Sudan walks tightrope between competing power bases

Has Sudan truly entered a new era or does the past weigh heavily on the present?


Sudan’s former strongman, Omar al-Bashir, was overthrown in April 2019, but supporters of the old regime still wield much power and influence. Tom Collins examines the challenges facing the transitional government as it seeks to bridge the divides in society and lead the country towards democratic elections

On the day in mid-December that Omar al-Bashir was sentenced to two years in detention for corruption, thousands of people took to the streets of Khartoum to voice their support for the former iron-fisted president. Despite Bashir’s record of laying waste to the economy, waging a brutal war in the Darfur region and overseeing corruption and repression throughout Sudan, they chanted “just fall”. The slogan the crowds had chanted against Bashir in last year’s revolution was now directed against the man entrusted with setting the country on a new course, prime minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Appointed in August by the country’s supreme authority, the Sovereign Council, Hamdok has broad popular support based on the alliance of civil society activists that propelled the revolution. However, his government faces challenges from groups that profited from and supported the former dictator. The power and wealth of these groups, which include members of the military, the security forces and Islamists, is being challenged by the government and its stakeholders, leading to conflict.

Crackdown on Islamists

The Islamist regime – which once harboured Osama bin Laden, a move that led to Sudan being designated by the US as a state sponsor of terror – has left many Sudanese longing for a less religious and authoritarian government.

“I think political Islam is finished in Sudan,” says Sedgi Kabalo, a prominent left-wing economist who spent almost three months in prison for his communist affiliations. “The Islamists still have some power but they cannot use it. The only way for them to retake power is through another dictatorship. Through democracy they are finished.”

Hamdok cracked down on the Islamists in late November by dissolving the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and arresting Ali El Haj, chairman of the Popular Congress Party, for his role in the 1989 coup that brought Bashir to power.

However, according to Sudan’s former foreign minister and NCP chairman Ibrahim Ghandour the old regime is not yet out of the picture. “It is very clear that this government is trying to put Islam on the back foot and I can say very clearly that this is not possible at this point in Sudan,” he says. “The people will come out and stand against it. The people will not just keep quiet.”

Although support for the old regime is waning, many in the civil service and intelligence services remain loyal, which leaves the transitional government with the difficult task of bridging the divide as it seeks to lead the country to democratic elections in 2022.

Revolution and backlash

The revolution, which was supported by both students and professionals including doctors and teachers, offered a compelling alternative to brutal Islamist rule with its slogan championing “freedom, peace and justice”.

The backlash from the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the military junta in control immediately after the ousting of Bashir, was brutal. On 3 June 2019, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government militia, killed over 100 people when it violently dispersed a sit-in outside the military headquarters.

Yet the violence failed to quell the demands for change. When millions marched in the streets of Khartoum on 30 June, the biggest protests of the entire revolution, it became clear that deadly force alone could not defeat them.

Negotiations led to the replacement of the TMC by the Sovereign Council on 20 August, following months of heated debate over the makeup of the body, which will play the role of head of state until the 2022 elections. Five of the council’s 11 members are from the military, but the country’s transition towards full civilian rule can be said to have begun.

The council immediately appointed Hamdok, a former executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa who is regarded as a respected broker, as prime minister. In this challenging moment, he has the unenviable task of incorporating stakeholders from the former regime into the new administration while appeasing the calls from his popular support base for a swifter transition to full democracy. 

The civilian element of the Sovereign Council, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), has many differing opinions about how to move forward. Key sticking points are whether Sudan’s constitution should be based on secular or Islamic law, whether to pursue deeper relations with the International Monetary Fund, and whether the country should move towards a federal system.  

Quest for justice

But the main issue exposing tensions with elements of the old regime is transitional justice. While pro-Bashir supporters took to the streets to protest the former president’s conviction and two-year sentence for corruption, almost equal numbers turned out the next day to argue that the sentence was too lenient.

For the FFC, the corruption charges are just the beginning. It has urged the government to hand Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC), where he is wanted for crimes against humanity and genocide for his role in the Darfur conflict, which left around 300,000 people dead and 2.5m displaced.

But while Sudan has opened a formal investigation into the conflict, extradition remains extremely doubtful while senior military figures implicated in Darfur play a role in the transitional process. Instead, the government has focused on the less contentious work of bringing peace to the country’s troubled regions. Peace talks have opened in Juba, capital of the independent state of South Sudan, with the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a coalition of rebel groups from marginalised areas like Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile state.

A delegation from SRF member group the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) has also visited Khartoum to discuss the peace agreement and negotiate the release of 42 members imprisoned in the capital. The leader of the delegation, Adam Hasabo, told African Business that it was the first time he had come to the capital in the 16 years since the war broke out in his home region of South Kordofan.

“We are together with the government which currently governs Sudan,” says Hasabo, once a bitter opponent of the Bashir regime. “We hope the peace agreement will be signed because we are ready for it.”

Obstacles to progress

Key to the issue of transitional justice will be the government’s response to the killings of 3 June 2019. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, usually known as Hemedti, the leader of the feared paramilitary RSF, has denied giving the order for his troops to kill protestors. He has reportedly paid a Canadian public relations firm $6m to improve his image as he attempts to reinvent himself as a statesman.   

The Initiative for Missing People (IMP) was created in the aftermath of the violence to search for people who had gone missing during the revolution and to press the government for a full investigation into the brutal crackdown. In early September, it announced that 22 people were still missing.

An initiative spokesperson, who requested to meet at a safe location having received threatening calls, remains sceptical about the possibility of incriminating those responsible. “As long as the military and militia are in power nothing can happen,” she says. “Let’s be realistic, you cannot sue someone who is ruling you.”

As the investigation continues, it risks sparking a fracture in the Sovereign Council between the army and the RSF as both sides seek to blame each other for the violence employed against the protests.

The tripartite nature of Sudan’s security apparatus, which includes the military, militias and the intelligence services, presents a formidable obstacle to further democratisation. Each sphere is financially independent and could attempt a coup if it feels threatened by the transitional process.

Hemedti recently handed over the goldmine he controlled in Darfur to the government, but the income the RSF gains from hiring out mercenaries abroad gives it the potential to develop into a much bigger force. In mid-January the army quelled a rebellion by former intelligence service officers dissatisfied with severance payments and government policy.

Meanwhile, the army, led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairman of the Sovereign Council, elicits mixed reactions across Sudan. Some older Sudanese see the institution as an ally given its historical role supporting revolutions. But that view largely predates the 30-year tenure of Bashir and many now fear it aspires to emulate the success of the military in regaining power in neighbouring Egypt or its potential to sympathise with sidelined Islamists.

Standing opposed to these bastions of the old regime, one critic, who wished to remain anonymous, voices the ambitions of a younger generation.  “We are tired of dinosaurs,” she says. “We won’t settle for less. Their time is over; it’s our time now.” 

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