The System of Governance Reform in Sudan: Challenges and Opportunities

By Anwar Elhaj, 30 April 2021
H.E. Mohamed Hassan Eltaashi, chair of System of Governance Conference planning committee, delivers opening remarks at a preparatory Technical Workshop
H.E. Mohamed Hassan Eltaashi, chair of System of Governance Conference planning committee, delivers opening remarks at a preparatory Technical Workshop

The signing of the Juba Peace Agreement in October 2020 triggered a timeline to, among other things, reinstate the federal system of government in Sudan. While momentum builds toward a System of Governance Conference for parties to decide the key issues of federalism in Sudan, it is crucial that the process does not privilege rapidity over inclusivity – writes Anwar Elhaj.

After long and protracted peace negotiations between the Transitional Government of Sudan (TGoS) and the armed opposition coalition – the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) – a peace agreement, dubbed the Juba Peace Agreement, was signed on 3 October 2020. The agreement followed the August 2019 Constitutional Declaration, which set out a 39-month transition period to a democratic civilian government. The Declaration fixed the establishment of peace as a primary objective. It also outlined the transitional state bodies, including a mixed military/civilian Transitional Sovereignty Council as head of state, a Prime Minister – nominated by the civilian opposition coalition Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) and appointed by the TSC –  a Transitional Cabinet, and a Transitional Legislative Council.

The milestone Juba Peace Agreement (JPA) was signed a year later. It contains agreements on key issues around power sharing, security, land ownership, and transitional justice, and six bilateral peace agreements signed between the TGoS and different factions and armed groups. Two main rebel groups – Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North-Elhilu (SPLM-N-Elhilu) and the Sudan Liberation Movement-Abdel Wahid (SLM-Abdel Wahid) – did not sign the JPA. The JPA is a significant step toward a permanent constitution and mandates a system of federalism, with significant detail on how this would operate in some regions, but not all. It is important to note that the National Issues chapter of the JPA, agreed to by all signatories, and the six bilateral agreements stipulated the need for immediate reform of the current state-based system of governance. It also required that the reform process should start with a conference on the system of governance that would bring together all stakeholders.

The Juba Peace Agreement required that the reform process should start with a conference on the system of governance that would bring together all stakeholders.

On 4 March 2021, the Chairman of the Transitional Sovereignty Council (TSC), Lt. G. Abdelfattah Alburahan, issued a constitutional decree (number 6/2021) that ordered the establishment of a regional federal system in Sudan. The decree tasked a committee to prepare for the convening of the Conference on the System of Governance to decide, among other things, on the number of regions, boundaries, structures, authorities, competencies and the governance and administration levels of these regions. The decree fulfilled one of the requirements of the JPA, which required the TGoS, according to Article I-10, to issue a decree that reinstated the regional federal system within 60 days from the signature date of the JPA. Section 10 also required the TGoS to convene a system of governance conference within six months from the date of the JPA signature.

This article is an attempt to discuss and analyze the governance reform processes, its legal framework articulation, and highlight challenges that may face these reforms. 

The Governance Reform Process

Both the TSC decree and relevant articles of the JPA agreement used the word “return” in reference to the establishment of a region-based federal system in Sudan. The significance of the use of the word is to remind the audience that the regional federal system is not completely new, but has been practiced in Sudan since 1948, when nine provinces were created following the end of World War II. By 1994, the decentralized governance system underwent major fracturing when 25 states (Wilayat) were established from within the existing nine provinces. With the secession of South Sudan in 2011 (10 Wilayat), 15 states remained in the current Sudan. However, further fracturing occurred in 2012 and 2013 by adding two more states in Darfur and one state in Kordofan, bringing the total number of states to 18.

The current processes to reform the governance system is different from previous governance reform, as summarized in the above paragraph, in two main respects:

The Context: Previous governance system reforms were adopted during the national autocratic regime (led by Jaafar Nimeiri 1969-1985 and by Omer al-Bashir 1989-2019), without transparent and inclusive consultation with political parties, civil societies, experts, and community-based organizations. On the other hand, the current reform processes specifically the process to return to a federal system of governance came in the wake of a major change in the political context that made open discussions of all governance issues possible. At the same time, the reform of the governance system is not a new idea, but was part of all political deliberations that preceded the government change in April 2019. In addition to its inclusion in the Constitutional Charter, the governance system reform is also stipulated in the JPA after thorough discussion between political leaders, government officials, experts, and representatives of the grassroots and civil society organizations.

