Sudan’s Civilians Sidelined In Army Overtures to Russia, Israel

A planned Russian naval base and an under-the-radar Israeli visit are exacerbating a dispute within Sudan’s power-sharing government, risking the country’s democratic transition.

The foreign policy moves, seemingly approved by Sudan’s military, have raised questions among some civilian members of government and supporters, who say they’d been unaware of the initiatives and there’s no mandate for them. It comes as a United Nations official warned that Sudan’s political forces are “increasingly fragmented” and the economy is mired in turmoil.

The army “has hijacked the position of decision-making,” said Kamal Bolad, a prominent member of the Forces for Freedom and Change, the political coalition that helped pick the government’s civilian side. “There is no transparency in the ruling of this country.”

For activists like Bolad, it’s a sign that more than 18 months after Sudan’s long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted, the military has relinquished little of its power, casting doubt on the prospects of democratic elections in the coming years. It’s prompting unfavorable echoes of the three decades of the authoritarian, unaccountable rule that left Sudanese helpless as their country became a pariah in the West.

A lack of transparency could also harm Sudan’s bid for an economic revival as it emerges from two decades of U.S. sanctions and needs to overhaul a system blighted by mismanagement and corruption. It may also augur yet more instability in a nation the Washington is courting as new ally in the turbulent Horn of Africa region and is home to a vibrant protest movement and powerful rebel groups.

Russia announced this week it had signed a final pact with Sudan to use a Red Sea naval base for at least a quarter century, expanding Moscow’s reach in the region. Sudan’s foreign minister, Omar Qamar al-Din, told Bloomberg he hadn’t received any version of the agreement.

“We agreed to build balanced relations with different regional and international blocs” and hosting the Russian facility could upset that dynamic, Bolad said.

Just days before, Information Minister Faisal Mohamed Salih criticized Sudan’s military for hosting an Israeli delegation in November that he said he wasn’t informed of. Army officials didn’t respond to calls seeking comment on the issues.

Sudan’s prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, agreed a peace deal with Israel in October after urging from the U.S., but factions of the civilian-military government have expressed conflicting views on how quickly normalization -- a potentially controversial issue in Khartoum -- should happen.

Other disputes have emerged over the recent formation of a so-called Transitional Partner Council rejected by Hamdok, delays in creating an interim parliament and the future of army-controlled companies.

For his part, the military chief who heads Sudan’s sovereign council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, told an army ceremony Wednesday that transitional rulers had failed to meet the demands of the revolution.

The government’s status may be in question if “the security sector is seen as continuing to consolidate its control over the major power centers and revenue generators in the country,” said Cameron Hudson, a former U.S. State Department official and analyst with the Atlantic Council. “It makes it hard to imagine a future where civilian leadership in Sudan is in definitive control.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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