The domestic balance of power in Sudan after the fall of President Omar al-Bashir obliged the creation of a political system in which there were several different poles of decision-making, both de jure (i.e. constitutionally) and de facto. This state of affairs has greatly influenced foreign policymaking over the last year, with the new reality raising a pressing question: who makes Sudanese foreign policy? Answering this question will help us deal more appropriately with this country – a country of great importance to both Arab and African affairs.
There are many different determining factors that shape how and to what extent the different members of the governing coalition in Sudan influence foreign policymaking.
1. Constitutional factors
The Constitutional Charter produced by the agreement between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change gave foreign policy a special importance. Article 7 (13), under the heading “Mandate of the Transitional Period”, stipulates that the various transitional bodies should “draft a balanced foreign policy to achieve the supreme national interests of the State and work on improving and building Sudan’s foreign relations on the basis of independence and shared interests in a manner that preserves the country’s sovereignty, security, and borders.”
However, one of the problems facing foreign policymaking in Sudan is that the Charter empowers both the Transitional Sovereignty Council and the Cabinet to “represent the State abroad” (art. 70 (5)), which allows both bodies to exercise various different functions relevant to foreign policy. Article 11 grants the Sovereignty Council extensive powers, including the authority to confirm ambassadors appointed by the Cabinet, approve the accreditation of foreign ambassadors, and sign international and regional agreements following ratification by the Legislative Council. Article 15, meanwhile, authorizes the Cabinet to “expedite draft laws, the draft general budget of the State, international treaties, and bilateral and multilateral agreements”.
2. Personal factors
The personal factor is of great importance in determining the participation of different groups and parties in foreign policymaking. This is particularly true given that the country is passing through a transitional period, which means that foreign policy is often less constrained by regular procedural rules and more influenced by the past experience and ability of various leadership figures than might otherwise be the case under normal conditions.
For example, the most important foreign policy functions of the Sovereignty Council have generally been exercised by its Deputy Chair, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti or “little Hamdan”), rather than by its Chair, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Since 2014, Dagalo’s Rapid Response Forces (RRF) have been part of the Khartoum Process, an international program put together by the EU and a number of African countries to put an end to illegal migration. The RRF’s prominent role in sealing off human trafficking routes meant that, by the time of Bashir’s fall, Dagalo had been in direct contact with EU officials for more than five years. The RRF have also been an important part of the Sudanese military presence in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
Similarly, within the Cabinet it has been Omer Qamar al-Din Ismail, State Minister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has been most prominent, while the Minister of Foreign Affairs herself, Asma Mohamed Abdalla, has had little part in many issues. Ismail, previously the lead Policy Coordinator of the US-based Enough Project, is one of the veteran faces of the émigré Darfur movement, and his activities there mean that he is close to US decisionmakers – particularly since 2011, when he gave testimony before the US Congress on events in Darfur and called for support for the Sudanese opposition. In May 2019, before his return to Sudan, Ismail appeared before Congress for a second time, this time arguing for a draft resolution committing the USA to support a rapid transition to civilian rule after the Sudanese Revolution; this resolution was subsequently adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Abdalla, meanwhile, was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in September 2019 as an honorary posting and in order to improve representation in the Cabinet (she is the only woman to occupy one of the so-called Sovereign Ministries); since being dismissed from the diplomatic service in 1991 under the Public Interest Dismissal Act, she had ceased all political activity, and had held no foreign ministry post more senior than Ambassador of Sudan in Oslo.
Transitional Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s long career in international organizations, which stretches back to the 1980s, has likewise meant that he has played a particularly prominent role in foreign policymaking. Hamdok’s previous employers include African economic and development organizations in Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ethiopia, where he worked as Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
3. Institutional factors
One of the most important reasons for the large number of institutions that have played a part in Sudanese foreign policymaking post-Bashir is the structural weakness of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. While it might be expected that a new government would rely particularly heavily on Foreign Ministry expertise, the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs – ultra-politicized under Bashir – has not been able to fulfil this function. Having been headed by a series of ministers from non-diplomatic backgrounds whose only common feature was their ideological loyalty to the Bashir regime, the Ministry has become almost completely detached from any deeply rooted diplomatic tradition.
