Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan and Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, Head of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) on March 28, 2021 signed in South Sudan’s capital Juba a “declaration of principles” (DOP) that constitutes a framework for political talks with armed groups to end conflicts in the country and rebuild the new Sudanese state.

The declaration is a crucial event on Sudan’s political scene and would have a decisive impact on shaping the final formula at the end of the transitional stage that started two years ago.

This paper sheds light on the impact of the DOP by analyzing its context and elements and foresee its impact on the future of the political landscape in Sudan.

Political context of the declaration of principles

In the wake of the uprising that toppled president Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019, the Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change alliance (FFC) signed a political agreement that consolidates the foundations and mechanisms of running a 39-month transition process (that has been extended another 14 months in Nov. 2020).

According to the agreement, the Military Council shares with the political and civilian forces the three centers of power: The Sovereignty Council, the Council of Ministers and the Legislative Council.

However, this agreement was boycotted by armed groups in the states of Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile known as the Sudanese Revolutionary Front.

On Oct. 2, 2020, the Sudanese government and some armed factions signed a peace agreement in Juba. The agreement included a number of provisions centered around power-sharing, distribution of wealth and transitional justice. However, two major groups in the Sudanese Revolutionary Front - SPLM-N and Sudan Liberation Movement - boycotted this agreement and insisted on their demand of the separation of religion and state and the establishment of a secular federal state in Sudan.

Although some factions that splintered from the Sudan Liberation Movement have joined the Juba agreement, the main faction led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur did not join the agreement.

The most important provisions in the DOP signed by al-Burhan and al-Hilu are the separation of state and religion, the final constitution of Sudan shall not specify the official religion of the state, and adopt the democratic federal system.

The declaration stated that both sides agreed to “the establishment of a civil, democratic federal state in Sudan, wherein, the freedom of religion, the freedom of belief and religious practices and worship shall be guaranteed to all Sudanese people.”

It also says that “no religion shall be imposed on anyone by the state. The state shall be impartial in terms of religious matters and matters of faith and conscience. The state shall guarantee and protect the freedom of religion and practices. These principles shall be enshrined in the constitution.”

The declaration also included an agreement to integrate armed militias into a national army independent from political parties and groups. “Sudan shall have a single professional national army that operates according to a new unified military doctrine that is committed to protecting national security in accordance with the constitution; security and military institutions shall reflect Sudanese diversity and their allegiance shall be to the country and not any other political parties or groups.”

This huge shift cannot be separated from the following two fundamental recent events in Sudan:

  1. Normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel on Oct. 23, 2020 – that paved the way to lift the decades-long economic and political blockade imposed on Sudan - and improvement of Khartoum’s ties with influential Western countries.
  2. The renewed turmoil in traditional conflict zones in Sudan, especially in Darfur (Junaynah and al-Fashir) that led to the death and injury of a large number of people in the second anniversary of April uprising that deposed al-Bashir regime.

Therefore, the Juba declaration is a window of hope for Sudan that might end an armed conflict in three large states in the West and South after the failure of the former regime’s strategy to eradicate the rebel groups by force. The declaration has decisively resolved all contentious issues between the two sides.

So, it is expected that talks which is supposed to start on April 20, 2021, would lead to a final peace deal. It is evident that the problem of religious, ethnic and tribal diversity is still standing in Sudan despite the secession of South Sudan in 2011. This shows the significance of the recent declaration in Sudan’s political landscape.

Prospects of Sudan’s political future after Juba agreement

The importance of the recent Juba declaration lies in its likely impact on the heated controversy about Sudan’s identity and the nature of its political and constitutional system. This is the central debate preoccupying all components of the Sudanese political elite.

