A people's journey to freedomDemocracy July 9, 2019
The situation in Sudan is complicated, to say the least. There was hope in the first few weeks. Hope that the peaceful protesters demanding democracy would finally get what they want. On April 11, a military coup brought down Sudanese dictator President Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power. The soldiers, however, were not the heroes of this story. The heroes are the Sudanese citizens who have been demonstrating across Sudan since December. Led, in part, by the Sudan Professionals Association they relentlessly called for the resignation of the dictator. They pushed him out, and they want the whole government to fall.
Defence Minister Awad Ibn Auf, who “led” the military coup that brought down Bashir, took over as the head of a 10-man transitional military council. But as Bashir’s former friend suspected of committing massacres in Darfur, he was seen as just another violent figure. Not content with this decision, the demonstrators continued to protest, defying the curfew imposed by the military. Their revolution would not be stolen. One day later, Ibn Auf resigned and was replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Buhran. Unlike Ibn Auf, Buhran was a not affiliated with a political organization in Sudan and does not have a case at the International Criminal Court. The second in command is Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, the leader of a militia force called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The transitional military council therefore remains an odd combination of the Sudan Armed Forces and the RSF.
Things moved slowly at first. The protesters, now represented by the Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a coalition led by the Sudanese Professional Association, issued a Declaration of Freedom and Change, which outlines nine key goals for a transitional civilian government and unites different forces for change. Little by little, they forced the transitional military council to make concessions. First, the council announced that they would oversee the political transition. The military leaders promised elections and said they would name a civilian prime minister and cabinet. Yet they refused to install a civilian government since they can’t envision not having power. The two sides first agreed to the formation of a joint civilian-military council, but disagreements on the nature of role of the generals brought negotiations to a standstill and eventually broke down.
Since then, things have gone downhill. The RSF started using violence against the pro-democracy protesters who continue to demand change. On June 3, the RSF killed more than 100 demonstrators and dumped their bodies in the Nile River. At least 40 bodies were retrieved from the river. As many as 70 women have allegedly been raped. The internet has also been largely shut down, which makes organizing demonstrations more complicated. Indeed, apps and social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have played a crucial role throughout the movement, enabling protesters to communicate, coordinate their actions, and call for peaceful protesting.
The protesters have not given up though. For them, the violence is just more proof that military leaders are trying to hijack the transitional councils and are deeply against democratic change. Any form of partnership with Sudan’s military forces must be regarded with concern. To understand why, we must look at the system put in place by Bashir during his 30 years of leadership. In order to reign in the hubris of generals and politicians, Bashir fostered a kleptocracy and formed coalitions that would guarantee his survival and prevent a coup. He used divide-and-conquer strategies, developed patronage systems, and gave power to those who want to challenge his leadership. This means that getting rid of Bashir is only the beginning of the struggle for democracy. Sudan must also get rid of the participants in his kleptocracy and dictatorial structure.
Bashir's Violent Legacy
The security apparatus and the military leadership are symbols of Bashir’s terrible legacy. The current second in command, Hemeti, is a warlord who was tasked with organizing Sudan’s most violent militias, the Janjaweed. For those who know the region, the name Janjaweed is synonymous with mass atrocities and genocide in Darfur. Indeed, instead of using the Sudanese army, Bashir recruited this local militia to quell the rebellion in Darfur in 2003, which led to the death of thousands of non-Arab civilians. Bashir is still subject to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant for genocide.
Hemeti and his Janjaweed soldiers outlasted the other militias and remained loyal to Bashir. As a reward, he became the leader of the RSF, a paramilitary force made up in part by the Janjaweed and responsible for committing crimes not only in Darfur but also in South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. The RSF also suppressed protests in Khartoum in 2013 in the wake of the Arab Spring. The violent repression on June 3 proves that the demise of Bashir has not changed the RSF. Hemeti is a dangerous man who is currently pulling the strings at the transitional military council and will not relinquish power easily. While Sudanese military leaders claim not to know who is in charge of ordering the attacks, the fact that Hemeti is one of the most powerful members in charge shows that the council is hardly a legitimate, trustworthy partner.
Delays in the negotiations and the resilience and continuous demands of the pro-democracy protesters seem to have hardened the transitional military council, while the protesters have resorted to other techniques after the RSF destroyed the large camp they had set up. Instead, they have moved underground and the Sudanese Professional Association organized a general strike that brought Khartoum to a standstill. Shops and businesses remained closed, streets were empty as people from all professions, including bankers, electricians and airport workers, joined the movement. This kind of pressure is particularly useful since it only worsens the economic situation of Sudan and ability of the council to show that they can control the country.
