An assassination attempt on Sudan’s reformist prime minister underscores the backlash the transitional government faces in uprooting the country’s securocrat ‘deep-state’, as well as resistance to war crimes prosecutions and fiscal transparency measures that are aimed at securing removal of US sanctions, debt relief, and fresh credit support.
On 9 March, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok survived an assassination attempt targeting his vehicle convoy near the northern entrance to Kober bridge, which crosses the Blue Nile River connecting the north of the capital Khartoum with the city centre where Hamdok works. State radio said the prime minister’s convoy had been hit by gunfire and a projectile, while state television said it had been targeted by a car bomb.
A local source who was close to the scene of the assassination attempt claims the attack included a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a nearby building. Information Minister Faisal Salih has hinted at a terrorist plot or the involvement of loyalists to the former government that was ousted by street demonstrations and a military coup in April 2019. The Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), the influential civil society group that led the protests against the ousted government, has called for renewed street demonstrations in Khartoum to protect the so-called ‘revolution’ in the country.
Hamdok leads a government of technocrats under a power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian groups for a transitional period due to last until late 2022. There has been resistance to Hamdok’s reform agenda. Most recently, his overtures to rebel groups to sign a broader peace agreement has threatened the extensive military-industrial patronage system established by the country’s generals and Islamist political leaders. EXX Africa assesses the backlash against Hamdok’s reform agenda and potential motivations for the suspected assassination attempt.
Backlash against ICC extraditions
Hamdok, who is a former deputy chief of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, has been the public face of the country’s reform drive which has included a rapprochement with Israel, the UN, the United States, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He has also rebuked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who pledged USD 3 billion to the military junta that preceded his transitional government but failed to deliver when a civilian transition became more likely.
Even more controversial has been the prime minister’s effort to make peace with various rebel groups who seek deep-seated security sector reforms and the prosecution of those responsible for war crimes in Sudan. Hamdok’s transitional government recently signed a commitment to work with the International Criminal Court (ICC), including signing and ratifying the Rome statutes, which indicates Sudan may be willing to extradite ousted president Omar al-Bashir to face trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity involving the ICC in the Hague. The ICC has had a warrant out for Bashir on three counts of genocide for nearly ten years.
Peace talks between the transitional government and the Sudan Revolutionary Forces (SRF), which have been ongoing since last September, have included negotiations on cooperation with the ICC investigations and prosecution of those accused of war crimes in Darfur. Transitional government spokesman Mohammed Hassan el Taishi has led the peace talks with the SRF, which is an alliance of rebel groups that operate in Sudan’s Blue Nile, North Darfur, North Kordofan, South Darfur, South Kordofan, and West Darfur states and provinces.
The SRF has also demanded to be included on the legislative council in the transitional arrangement, whose formation has been postponed in order to accommodate the rebel leadership. The SRF also seeks to have its own nominees for the appointment of civilian governors in Sudan’s provinces to replace the military ones appointed by ousted president Bashir. Hamdok hoped that by integrating the SRF and other rebel groups, his government will have a reason to cut the defence and security appropriation that accounts for some 70 percent of the national budget, not counting the implicit subsidies that military and intelligence-backed companies enjoy from state spending.
Upsetting the ‘deep-state’
However, the inclusion of the SRF in the transitional government would upset a fragile balance of power between its various constituents. In particular, the mooted hand-over of Bashir to the ICC has caused a backlash among key security force constituencies in the transitional government, including the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) that make up the formal military, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia that until recently patrolled the streets of Khartoum, and the General Intelligence Services (GIS) spy agency.
SAF commander and military leader of the transitional government Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Burhan fears that other members of the Sudanese Islamist movement and senior army officers will face the same fate if Bashir is handed over to the ICC. RSF militia commander Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemeti’ also fears prosecution over his command of the Janjaweed militia (now integrated into the RSF) and its activities in Darfur.
Hamdok’s government seeks to unravel Sudan’s so-called ‘deep-state’, which is an intertwined powerful network of business, military, political, judicial, religious, and intelligence figures that continues to exert exceptional influence over the country. The military’s economic interests resemble those of Egypt’s army in terms of lucrative assets across the country’s economy.
The RSF also holds lucrative assets in Sudan’s economy, primarily through its control over gold mines in Darfur, and hefty monthly payments from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for the deployment of its elite troops to fight on the frontline in conflicts in Yemen and Libya. The military will seek to further establish control over parts of the economy and many lucrative assets. The RSF will also seek to extend its commercial operations from Darfur’s gold mines to other lucrative parts of the Sudanese military industrial complex, possibly in competition with the formal armed forced and renamed GIS that already dominate swathes of the country’s economy.
Hamdok is pushing for substantive talks to end all of Sudan’s internal conflicts by mid-2020 before justifying cuts in military spending. He has also played a key mediation role in the peace process in neighbouring South Sudan. Peace with its old foe would provide another reason for Hamdok’s security budget cuts (See SOUTH SUDAN: HOPES FOR AN OIL BONANZA RISE AS WARRING PARTIES MAKE PEACE).
Drive to remove US sanctions
Another motivation for reengaging with the ICC and pushing ahead peace talks has been Hamdok’s desire to remove Sudan from the US list of state sponsors of terror. To aid Hamdok’s agenda, he has offered symbolic gestures to the US, including his mediation of the South Sudan peace process and signing the Rome Statute. In February, Hamdok’s government paid USD 30 million in compensation to families of US sailors killed in the terrorist bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen in 1999, in which Sudan’s then Islamist government was found to have offered help to the militants.
Hamdok’s efforts to drop US sanctions have been supported by his military colleagues in the transitional government. Last month, Lieutenant-General Burhan had a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Uganda. Since then, Sudan has relaxed its ban on Israeli planes overflying its territory. Israel may offer some crucial support for the removal of US sanctions. Sudan has been on Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1993 — a status the country’s transitional authorities are lobbying to overturn.
The US has already begun to drop sanctions on Sudanese firms. The US announced an end to its trade embargo against Sudan in October 2017 but retained the country on its state sponsors of terrorism list. Earlier in March, central bank governor Badreddine Abdelrahim said the US would soon lift sanctions on 157 Sudanese firms, with only a few Sudanese individuals and entities now remaining under US sanctions for their links to the conflict in Darfur. According to Abdelrahim, the lifting of the sanctions means that the firms and banks can now undertake international transactions. A central bank official recently announced that several Sudanese banks were close to reaching agreements to start issuing US credit cards.
Meanwhile, the US Congress has suggested offering Sudan’s foreign debt cancellation in exchange for the full control of the civilian government over the finances and assets of the security and intelligence services. By tying fiscal transparency to debt relief and new credit support, the US government would force Hamdok to crack down on the patronage system of the country’s security services, including gold and oil trading that support the RSF and SAF leadership. Sudan’s finance and defence ministries have already agreed to transfer all the non-military industries and companies under the control of the finance ministry.
Sudan’s main underlying risk to political stability, i.e. its failing economy, has not been resolved. This threat has been reinforced by the latest assassination attempt. Prime Minister Hamdok is pushing for substantive talks to end all of Sudan’s internal conflicts by the middle of this year before justifying cuts in military spending and boosting fiscal transparency. His ultimate aim is to secure the removal of US sanctions and an immediate infusion of USD 2 billion to shore up the currency, and a further USD 8 billion to restructure the economy over the next three years.
The Sudanese pound has fallen to a record low on the black market. The closure of the country’s fuel refineries, combined with exhausted foreign reserves, has led to chronic fuel shortages across Sudan and left the bankrupt administration with minimal avenues of recourse. Hamdok’s transitional government is battling a three-year recession and annual inflation at over 60 percent. Public debt is well over twice the level of economic output.
However, his efforts to uproot the so-called ‘deep-state’, to curb security services patronage, and ensure prosecutions of former regime leaders have upset the country’s fragile balance of power. Yet remedying Sudan’s various economic challenges requires significant fiscal reform which would necessitate a cut in government spending to the defence sector that would be unpalatable to military and paramilitary leaders (See SUDAN: UNRAVELLING THE ‘DEEP-STATE’ WHILE SEEKING ECONOMIC RECOVERY).
Sudanese authorities may try to blame a foreign terrorist operation for the assassination attempt on Prime Minister Hamdok. Last February, Sudanese security forces arrested a foreign terrorist cell that was manufacturing explosives in the Eastern Nile district of Khartoum state. Prosecutors said the call was part of an Islamist militant group that planned to carry out bomb attacks. Such accusations would seek to distract from the various motivations for the backlash against Hamdok’s government, as assessed by EXX Africa in this briefing.