The relation between religion and the state in Sudan has been under discussion since the independence of the country. That relation had a totally different context from those in other Arab countries if we exclude Lebanon from that account given its special case. From this perspective, it should be noted that British colonial authorities- when establishing the modern Sudanese state- did not seek to decisively define the constitutional and political identity of the country in a manner that brings it closer to the central African countries that also host various ethnic and religious groups. The 1956 constitution in Sudan did not prescribe the state religion. Moreover, the 1973 constitution that followed Addis Ababa agreement signed between former Sudan’s President Ja’far Nimeiri and Sudan Liberation Movement on February 27, 1972 recognized the religious diversity in the country. However, Sudan’s consecutive governments have sought since the introduction of Sharia law in 1983 to impose the Islamic model in the state which was the main reason behind the outbreak of a long war with the southern factions (June 1983).

The 1998 constitution issued by former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir prescribed the “governance of the divine in the state”, and the Islamic identity of Sudan. Under that constitution, there should be no legislation that would contradict with the Sharia law and that the president of the republic would be considered as the Imam of Muslims. As such, the Juba declaration can be considered as a decisive break with this “Islamic” approach to governance that was based on a clear “Islamist” perception that is deeply rooted in the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood Movement adopted by “the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation,” led by al-Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi in 1989.

The DOP was supported by major political forces in Sudan including “the National Ummah Party” that was established by the late former Prime Minister al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, “Sudanese Professionals Association” which encompasses major civil society organizations operating under the Alliance for Freedom and Change, “the Sudanese Congress Party”, and “the Sudanese Revolutionary Front” that includes the armed groups. In the meanwhile, the agreement was rejected by political Islam organizations which saw it as an abandonment of Sudan’s Islamic identity and acquiescence to the demands of secular groups that have no real influence in the Sudanese street.

While it seems hard under the current circumstances to expect an accurate scenario for the future political situation in Sudan following the recent agreement, there are three possible scenarios in this context:

  1. The dynamic of reforms and change works in Sudan with armed groups joining the political march; thereby facilitating the success of the transition process in the country, and the draft of a new constitution that provides for the establishment of a democratic and federal system and a civil state that protects the rights of diverse ethnic and religious groups in Sudan. The realization of this scenario is contingent on the continued alliance between the military establishment and civil political forces, the support of global actors for negotiations, and providing basic assurances and incentives to the transitional government, particularly the economic and development assistance to help mitigate the acute societal crisis facing the country.
  2. The negotiating parties fail to reach an agreement on the constitutional foundations on which the government can be built in the country. If this happens, the armed groups and their alliance with other political forces will probably withdraw from negotiations. 
  3. The transition process fails due to the heightened conflict between the military council and political forces. As a result, the army may seek to seize the ultimate power or a public uprising may erupt with its own logic and impact on the Sudanese scene. This will necessarily mean the return to civil war and military conflicts, and the failure of political reforms in its totality. 

While the first scenario seems to be the most probable given the facts on the ground, the other two scenarios are certainly possible due to the fragile agreement that has been reached recently between the parties.

Conclusion

  • The DOP signed by the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and SPLN-N leader Abdel Aziz al-Hilu on March 28, 2021 in Juba addressed all controversial issues including the state identity and the nature of the political system in the country. It also enhanced the chances to end the military conflicts in regions of Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. It is expected that next negotiations initially scheduled on April 20, 2021, will lead to the signing of a final peace agreement.
  • While the DOP was supported by major active political forces in Sudan, it was rejected by political Islam organizations which saw it as an abandonment of Sudan’s Islamic identity and acquiescence to the demands of secular groups.
  • The dynamic of reforms and change will probably work in Sudan with armed groups joining the political march; thereby facilitating the success of the transition process in the country, and the draft of a new constitution that provides for the establishment of a democratic and federal system and a civil state that protects the rights of diverse ethnic and religious groups in Sudan. The realization of this scenario is contingent on the continued alliance between the military establishment and civil political forces, the support of global actors for negotiations, and providing basic assurances and incentives to the transitional government, particularly the economic and development assistance to help mitigate the acute societal crisis facing the country. 

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