When a Caretaker Government Goes Missing in Action, Shouldn’t a Crisis Government Be the Answer?

Munzoul A. M. Assal

June 12, 2023

While war is raging in Sudan, there is a complete absence of government, especially in Khartoum. Sudan adopted a federal system of government in 1994 and, ideally, the states should be able to function independently of the center. But the April 15 war demonstrated that the federal system of governance was just on paper. Everything was centralized in Khartoum and state governments were completely paralyzed. The functioning of local services and vital state functions such as paying out salaries were completely dependent on Khartoum. The banking system is not working and people all over the country have lost access to their bank accounts. Unable to access funds, they cannot buy electricity and other necessities. The functioning of government at the state level is lethargic and offers little by way of addressing challenges facing the Sudanese as a result of the war.

In this context, there is a need for a crisis government in Khartoum. This might be seen as utopian, but it is imperative from a humanitarian perspective. But the absence of an effective government is not linked to, or caused by, this war. It goes back to October 2021 when the military conspired to oust the civilian government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The coup, led by the then-allied Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, commander of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and head of the Sovereignty Council, and his deputy Gen. Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), derailed the transition to democracy, severed Sudan’s relationship with the international community and put Sudan in the line of failed states. Long before the current war between the SAF and the RSF, continuous protests and regional and international isolation made the country ungovernable. The inability to govern is one of the strong indications of state failure, and the situation only worsened after the April 15 war.

Since October 2021, Sudan has had no effective government. Following October 25, 2021, military coup, the Chairman of the Sovereign Council dismissed the Prime Minister, most of his cabinet members, and civilian members of the sovereign council. Some were arrested. A few weeks after the coup, a deal was reached with Mr. Hamdok, who was reinstated. He started reversing decisions taken by the coup leaders in a bid to assert civilian leadership, but the military leaders obstructed these decisions. The military leaders promised to free those who were jailed after the coup, but they did not do so. The coup leaders returned former regime loyalists to key government positions. It quickly became clear that the two military leaders (Burhan and Hemedti) were not sincere and less than two months after the agreement was signed Mr. Hamdok was forced to resign, citing irreconcilable differences between Sudan’s political forces (Forces for Freedom and Change and other political actors) and the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support forces.

Mr. Hamdok’s resignation was a serious blow to the democratic transition in Sudan and created a vacuum in the country. The two military leaders colluded to bring down the civilian government but failed to form a new one. This failure was due to two key factors: first, the military leaders were not sincere and, second, they faced fierce resistance from the Sudanese who took to the streets daily, calling on them to relinquish power. Further, cracks appeared in the alliance between the SAF commanders and the RSF as their respective dominance ambitions diverged. But, still acting as one, the military leaders insisted that the civilian actors needed to get their act together and form a government and that they were the guardians of the political process. Al-Burhan repeated this mantra in all his public appearances and speeches.

General al-Burhan, faced with fierce opposition, daily protests, and international condemnation, turned to the former regime for support and allowed them to creep back into key positions in the civil service. Rapprochement with the Islamists was inaugurated with the suspension of the work of the committee entrusted with dismantling the corrupt structures of the former regime. Members of the dismantlement committee were arrested, and a smear campaign was organized against them. Rather than dismantling the structures of the former regime, the coup leaders empowered them, rolling back the work of the committee and allowing thousands of former regime loyalists to retrieve their positions and seized assets. These developments led many to believe that the October 2021 military coup was orchestrated by the former regime to obstruct democratic transition. This idea gained currency when in February and March 2023 key leaders of the former regime who had hitherto been in hiding appeared in public and pledged to sabotage the December 2022 framework agreement between civilians and the military.

Unable (read unwilling) to form a government, the head of the sovereign council appointed caretaker ministers who either supported, or sympathized with, the former regime. The caretakers were seen as lame ducks, dubbed contemptuously as puppets for the military and former regime. The ministers and sovereign council members, including the ministers of finance, social development, and minerals, and three members of the sovereignty council, who got their positions based on the Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) remained in the government.

The already dysfunctional government unraveled further after the war began. Since the beginning of the war, the head of the sovereignty council appeared in public twice only and has not presented any coherent message to the people of Sudan. General Hemedti was dismissed as deputy chairman of the sovereignty council and Malik Agar, one of the signatories of the JPA, replaced him. The ministers of the interior and foreign affairs went missing; the former was dismissed, and the latter was suspended by General Burhan. One month after the war, the ministers of finance, health, and social development relocated to Port Sudan but there was little they could do other than receive and coordinate relief and medical supplies. The rest of the cabinet members are not to be seen anywhere.

