The most significant story coming from Africa over the past few months has been undoubtedly the confrontation of the people against the outdated military system led, until recently by Omar Al Bashir. Our editor, Anver Versi analyses the current state of play.
Our last print edition, Cover Story (June 2019) asked ‘What are the limits of people power?’ referring to the massive series of protests in Sudan that led to the ouster of Omar Al Bashir and the opening of talks between the Transitional Military Council and the leaders of the protest movement.
At that stage, it seemed that reason had prevailed and that the military which has ruled Sudan for well neigh five decades (with intermittent civilian governments) had finally realised that the era of government through the barrel of the gun had been overtaken by history and was willing to relinquish power rightly to a civilian democratic system. By so doing, it would keep in step with political developments in the rest of Africa where civilian governments – for better or worse – are in charge of their nations.
The point of discussion in our Cover Story was to ask whether a mass protest mobilised against a perceived common enemy could transform itself into a structured organisation capable of governing a nation as vast as Sudan and maintain law and order as it worked towards meeting the aspirations of the nation.
We did this keeping in mind the salutatory lessons of the largely failed Arab Spring uprisings where similar mass protests had either been strangled soon after birth as in the case of Egypt or had descended into utter chaos as in the case of Libya. Tunisia and Algeria on the other hand, has shown that people power could indeed force change although the transition would be fraught and often uncomfortable.
History indicates that similar popular uprisings have had to undergo often severe birth-pangs before the new entity, conceived through overwhelming public desire, could complete the transition and emerge as a young but henceforth robust new system in which the wishes and needs of the majority prevailed over the interests of a powerful elite.
The French, Russian, American, Chinese, Cuban, and in more recent times, Eastern European revolutions are some examples of this seismic and often violent alterations of the course of history.
However, our June issue had hardly hit the stands when news arrived that progress in Sudan had taken a sudden reversal. Army units believed to be made up largely of the dreaded Rapid Support Forces had opened fire on protestors gathered near the army headquarters and killed several people.
The forces, under the command of the ominous figure of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, then proceeded to go on the rampage, shooting, stabbing and beating people indiscriminately. Hamedti had earlier made a name for himself as utterly ruthless when he led the terrifying Janjaweed on its blood and fire soaked campaign in Darfur.
It is significant that days after Al Bashir was deposed, Saudi Arabia and UAE provided a $3bn aid package to the TMC, including a $500m cash injection to the Central Bank in a bid to strop the Sudanese pound from crashing.
Saudi, UAE and Egypt have been the strongest supporters of the military in the current conflict. Hamedti himself met Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyad. Observers believe this meeting encouraged Hamedti to order the crack down on the protestors – perhaps against the wishes of the rest of the TMC.
Hamedti steps in
The brutality of the crackdown, which amounted to a massacre of innocent and unarmed civilians, including harrowing eye witness reports of soldiers openly raping women was meant to send a clear message to the citizens that Hamedti was in charge and that he would not hesitate to kill and torture anyone who stood in his way.
People who know him say he is “extremely ambitious” and that he has made no secret of his wish to become President. For someone who hails from a family of camel traders originally from Chad and who dropped out of primary school, this would indeed be an extraordinary achievement.
Sources indicate that Hamedti was more of a warlord who led the Janjaweed militia in their scorched earth campaign in Darfur on behalf of Al Bashir’s army and it was only in 2013 that it was reorganised into the Rapid Security Force (RSC) in an attempt to curb some of its more extreme excesses.
As such, Hamedti was seen as an outsider within Sudan’s military establishment and given his lack of education, as not been on a par with the army top command. But his RSC proved a useful tool as an ruthless enforcer for Al Bashir. Hamedti has also supplied ground forces to the Saudi-led coalition in its brutal war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are some of the only very few remaining absolute monarchies in the world – all the others have lost their crowns either through coups or popular revolutions. This in part explains the Saudi and UAE anathema for Iran and Libya both of which deposed of their monarchies. Their abiding fear is that any uprising against a monarchy that succeeds will fuel republican sentiments in their own countries – where the population is kept strictly under the thumb.
This overt interference from outside forces is seen as the key in the about turn of the military and the change in stance from one of dialogue with the representatives of the people to one of confrontation.
The crackdown was immediately followed by an internet blackout to prevent stories, experiences and images from Sudan reaching the outside world. It was also designed to shut down communication among the people and the organisers of the protests who have used social media to coordinate their defiance.
Hamedti made the ridiculous claim that the protestors had caused the abuses and murders but it was quickly shot down by the EU which laid the blame squarely on the TMC.
Despite the attempt to throw a blanket over the events unfolding in Sudan, condemnation for the assault poured in from all over the world. Social media in Africa and elsewhere, especially among Sudanese in the diaspora generated immense traffic. Coverage on radio and TV was also almost saturation level and African media across the continent devoted considerable space and thought to the events.
There was and is a palpable feeling that what is happening in Sudan goes well beyond the confines of the country and represents a turning point of great significance for the whole of Africa.
Elsewhere, UN Secretary General António Guterres’s office issued a statement saying “He condemns the use of force to disperse the protesters at the sit-in site and he is alarmed by reports that security forces have opened fire inside medical facilities,”
The UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called it “an outrageous step that will only lead to more polarisation and violence” and that the military council “bears full responsibility”
US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy said: “This was a brutal and coordinated attack, led by the Rapid Support Forces militia, that mirrors some of the worst offenses of the Bashir regime.”
Even Donald Trump’s security advisor, the ultra-hawkish John Bolton twitted: “The unprovoked violence of Sudan’s security forces against peaceful demonstrators in Khartoum is abhorrent. The TMC must respect the right to peaceful demonstration and speed transition to a civilian-led government, which the Sudanese people have rightfully demanded.”
The EU added: “All human rights violations and abuses committed must be investigated in an independent and transparent manner, and perpetrators held accountable for their acts.”
The statement urged the military to take confidence-building measures, including lifting restrictions on freedom of assembly, freedom of the media, civic space and access to the internet.
Military climb down
In the face of this mounting condemnation, the military climbed down. In a surprising move, a spokesman for the TCM admitted it had ordered the dispersal of a sit-in in Khartoum.
Later the TMC issued a statement in the state-run news agency SUNA, that “preliminary evidence” had been found “against a number of elements of the regular forces who were then put in military custody, prior to referring them to the judicial authorities in an urgent manner”.
The TCM pledged that “there will be no delay in holding accountable all those found guilty in accordance with the regulations and laws.”
Hard on the heels of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed’s attempts to mediate in the situation, the newly appointed American special envoy to Sudan, Donald Booth, and the Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy, met TMC chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to work on a peaceful solution to the crisis.
As one observer put it, “it seems that Hamedti has been effectively put in his cage – at least for now.”
On its part, the Alliance for Freedom and Change protest movement called for a transparent investigation into the June 3 killings and demanded the
the withdrawal of militias from the streets in Khartoum and other towns, the lifting of the internet blockade and the establishment of a civilian administration. It also called off its general strike.
At the time of going to press, the internet blockage was still in place but some shops had opened and the streets were once again full of traffic. Omar Al Bashir’s trial had begun and life was returning to normal but there is a clear belief that Sudan has turned the corner and tomorrow’s Sudan will be a different country.
But there are still very many bridges to cross and accountability for the deaths and rapes to be investigated. At this stage however, it appears that people power has triumphed over the barrel of the gun. In the next article, we shall see why the events in Sudan have become a test for Africa’s democracy.