The Political Objectives: To many observers and analysts, the two previous experiences of governance reform during the Nimeiri and Bashir regimes were essentially aimed at strengthening the regime’s power and reach by creating smaller units of decentralized government for easy security control and for buying off support. Statements by previous government officials and relevant articles in the 1973 and 2005 constitutions described the objectives for the adoption of a decentralized state or region-based system of governance as an approach to bring the government authority closer to the people. In practice, however, the politicization of the positions of governors, commissioners and senior officials, the diversion of public service and development resources to buy off political allegiances, the lack of transparency, accountability and inclusivity proved that the real objectives had little to do with good governance or empowering the ruled.

The current call for a genuine federal system of governance follows a bottom-up approach through consultation and open dialogue with the people in rural areas of the Sudan.

The political objective of the current endeavor, on the other hand, is clearly different from previous attempts. The current change in the political context helps create a new horizon for new government structures and a real decentralized system of governance. The people in Sudan, especially in the regions, expressed through their political parties and civil society organizations strong calls for the establishment of a federal system with real powers and resources. To a great extent, one of the root causes of the history of conflict in Sudan is the concentration of powers and resources in the center to leverage cultural, economic and political dominance over rural and remote areas. Moreover, the current call for a genuine federal system of governance follows a bottom-up approach through consultation and open dialogue with the people in rural areas of the Sudan, as opposed to the top-down approach adopted by previous governments.  

The Legal Framework

The legal framework documents adopted by the transitional government, since its inauguration, have all reiterated the intention and the political determination to establish a federal system of governance based on the nine previously recognized regions. The Constitutional Declaration of August 2019 stipulated in Article 4-1 and Article 9-1 that Sudan is a federal state. The JPA signed in October 2020 has also spelled out clearly in the General Principles that “Sudan is an independent, sovereign, democratic, and federal state in which sovereignty is vested in the people and exercised by the state in accordance with the provisions of the Constitutional Charter, the Peace Agreement and any subsequent constitution to be agreed upon by the Sudanese people.” Moreover, the Declaration of Principles (DP) signed by the TGoS and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N Elhilu) in March 2021 has also highlighted the need to introduce a federal system of governance. Article 2-2 emphasizes “the right of the peoples of the regions of Sudan to manage their affairs through decentralization or federalism.” These legal frameworks have prepared the legal grounds upon which the Conference on the System of Governance will be convened. Moreover, serious political discussions have already started within political parties, civil society, and grassroot organizations on the pros and cons of a regional federal system.

While, as mentioned earlier, Sudan has had experience with the regional federal system of governance, the endeavor this time, after a major change in the political context in the country, may yield better outcomes. Most if not all of the negative characteristics or features in past experience have much to do with the autocratic nature of government. The current political atmosphere has created wider room for consultation to realize inclusivity and transparency, as well as the clear presence of political will, including to address the shortcomings of previous experiences, especially when it comes to adequately resourcing the regions and devolving enough powers to the regions to manage their affairs.

The TSC’s decree to establish a regional federal system and the formation of a committee to prepare for the governance system conference are intended to meet the timeline requirements in the JPA and other legal documents governing the transitional period. Some political parties such as the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) and the Umma National Party (UNP), two of the major parties that established the Forces of Freedom and Change Alliance, have some reservations on the move and sequencing of events. They believe that the Constitutional Charter and the JPA have recognized and stipulated the need for a Constitutional Conference at the end of the transitional period. As such, they believe any premature decision on the nature of the system of governance, based on the outcome of the System of Governance Conference or the stipulation of the JPA and the DP, would undermine the deliberation of the topic during the Constitutional Conference at the end of the transitional period. To challenge the argument of these parties, the Minister of Justice,  during a roundtable discussion on 11 April 2021, argued that the convening of the Constitutional Conference at the end of the transitional period is rather a culmination event to endorse the results from all reform processes which are currently underway, including wide grassroot and political parties consultations and the System of Governance Conference.

Another challenge that may delay the process of reinstituting the federal regional system is the current governance arrangements. The state system of governance was essentially introduced, as mentioned above, to consolidate the power of the central government to divide and rule. Hence, tribes and traditional and local chiefs who were empowered by the previous regime are expected to resist a new system that may strip their authority and social status, which they enjoyed for a long time. It remains to be seen how the preparatory system of governance conference will tackle this important issue. 

