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Sudan security forces resist calls for civilian control

Civilian leaders are pressuring military and security commanders to surrender their influence in politics and the economy, yet vested interests make them unlikely to oblige.
Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok gives a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron during the International Conference in support of Sudan at the temporary Grand Palais, Paris, May 17, 2021.

Sudan’s fragile transition to democracy will not succeed unless the military submits to civilian command and integrates rival security forces into its ranks, yet generals refuse to give up power, say analysts and activists. 

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok raised the subject after the military foiled a coup by dissenting officers Sept. 21. Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, head of the military and chairman of the Sovereign Council that is leading the transition, replied that civilian leaders were ungrateful for the army’s role in protecting the path to democracy.

On Sept. 26, Burhan tried to prove that the army was indispensable by ordering his troops to withdraw from protecting the headquarters of a committee tasked with recovering billions of dollars worth of stolen assets and dismantling networks of the former regime. The army also removed the personal protection of committee leader Mohamed al-Faki Sulieman.

Two days later, an Islamic State terrorist cell killed five counterterrorism officers, an incident that vindicated Burhan’s view that the democratic transition needs the army’s protection.

Jonas Horner, an expert on Sudan and senior analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor that the military needs to be part of a transition because the coup and terrorist attack have shown that there are actors seeking to spoil Sudan’s transition. However, he noted that the military has yet to illustrate a willingness to ultimately be subject to civilian command and control, either during the transition or following the 2024 elections.

“The military have talked a pretty good game, but they have done nothing materially that walks them back from power,” he said.

The military could redeem itself by placing its commercial companies under civilian control, as it pledged to do in March. The army currently controls a number of sectors, including Sudan’s two most lucrative export products — sesame and gum arabic — neither of which are taxed by the state.

Bringing these companies under civilian control could accelerate Sudan’s economic recovery by encouraging investment, according to Patrick Heinisch, an economist focusing on Sudan for Helaba, a German commercial banking company.

“Sudan is still perceived as a high-risk destination for investment. The most recent coup attempt may have added to this insecurity. Furthermore, lack of transparency of military-owned companies is also deterring investor interest,” he told Al-Monitor.

Defense spending also takes up 12% of Sudan's budget and is expected to burden the economy after the military absorbs thousands of rebel fighters that signed a peace agreement with the Sovereign Council in October 2020 in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Burhan’s grip over the economy has activists fearing that the military aspires to return to power. A number of resistance committees — networks of pro-democracy activists that mobilized against former dictator Omar al-Bashir — have protested the military’s rhetoric and actions in recent days.

Samar Tagalsir is among them. She told Al-Monitor that the economy will never improve as long as the most important sectors remain in the military’s hands. She said that she does not blame civilian politicians due to the obstacles they face, yet she believes that they should convert their street support into political pressure.

“The civilians [in government] could rally us to push the military to share or cooperate on files regarding the economy,” she noted.  

Suliman Baldo, an expert on Sudan and senior adviser to The Sentry, a policy team that traces dirty money across Africa, told Al-Monitor that the civilian coalition known as the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) is divided. He said that the military is pressuring the FFC to accommodate new players that feel left out of the transition in a bid to dilute the power of civilians.

“The military wants civilians to have no role in security sector reform, and they see the people in charge of the FFC as hard-liners,” Baldo said.

The one reform Hamdok and Burhan do agree on is the need to integrate a powerful paramilitary known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the army. However, RSF head Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo openly rejected the merger in June.   

The RSF evolved out of the brutal war in the western province of Darfur, which claimed more than 350,000 lives between 2003 and 2008. Back then, the military armed and trained local pastoralists and camel herders to crush rebel groups that were demanding an end to Darfur’s political and economic marginalization.

In 2013, Bashir repackaged Darfur’s pro-government militia leaders into the RSF, which is now an independent force that has a web of shadowy commercial activities and offshore accounts. Subsuming the RSF into the military would eliminate the group’s financial and political autonomy, a concession that Dagalo views as an existential threat to his power.

Civilian calls for security sector reform has thus pushed Dagalo and Burhan closer together, with both men blaming civilians for the struggling economy since the attempted coup. 

Despite the marriage of convenience, Burhan and Dagalo could soon be at odds again, Baldo said. One source of tension is that the RSF reportedly pays substantially higher salaries than the military, although the exact disparity is unknown. Baldo noted that many mid-ranking army officers resent seeing their top military commanders salute Dagalo, who they view as an undeserving warlord who never went to military college.

“The situation has created a lot of resentment among lower and mid-ranking [army] commanders who fear that the military could become a secondary force in Sudan,” Baldo concluded. “Therefore, there is pressure on top military commanders coming from within the army to integrate the RSF.”

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