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‘It’s us or them’: How Sudanese generals sacrificed civilian politicians to save their own necks

Fear that political reform would weaken the military’s grip on Sudan society led to the coup, writes Ahmed Aboudouh

Tuesday 26 October 2021 17:46 BST
A Sudanese protester draped with the national flag flashes the victory sign
A Sudanese protester draped with the national flag flashes the victory sign (AFP via Getty Images)

It was not past 3 30am yet when they came. She saw them and ran to her parents’ room to warn her dad, with fear overwhelming her small face.

The soldiers, in civilian clothes, were armed to the teeth. They pushed the door and spread themselves along the stairs in an assault formation as if they were liberating a military fortress from foreign conquerors in a glorious battle.

Khalid Omar was in dismay. It has been just two years since he was chosen as a minister in the transitional government of Sudan, and he had witnessed the partnership with the military generals crumble.

His daughter, who saw the small army coming for her dad, only heard soldiers shout at her mother Omaima al-Nile to get inside the house.

“They refused to identify themselves, and all they told Khalid was ‘come with us’. I asked them who they were, but it was in vain,” Omaima told The Independent.

“Our three daughters were completely terrified as they had seen the number of weapons and the sheer force that came to arrest my husband, who was unarmed and had no security detail.”

“I don’t really know his whereabouts and who were these people who had taken him away,” she said with pain.

Kahlid was not alone. Early that Monday morning, the military rounded up several prominent Sudanese political leaders, including prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, as part of a coup after two years of running a civilian-backed coalition government that was formed following a transition agreement when dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted in 2019.

According to that agreement, a military general would head the Sovereign Council until next year – then power would be transferred to civilians.

The prime minister Abdalla Hamdok who was arrested during the coup (AP)

But events on Monday saw the end of the agreement established two years ago.

General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, head of the Sovereign Council, the highest military-civilian office in Sudan, justified Monday’s move by saying that infighting between factions over political gains had paralysed the economy and stampeded essential services. He pledged to run the country until the general elections in July 2023 and lead Sudan through a new transitional period that will result in democratic rule.

After the announcement, thousands of protesters took the street to reject the coup. At least seven have died and hundreds injured in clashes with the police.

Many observers in Sudan expected the military takeover. They say implementing some of the clauses in the power-sharing agreement was a recipe for unrest.

I don’t really know his whereabouts and who were these people who had taken him away

Omaima al-Nile, wife of Sudanese minister, Khalid Omar

“Essentially, the agreement dictated the construction of certain institutions to support the transitional period and marked certain relations between them. But, these institutions never saw the light of day, and we ended up in a country run by the day-to-day stunts of individuals at the helm of the transition, and not by institutions,” Osman Mirghani, a Khartoum-based veteran journalist and independent analyst, said.

“The transitional agreement itself was always weak. In reality, achieving many of the provisions within the actual agreement was difficult,” Andrew Yaw Tchie, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, said.

Analysts say the military has been injecting a narrative squared on undermining the civilians’ rule and discrediting their ability to provide good governance and improve life standards alone.

“This was slightly expected because there would have always been an issue when it comes to the power handover,” Mr Tchie said.

Demonstrations have taken place in support of the civilian government in Sudan following the military snatching power (EPA)

Many in Sudan believe that the military fingerprints are on the protests and sit-ins asking for a mandate granted to the military to return as absolute rulers, following an earlier coup attempt just a month ago. The Beja tribes undermined civil obedience in eastern Sudan, blocking roads to the main port on the Red Sea that exacerbated the economic crunch, also demanded a military takeover.

The military coup has certainly fuelled grudges between the two sides. Just after the failed coup, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the Sovereign Council, who is also known as Hemedti, accused political leaders of ignoring the citizenry and “fighting over seats and divvying up positions”.

The reality was that Hemedti, who also heads the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF), was frustrated and angry as the pressure mounted from proposals by civilian politicians to reform the army and other security services.

The generals sensed a desire among the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the biggest political coalition in government, to virtually weaken the generals.

The very epitome of sapping the military’s grip on the country was to be displayed in next year’s power delivery to the FFC leaders. Al-Burhan’s future was to be at the heart of the debate – the transition to civilian rule would have meant that al-Burhan and Hemedti, who were heads of the supreme office, would be forced to accept a demotion.

“Going down from the high office to a lower rank or from the country’s leader to just a council member is traditionally not an option among the military generals in Sudan,” Mr Mirghani said.

“Mr al-Burhan understood that such a move would have meant that military will have to replace him as supreme commander and remove him from the political life.”

“This is the main problem, as Mr al-Burhan was certainly not ready to retire and move on. This was unimaginable.”

Frictions, on the other hand, have dominated the democracy-supports rank and file. And the generals were quick to point out that instead of asking the army to restructure, they should also carry on major internal reform.

Pro-military protesters dancing in celebration (AFP via Getty Images)

“It was very bizarre to see politicians demanding a military reform while they are disorganised and lacking legitimacy in the form of an elected parliament,” Mr Mirghani noted.

“Their proposal would lead to turning the Sudanese army into something similar to Iraq’s military, an army effectively run by militias.”

In the end, the deadlock resulted in a politics of mutual fear: the generals terrified and shaken by democrats crawling over their historical status as “guardians” of the nation, as Mr al-Burhan once put it.

And the constant civilian angst of the ambitions of generals, such as Hemedti, eager to retake control and dodge calls for their prosecution on charges of committing atrocities in Darfur and killing protesters during the anti-Bashir uprising.

Analysts say that Sudan rulers lived under an “either us or them mentality”. Cameron Hudson, the former chief of staff of the Office of the US Special Envoy to Sudan at the US Department of State wrote before the coup, Sudan’s political existence has always been defined by a “winner-take-all system”, something the democratic leaders long understood as a possible motivation of a power grab by the military.

Omaima, Khalid Omar’s wife, recalls that her husband unwaveringly opposed military rule.

“Khalid always expected a military coup was coming and used to say if the street and FFC are not united, the military will take over.”

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