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The Relentless Power of the Sudanese Military

The Relentless Power of the Sudanese Military
 Bassma Kodmani
Senior Fellow

Over the last decade, Sudan has experienced both the division of its territory into two states and the tragic war in the Darfur province. The country seemed doomed to be indefinitely ruled by a dictator accused of genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICT) while continuing to suffocate under international sanctions. However, the last three years have seen Sudanese society organize and mobilize in an effort to rid itself of one of the most poisonous securitocracies of the Arab and African regions.    

General Omar al-Bashir, who had been in power since 1989, was eventually overthrown in April 2019 when a popular uprising opened a door for his rivals to lead a military coup against him. Yet, protests continued against the leaders of the coup. After an attempt to crush one such protest left 100 dead, neighboring nations engaged in mediation. Success appeared to arrive two months later with the implementation of a formula for a transitional government. The Sovereignty Council of Sudan, with eleven members divided among military and civilian groups, was formed under UN supervision to preside over the country’s affairs. This interim council governed under a constitutional declaration signed by the civilian-led Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and the Transitional Military Council (TMC). It was chaired by General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, who was to hand over to a civilian president after 21 months, with the transition period expected to last a total of 39 months. The council promised an orderly transition, with a government of civilian technocrats selected for their competence and integrity, alongside which the military would provide security. The council served as an example and was considered a promising innovation which could inspire other countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Mali. However, on October 25, 2021 - just a few days before the scheduled changeover date - the generals on the council staged a new coup, bringing Sudan back to square one.

Predatory military

The legacy of al-Bashir’s dictatorship has proved more difficult to dismantle than civilian leaders and their external supporters may have imagined. The military has continued to control the overall machinery of power, of the economy and the bulk of the country’s natural resources, much like Egypt or Algeria. In terms of resources Sudan is not a poor country. It has extensive arable land and has long been seen as the breadbasket of the Arab world. It also holds large gold and uranium reserves which remain largely untapped. The military has leased, and in some cases sold, agricultural land to its primary Arab allies - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - and has granted them advantageous concessions for gold mining. It is also authorizing Russia to install a military base on the Red Sea, as the Kremlin is not just interested in uranium and gold but also in Sudan’s strategic position between the Middle East and West Africa. 

For several months, the transition to democracy appeared to have stalled, while Darfur again became subject to abuses from the sinister Janjaweed militia responsible for the genocide of the early 2000s. This is leading the people of Darfur to believe that the Sudanese state itself (not just the dictator al-Bashir) wants to eliminate them, thus nurturing secessionist temptations among them. The deposed Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, a widely respected technocrat, was complaining that his government controlled only 18% of state resources and made it a priority to bring those businesses controlled by the security and military apparatus under the full control of the civil government.

The military felt it needed to turn the tables and forcibly regain power.

He was likely waiting on the November changeover, which would have given full civilian authority over the country for the first time in decades. Faced with this imminent deadline, the military felt it needed to turn the tables and forcibly regain power, using the pretext of social discontent and demonstrations that had been triggered by the removal of a number of subsidies.

The generals declared a state of emergency, dissolved the Sovereignty Council and government while arresting most of their members and dozens of journalists, took control of the media, and cut off access to the internet. Additionally, they announced the dissolution of professional organizations in an effort to eliminate all arms of the civil movement. They also deployed the Rapid Support Forces, a militia under the orders of General Bourhan’s deputy General Hamdan, along with other paramilitary groups across the capital and other major cities.

At the domestic level, the generals have the support of the "fouloul" - supporters of the old regime - as well as the aforementioned paramilitary groups, but they lack any wider political support. However, they believe they enjoy enough outside support and rely on some key Arab leaders, such as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of the Emirates. President Putin also continues to court the Sudanese military as they strive to satisfy all their external allies. Russia’s refusal to condemn the coup led to a very cautiously worded resolution being passed by the UN Security Council the day after the generals took power.

Civilians have all it takes to succeed

Unlike many countries that endure military rule under the pretext that the civilian alternative is simply not credible, Sudan is not in this situation anymore. This time, the military is not only faced with demonstrations led by mere activists, but with an organized movement. A coalition of professional and civil society groups, including a strong women’s movement and popular neighborhood committees, are standing up to the military. More than traditional political parties, this coalition serves as the backbone for civil resistance. Unions and other professional associations are more active than ever, and the civil disobedience they have led has included a general strike that paralyzed parts of the country. In addition to popular support, the coalition can count on the backing of a large part of the regular army, whose authority is increasingly being challenged by the militias. Last but not least, the civilian institutions enjoy strong international legitimacy. Since the creation of the Sovereignty Council, Western countries have made every effort to strengthen the civilian wing within it. Thus, the removal of Sudan from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List was designed to strengthen the Hamdok government’s capacity to gain control over the economic activities of the generals. 

What can the international community do?

To relieve the country’s financial difficulties, France organized a special conference in spring 2021, during which wealthy countries granted Sudan various advantageous repayment facilities upon its €50 billion foreign debt. However, this aid was conditional on a recovery plan that bore significant social costs and sparked the popular anger that started the political crisis.

On the eve of the coup, the US special envoy for the Horn of Africa issued a clear warning to the military that millions of dollars in emergency assistance would be blocked if they tried to take power by force. General Burhan ignored these warnings, and international condemnation swiftly followed. The United States, European Union, World Bank and IMF all suspended the aid they had pledged, and the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership. 

All the peaceful levers - political, diplomatic and economic - have been activated in order to isolate the military, but the generals continue to believe that they can rely on their Arab allies to protect them as the West will not wish to anger those countries. Washington, Paris and other governments continue to work behind the scenes with the leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to ensure that the Sudanese generals exercise restraint in confronting the popular protests that followed the coup. The generals and the paramilitary forces they control have nevertheless used violence, but so far a bloodbath has largely been avoided. This has opened space for the diplomats to engage in mediation efforts. 

All the peaceful levers - political, diplomatic and economic - have been activated in order to isolate the military, but the generals continue to believe that they can rely on their Arab allies to protect them.

The pro-democracy groups in Sudan continue to decry ambiguity, even duplicity, in the attitude of outside players, and call for relying exclusively on their own power. They want to see a complete reversal of the coup and a return to the constitutional declaration but they call for full civilian rule this time. "We have a mandate to dismantle the old regime, complete the establishment of the transitional authority institutions, and seek justice," the forces of freedom and change say. They hope to finally have the power to reform the security forces, starting with dismantling the militias and bringing back all enterprises controlled by the generals to be managed by the government for the public good. 

The key challenge remains how to deal with military rulers who feel under siege and are convinced they will lose everything if they are out of power. They realize that if democratic legitimacy prevails, their fate will mirror that of ousted dictator al-Bashir, who is currently in prison and awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. Should the mediators show some leniency towards them, at the risk of appearing to reward their use of force? Should they be allowed to keep their grip on vital sectors of the economy, while external donors take it upon themselves to manage Sudan’s huge debt and subject the population to draconian austerity measures? Ultimately, how can the mediating parties reduce the generals’ nuisance capacity and prevent them from wreaking havoc? 

Hamdok, teetering at the edge of the precipice, must maintain unity within the civil coalition and its restless base while understanding that he must also deal with the regional and international situation. He continues to demand a return to the constitutional declaration that formalized power-sharing, while seeking to form a new government without military interference and insists upon the release of all political prisoners as a precondition, particularly his government ministers. 

The United Nations special envoy Volker Perthes, alongside a troika of American, British and Norwegian diplomats, continue to seek a compromise. Several options remain under consideration, but a return to the Sovereignty Council is not one of them. There is talk of a collegial presidency reduced to three people with a largely honorary role, while a civil government headed by Hamdok would enjoy "full control over civil affairs" and parliamentary elections would be held. The generals would however retain control over military and security affairs.  

This weak compromise resembles a fool’s bargain, as it would leave the internal security forces out of civilian hands and in the grip of the predators currently controlling it. Could Sudanese society resign itself to such an arrangement, in the hope that one day democratic forces will be able to wrest control? There is still a long way to go for the democratic forces in Sudan, while many societies and regimes of the Arab and African regions watch with hope and apprehension.


Copyright: AFP

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