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Sudan: 5 reasons why its revolution is failing

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Thursday, 28 October 2021 12:11

Protesters block a road in Khartoum
A protester waves a flag during what the information ministry calls a military coup in Khartoum, Sudan, October 25, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

This week, Sudan’s revolution faced its biggest threat since it successfully pushed for the ouster of long-term dictator President Omar el-Bashir in 2019. In retrospect, the 25 October coup in Khartoum was just a matter of time.

Reports of an impending coup had been looming for weeks, even after the country’s leaders announced that they had thwarted an attempted coup in September. Now, despite mounting international pressure, the country’s military leadership headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his ally, General Mohammed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo, is in firm control of the country, with many of the civilian leaders under house arrest.

Here are five reasons why Sudan’s revolution is failing:

1. The military and the RSF

When Sudan’s military originally pushed Bashir out of power and arrested him, its plan was to take control of the country. It was eventually forced, by internal and external pressure, to accept sharing power with civilian leadership. This situation was always untenable to the top military leadership, which has openly and covertly been working to undermine Prime Minister Hamdok’s administration.

One major reason is money. It is because of this that Bashir lasted so long in a country with a long history of successful coups. He allowed his generals to enrich themselves, mainly by running lucrative sectors of the economy. With the country’s civilian leadership working on widespread economic and political reform, the military’s leaders faced a real risk of losing their money spinners.

The most obvious example of this is General Dagalo, better known as ‘Hemeti’, the coup’s number #2 man. Hemeti is the leader of the Rapid Support Forces and has been long rumoured to be among the richest men in the country.

In 2019, Alex da Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, described the Sudanese general in a BBC article as “a wholly 21st century phenomenon: a military-political entrepreneur, whose paramilitary business empire transgresses territorial and legal boundaries”.

In a decade that has favoured its growth in power, money, and prominence, the RSF, which was formed from the infamous Janjaweed militias that fought in the Darfur conflict, has since grown into the most powerful paramilitary force in the country. It has also evolved into a regional fighting force, deploying mercenaries to fight in the Libyan and Yemeni civil wars, making its leaders a large fortune and raising their importance in the process.

In 2017, the group took over control of the Jebel Amer gold mining area in North Darfur through the Al Junaid company. The company, which is chaired by Hemeti, has other interests in infrastructure, iron, steel, transport, and tourism. Control over the gold mining area was a top political issue for much of 2019 and 2020, before the Sudanese government announced it had finally taken control in October 2020. One result of this is that the RSF and its leader have grown very rich and powerful, with an interest in keeping Khartoum away from civilian democratic rule.

2. Past crimes

Despite ousting Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and originally entertaining, at least publicly, the idea of handing him over to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the former president remains in custody in Khartoum where he is facing several charges.

The country’s military leadership has opposed any plans for him to be tried outside the country, mainly out of self-interest, because the Bashir case at the ICC centres on the Darfur conflict, where several of the country’s military heads were also deeply involved. “Many among the top brass fear such moves, given their own alleged complicity in such crimes,” the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.

In the post-Bashir era, the RSF has been involved in several human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and a June 2019 massacre that left more than 100 people dead. With protestors calling for justice for these and other human rights violations stretching from the recent past to the Darfur conflict and others, the country’s military chiefs would not let the civilian leadership grow its legitimacy and power. It is likely that they would prefer to go the Egypt route, keeping Bashir in and out of court for a few years before releasing him once public memory has receded.

3. Economy

The situation of Sudan’s economy, exemplified by a sharp rise in bread prices, was the primary reason why protestors originally took to the streets against the Bashir regime. The economy had been battered by decades of US-led sanctions, and the secession of South Sudan, with its lucrative oil fields, further worsened the situation.

The 2019 political revolution was meant to fix the economy, but in 2021, the country’s inflation rate has hovered in the 380% – 400% range. While observers note that the economic situation has been improving – boosted by debt relief, support from the Gulf nations, the US, and Bretton Woods institution – the economic hardships in the country are still real. Sudan’s military heads criticised the civilian side of the Sovereignty Council for not fixing the economy, an argument that was part of numerous divisions within the now dissolved body.

4. Gulf politics

Bashir had somewhat shifted allegiance from Iran and Qatar in his last years in power, but still hesitated to be drawn into the Qatar crisis. He also reportedly refused several exit plans offered by Saudi Arabia and Egypt at the height of the protests. After his ouster, the UAE and Saudi Arabia offered open political and financial support to the Transitional Military Council. Both countries were reportedly opposed to the formation of the military and civilian body that succeeded the council as a result of international pressure.

In 2019, several prominent Arab Spring activists and regional observers accused the Gulf powers, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, of working to kill the possibility of a democratic government emerging in Khartoum. The three countries were deeply involved in restructuring post-Bashir, providing finances and political support to the military leaders.

Both General Burhan and General Hemeti had forces in the Yemeni Civil War, paid for in separate deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This meant the Gulf powers not only had allies in Khartoum, but was directly paying them for many reasons, top of which were gold exports and mercenary forces.

5. Looming change of power

The now dissolved 14-member Sovereignty Council of Sudan, which served as the country’s collective head of state for two years, had several safeguard measures. In its original 11-member form, nominal power was shared between the military and civilian leadership, which numerically favoured the latter.

Five of its members were drawn from the Forces for Freedom and Change, the political alliance that emerged during the protests that ousted Omar al-Bashir. Another five were from the Transitional Military Council, and the 11th member was a civilian decided upon by both sides.

Another safeguard measure was its defined rules and timelines, at least on paper. For example, none of the body’s members would be eligible to run in the next elections. The leadership of the collective body was designed as rotational, with a military representative heading it for the first two years, before passing it on to a civilian member. Burhan’s and Hemeti’s time as chair and vice chair of the collective body will be coming to an end next month.

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