Sudan war: A failed transition to civilian rule

Smoke rises in Omdurman after clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces. File picture: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Smoke rises in Omdurman after clashes between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces. File picture: Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters

Published Jun 1, 2023


By Ibrahim Steven Ekyamba and Bathromeu Mavhura

Since gaining independence from British colonial rule January 1, 1956, Sudan has encountered a sequence of more than 15 attempted military coups, with five of them successfully overthrowing the existing regime. As a result, the country has predominantly been under military control, intermittently interrupted by brief intervals of democratic civilian parliamentary rule.

In 1989, Omar al-Bashir led a coup against the government of Sadiq al-Mahdi and became president of Sudan. Under Al-Bashir’s leadership, the Sudanese regime was characterised by authoritarian rule, economic mismanagement, and deepening ethnic and religious rifts. The government maintained the imposition of Islamic law and retained control over the oil reserves in the southern part of the country, where the population was predominantly Christian and animist. These policies further escalated an ongoing civil war that spanned about two decades, from 1983 to 2005.

During the Darfur war in 2003, al-Bashir faced accusations of being in charge of the conflict in Darfur, a western region of Sudan. He was accused of overseeing government-sponsored violence in Darfur, which resulted in allegations of war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Approximately 300 000 individuals lost their lives, and around 2.7 million people were forcefully displaced during the initial phase of the Darfur conflict. This provoked international sanctions and global isolation of Sudan, leading to widespread hardship of life and social tensions in the country.

In 2018, protests erupted within the country in response to rising bread prices and the deteriorating economic situation. These protests were led by a coalition of opposition groups, civil society organisations, and labour unions. In April 2019, the General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo - better known as Hemedti, the leader of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) ousted al-Bashir in response to the protests and established a transitional military council to govern the country.

In the aftermath of the coup, the military council encountered a series of violent confrontations with civilian protesters who vehemently opposed a transitional government by the military and demanded a civilian transitional government. These tensions resulted in frequent bouts of violence and fatalities in Khartoum, as the prospects for reaching a peaceful and stable transitional government remained precarious.

The military was accused of violence against journalists and civilians, including mass killings and rape, fuelling fears that the country was slipping back into al-Bashir-style military rule. Also, there were growing apprehensions that the military was not planning to relinquish power to civilian authorities, despite sustained international pressure from organisations such as the African Union. In response to growing opposition from the public, the military council engaged in discussions with the opposition coalition, the Forces of Freedom and Change.

These talks led to a power-sharing accord in July 2019, creating a transitional government and a sovereign Power Sharing Council that could oversee the country for three years, beginning in August 2019 and ending in November 2022. Under this deal, the military council would be in charge of the country’s leadership for the first 21 months, and a civilian administration would then rule the council over the following 18 months.

This transitional government was composed of both civilian and military representatives, but the military retained significant power and influence as General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sudanese Armed Forces, became the country’s president and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo - Hemedti, head of the Rapid Support Forces, became his deputy.

In a surprising turn of events, on October 25, 2021, the Sudanese military dissolved the power-sharing government, known as the Sovereign Council, and proclaimed a state of emergency. This abrupt action has plunged the country into its most significant political crisis since the commencement of its transition two years ago. Sudan had been experiencing a fragile transitional coalition to share power between the military and civilians.

Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the military chief, explained that the coup transpired after months of escalating tensions in the country, adding that the agreement between the civilian members of the Transitional Sovereign Council and the military had gradually devolved into a contentious dispute over the past two years. This dispute endangered the prospects of peace and solidarity in Sudan. Specific provisions of the Sovereign Council’s constitution were suspended consequently, with state governors dismissed from their positions. This event marked a regression in democratic principles and hindered the successful transition toward civilian rule in Sudan.

The elation that initially swept across the country following al-Bashir’s removal from power gradually dissipated, as the military and civilian pro-democracy groups increasingly clashed in their quest for supremacy in determining the nation’s future.

As a consequence, the power-sharing arrangement with the civilian activists who had taken the lead in the protests against al-Bashir, to initiate a shift towards democratic governance was abruptly disrupted by the coup that took place in October 2021. Upon the occurrence of the coup, the army reassumed authority, yet it confronted recurring protests, intensified international seclusion, and deepened economic hardships.

As negotiations unfolded concerning the integration of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) into the country’s military framework as part of the plan to reinstate civilian rule, tensions emerged. Hemedti, in the end, rallied behind the proposition for a new transition, which brought the underlying tensions with al-Burhan to the forefront. Amidst the heightening tensions, a significant confrontation unfolded on April 15, 2023, revealing an apparent power struggle within Sudan’s military regime.

The clash erupted between two key factions: the Sudanese Armed Forces, loyal to al-Burhan, who effectively held the position of President, and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias under the leadership of General Dagalo, who served as the country’s deputy president. These clashes indicated the internal dynamics shaping the conflict and its trajectory.

Both Generals al-Burhan and Dagalo have a history of collaboration, having joined forces to overthrow al-Bashir in 2019. This collaboration continued when they orchestrated the October 2021 coup together. However, their ongoing power struggle has inflicted severe damage upon the nation, shattering its unity and undermining the democratic progress achieved by the population in their successful efforts to remove al-Bashir from power in 2019.

Since the war’s commencement, a significant toll has been exacted on civilian lives, resulting in the tragic deaths of hundreds. Additionally, the enduring consequences of this conflict have plunged millions into an acute shortage of necessities. As a result, a substantial portion of the population was internally displaced, while others were compelled to flee to neighbouring countries in search of safety and respite. One pressing question that emerges is whether generals al-Burhan and Dagalo genuinely prioritise the welfare and interests of the Sudanese people.

Is their ongoing power struggle driven by a sincere pursuit of the Sudanese common good, or is it primarily motivated by the desire to achieve their political objectives?

The circumstances surrounding the October 2021 coup, where the civilian transitional rule was set aside, indicate that the warring military factions have undisclosed motives and hidden agendas. Peace negotiations were initiated between the warring parties in Jeddah, a coastal city situated on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, as part of a collaborative initiative between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

The primary objective of these initial talks is to establish a temporary and effective cease-fire and provide relief to the conflict that has endured for a month, resulting in significant loss of life and triggering an influx of refugees. The lingering questions revolve around the potential success of this negotiation and whether the eventual outcome will establish a framework for Sudan’s transition to civilian-led rule.

* Ibrahim Steven Ekyamba is a Doctoral candidate at the University of Pretoria and Bathromeu Mavhura is a Doctoral candidate at Stellenbosch University.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.