A Chance for Peace? The Impact of the Juba Peace Deal on Sudan’s Fragile Transition
Yassir Arman wants you to believe that peace has come in Sudan. On Sept. 17, the rebel leader — known more for his political ambitions than battlefield experience — landed in Khartoum with other members of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of armed groups, to formalize the signing of a peace agreement struck in late August with the government. Leaders of some of Sudan’s longest-running insurgencies — including prominent Darfur groups who rebelled in the early 2000s in a conflict that claimed an estimated 300,000 lives — agreed to lay down their arms.
The media and diplomats hailed the deal as “historic” and the leaders of Sudan’s transitional government have been celebrating. Since its independence from Britain in 1956, Sudan has experienced civil war in the southern federal states that are now South Sudan; the western region of Darfur, where President Omar al-Bashir’s brutal counter-insurgency earned him a warrant of the International Criminal Court for genocide; and in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile, where South Sudan’s secession in 2011 left the fighters allied to the South on the wrong side of the border.
The deal is historic, but it will not bring peace. It offers no response to the intercommunal conflicts that have come to define the new patterns of violence in Sudan’s peripheries since the revolution (2018–2019), and is silent on key issues of implementation. Though the agreement promises to address the many grievances that have fueled rebellions, implementing it will run against Sudan’s catastrophic economic situation. The deal may turn out to merely grow the ranks of Sudan’s bloated and unruly military and security apparatus. Still, it is significant because it could push other rebels to lay down arms and marks a shift in the domestic balance of power away from the groups that have ruled the country since independence.
Background to Peace
Achieving peace has been a priority for the transitional institutions — chief among them the cabinet of ministers and the Sovereignty Council — that were created in 2019, a tumultuous year for Sudan. In April, as hundreds of thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets of Khartoum, generals overthrew Bashir, and installed a junta. In the following months, the generals agreed, under domestic and international pressure, to share power with opposition parties. A constitutional declaration signed in Aug. 2019 paved the way for a three-year transition meant to lead to a new constitutional order, free elections, and democracy. The following month, civilian and military representatives of Sudan’s government began to negotiate with leaders of armed groups in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
Two major groups from Darfur (the Justice and Equality Movement and a branch of the Sudan Liberation Army led by Minni Minnawi) and one group from Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile (the faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North led by Malik Agar) are among the signatories.
The agreement — which has circulated among country experts (I have obtained a copy) but not been made available publicly — envisions a permanent ceasefire and the demobilization or integration of rebel forces in Sudan’s military, police, and security services. In exchange, the government agreed, among other things, to compensate people displaced by conflict, expand resources and powers for states, and begin processes of transitional justice — demands that have been central to the peripheral regions where insurgencies took place and which have suffered decades of marginalization and exploitation.
But it is a strange kind of peace deal. Abdelaziz al-Hilu and Abdelwahed al-Nur, the two rebel leaders that actually control territory within Sudan, haven’t signed. The Sudan Revolutionary Front signatories, on the other hand, haven’t seriously fought the government in years. Three of the Darfur factions that joined the deal (the Justice and Equality Movement, the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi, and the Sudan Liberation Army-Transitional Council) have mostly been working as mercenaries in the Libyan conflict. The Malik Agar branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, which signed the agreement (that of Yassir Arman), was born out of a split in 2017 that left it with barely any fighters and no territory. Today it is a rump faction of politicians. The peace deal also covers regions, such as central and northern Sudan, which haven’t experienced war.
The agreement also does not address the violence that has erupted with greater intensity throughout peripheral parts of Sudan since the revolution last year. Much of that violence pits communities against one another and often implicates segments of the military and paramilitary forces. In Darfur, local conflicts have opposed displaced people to those who settled on their land. In Southern Kordofan, communal tensions erupted into clashes between a unit of the military dominated by Nuba people, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which recruit locally among Abbala Arabs. In the east, a region that remained stable in the last decade of Bashir’s rule, Hadandawa people and Nubas have clashed with Beni Amir people. Though some of the deal’s provisions regarding land tenure and compensation could, in principle, address some of the factors behind these conflicts, bringing the Sudan Revolutionary Front on the side of the government will not immediately appease these local tensions.
