With great relief last week, Sudan greeted the swearing in of a Sovereign Council and the appointment of a new prime minister — Abdalla Hamdok — who, after taking the oath of office, began negotiations to form a cabinet which is expected to be announced in the coming days. Hamdok is expected to select a government of at most 20 ministers from a list presented to him by the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). The new cabinet and the Sovereign Council, which replaced the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that had taken charge after the overthrow of the dictatorial Islamist regime of Omar Al-Bashir, are expected to hold their first joint meeting in early September.
The positive progress made towards shaping the transitional period in Sudan has raised hopes among broad sectors of the Sudanese public who see the creation of Sovereign Council as a banner of national reconciliation. Many were especially heartened by the presence of two women on the council, one of whom — Raja Nicola Abdel-Masih — is a Copt. Their appointments were seen as a dual victory: for women’s rights and for diversity.
“It is a fantastic sight for the Sudanese people who achieved their revolution after great sacrifice,” said Sadiq Al-Sadeq Al-Mahdi of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), adding: “The most immediate task ahead of us is to achieve peace. Without just and comprehensive peace, it will be impossible to achieve political stability and development.”
In the opinion of the political activist Omar Al-Ashari, the creation of the Sovereign Council was a “step forward despite the complications”. Abdel-Rasoul Al-Nur, a leader of the Umma Party, lauded the “great steps towards the establishment of the civil state, equal citizenship, and freedom, peace and justice without discrimination and favouritism.”
Many in Sudan also welcomed the appointment of Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister at this extremely challenging time. In his first television interview after assuming office, Hamdok said that the highest priorities of his government would be to stop the warfare, realise a lasting peace and remedy the standard of living crisis in Sudan by promoting a national economy based on production as opposed to aid and handouts. “In order to build our country, we must stop the war, direct resources towards production and build an economy based on industrialisation,” the new prime minister said.
Hamdok identified rebuilding confidence in the Sudanese banking system as one of the most pressing challenges. The ailing agricultural sector also needed urgent attention due to the many problems stemming from the rising costs of production and over-taxation. It was essential to support the agricultural sector, change its conventional modes of production and stop exporting Sudanese goods in raw, unprocessed states, he said.
At the same time, he said that there was no need to fear a World Bank prescription. “We will work towards a formula that suits our circumstances and that aligns the IMF with our vision,” he said, noting that Sudan can draw on the experiences of many other African countries in this regard.
Hamdok also stressed the need to fight corruption firmly and resolutely. Towards this end, there had to be an independent judiciary plus a robust press and media. “The press and media have an important role to play in the fight against corruption and in stimulating investigative, truth-exposing journalism.”
In a subsequent interview with Reuters, Hamdok said that he had begun talks with US officials over removing Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, “a designation which has left Khartoum isolated from most of the international financial system since 1993”, Reuters wrote. The new prime minister also told Reuters that Sudan needs $8 billion in foreign aid over the next two years to cover its import bill and help rebuild its ravaged economy after months of political turmoil, and that another $2 billion of foreign reserves deposits were needed in the next three months to halt a downward slide in the currency. He added that he had started talks with the IMF and the World Bank to discuss restructuring Sudan’s crippling debt, and had approached friendly nations and funding bodies about aid.
Sudanese political activists and politicians were encouraged by Hamdok’s remarks and lauded important qualities they detected in him such as his commitment to the principle of teamwork, a familiarity with global experiences in economic recovery and progress in Africa, a thorough understanding of Sudanese problems and their history, and an appreciation of the many social, political and security-related dimensions of the revolution. In addition, Hamdok is armed with experience in sound governance, agricultural development, institutional reform and dispute resolution mechanisms in Africa. His considerable experience in international economic positions, for example in the African Development Bank and as a special adviser at the Trade and Development Bank in Ethiopia, should help him in his efforts to rebuild confidence in the Sudanese banking system and to build a production-based economy.
Upon arriving in Khartoum to assume his new office, Hamdok said that his government would adopt the slogan of the revolution — “Freedom, Peace, Justice” — as its guideline for the 39-month long transition period, and that the priority of his government would be to build lasting peace and to promote the development of a pluralistic democratic government in which there would be an equitable representation for women. Towards these ends, he said, his government would prioritise the development of a system of government based on the rule of law. His government would also remain committed to the fight against poverty and to free education and healthcare. He stressed that he would be the “prime minister for all Sudanese people” and that despite the heavy burden he had assumed, with the consensus of the Sudanese people it would be possible to traverse the bridge of transition safely.
Naturally, major challenges lie ahead in the three-year transitional phase. Perhaps one of the most important is whether those in charge will be able to bring militant opposition movements on board in the political process. This is a prerequisite to ending the long and bitter era of civil war.
A second major challenge will be how the partners in government handle the strains between them as they contend with the many problems that can be expected to arise during the next three years. At many points along the way, the military and civilians as well as the members of both the Sovereign Council and the cabinet will be tested on their ability to sustain their partnership. They simultaneously will be tested on their ability to vest authority in individuals with the necessary integrity and competence to manage the interim phase in a manner that wins the confidence of the public at home as well as of Sudan’s regional and international partners.
The economy presents the third major challenge. Success will be contingent on the ability of the government of the transitional period to recover billions of dollars of purloined wealth and to turn the economy around after 30 years of mismanagement and systematic plundering on the part of a corrupt regime. The stronger the partnership between the members of the transitional government, the more they will be able to win the trust of the public at home and the regional and international community as they steer the economy to an era of comprehensive development and progress.
The fourth challenge will be to rebuild institutionalised government and the civil service system which had been one of the major assets that the Sudan could boast of regionally until 30 years ago, at which point fealty and connections replaced merit and qualifications as the criteria for government appointment. Therefore, another gauge of the success of the transition period will be its ability to attract qualified skills and talents into the civil service, regardless of political, sectarian, regional or ideological affiliations.
The fifth and most serious challenge resides in the lurking danger of sleeping cells of the former regime that will stop at nothing in order to hamper the transitional process. Partners in the transitional phase must remain vigilant against obstructive schemes and they must not allow themselves to get side-tracked by their own narrow agendas.
Sudanese security experts and political analysts have cautioned that the first months of the transitional phase are likely to be the most dangerous. They fear that malign forces will be very active in disseminating fear, doubt and dismay by fostering crime, rumour mongering and unrest in order to undermine the landmark agreement between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change. Therefore, they say, the new government must remain fully alert to the magnitude of the vicious war it will face from the remnants of the old regime. At the same time, fighting that war will require that the Sudanese people and their political forces remain fully prepared to protect their civilian government just as they had protected their revolution for eight long months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly newpaper under the title: Sudanese Sovereign Council sworn in