It is clear that the System of Governance Conference will lean towards an asymmetrical federal system to satisfy the demands of all parties.

The JPA and the DP signed with the armed struggle movements are not identical in provisions related to the future system of governance in Sudan. Furthermore, the JPA has several tracks and sub-agreements that also look at the governance system from different angles. For example, while the Darfur track proposed a regional federal system, the SPLM-N-Agar talked about an autonomous system for the Blue Nile and the South Kordofan States. It is also not clear yet how the two armed movements, the SPLM-N-Elhilu and the Sudan Liberation Movement of Abdel Wahid Nour (SLM-Abdel Wahid) will approach the system of governance topic. It is clear that the System of Governance Conference will lean towards an asymmetrical federal system to satisfy the demands of all parties. The SPLM-N-Agar demanded autonomous rule with substantial authority to govern its area, a position they advocated for a long time, while the Darfur movements only talked about a federal system. Yet, the powers allocated to the regions in the Darfur track or the two areas track (Blue Nile and South Kordofan) are very similar.


It is obvious that the return to the regional federal system has several encouraging elements to make it a success. The conducive environment made possible by the political change, the signing of peace agreements, the political determination to address one of the root causes of the conflict in Sudan, and the bottom-up approach adopted during the current process have all sent positive signals about the governance reform process. However, there are several issues that need special consideration for a successful conclusion of the reform:

  1. The Conference on the System of Governance does not need to be rushed to meet the JPA implementation matrix. It is important for the TGoS to wait for the two armed factions (SPLM-N and the SLM-Abdel Wahid) to complete the peace negotiation tracks and sign peace agreements to be able to take part in the conference.
  2. The organizers of the Conference on the System of Governance should exert concerted efforts for the conference to be, as much as possible, inclusive, participatory, and transparent.
  3. While the JPA and the Constitutional Charter contained references to different types of system of governance, the participants in the preparatory conference need to be flexible and open to amend the text of the peace agreements to reach consensus. 
  4. The conference organizers need to solicit the ideas and views of the public, especially marginalized groups such as IDPs, about the topic of the conference.

Since its formation, the federal governance system preparation committee held three meetings and submitted its report to the TSC on 17 March 2021. A member of the preparation Committee, Ahmed Togid Lisan, outlined that the report to the TSC suggested the structure of the conference, technical committees and workshops, budget, preparation period before the convening of the conference and nomination for participation in the conference. Moreover, a two-day technical workshop, the first activity for the conference, took place 27-29 April 2021 to discuss and approve the road map and topics of discussion during the conference. The topics are organized in five categories: (1) the policies, structures, levels, legislation and relations of a regional federal system; (2) the autonomous rule in a regional federal system; (3) human, economic, financial, and economic development and services resources; (4) the geographical boundaries; and (5) the local government rule and structures.

There is still much to decide, including how the outcomes from the System of Governance Conference will feed into the constitution-making process and the Constitutional Conference at the end of the transitional period for a future permanent constitution. It is clear, however, that the discussions that precede the convening of the System of Governance Conference will not only enrich the deliberation and inform the outcome of the conference, but also represent a clear break from the closed door constitutional conferences experienced before.

Anwar Elhaj is a Researcher and Political Analyst. He is formerly Senior Researcher and Executive Director of the Sudan Democracy First Group-SDFG and is currently writing political analysis and consulting with International Agencies and NGOs.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


Zuhair Imam 9 May 2021
<p>Well written Article, contained deep analysis and sound practical recommendations. I look forward to reading your next informative work.</p> <p>All the best!&nbsp;</p>
Idd Mandi 9 May 2021
<p>Thank you for this enlightening article on the latest political development in Sudan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The idea of holding a broad-based conference in order to chart out the envisaged constituent process in Sudan is crucially important. Some of successful constituent processes such as the South African process (1990-6) were prefaced with negotiations of all stakeholders. On the contrary, constituent processes in which the Government or one political group seeks to control or exclude other stakeholders have been problematic, contentious and protracted. Thus, the envisaged Conference is a right way for Sudan.</p> <p>The author also talks about federalism in Sudan. Because of longstanding and irreconcilable differences the idea of federalism makes sense. While the adoption of a federalised form of government makes sense in the context of&nbsp; Sudan, in South Sudan federalism will present an unnecessary impediment to the integration of various ethnic groups and most probably serve as a source of longstanding disharmony.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>

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