Junior diplomats and officials were likewise appointed in larger and larger numbers based on ideological affinity, making the Foreign Ministry one of the first and largest of Sudan’s institutions to undergo serious efforts to reverse the effects of Bashir’s policy of tamkeen – that is, the consolidation of power by purging government institutions of career bureaucrats and replacing them with loyalists. On February 29, 2020, the Committee to Reverse the Effects of Tamkeen and Fight Corruption dismissed some 109 diplomats and administrators from the Foreign Ministry who had been appointed via the Presidency under Bashir.
As a result, institutions like the Armed Forces, the RRF, or even the Prime Minister’s Office seem capable of playing a more active role in foreign policymaking. Compared to the Foreign Ministry, these institutions’ administrative operations are much more straightforward, and loyalists to the former regime have enjoyed relatively little influence since the Revolution.
4. External factors
Sudan’s international and regional environment has played a key role in shaping how the country is governed during the transitional period, and the various transitional institutions are still relying heavily on international support to ensure a successful transition. Given how important this environment is to domestic interactions, it is only logical that this external variable should also have an impact on Sudanese foreign policy; one of the ways that this has become apparent is in the priority given to domestic forces in representing Sudanese interests and dealing with the international community on specific issues.
This state of affairs is particularly visible in the keenness of the USA and the EU to deal with Hamdok directly in his role as the representative of the Forces of Freedom and Change; they believe that this will guarantee conformity with the principle of civil government throughout the transitional period without leading to a break or disagreement with the military-led Sovereignty Council.
The external factor is one of the most important in deciding who is responsible for making foreign policy during the transitional period. In many cases, the share of each of the participating forces in government is determined by foreign powers with an interest in dealing with, or avoiding, a given group. This is the product of a very precarious domestic status quo, which has had clear ramifications for the performance of the transitional institutions in the foreign policy sphere.
Roles and spheres
The distribution of foreign policy functions between the various groups involved in the government is determined by the different spheres of Sudanese foreign activity.
1. Northern and eastern neighbors (Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea)
Sudan’s relations with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have seen a marked increase in both the intensity of diplomatic activity and the seniority of the officials involved, and serve as an important model of how different centers of foreign policymaking can represent and give voice to Sudanese interests. Burhan, Dagalo, and Hamdok have all made repeated visits to Cairo, as well as receiving high-level delegations from Egypt, with positive effects for bilateral relations. The same is true of Addis Ababa and Asmara.
Two exceptional cases are worth noting in this regard. The first is the decision to make Burhan and the Sudanese Armed Forces responsible for managing the conflict with Ethiopia over the Al-Fashqa border region, which has seen an influx of Ethiopian farmers supported by Shafta militia fighters. Burhan escalated tensions in the region by visiting Al-Fashqa in April and, in an official statement, the Sudanese Armed Forces accused the Ethiopian army of providing tactical support to local militias during the attacks that took place in May.
The second exceptional case is the Renaissance Dam issue. The Sudanese position has largely been determined by Hamdok, through direct communication both with Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders and with the USA, which is supporting his efforts to settle disagreements over the project. On July 23, Hamdok ordered the formation of a Renaissance Dam Monitoring Committee comprising the ministers of irrigation, foreign affairs, justice, and cabinet affairs, in addition to the Director-General of the General Intelligence Service and the Director of the Military Intelligence Authority. Hamdok heads this Committee personally.
2. Southern and western neighbors (South Sudan and Chad)
As well as the special links that Sudan inevitably shares with South Sudan and Chad themselves, these two countries’ ties to Sudanese armed movements lend their relations with Sudan a particular sensitivity. Many of the armed movements active in the Nuba Mountains, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile State are linked organically to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that has ruled South Sudan since its establishment in 2011. Similarly, many of those operating in Darfur have links with Chad, whose President, Idriss Déby, is a member of the Zaghawa people, one of the ethnic groups who have been most deeply involved in the Darfur conflict since it first broke out in 2003. Given his background as a major player in Darfur and his long-standing relationship with the armed movements as head of the RRF, Dagalo leads the way in Sudanese policymaking on South Sudan and Chad, both of which are central to the peace negotiations. He has visited Juba and N’Djamena multiple times and has had extensive contact with the political and military leadership in both countries. Dagalo’s high visibility in this sphere does not mean that he is the only one involved in managing relations with the two States, however; other members of the Sovereignty Council have also been involved, in particular Burhan, Shams al-Din al-Kabashi, and Yasser al-Atta.
