions to demonstrate to people that it is sincere about its internal reform and the reform of the Sudanese state, then there is no reason to believe that a new version of the old partnership will achieve a different result”.