If anything, there are signs that the peace negotiations have fueled some of the communal violence by empowering Sudan Revolutionary Front representatives whose local legitimacy is contested. Local activists from eastern Sudan (i.e., the states of Kassala, Gedaref, and Red Sea) told me in May that many Nubas and Hadandawas believe that the Beni Amir representative of the Sudan Revolutionary Front who negotiated for the region does not speak for them. In Southern Kordofan, Abbala Arabs feel similarly excluded, and the talks have exacerbated divisions among Nubas, who are split in their support to the two factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North. In a statement issued via WhatsApp on May 27, the largest branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, that of Abdelaziz al-Hilu, has blamed some of the incidents on the Agar faction’s attempts to recruit in its area of influence.
Challenges to Implementation
The peace document is a patchwork of separate deals — one national, the rest regional — whose ambitious provisions will be very difficult to reconcile and implement. For instance, one sub-agreement revives a Darfur regional authority dissolved in the last years of Bashir’s regime that would stand between the national government and federal states — a provision that could incentivize other parts of Sudan to demand their own regional administration. In an effort to correct regional imbalances in government spending, the text also foresees the creation of a dedicated commission to manage how the government apportions its spending between the central, regional, and state levels — in potential conflict with the Ministry of Finance.
The government alone will not be able to afford the implementation of much of the agreement. As Alex De Waal noted, all of Sudan’s past peace deals were signed during times of expanding state resources. But the current context could hardly be more challenging. The Sudanese currency and the economy at large have collapsed in the past three years under the weight of a foreign currency shortage and monetization. The government is caught in a vicious circle, continuously printing more money to pay for the salaries of civil servants and import subsidized, basic goods, such as wheat and medicine. Inflation today stands officially at 167 percent (it could be as high as 286 percent, among the highest in the world) and is fast accelerating.
Yet this peace deal will not come cheap. In addition to the costs of demobilizing or integrating thousands of rebel fighters into regular forces, someone will have to finance the plethora of commissions, committees, conferences, special courts, and compensation funds that the agreement creates. The newly created United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan will provide some assistance. The government and armed groups have lobbied regional and Western powers to foot the rest of the bill, but in the global economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the deal’s provisions could remain unrealized.
The process of integration and demobilization of rebel fighters is also likely to prove challenging. The security arrangements signed in Juba remain silent on crucial aspects, such as the number of men each armed group can legitimately claim as its own, or the proportion of fighters to be demobilized rather than integrated. Rebel leaders seeking to leverage their military strength for political advantage will be tempted to inflate their numbers and minimize the scale of demobilization. At a time when economic collapse should push the government to prioritize nonmilitary spending, the deal could well reproduce the flaws of past Sudanese peace agreements, which have done little to bring peace but merely grown a fragmented military and security apparatus.
The Meaning of Juba
Despite its shortcomings, the Juba peace deal is momentous for Sudan’s politics because it creates momentum for negotiations with the last remaining rebel groups and reconfigures the balance of power among major factions of the country. Across Sudan, people are tired of war. The agreement has ramped up the pressure on the two holdover rebel leaders — Abdelaziz al-Hilu and Abdelwahed al-Nur — who could actually bring peace. Al-Nur, who heads a branch of the Sudan Liberation Army that controls parts of Jebel Marra in Darfur and draws wide support among displaced Darfuris, has already had to contend with an internal rebellion of officers and community leaders unhappy with his diehard stance. Insurgent action is harder to justify now that Bashir is gone and that the former political opposition plays a central role in the political transition. The head of the largest branch of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, al-Hilu, whose forces hold swathes of Southern Kordofan and pockets of territory in Blue Nile, showed on Sept. 3 — in the aftermath of the Juba deal — that he could no longer stay on the sidelines. Days after dismissing prospects for peace as “dim,” he signed a surprise joint agreement with Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, paving the way for new talks.
The Juba peace deal is also significant because it contributes to a shift in the national balance of power. The Sudan Revolutionary Front now gain three seats that will be added to the Sovereignty Council, the mixed military-civilian body that collectively acts as the head of state, as well as five ministries in the cabinet and 25 percent of the upcoming transitional parliament. Now that they have returned to Khartoum, armed group leaders will play a central role in the decision-making of Sudan’s transitional period. In a sign of their broader political ambitions, they negotiated an exemption to an article of the constitutional declaration which would prevent them from running in future elections.
