Proposals have been announced for the establishment of a federal governing system in Sudan that would divide the country into six regions instead of the current 18 states in line with reforms agreed as part of the Juba Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and the six groups of the Sudan Revolutionary Front last October.
A constitutional decree issued on 5 March by head of the Transitional Sovereign Council (TSC) in Sudan Abdel- Fattah Al-Burhan postponed the application of the federal system until the Conference on the System of Government (CSG) in Sudan has been convened that will define the regions, their powers and the federal levels of governance.
According to the decree, Sudan will be divided into the Khartoum, Eastern Sudan, Northern Sudan, Central Sudan, Darfur, South and West Kordofan and Blue Nile provinces.
However, the proposed decentralisation may pose new problems for Sudan, a country that has been mired in various economic and political crises, even as the new system changes the governing system from one based on states to one based on regions.
“Federalism could be very useful in the case of Sudan, which has been exhausted by the long wars that have taken place between the central government and the regions and that led to the separation of South Sudan,” said Nagmeldin Karamalla, a researcher in Sudanese affairs.
Karamalla said that a “federal system will realise the fair and balanced sharing of resources and where the largest shares will be allotted. It will ensure that regional governors are appointed without central direction.”
However, the federation move is still “too early,” he said, as it is the CSG meeting that will outline the new governance system adopted in the country.
“There are fears that many political forces will not accept the new system, especially the traditional political parties that reject the federal model because it may reduce their influence in the regions and increase the influence of new political forces and currents,” Karamalla told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The federal system announced last week would continue to be a “dead letter,” Karamalla said, as long as there is no elected parliament or even temporary parliament that can discuss the constitution and governance and whether the country should have a federal or centralised governing system.
Given that the federation system has been unrehearsed up until now, “the decision has not been accompanied by any political discussion about this important landmark step, casting a shadow on Sudan’s future,” Karamalla said.
Ethnic and minority groups have always been a feature of Sudan, with their interests linked for decades to the traditionally centralised government.
“The obstacles lie in dismantling and reforming the fundamental organisation of government. Sudan has always been a very strong central state with a very contentious relationship with its peripheral states and minority groups,” said Cameron Hudson, former director of African affairs at the US National Security Council.
Hudson told the Weekly that the central government should accept federation by “giving up some of its powers and transferring them to the states.” However, “this will also require responsible local actors to govern based on the will of the people. Given the conflictual tribal relations at the local level, this could prove challenging,” he added.
“Ultimately, given the lack of development and opportunity outside the capital, Khartoum will have to continue playing a significant role in the provision of security and services at the local level for a long time to come. But devolving power, opportunity and representation to the states under a federal system is also Sudan’s best hope for maintaining its unity and resolving once and for all its many internal divisions,” Hudson said.
Samuel Ramani, a researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford in the UK, described the federalisation decision as a “positive step” despite its likely implications as the political situation in Sudan remains uncertain.
“The October 2020 Juba Agreement brought together officials and representatives from various regions in Sudan, such as Darfur and South Kordofan, in Juba. However, the regional cleavages in Sudan remain severe. A federal structure could allow for the Juba Agreement’s terms to be upheld, as Darfur and Kordofan focus more on managing their own internal challenges rather than launching insurgencies against the Sudanese government,” Ramani said.
“A federal agreement will also resolve internal challenges at a time when Sudan’s external environment is becoming more perilous, as tensions flare with Ethiopia and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam dispute remains heated,” he added.
Although the federation approach will support the transition goals set by the revolutionary groups in Sudan, including power-sharing and the equitable distribution of wealth, it could also lead to security concerns in regions controlled by rebels who did not participate in Juba Agreement.
Ramani said that two obstacles could undermine a federal Sudan. The first is that Sudan needs to ensure that “regional autonomy does not lead to Darfur and South Kordofan harbouring paramilitaries,” he said. The second “is the need to find a consensus between Sudan’s civilian and military. The consultation needs to continue, or a federal system in Sudan won’t work.”
The proposals for a federal government would end the current centralised governing system in Sudan and set up a regional system instead, in which power would be devolved to the regions. The proposals are seen as an appropriate way of managing the diversity of Sudan, which is composed of various ethnicities, in terms of sharing wealth and power and ensuring social justice.
However, the application of such a system will be a challenge in a country that has been going through turbulence since the ouster of former president Omar Al-Bashir.
“Many African countries have adopted a federal approach, among them Ethiopia. But this is a country that still suffers from internal conflicts,” Karamalla said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly