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Sudan: Beneath the surface

Cornered between political and social tensions, the political players in Sudan must unite to save the country from further turmoil, observers tell Haitham Nouri

Haitham Nouri , Sunday 21 Jul 2019
Beneath the surface
Beneath the surface
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Views: 4127

The breakthrough agreement between Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the opposition Alliance of Freedom and Change (AFC) has not put an end to the country’s political turmoil, with Lieutenant-General Gamaleddin Omar Ibrahim, a member of the TMC, announcing the arrest of officers and soldiers who had tried to “carry out a coup” last week.

“This was an attempt to block the agreement which has been reached by the TMC and the AFC that aims to open the road for the Sudanese people to achieve their demands,” Ibrahim said at a press conference late last week.

He added that of the 12 officers arrested five were retired. Four soldiers were also apprehended. The official Sudan News Agency (SUNA) reported that the security forces were still looking for the “mastermind” of the failed coup and other remaining elements.

The TMC did not give further details of those behind the attempted coup, or “coup attempters” as they were dubbed by the Khartoum press, providing neither their names, ranks nor political affiliations.

Opposition activists said Ibrahim’s statement aimed at raising the “fear” of Sudan’s opposition and people in order to guarantee a permanent role for the army as the protector of the country against “dangerous coup-attempters”.

Heidar Ibrahim, a professor of sociology at Khartoum University, said that “I don’t believe this is the case,” however. “There might have been a coup attempt because the army has been sabotaged during the three decades of Islamist rule.”

“The Islamists are at an impasse after the toppling of [former president Omar] Al-Bashir. They are no longer capable of staying at the helm. I believe they arranged this or the previous coup attempt,” he added.

Ibrahim, who has authored numerous publications on the Islamists’ rule of Sudan since Al-Bashir’s coup in June 1989, stated that both the “opposition and its supporters haven’t made their choices yet. This is normal.”

The Islamist movement and its late leader Hassan Al-Turabi conducted a military coup headed by Al-Bashir who was “the highest Islamist ranking officer” in 1989. The latter, however, then took over power unilaterally, resulting in what was later dubbed the 1999 “Ramadan Decisions,” after which Al-Turabi turned into a fierce opponent of the military government.

Much of the Sudanese Islamist movement remained on the side of Al-Bashir, however, whose venturing into the south of the country culminated in the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, also known as the Naivasha Agreement, that eventually led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011.

Al-Bashir also engaged in the bloody Darfur conflicts in the west of the country.

“Everything is possible” now in Sudan, said Ibrahim, explaining that “either an agreement may be reached, or a conflict may ensue, between the players on Sudan’s political stage.”

This is the same position shared by the opposition National Umma Party leader Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, who stated that “conflict between the armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces [RSF] will be in the interests of no one.”

Al-Mahdi, who was the premier in the government Al-Bashir overthrew in 1989, said “the conflict will end either violently,” which will have a heavy political price, or “peacefully” by integrating the RSF into the army to maintain the stability of the country.

Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher into Sudan affairs, said after Al-Mahdi’s statements, as reported by Reuters, that “although there is no visible tension between the RSF and the army, strain is expected amid the prevailing nationwide social conflict.”

“Such conflict is not related to the army. It is rather a social tension between west Sudan and the inhabitants of the Nile Valley. This tension has been rooted in Sudanese culture for decades,” Mahmoud said.

“The civilian administration meeting in Khartoum to support the head of the RSF led many people to fear the possibility of the country slipping into tribal violence that could tear Sudan apart,” Mahmoud added.

The civilian administration system was installed by the country’s former British colonisers to manage the governance of the far ends of Sudan without incurring a heavy bill for the colonial administration.

The system later broke down in the majority of the northern and central states, but it remained functional in the west despite its official termination in the early 1970s during the rule of former president Gaafar Numeiri.

“The civilian administration system means the tribes of west Sudan, the majority of which are rural. It also means a new regional line-up in a country that is exhausted on the political, economic and social levels,” commented Mahmoud.

It appears that this social conflict was what drove many to point accusing fingers at the RSF – originally made up of Arab tribes from west Sudan – in the dispersal of the popular sit-in at the army headquarters in Khartoum on 3 June.

The dispersal of the sit-in resulted in 120 deaths, according to the Sudan Doctors Central Association, part of the Sudanese Professionals Association that has been spearheading the popular revolt since December. The Sudanese Ministry of Health, however, put the number of deaths at 60.

It is no secret that Al-Bashir’s government used Darfur’s Arab tribes to quell the rebellion of non-Arab tribes in the region after 2003. The Darfur Arab tribes were then known as the Janjaweed militias, and their name was later changed to “border guards” before they became known as the RSF.

Many of their forces have been accused of committing crimes against humanity in troubled Darfur. The International Criminal Court has also accused Al-Bashir of “masterminding” human rights crimes in Darfur. Fifty-five officials and opposition figures have also been accused.

Mahmoud said the accusations could be correct, but that they bore a portion of historical enmity between the two Arab parties in Sudan.

In addition to the current tension prevailing across Sudanese there has been the surfacing of shocking videos showing the dispersal of the Khartoum sit-in. The videos were circulated after the resumption of Internet services in the country that were severed nationwide for several weeks.

Following what opposition activists labelled as “videos of atrocities,” a “Retribution First” protest has demanded trying those who ordered and executed the violence.

TMC head Abdel-Fattah Borhan has announced that inter-army investigations are ongoing, stressing that the sit-in was not dispersed upon the orders of the army’s general command.

Mahmoud told Al-Ahram Weekly that the foiled coup last week had not been the first since the fall of Al-Bashir. He said that the TMC had earlier announced another attempted coup. Al-Mahdi had also warned his partners in the AFC against “losing the TMC” for fear of witnessing a military coup.

Al-Mahdi has repeatedly described the TMC as a “partner in change,” in Sudan, saying that the country needs a disciplined central authority to manage certain tasks whose nature he did not clarify.

“The tasks could range from collecting the weapons dispersed across many regions as a result of the numerous wars Al-Bashir waged, to facing off with the Islamists, or protecting Sudan against another secession scenario,” Mahmoud said, insisting that a clash between the army and the RSF would mean “countless civilian casualties” in a capital inhabited by seven million people.

In such a case, “the clashes will not be between the army and the RSF, but between the inhabitants of the capital who represent a small-scale version of Sudan,” he said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Beneath the surface


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