This week is critical for Sudan’s Western orientation. The country’s military leaders and political and civilian actors will develop a roadmap for implementing the Framework Agreement, which they signed last month and pledges the organization of elections in Sudan after a two-year transition period. Upon the signing of the Framework Agreement, the United States, in a joint statement with Norway, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom, welcomed it as “an essential first step toward establishing a civilian-led government and defining constitutional arrangements” and called for “continued, inclusive dialogue on all issues of concern and cooperation to build the future of Sudan.”
This week's negotiations are an important component of this dialogue, and the United States and its partners should view them as an opportunity to assess how various Sudanese actors will implement the Framework Agreement. The United States should also use the negotiations as an opportunity to assess the role of these Sudanese actors in building support for the Framework Agreement, ensuring there is ongoing engagement with and support for those in Sudan who can further pro-Western policies and prevent the expansion of Russian, Chinese, and extremist influence in the country.
The Framework Agreement, signed on December 5, was the culmination of months of political unrest following the October 2021 coup by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan that ousted the government headed by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The coup frayed relations between Sudan’s military, political parties, and civil society, resulting in violent clashes between protesters and the military, which led to Hamdock’s reinstatement two months later. Still, Hamdock resigned in January 2022 amid ongoing demonstrations against the government.
Given Sudan’s fragile start to pluralistic governance, which began following the overthrow in 2019 of the country’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir, the Framework Agreement signed by the country’s military leaders and forty political and civil society groups is the best path toward peace in the country, which the United States and its partners recognize. However, as negotiations get underway this week, it will not be easy to reconcile the contentious issues on the agenda, which include transitional justice, security and military reform, the implementation of the October 2020 Juba Peace Agreement between Sudan’s transitional government and representatives of armed groups in Darfur, and the dismantling of the Bashir regime’s residual power structures.
Recognition of the difficulty that lies ahead must be accompanied by an assessment of what is at stake for the United States in Sudan: mutually beneficial counter-terror cooperation; Sudan’s recognition of Israel following its signing of the Abraham Accords, and efforts to further Sudan-Israel ties; and the need to counter Chinese and Russian influence in the country, especially when it comes to Sudan’s naval and port facilities along the Red Sea. The stakes are indeed high for U.S. interests. As such, the United States must work with the Sudanese leaders who backed the Framework Agreement to create an incentive structure for Sudan’s elites to implement the agreement and pursue a pro-American course for the country.
One such Sudanese leader is Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, who publicly denounced the October 2021 coup as a failure and advocated for the military to join the December 5 Framework Agreement. It is important to recognize that the agreement, which is the first step toward elections in Sudan, would not have happened without the support of Hemeti, arguably the most influential decision-maker in Sudan. Hemeti, moreover, has advocated for a greater U.S. presence in Sudan and has been the primary Sudanese leader in expanding the country’s military, economic, and political ties with Israel. While military actors in Sudan and throughout the region have poor human rights and governance records, it is critical that the United States recognize when these actors align with pro-American policies and that Washington increase cooperation with them when they do.
Some segments of the U.S. foreign policy establishment would like to eschew military engagement for civilian engagement in Sudan. This would not serve to further U.S. national security but would instead curtail American influence in Sudan and the broader region. All non-extremist actors are coming to the table to negotiate the conditions for an electoral process in Sudan. The success of these negotiations will depend on agreement by all parties—civilian and military. Attempting to work solely with civilian actors would be a short-sighted approach by the United States, imperiling Sudan’s first real chance at progress since Bashir was overthrown in 2019.
Washington should increase its engagement with all relevant actors in Sudan who support U.S. policy priorities to transform Sudan into a permanent Western ally.
Dr. Felipe Pathé Duarte is an Assistant Professor at the Higher Institute of Police Sciences and Internal Security, Autonomous University of Lisbon.
Image: Flickr/U.S. State Department.