This new configuration chips away at the influence of the social groups from the Nile regions — the “riverine” tribes that inherited the state from the United Kingdom. Their dominance came under threat last year, when Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, became the second highest-ranking figure in the state. The emergence of a former janjaweed leader (i.e., an Arab from Darfur) upset the traditional regional balance, and Hemedti’s ambitions have since met with resistance from senior military officers, who are overwhelmingly from traditionally powerful groups.
The presence of the Sudan Revolutionary Front will complicate an already fragmented political game. Vying for influence with the Forces of Freedom of Change — the coalition of civilian parties dominated by riverine elites which backs the government — some of the former rebels could ally themselves to Hemedti, whom they once fought, in a coalition of peripheral leaders (the Sudan Liberation Army-Minni Minnawi, the Sudan Liberation Army-Transitional Council, and the Agar faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North already share with Hemedti the patronage of the UAE). If the regional divide comes to dominate the politics of the transition, the prospects for democratization will fade.
Now that they are in Khartoum, the Sudan Revolutionary Front could also favor dealing with the generals, whom they see as the real power holders in the transitional institutions, rather than the Forces of Freedom and Change or their civilian appointees in the government. The Juba agreement already gives a “Supreme Joint Council” comprised of military, intelligence, police, and armed-group leaders authority over the implementation of the Darfur security arrangements — and excludes civilians.
The civilian component of the government clearly comes out weaker. The Forces of Freedom and Change, which fought hard to achieve a numerical balance with the military in transitional institutions, sees its representation diluted. Civilians will now be a minority in the Sovereignty Council, while Hamdok will have to contend with a significant representation of former armed groups in his cabinet. Provisions of the deal also benefit the generals in direct and indirect ways. For instance, the agreement resets the clock of an already long transition by another year, extending it to a total of four years. This could allow military general Abdelfattah al-Burhan to remain as the chair of the Sovereignty Council until May 2022 instead of handing power to a civilian in May 2021 as envisioned in the constitutional declaration. And Hemedti, having personally signed the national segment of the agreement, will be allowed to run in coming elections.
It remains to be seen whether these shifts will spur the Forces of Freedom and Change to work harder to remain relevant and push the agenda of democratization. The transition has fallen behind schedule, allowing the generals to consolidate their power by taking the lead in ad hoc commissions which make policy, such as the Higher Committee on the Economic Emergency headed by Hemedti. The Forces of Freedom and Change have used ongoing peace negotiations as an excuse to postpone the implementation of crucial elements of the constitutional declaration — such as the appointment of the transitional parliament, which was due in Nov. 2019, or the preparations for a constitutional conference — but much of the delay owes to their own internal squabbles. There is a lot at stake. If political leaders do not seize on this moment to build institutions to channel and solve their disagreements, Sudan will remain prey to the transactional politics and hard bargains of generals, militias, and cronies.
The Juba agreement could help address regional injustices that have fed insurgencies throughout Sudan’s history. It could also mark a step towards ending wars in the peripheries if it pushes holdover groups to make peace with the government. However, the deal is not a panacea. It won’t prevent the intercommunal violence which prevails today. Most importantly, if the agreement’s implementation fails — a distinct possibility given its high cost and vague provisions — it could turn out to be little more than an instrument for the ambitions of Hemedti and Sudan Revolutionary Front leaders, who are keen to wrest power away from traditionally powerful groups.
In many ways, the awkward hype around the Juba agreement betrays the desperation to find good news at a very concerning time for Sudan. It mirrors the self-congratulatory tone of some donors last June when a conference yielded roughly $2 billion in pledges of support for Sudan, even as the International Monetary Fund estimated it would take $6 billion to stabilize the economy. Little of this money has been disbursed so far and the dire economic situation now threatens a collapse of the state itself. Across the political scene, many feel that the current status quo is unsustainable and could unravel at any moment. The transition is hanging by a thread.
Dr. Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is an independent researcher and writer. He has been working on Sudan since 2010 in various capacities, including as a political analyst in the private sector, a human rights researcher for Amnesty International, and a visiting fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations. His writing on Sudan has appeared in The Washington Post, Le Monde Diplomatique, African Arguments, and the Project for Middle East Political Science.
Image: Ola A .Alsheikh