The absence of the government has increased the suffering of the Sudanese all over the country, but particularly in Khartoum and Darfur. Public sector employees have not received their salaries since March 2023. Very few private sector firms have managed to provide salaries either. Haggar Holding Company offered its employees two months’ salary- April and May but announced that it is closing its doors on June 1, 2023, which means that all employees have lost their jobs. In Khartoum, the police have completely disappeared. The absence of police left private homes and properties in the beleaguered city prey to criminal gangs who roam the city looting and ransacking. The new minister of the interior is not visible. The disappearance of the government hastened the evaporation of basic services like water, electricity, banking, and telecommunications. There is a serious cash shortage. In Khartoum in particular, people might starve due to the lack of cash and the depletion of food stocks. Food-producing factories were burned down and looted, and those that survive are unable to function due to war. Existing government structures not only failed to alleviate suffering, but also actively obstruct the delivery of humanitarian supplies through unnecessary bureaucratic procedures and delays.

Ten days into the war, a group of Sudanese comprised of academics, civil society activists, and a few politicians formed “the national mechanism to support the democratic civil transition and to stop the war.” The main objective of this group is to stop the war and restore a peaceful political process that would put the transition back on track. One of the key tasks the national mechanism is working for is forming an independent civilian crisis government tasked with restoring basic services, creating a semblance of civility, and eventually leading a political process that would put an end to the war.

Too good to be true? It looks like it is. One key challenge is the position of those with guns, especially the Sudan Armed Forces. The RSF are less likely to object since it is out of the government anyway. There are two scenarios: SAF and RSF accept this proposal, or they reject it. If they give the National Mechanism thumbs up to form an independent government, there are a few questions: what about the JPA ministers? Will they continue as part of the new crisis government? How would other political actors react? Given these fundamental questions, any attempt to form a crisis government independent of the political interlocutors and the military is a futile exercise.

It is not unlikely that SAF and RSF would reject any attempt to form an independent crisis government, especially since the SAF and even more so the Islamists are likely to see this move as a step to sideline them; losing what they gained as a result of the October 2021 military coup. Is this a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”? It looks like it. Yet, the prevailing vacuum is not sustainable.

For now, there are no less than a dozen initiatives to address the crisis developed by civil society activists, trade union leaders, women groups, resistance committee members, pro-democracy politicians, and thought leaders. While these initiatives, some of which emerged among exiled Sudanese, agree on the imperative of stopping the war, they do not agree with the national mechanism’s position on forming a crisis government. In addition, there are attempts to include civilian actors in the negotiations taking place in Jeddah, and an African Union plan to convene civic leaders ahead of the anticipated political negotiations to end the crisis. It is not clear how civilians could take part and which civilians would be included, given the fissures that characterize the political landscape in Sudan. At the time of writing, another initiative, “the Civilian Front Against the War and for Restoring Democracy,” is seeking to coordinate with the National Mechanism group on an approach to coordinate the messaging and recommendations of all nationally constituted initiatives to end the war and restore democratic transition. The resulting shared platform would give civic actors more leverage to influence the soon-to-launch political negotiations to end the war. In any case, it seems that forming a crisis government now is not an easy task, to say the least.

Ideally, the war should stop based on a credible and verifiable ceasefire that paves the way for a genuine political process and the formation of a civilian-led government that addresses the dire humanitarian situation, restores public services, and addresses other consequences of this devastating war. The sad reality is that SAF and RSF do not seem to be ready for a ceasefire. On June 1, SAF suspended its participation in the Jeddah talks. On the same day, Saudi Arabia and the US suspended their mediation. On June 2, the US imposed sanctions on four entities belonging to SAF and RSF. On June 9, the mediators announced that SAF and the RSF agreed to a 24-hour ceasefire that would start at 6 am Saturday 10 June. Fighting resumed immediately after the end of that truce on June 11. The mediators announced that if the two parties fail to observe this short ceasefire, they will suspend the Jeddah talks. The extension of the short-term ceasefire for humanitarian purposes, while good, should not replace the work toward a permanent one. Whether forming a crisis government or revitalizing the existing one, something must be done to alleviate the suffering of the Sudanese people. At present, Sudanese interlocutors have little, if any, leverage. The loudest voices are coming from those holding the guns. Members of the international community must step up their efforts. Unfortunately, to date, their response has not been commensurate with the gravity of the situation in Sudan.

Munzoul Assal is Professor of social anthropology University of Khartoum and Professor II University of Bergen

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