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Celebrating Peace in Sudan: State Sponsor of Terrorism designation lifted, ties with Israel to be normalised – what’s next?

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

Sudan has recently hit the news…

…by announcing that it will normalise its relationship with Israel, following similar decisions earlier this year by Bahrain and the UAE. Although officially not linked together, it is no mere coincidence that this occurs the same week that President Trump reveals the US is ready to lift the State Sponsor of Terrorism (SST) designation, under which the African country has been suffering for more than two decades. But how do these developments affect the peace process of the country, and where is Sudan currently in its precarious transition process?

Sudan embarked on a democratic transition last year, after former president, Omar al-Bashir, who had been ruling for 30 years, was removed by a coup d’état in April. After a few months of military rule, a transitional government was appointed in August 2019, with economist Abdalla Hamdok becoming the temporary Prime Minister. Ever since then, he has been trying hard to facilitate peace by negotiating with the rebel movements, as well as working towards the rebuilding of the economy. Most of the armed rebel movements are based in the country’s western region, Darfur, and in the South (South Kordofan and Blue Nile states), but the Eastern states of the Red Sea- Gedaref and Kassala- have also had their share of rebellion against Khartoum.

One of the main points of the new constitutional agreement accepted in 2019 was to make peace between the central government and the insurgents. Almost a year later, following multiple delays and halts, a new peace deal has been agreed upon between most of the rebel groups in Sudan. The peace deal, called the “Juba Peace Agreement”, was signed on the 31th August in neighbouring South Sudan’s capital, Juba, where negotiations were taking place. This was signed by the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), which was founded in 2011 by smaller fractions to overthrow the Khartoum-based government. While the SRF represents more important groups as well, two other parties, the SLM-AW, and a wing of the SPLM-N, led by al-Hilu, rejected the terms. The reason al-Hilu did not accept the deal is that he holds onto the principles of secularism, separating the state and the religion from each other, something that has not yet been realised in the way he would like.

With the so-called “Eastern Front”, which also includes the non-Arab Beja and the Arabic Rashaida tribes, an agreement has already been achieved in February, but recently the agreement seems to have come under some serious scrutiny. New state governors were to be appointed this year in the whole country to remove those loyal to the previous regime, however, this proved to be especially problematic in the Eastern state of Kassala. The PM  sacked the newly appointed governor, who was not accepted due to tribal differences, among other things, by the Beni Amar and Hadendowa subtribes of the Beja people.

The Beja are getting more and more frustrated everywhere, even staging protests in the important harbour of Port Sudan, that of which its stability is crucial for peace in the region. The city serves as a main commercial hu, for import, as well as for the export of oil. The first time in history, the Beja are talking not only about autonomy, but independence and separation of East Sudan – something unprecedented. Given the recent outbreak of fresh conflict in Ethiopia, instability in the east of Sudan can not be permitted, and the government need not neglect the area. This does not only mean a political agreement, but also economic development for the region, which remains to be among the poorest in Sudan.

The transitional leadership has inherited a non-functioning economic policy, hyperinflation, and huge debt. Over the course of 2020, living costs have been rising, as oil subsidies have been removed following the suggested economic reforms of the IMF. The humanitarian situation has also been worsened by the worst floods in a century, which led to half a million people losing their homes.

It is in this context that the removal from the SST list and the normalisation with Israel has been announced. Sudan is on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list together with North Korea, Iran, and Syria, due to harbouring terrorists in its territory earlier in their history, allowing them to operate and plan attacks from the country. One of Hamdok’s main goal since his inauguration has been to remove the state sponsor of terrorism designation. This – and other international sanctions lifted in 2017 – has cost Sudan a lot, hindering foreign investment and credits. Due to the SST, the US was obliged to veto the credits of international financial institutions. The designation also made it impossible for Sudan to participate in the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) programme of the IMF, which could have provided debt relief. Many have been emphasizing since the fall of Bashir that given the new, transitional government, Sudan does not deserve to be on this list any longer. Still it took quite a long time for Washington to remove the terrorist label from the country.

And it certainly did not do it for free. Although not taking the step could have been morally questionable from the American side, Sudan needed to make serious decisions to accelerate this process. Over the last few months, it has been reported again and again that the US administration wants Sudan to normalize its ties with Israel, following in the steps of the UAE and Bahrain. This was something Hamdok rejected repeatedly, stating that the transitional government is not mandated for such decisions. However, at the end of October, approaching the US elections, Trump tweeted that he has managed to forge a deal between Netanyahu and Hamdok. As this was revealed just days after the removal of the SST, it is hard not to make a connection between the two events. Sudan is desperately in need of aid, be it food or medicine. People must wait in queues for hours, both for bread and for fuel. The inflation recently reached 200%. The nation could simply not do anything, but accept the conditions of the US and say yes to the normalisation with Israel.

Thankfully, despite some initial rejection by Islamist and Communist forces, there has so far not been a major political upheaval as a result of the normalisation. The agreement will be ratified once the Legislative Council has been set up. The latter is prescribed in the Juba Peace Agreement but has not happened yet. These changes will hopefully contribute to not only short term aid, such as addressing the shortage of wheat, but they might encourage foreign investment and result in higher levels of capital inflows in the long term. Aid, debt relief, employment generation, foreign investment and stopping the inflation are all measures needed to rebuild the Sudanese economy. If that does not happen, unemployment, hyperinflation and general discontent can easily lead to a new revolution that might sweep away the hopes of a democratic transition.

Until that however, the Sudanese people celebrate. They protest and they celebrate. And they are right to do so. The 15th of November has been declared a national holiday, as the country will celebrate the arrival of the rebel leaders who signed the Juba Peace Agreement to Khartoum. This will mark the start of the implementation of the peace deal, a peace deal that hopes to finish 17 years of war in Darfur. Yes, we have seen many similar agreements, but this time there is a stronger hope. There is hope that there exists more political will than ever before, to actually deliver on the promises of peace and prosperity. Inshallah – as they say.

— This piece was written by Aron Lovas, an International Business and Economics Major at the Budapest Business School —