There were scenes of jubilation on the streets of Khartoum on April 11, after the army announced the fall of Omar al-Bashir. This departure is the result of a struggle lasting several months, which Khartoum’s neighbors have always closely scrutinized. What consequences are to expect from Omar al-Bashir’s fall for the countries in Sudan’s neighborhood?
A regime at the center of regional geopolitics
Over the past 30 years, Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan has continuously played an important role on key issues in the region. This role has sometimes been chosen and politically assumed, such as its diplomatic initiatives in the peace negotiations in South Sudan or the Central African Republic. More often, it has been de facto responsibility resulting from the political crises in the region. Thus, the issue of the control of armed groups and militias entrenched in most of its border areas, and involved in the political and security crises of its neighbors, was one of Khartoum’s most important issues in its diplomatic relationship with neighboring capitals.
For Khartoum’s neighbors, the latter role seems to be most at risk after the fall of Omar al-Bashir. As the main extension his diplomatic activity in the region, the military regime led by the Military Transition Council (TMC) has until now been a guarantee of mid-term continuity, enabling neighboring countries to prepare a secured post-Bashir era. However, continued street pressure and the latest ultimatum of the African Union Peace and Security Council, which gives the military two weeks to hand over power to a civilian transition, could put an end to the military transition.
Armed groups and militias at the borders: the opportunity for an in-depth political solution?
The main challenge of the situation in Sudan for the neighboring countries is security, especially the evolution of the status of Sudanese armed groups and militias or those with rear bases on Sudanese territory.
Chad, the main neighbor in the west, shares a borderline of just over 1200 kilometers with Sudanese Darfur. The two capitals have long accused each other of harboring dissident armed groups on their side of the border since the beginning of the conflict in Darfur in 2003. Although the situation has gradually normalized, the still regular incursions of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) into Chad’s Ennedi (North Darfur, Sudanese side), involved in the artisanal mining of the region’s gold sites (heading to Tibesti, near the Libyan border), remain a source of tension that could increase. The JEM opposed to the former Khartoum regime was involved in the clashes of January 12, 2019, which killed around 60 people at the Kouri Bougoudi goldmine site (Tibesti, far north of Chad). As N’Djamena is carrying out a broad military offensive against rebel armed groups active in the BET region (Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti) since the end of 2018, developments in the situation of militias such as JEM, or its own rebel groups (in particular the UFDD, Union of forces for democracy and development, which has rear bases in North Darfur), remain a core issue.
Eritrean (north-eastern) and Ethiopian (eastern) neighbors have also frequently accused Khartoum of harboring dissident groups on its territory. Asmara thus accuses Khartoum, among others, of offering logistical and financial support to the Eritrean Moslem League, the only political-religious movement opposed to the regime of the Isaias Afwerki’s Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (FPDJ).
Also read: Sudan: The last revolution?
Prospects that the arrival of a new civilian regime in Khartoum brings a deep political solution to the activity of these various cross-border armed groups and militias are still difficult to assess. On the one hand, on the political level, a new regime succeeding that of Omar al-Bashir will undoubtedly seek above all to distinguish itself from the latter’s policies. This may involve strong initiatives for the pacification of the territory, including a possible collaboration with neighbors to provide in-depth solutions to the problem of armed groups operating in common border areas. On the other hand, at the military level, several militias such as JEM, SARC/SLFA (Sudan Awakening Revolutionary Council, which became the Sudanese Liberation Forces Alliance in 2017) or SRF (Sudan Revolutionary Front), still active since the end of the civil war in 2017, can now find, with the fall of al-Bashir, an interest in laying down their arms with a view to participating in the new regime under construction.
What are the consequences for the Central African and Southern Sudanese peace processes and for the Ethiopian initiative to pacify the region?
Omar al-Bashir’s Sudan was involved in the peace negotiations held in Khartoum in February 2019, between the Central African government and 14 rebel armed groups; and was leading the South Sudanese peace process with Ethiopia. Several concerns that rose following the fall of Omar al-Bashir concern the viability of these two processes, and more broadly, of the vast regional peace initiative initiated since 2018 by Addis Ababa.
The configuration of the stakeholders in the Central African and South Sudanese issues induces a very low probability that the fall of Omar al-Bashir will have a significant influence on the continuation of the peace process. Indeed, alongside the former Sudanese leader, it was above all the political and diplomatic pressure from the African Union and part of the international community that made it possible to reach the Khartoum agreements. The latest meeting on March 18, 2019, in Addis Ababa between the government and rebel groups that rejected the Bangui government’s list as non-inclusive, is a proof that Omar al-Bashir’s personal leadership is not essential for the sustainability of the Central African peace process, as it saved the agreements without the direct intervention of the former Sudanese leader. Similarly, the parties involved in the South Sudanese negotiations are accompanied both by Addis Ababa and the international community, in particular, the Vatican, which now intends to play a significant role in restoring peace in the country, following the invitation of Salva Kiir and Riek Machar to a peace retreat in Rome.
Read/ download our latest briefing of March 24, 2019 (PREMIUM): Political and social crisis in Sudan
The Ethiopian initiative to pacify the region could, however, be hampered by prolonged political instability in Sudan. Omar al-Bashir had personally engaged with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in various rapprochement actions that had led to the reopening in March 2019 of the Sudan-Eritrean border (which had been closed since 2017). After his departure, the main challenge for Abiy Ahmed and the leaders of the region will undoubtedly be to quickly find another interlocutor with sufficient internal political legitimacy to pursue initiatives to bring the countries of the region closer together. The current ruling TMC clearly cannot fulfill this role because of its composition on the one hand, and the fact that its political authority is rejected both by the population and the African Union, on the other. In these respects, the rapid transition to a civilian power is essential to prevent the Sudanese political situation from plunging the region into a new era of uncertainty.