3. The Middle East
Various transitional government figures have been active in this region, with varying levels of coordination depending on the issue. Sudan’s policy on the UAE and Saudi Arabia has been marked by a very high degree of coordination: Burhan and Hamdok conducted a joint visit to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, an event that has not been repeated since. This can be attributed to the important support that the two Gulf States have been providing to the transitional period in Sudan since a very early stage, in addition to the various common interests shared by the two countries in Sudan in both the economic sphere (where Hamdok takes charge) and the military and security spheres (where Burhan is dominant).
However, a rare public sign of disagreement on foreign policy came when Burhan met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on February 3, 2020 in Entebbe, Uganda. The Cabinet’s response to this meeting was very sharp indeed: at midnight on February 5, Minister for Media and government spokesperson Faisal Mohamed Saleh issued a statement denying any foreknowledge of the meeting on the part of the government or any of the forces involved in it, and stating that Burhan had been acting in a personal capacity, without prior consultation, and bore sole responsibility. This was supposedly in line with the explanation given by Burhan himself when he met with the government following his return from Entebbe.
4. The international community
Hamdok is considered the greatest contributor to Sudan’s international relations, particularly as regards the USA and Europe. Although many of the major international powers have declined to treat the army’s removal of Bashir as a military coup, they have nonetheless made their desire for civilian government during the transitional period very clear (even while acknowledging that some military participation may be unavoidable), a point that was of particular importance in the power-sharing agreement signed in August 2019. Both the US government and many European governments have thus been very willing to treat Hamdok as Sudan’s main representative during the transitional period. The points discussed during Hamdok’s December 2019 visit to Washington, which, alongside economic issues, included numerous issues of political and security relevance, show that the USA considers him their main partner in Sudan.
The same largely applies to European countries. A few days after taking office, Hamdok received an official invitation from French President Emmanuel Macron; on September 30, 2019, Paris became the first European capital that he visited as Prime Minister, a visit which won him significant political and financial support. As well as representing Sudan at the UN General Assembly in September 2020 – after years in which Sudan had been completely unrepresented because of the impossibility of hosting Bashir in the USA – Hamdok has also appeared at many other important events, including the African Union Summit of last February and a donors’ conference held remotely in June 2020.
The limits of competition between foreign policymaking spheres
Despite the various poles of foreign policymaking that have appeared in Sudan during the transitional period, sharp competition or disagreement between such officials is rare, with issues and geographical areas being divided between these different poles on the basis of consensus. While visible signs of division over foreign policy may be rare, this does not necessarily mean that these officials maintain active coordination mechanisms and open channels of communication; rather, it seems more likely that each party is sticking to the issues that all sides recognize as legitimately “theirs”. This may cause other conflicts between these officials in future, as a result of both the long duration of the transitional period and the complexity of foreign policy issues. It is possible to draw some more detailed conclusions:
It is possible to make several projections for the future of foreign policymaking in Sudan:
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 For example, Bashir’s last Foreign Minister, Al-Dirdiri Mohamed Ahmed, was a lawyer specializing in international criminal law. He had no experience of diplomatic work prior to his appointment in 2018. His successor, Ibrahim Ghandour, was a professor of dentistry who had held various posts within the National Congress Party (NCP), including serving as Deputy Chair, before being made Foreign Minister in 2015. The same applies to Ali Karti, a lawyer and businessman who served as Foreign Minister from 2010 to 2015 after many years at the head of the the Popular Defense Forces.
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 The idea that the transitional government should be led by civilians was one of the central principles of US and European diplomacy after the Sudanese Revolution, and appears clearly in the power-sharing agreement, which closely resembles a parliamentary system: the Prime Minister holds most of the executive power, while symbolic and sovereign powers remain in the hands of the Sovereignty Council, whose membership includes both civilian and military representatives who alternately hold the chair.
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