Framing the New Sudan(s)

Sudan’s Transition as an Art Exhibition

More often than not, there’s more to a country’s domestic politics than classic pre-election oversimplifications and rigid dichotomies such as reformists vs conservatives, or ruling coalition vs the opposition, or the military vs civilians. After Iran and Ethiopia, the new episode of Political Parties Series is on Sudan.

An Art Exhibition in Three ‘Paintings’

Roughly one year after Sudan’s post-Bashir transition was launched, and few days away from the long-awaited peace agreement and donor conference (the former was to be reached in Juba by June 20 but is likely to be postponed again for a short time, while the latter is scheduled in Berlin for June 25), it seems legit to wonder: what do people usually refer to when today they talk about ‘Sudan’? This has actually never been very clear even before, especially at the time of the Bashir-Turabi diarchy, but the ousting of Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019 did not make things any easier: Sudan was and still remains an incredibly complex and multi-faceted affair, where it eventually becomes natural to speak of many and various ‘Sudans’ (geographically, ideologically, economically, and culturally). By conceiving Sudan’s political transition as an art exhibition, three “paintings” seem particularly apt to represent some of the major political issues of its post-Bashir transition.

Neo-Impressionist Hall

The first ‘painting’ is an overview of Sudan’s fragmented domestic political landscape in this transitional period, essentially a gem of Neo-Impressionist Art and its pointillist–divisionist techniques. Just like that, Sudan is indeed an “optical mixture” of political parties, armed groups, ethnic tribes, “placed separately on the canvas so that would mix in the spectator’s eye”. At first sight, from afar, Sudan does look like one whole block. But the picture that emerges as one moves closer to the canvas is one of deep fragmentation.

Sharp divisions emerge inside the Sovereign Council, inside the ruling coalition which backs the transitional government, inside the military apparatus, inside the opposition, as well as inside the Islamist political parties and the armed groups that make up that ‘opposition’. There has been no lack of attempts to create common fronts across such divisions. The ‘Forces of Freedom and Change’ (FFC) among anti-Bashir parties and civil groups (2019) and the ‘Sudan Revolutionary Front’ (SRF) among armed groups (2011) are just two of such instances. Yet, in neither there has been shortage of internal tensions and defections too. Disputes have recently erupted in the FFC, with al-Mahdi’s Umma Party suspending its membership and the Sudanese Professionals Association suffering from growing internal strife. Similarly, the attempt by the SRF to approach the peace negotiations with a unique front of armed groups was quite soon met by obstacles, as first al-Hilu’s SPLM-N faction and then Minni Minnawi’s SLM faction opted for separate negotiations with the government.

A detailed, yet non-exhaustive overview of Sudan’s domestic politics as of early June

Neo-Classical Alley

Sudan’s transition also exhibits forms of neoclassical artwork modelled on the typical portrayals of Janus in ancient Roman art. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and transitions, usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past.

With the fall of Bashir’s regime, a complex pattern of partnerships if not allegiances loomed up out of the shadow of foreign encroachment, as new and old foreign powers started vying with each other for influence in the new Sudan. Similarly, domestic blocs also began securing foreign support to increase their leverage at home and take charge of some ‘geographical’ dossiers.

The ‘painting’ below represents Sudan’s total incoming and outgoing high-level visits by foreign partners since the fall of Bashir, differentiated according to the domestic actors involved in those visits (author’s own dataset). On the one side, there are those involving Sudan’s Prime Minister Hamdok and Minister of Foreign Affairs Asma Mohamed Abdallah (including previous acting MFA), namely the ‘civilians’, and, on the other side, those involving the leader and deputy leader of the Sovereign Council, Burhan and Hemedti, hence the ‘military’. The results substantiate what had been anticipated in the early days of the transition just by looking at the biographies of those relevant domestic actors: the new, transitional Sudan presents a double face (neutrally intended, or maybe not), whereby the engagement with Egypt and Gulf powers (actually Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain only) is left mostly to Sudan’s military representatives while that with the ‘West’ is left predominantly to the civilian bloc. The management of other dossiers, such as the outreach to neighbours in the Horn (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, South Sudan), has so far been shared by the two blocs, with no one dominating over the other.

The reconstruction of the pattern of high-level visits represents an alternative way of tracing the interests of foreign powers and domestic blocs alike. With many foreign powers vying for influence in the new Sudan, each expectedly has its favourite ‘entry point’ and, vice versa, each domestic actor has its own favourite foreign contact. Diplomatic visits cannot capture the full extent of foreign powers’ influence and ties – how can one overlook the importance of trade exchanges, (covert) financial contributions, and much more? China remains Sudan’s largest trade and arms partner, despite keeping a low diplomatic profile – and thus they should not be overstated. But they are nonetheless a valid barometer of foreign powers’ ambitions.

A previous version missed one visit made by Hamdok to Egypt in 2019. It was clearly bilateral, not multilateral.

Dripping Gallery

Finally, the closing gallery of Sudan’s art exhibit displays two examples of drip painting, where political violence and protest events are poured on to the canvas to reveal some patterns of their evolution over the past few years, in terms of types and locations.

Looking at event types, data collected by ACLED show a significant increase in battles and in violence against civilians since 2011, despite the settlement of the South Sudanese dispute in that very year with the latter’s independence. As data clearly show, most of these events took place in the Darfur region, where since 2003 two local armed groups (SLM and JEM) have been fighting against the central government. The second hardest-hit area is the ‘Two Areas’, namely the South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions in the south, where another conflict somewhat related to Darfur’s has been going on since 2011. A dramatic change in event types came in late 2018, when protests and riots gave way to the ‘December Revolution’ which would eventually oust Bashir in April 2019. Concurrently, the area of Khartoum also became one of the hardest-hit locations, stealing the limelight from Sudan’s periphery. Finally, regarding the first half of 2020, data seem to suggest a downward trend in protests, but battles and violence against civilians in the peripheral regions continue unabated. Whether the forthcoming signature of Juba’s initial peace deal between most armed groups and the transitional regime can effectively put an end to this actually remains quite obscure.

🕹 Zoom in a bit and move the slider to examine the data:

• Small Arms Survey Sudan
• Radio Dabanga, Sudan Tribune, and other news outlets
• G. Musso, La Caserma e la Moschea, Carocci Ed., 2017
• Jean-Baptist Gallopin for being a source of inspiration when in late 2018 first attempted to map visually Sudan’s domestic politics (which actually became an ECFR publication in June 2020)
• IISS, Armed Conflict Survey 2020
• ACLED data

Somewhere between the Hindu Kush and the Horn of Africa. Perhaps تمريدة, on the island of Socotra (in Sanskrit: island of joy) — Tiz