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Khartoum’s Tiananmen moment

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Friday, 7 June 2019 17:17

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets Sudan's Head Of Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan Abdelrahman to mediate in the political crisis that has followed the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan June 7, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

As the death toll mounts, African Union tries mediation but threatens sanctions

Ethiopia’s reforming prime minister Abiy Ahmed arrived in Khartoum early on 7 June with an offer to mediate between the junta and the protest movement over the structure of a transitional authority. This follows growing outrage at the junta’s massacre of protestors this week with 108 dead, according to the Sudan Doctors’ Association, and over 500 wounded.

A role for Abiy the reformer

As a leader who is struggling with a programme of political and economic liberalisation in Ethiopia, Abiy is one of the few figures in the region, or beyond, with the credibility and the experience that might be acceptable to both sides.

  • Last month, some of Khartoum’s ruling generals flew to Addis Ababa in a bid to persuade the African Union to relent on its insistence on a rapid handover to civilian rule.
  • One of their key contacts was Amira ElFadi, a Sudanese citizen, said to be influential in the AU Commission. Sudanese activists point out that her husband is a relative of ousted President Omer al Bashir and have been campaigning against her role in Addis Ababa.

Khartoum’s generals also met with Abiy, trying to enlist his political support but few details emerged about the meeting. Abiy is treading a fine line between his public commitment to a civilian-led transition to democracy in Sudan, in line with his own policy goals in Ethiopia, and pressure from regional powers, especially Egypt, one of the Khartoum junta’s key backers.

AU condemnation of junta changes game

Against expectations, the AU’s Peace & Security Commission suspended Sudan from membership of the AU and called for the immediate transfer of power to a civilian-led authority which would manage the transition to democracy.

  • It also called for sanctions against any individuals seen to be obstructing the transfer of power to such an authority.

As Abiy was meeting both sides of the political divide in Khartoum, there were signs of a growing rift between the three main factions in the junta:

  • the Sudan Armed Forces led by General Abdel-Fatteh Burhan;
  • the Rapid Support Forces, mainly drawn from the Janjaweed militia in Darfur, under Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ‘Hemeti’;
  • and the National Intelligence & Security Services, whose armed units include artillery, tanks and helicopters.

Although Generals Burhan, who is the leader of the Transitional Military Council, and Hemeti, deputy leader of the TMC, have known each other since their involvement in the repression of opposition movements in Darfur some 15 years ago, they have been putting out contradictory statements this week.

  • Burhan has apologised to Sudanese for the loss of live in then massacres.
  • Hemeti has been unrepentant stating that the country was slipping into anarchy. The RSF, under his command, led the murderous attacks on the unarmed civilian protestors this week, say witnesses.

Political sources in Khartoum say that differences within the TMC have multiplied this week in the wake of the massacre.

  • There are also reports of clashes between soldiers from the national army and fighters from the RSF. The splintering of the security system set up by Bashir could trigger a wider national conflict.

Trying to pre-empt that must be one of the AU’s key objectives alongside pushing the transition to civil rule.

The opposition, for their side, have demanded that the RSF must be disarmed before talks can restart.

  • “We will not negotiate with murderers”, says the Alliance for Freedom and Change.

Gulf States’s and Egypt’s backing for junta under fire

The strong support given to the junta from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates has drawn intense criticism both from the AU (its statement has a thinly veiled reference to ‘regional powers’ and western countries.

  • The US publicly called on Riyadh to rein in the Khartoum junta this week.

The Saudi monarchy’s top advisor on African affairs is Taha Osman Al-Hussein, a former minister in the Sudanese presidency under Bashir.

After breaking with Sudanese regime several years ago, he took up Saudi citizenship but was seen trying to enter Sudan on the morning after the palace coup that ousted Bashir on 10 April.

  • Hussein is seen as a key interlocutor for Hemeti with the Saudi royal family.

UN- China and Russia block UN Security Council debate on massacre

Beijing shows no sense of irony in its endorsement of the military junta in Khartoum while stating it opposes outside interference in Sudan.

  • It must have angered the government in Beijing, keen to manage the history of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which happened 30 years ago this week, that many Sudanese have taken to calling the massacres this week “Khartoum’s Tiananmen”.

True to form, China and Russia (who has deployed intelligence and security specialists to undermined Sudan’s opposition) vetoed the calls for a debate on the Khartoum massacres in the UN Security Council on 6 June.

However, the UN Human Rights Council has called for a rapid deployment of a human rights reporting mission to assist an independent investigation in the the people and the organisations behind the massacre.

Bottom line: The stakes in Sudan are rising fast with a clear choice between a civilian-led transition or military rivalries driving a deepening conflict.

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