What’s in a name?

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 27 Sep 2022

Sudan is divided over Al-Burhan’s UK visit and UNGA address. Was the Sudanese military leader attempting to gain international recognition or conducting a routine activity, asks Haitham Nouri

Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan
Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan (photo: AP)

General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the leader of the Sudanese army and head of the ruling Sovereign Council, returned to Khartoum following a world tour described by his loyalists as “international recognition of his ruling” and downplayed by his opponents as routine diplomatic activity.

Al-Burhan started his trip by attending the funeral of Queen Elisabeth II. According to the UK list of mourners, which was published in official British sources, Al-Burhan was referred to as Sudan’s military leader, not the chairman of the Sovereignty Council.

Al-Burhan attended the funeral of the longest serving queen in UK history along with ruling Arab families and African leaders whose countries have for decades been Western allies, unlike Sudan which alternated between the East bloc, the West and isolation since the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in the 1980s.

Still, Al-Burhan’s attendance of the official funeral of the queen and his address before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is “international recognition of his ruling”, said Othman Hamad Al-Malak, a professor of political science in Khartoum. “If [Omar] Al-Bashir was still in power, Sudan wouldn’t have been able to send its foreign minister, let alone its highest leading figure,” he added.

Not all observers are in agreement with Al-Malak. “In such circumstances, invitations are sent to all countries regardless of their ruling regimes,” said author Zuhair Al-Sarag. In the case of the queen’s funeral the invitations were sent to all the countries except for a very small number.

According to the British press, invitations to attend the funeral were not sent to Russia, Belarus or Myanmar because the UK has imposed sanctions on them. Sanctions on Moscow and Minsk were due to the war in Ukraine, while those on Myanmar came against the backdrop of the persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority and the displacement of the majority of its population to neighbouring Bangladesh.

London had also cut diplomatic relations with Damascus and Caracas in protest of the regimes in Syria and Venezuela, and froze relations with Kabul after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. Al-Sarag argues that, since there are neither sanctions nor a diplomatic break, “Al-Burhan’s attendance of the funeral does not mean recognition by the West.”

However, Al-Burhan’s presence in the British capital belies the idea of “the West’s rejection of Al-Burhan and the role of the military in Sudanese politics, especially since he is the first Sudanese leader to visit the UK since 1987,” added Hamad Al-Malak.

Al-Sadek Al-Mahdi, the prime minister of Sudan from 1986 to 1989, was the last Sudanese leader to visit Western capitals and address the UNGA.

Al-Burhan’s participation in the 77th UNGA was, according to Al-Sarag, “a routine and a protocol”. He added that “the UN does not send invitations. It is the right of all member states to attend.”

However, Hamad Al-Malak asked, “if it was a matter of routine and protocol, why didn’t Al-Bashir attend any of those sessions?”

Opposition journalist Abdel-Rahman Al-Amin said Al-Burhan addressed the UNGA as president of IGAD, not as a representative of Sudan. He likened the situation to that of 1979 when former president Jaafar Numeiri addressed the UNGA as head of the Organisation of African Unity.

The UN website, nevertheless, in both its Arabic and English language portals described Al-Burhan as chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council.

Moreover, in his speech, which lasted more than 13 minutes, Al-Burhan mentioned no IGAD challenges. Instead, he limited his speech to Sudan’s causes. One of his significant statements in the course of the address was that “the military institution decided to withdraw from the national dialogue and not participate in power to allow the revolutionary and political forces to form a civilian government of independent technocrats to fulfil the requirements of the transitional period”.

Al-Burhan also talked about Darfur, external debt, the refugee issue, and sustainable development. He reiterated that his government will continue to cooperate with the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) and the United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA).

He pledged to cooperate with “the many initiatives that work to achieve national reconciliation in Sudan, especially the national initiatives in which intensive dialogues are taking place and various civil forces participating: political parties, youth and revolutionary forces, civil leaders, Sufi orders, civil society organisations and the signatory groups to the Juba Peace Agreement, hoping that it will result in a broad consensus that facilitates the democratic transition process and leads to fair and transparent elections.

Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher in Sudanese affairs, said Al-Burhan “benefited from his visit on both sides of the Atlantic, gaining legitimacy for his rule, especially with his pledge to keep the military establishment away outside political action, which gives him the opportunity to devote himself to the conflict with political forces that appear to support him. This makes the task more difficult for civil forces, as there will be no elections any time soon.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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