What has also empowered the transitional military council, and the RSF in particular, is the support of foreign powers. After Hemeti met with Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman shortly after Bashir’s overthrow, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates pledged a $3 billion aid package designed to bolster the council and slow down the economic collapse that brought down Bashir. Even though Sudan’s economy is already on its knees, they hope that injecting more money will prevent a collapse of the council. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia benefits from the RSF’s troops in its war in Yemen and therefore funds the Hemeti and his men. It must be added that there have been reports that the Sudanese militias have used child soldiers in Yemen.
Early on, the African Union stated its support for a quick transition to civilian rule, and even suspended Sudan’s membership once it became clear the transitional military council was being hard-headed. Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took on the difficult task of trying to mediate the negotiations between the two sides, but the African Union Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, and representatives from Egypt are also acting as mediators. The army rulers have asked Ethiopia and the African Union to combine their forces, but the RSF seems to be against the Ethiopian mediation.
Meanwhile, Europe and the United States have remained rather passive, despite offering statements of support to the protesters. Comparatively, the Trump administration has given a lot more attention to the crisis in Venezuela. One would think that both Europe and the United States would be happy to see Bashir gone, but for several years the two entities have cooperated with the regime in Khartoum, sometimes secretly, other times openly. The United States had been working on a normalization of their relationship with Sudan. Indeed, Washington, and the CIA in particular, used Bashir in its war on terror, while Europe asked for the regime help in curbing migration flows to Europe. It is important to note that Hemeti and the RSF were directly involved in the interception of migrants as the European Union tried to externalize border control to Sudan. This has led to widespread human smuggling and trafficking.
The United States could have considerable leverage over Saudi Arabia, but the two countries have a strange relationship under the Trump administration as the President refuses to stop arms sales to the regime. Both the United States and the European Union could play essential roles in the transition by helping mediations between the transitional military council and the Forces of the Declaration for Freedom and Change. There are divisions between some Sudanese military leaders and Hemeti. Since some of the military leaders of the council seem open to working on a true political transition, the aim should be to get the RSF out. This is easier said than done considering that the RSF seems to dominate the council and that it has the support it has from the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, but at the same time the general strikes used by the protesters are only worsening the economic situation. It’s hard to see how the council’s Arab allies could keep sending money to a shaky alliance of military leaders.
What Happens Now?
Bashir has left Sudan economically and institutionally weak as a result of years of dictatorship, military rule and corruption. The military is at the heart of the state apparatus; there are no democratic institutions and little sign of democracy. The Freedom and Change coalition relies on its unity, and that unity and culture of non-violence must prevail. Should they ultimately succeed, re-engineering the country will be difficult. Many were disillusioned by the Arab Spring as dictators were replaced by other authoritarian regimes. Sudanese protesters must continue to learn from these errors, as they have done until now. Getting rid of the deep state will be difficult, but how can one expect the military leadership and the security apparatus to deal with the grievances of Sudanese people when they were directly involved creating these grievances?
The willingness of protesters to go on is a sign of hope for people around the world who believe in human rights and hope for a brighter future for Sudan. There is non-sectarian unity between Christians and Muslims, mobilization across regions, races, ethnicity and social differences that has never existed before. This unity and maturity are the movement’s unique strength. As time goes on, there is a danger for a rift to occur within the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change. There are already differences between those who are ready to compromise and accept a power-sharing agreement, such as the Sudan Call Alliance, and those who demand the full implementation of the Freedom and Change declaration. After the violence that occurred on June 3, 2019, hope is waning.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets again on June 30, the largest demonstration since the June 3 crackdown. The Sudanese Professional Associations had warned protesters of potential violence as it expected to RSF to use excessive violence. At least 181 people were injured and two high-profile protest leaders were arrested two days later.
In a surprise announcement, both sides reached a power-sharing agreement last week. Sudan will be run by an army general for the first 21 months of the transition, followed by a civilian government for the remaining 18 months. A Sudanese general announced that the transitional military council will be dissolved and a joint sovereign council made of five military leaders and five civilians will rule Sudan for a little more than three years. The remaining 11th seat will go to a civilian chosen by both sides.
According to the New York Times, the June 3 violence and the continued determination of protesters put pressure on the African Union mediators as well as diplomats from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States to redouble their effort. The Times revealed that Hemeti’s violence may even have put off the council’s allies, meaning Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
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