‘Unacceptable’: Sudanese PM criticises army’s business interests

Abdalla Hamdok takes aim at the military over its vast economic activities, which he says should be limited to the defence sector.

According to Sudan's press, the army and security services control 250 companies in vital areas such as gold, rubber, meat exports, flour and sesame [Ashraf Shazly/AFP]

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has hit out at the country’s military over its vast business interests, at a time of heightened tensions within the civilian-military transitional administration.

Hamdok’s comments on Monday came a day after the United States removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of “terrorism”, a designation that has, among others, hindered the country’s access to international financial networks.

“Every army in the world invests in defence companies,” said Hamdok, an economist by training who has served in major international institutions.

“But it is unacceptable for the military and/or security services to do so in productive sectors, and thus compete with the private sector,” continued the 64-year-old, as he took aim at the powerful military’s interests in sectors ranging from mining to agriculture.

Sudan has been run by a sovereign council, a military-civilian body established in August 2019, months after the military overthrow of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in the wake of mass protests against his rule and persistent economic woes.

The council, consisting of six civilian and five military figures, is Sudan’s highest executive authority and is tasked with leading the country to free and fair multiparty elections in 2022.

Hamdok, whose transitional government is charged with the day-to-day running of the country, was responding to a question on a US bill that would aim to boost civilian control over finances and assets belonging to Sudan’s security forces.

This law “will help the transitional government to advance the democratic transformation,” Hamdok said.

According to reports in Sudan, the army and security services control 250 companies in vital areas such as gold, rubber, meat exports, flour and sesame.

They are exempt from paying tax and operate in total opacity, according to the reports, while the country is battling a deepening economic crisis.

The head of the Sovereign Council, army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, has refused to transfer the companies to the government, saying he is only willing to have them pay tax.

Earlier this year, Hamdok criticised that “only 18 percent of the state’s resources are in the hands of the government”. He pledged to make it a “priority” to return companies belonging to the security sector to the government.

Military divestment

Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said Hamdok’s public statement signalled to security leaders  that the need for security reform continues, even after the recent removal of the State Sponsors of Terror (SST) designation.

“With the lifting of SST, some security actors may feel less inclined to proceed with the democratic transition, preferring to maintain the status quo,” he told Al Jazeera.

Siegle said the military’s divestment is important for a number or economic reasons, including creating additional space for a competitive private sector to grow, stimulate productivity and generate badly needed jobs.

“Military divestment is also important for security,” he added. “Managing outside economic interests distracts security actors from their priority role, which is to provide security for citizens. It also contributes to a bloated military and a top-heavy leadership who are unwilling to retire.  Finally, military divestment is critical to facilitate a genuine democratic transition.

“By controlling their own sources of revenue outside of state control, security leaders will be less accountable to an elected civilian leadership vis-a-vis their financial interests. This fosters political instability.”

Suliman Baldo, a senior policy adviser at the Sentry, a non-profit organisation focused on preventing genocide and atrocities in East and Central Africa, told Al Jazeera that members of the civilian government had tried to engage in “quiet diplomacy” to persuade the military to relinquish some of its undue privileges but to not avail.

“The lifting of Sudan’s designation as a country supporting terrorism would strengthen the hand of the prime minister and the civilian component in pressuring the military and security establishment to end their financial autonomy and subject their establishment and corporate activities to civilian control,” Baldo added.

Burhan had in early December announced the creation of a new body, the Council of Transition Partners, leading to friction with Hamdok’s civilian government.

The body would be “responsible for leading the transition period, resolving differences [between those in power] and having all the necessary prerogatives to exercise its power”, according to Sudan’s SUNA news agency.

The government responded by saying al-Burhan had overstepped his prerogatives by conferring excessive powers on the new body.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies