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Sudan military coup: what happened and why it still matters

November 24, 2021
tags:#Sudan, #Darfur, #military coup, #Sub-Saharan Africa
by:Olusegun Akinfenwa
On 25 October, the Sudanese military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, took control of the government in a coup. Some top government officials, including civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, were initially detained for their refusal to declare support for the coup. For days after the coup, civilians put up a campaign of civil resistance against the military junta as they called for the reinstatement of the dissolved government. And while Hamdok has since been reinstated, the path to democracy in the country and region remains long and murky.

Weeks after the coup, the military bowed to domestic and international pressure and reinstated the prime minister; it had promised to release other political detainees as well. But despite that, the streets of the capital, Khartoum, are still engulfed in protests as the wider implications of the coup persist.

The current political tussle can be traced to the fall of the former Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party government in 2019, which brought an end to 30 years of authoritarian rule and ushered in a civilian-military power-sharing administration. The military faction was headed by al-Burhan, while Hamdok presided as a civilian Prime Minister.

However, for several months, there had been rancour between the civilian and military factions of the council, with each blaming the other for the current deterioration of economic conditions. This divided the country between proponents of pro-civilian rule and pro-military rule.

In September, there was widespread tension following an attempted coup, which was later simmered, 25 until October, when the coup eventually happened. 

Deposed Prime Minister Reinstated by the Military

On Sunday, 21 November, the military reinstated Hamdok after keeping him under home arrest for weeks. He appeared on state TV to sign a new deal with al-Burhan. Under the agreement, Hamdok will lead a civilian cabinet of technocrats for a transitional period. The reinstated prime minister said he agreed to the new deal to prevent more casualties.

"Sudanese blood is precious. Let us stop the bloodshed and direct the youth's energy into building and development," he stated at a signing ceremony of the deal.

Protest Continues as Pro-Democracy Activists Oppose the Deal

Just like any military takeover, the coup came with various humanitarian and economic downturns that persist despite the new arrangement.

The civilian coalition of activists that nominated Hamdok in 2019 opposed the new deal as pro-democracy protesters accused him of being a sell-out.

"Hamdok has sold the revolution," protesters chanted after the new agreement was announced. A leading protest group, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), said it is "treacherous."

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the protesting crowd as tens of thousands of people participated in scheduled rallies in Khartoum and other cities. It is unclear how much power the civilian government will have under the new agreement, as it will be subject to military oversight. It also made no mention of the civilian collation that was in power before the coup, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC).

Persistent Humanitarian Impacts

Successive Sudanese governments have performed poorly in the area of human rights protection. Events of the past weeks since the coup have once again shown security officials’ innate appetite for excessive use of force against the masses. Many civilians taking part in pro-democracy demonstrations have been killed, detained and injured by security personnel.

Salma Elkhazin, a surgeon at Khartoum’s private Care Royal hospital, where many of the victims are being treated,  lamented the brutality against people fighting for their rights.

"It's heartbreaking to see those young people, the ones that have been killed, asking for what's rightfully theirs: for a free country with a civilian government," Elkhazin told BBC.

Unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions, tortures and other ill-treatments are inherent in the system and have been used by governments to suppress dissent.

In an emergency session on Friday, 5 November, the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the coup and delegating an envoy to monitor alleged violations in Sudan.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who spoke during the session, condemned the ongoing clampdown and urged the military to end their violence against the masses.

“This disproportionate and deadly use of force by the Sudan Armed Forces, the Rapid Support Forces, and other security forces - including military police and intelligence elements - must end immediately,” said Bachelet. “Those responsible for these and other human rights violations must be held fully accountable for their actions.”

On Sunday, 21 November, a 16-year-old boy protesting the new deal died from a bullet wound in Khartoum’s twin city Omdurman, the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors announced.

Medics said the overall death toll since the coup has reached 41.

The gross human rights violations also extend to communication rights. During the 2019 crisis, mobile internet was shut down, leaving the country offline for 36 days. Though there is no total shutdown this time around, people in Sudan have been experiencing significant disruption to internet service since 25 October.

A report by AllAfrica from October 2021 shows that the national connectivity on the day of the coup only reached 34 percent of ordinary levels. Sudan has blocked the internet four times within the past three years, an indication that the al-Bashir’s led military intends to follow the footsteps of past governments in limiting people’s freedom of expression and flow of information.

Economic Impacts

For several years, Sudan has endured a series of economic downturns, including a high unemployment rate and food insecurity. Due to the volatile situation in the country, it has also suffered a dearth of international monetary support and debt relief until the recent transition. The economic issue has been the main basis of recent protests, including the ousting of Bashir and this latest coup.

Immigration Advice Service gathered that various international bodies expressed dissatisfaction following the coup and cut their support. The World Bank, which has contributed around $3 billion to Sudan, announced the suspension of its aid to the country. The United States has also frozen $700 million in aid to Sudan. Similarly, the African Union suspended Sudan from the bloc over the “unconstitutional” power takeover.

The continued protests have also dealt a blow to economic activities in the country. Days after the coup, the country grappled with a severe cash shortage as most cash machines and banks were closed. A report shows that 90 percent of bankers took part in the civil disobedience campaign.

"We stand firmly against any military action and any form of dictatorship," the Sudanese Banking Association’s spokesperson, Abdul Rashid Khalifa said some days after the coup.

Even before the coup, unemployment had been incredibly high and food shortages were rising at an alarming rate. The situation was exacerbated by the recent COVID-19 lockdowns and severe floods, which affected food production.

In view of the latest development, the reinstated Hamdok and his new cabinet may have an uphill task in convincing the international bodies to mend the severed relationships.

Though Western powers, including Britain, the United States, Norway, Canada, Switzerland and the European Union welcomed the reinstatement of Hamdok, it remains to be seen when the lost economic alliances will be regained.

Impacts on Democratic Rule Domestically and Regionally

Domestically, the coup threatens the hard-won journey to democratic transition in Sudan, and regionally - the young and fragile democracies in sub-Saharan Africa.

The earlier dissolution of the transitional government and declaration of a state of emergency by the military junta could be an indication that the country is still within the shackles of military dictatorship.

Also, looking at the military’s use of force against protesters in recent demonstrations, it is hard to anticipate any semblance of civility or respect of human rights in its leadership, given the antecedents of its two highest-ranking members.

In 2019, Al-Burhan was accused of being the military architect behind the genocide in Darfur. He was quoted to have described himself as “the Lord of the people of Darfur and authorised to kill them when, as, and how he wants.”

Similarly, the Rapid Support Forces leader Mohamed Hamdan Hemedti, who alongside al-Burhan anchored the military faction of the dissolved council, was at the forefront of the scorched earth campaign in Khartoum’s June 2019 massacre.

With these two still part of the system, the question remains whether Sudan will experience a truly democratic rule anytime soon.

The coup’s wider implications could also tell on other sub-Saharan African countries, as the hard-earned democratic progress made since the 1990s is now being threatened by the resurgence of power-seeking military officials.

The Sudan coup made it the fourth military takeover between August 2020 and October 2021 in a region that has had a long history of political instability.

A study shows that between 1956 and 2001, sub-Saharan Africa experienced 80 successful coups and 108 failed coup attempts, representing an average of four in a year. However, the past two decades witnessed a significant reduction in coups, as more countries embrace democracy.

Unfortunately, this hard-earned milestone in civil rules, which cost some people their lives, is now being threatened by the resurgence of power-seeking militaries. The recent string of coups occurred in Mali in August 2020 and May 2021, Chad in April 2021, Guinea in September 2021, and Sudan in October 2021.

If this pattern is sustained, more militaries from other countries may want to continue experimenting with it as a viable means to grab power, which poses wider implications for instability, given the already persistent insecurity in the region.

Crucially, the growing trend of military takeovers could also escalate the refugee crisis in the region.

Sudan’s Identity Crisis

Also at stake is the very identity of Sudan, which formed the major demands during the 2019 uprising. The protest leaders almost achieved their goal of carving a desirous new identity of a democratic state for Sudan until a sudden twist of fate, which resulted in the dissolved joint military-civilian rule rather than a true civilian administration.

On paper, though, the Sovereign Council was jointly headed by both military and civilian leaders, the civilian members found themselves outmaneuvered, sidelined and frustrated by the military members.

A former civilian member who resigned from the government in May, Aisha Musa Sayeed, accused the military component of sidelining its civilian counterpart and making unilateral decisions.

She alleged that the military officials were "overriding constitutional powers," thereby rendering the civilian component a mere logistical executive body only, who don't participate in decision making but only accept what has been agreed upon.”

Even before the coup, the military faction’s actions and inactions since the formation of the council made many doubt their sincerity in handing over to an elected government in 2023.

Coupled with their numerous shady businesses, the military leaders were also alleged to be getting supports from some foreign organisations and individuals, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE. Much of the revenue from the military holding companies allegedly bypasses government coffers and goes into private accounts abroad.

These numerous streams of income and international connections made it easy for the military faction to outmuscle the civilian side of the government.

Within its six decades of independence, Sudan had fractured into various types of leaderships, including informal and formal armed forces, hard-line Islamist sects, armed militias and political parties - all struggling for the soul of the country and claiming to represent the will of the people.

Though a new civilian cabinet has been formed, there are indications it will be under the oversight of the military leaders. Besides, the military-civilian power-sharing arrangement isn’t the true identity the Sudanese masses want for their country.

Image by UNMISS.

Article written by:
Olusegun Akinfenwa
Embed from Getty Images
Sudanese protesters walk past burning tyres during a demonstration calling for a return to civilian rule on 40th street in the capital's twin city of Omdurman.
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An injured man is carried through a crowd during a Day of Resistance demonstration on 13 November, 2021 in Omdurman, Sudan.
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South Sudanese SPLA soldiers are pictured in Pageri in Eastern Equatoria.
© SAMIR BOL/AFP via Getty Images
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