Eastern Sudan puts Khartoum in check days after repelling a coup

The territorial crisis is worsening in the Horn of Africa country due to ongoing tribal clashes with the transitional government
Hamdok primer ministro Sudán

AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -   Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok (centre) and Major General Malik Tayeb Khojali (left) inspect a guard of honour in El-Fasher, North Darfur

On 21 September, Sudan staged a coup attempt to overthrow the transitional government that has been running the country since August 2019. Then, the profuse and constant mobilisations against President Omar Hassan al-Bashir forced his resignation after three decades in power. Three years later, the country's apparent stability vanished in one fell swoop.

The interim cabinet, composed of civilians and senior army officers, resisted the onslaught and blamed the coup on a small group of officers close to former President Al-Bashir. Although the soldiers did not manage to put an end to the transitional period, what they do seem to have achieved is to deepen the social division that has plagued the country for decades. 

Hundreds of people rallied on Sunday in the vicinity of the Empowerment Removal Committee, the body charged with screening out from the institutions those profiles linked to the autocrat Al-Bashir. The intention of the masses was to show their support for the committee and to charge the figure of the president of the Sovereign Transitional Council, Lieutenant General Abdelfatah al-Burhan, who acts as head of state.

Omar al-Bashir
ARCHIVO/SUDAN FILES  -  In this photo taken on August 19, 2019 former ruler Al-Bashir faces a corruption trial in Khartoum

Within hours of the coup, rumours began to spread that the military leadership, which is pulling the strings of the transition, was the main promoter of the operation. Al-Burhan himself denied this accusation, calling it "pure fabrication". The lieutenant general assumed power after al-Bashir's fall and set the course of action for the next 21 months. After the term expired, Al-Burhan appointed Abdallah Hamdok as prime minister.

Civilian and military coexistence in the executive has not been easy. A broad spectrum of Sudanese society dislikes the role of the army after 30 years of military rule. An authoritarian government led with an iron fist by Omar Hassan al-Bashir during which the country experienced a second fratricidal war that ended with the 2011 split of South Sudan and a conflict in the western region of Darfur.

Al-Bashir's atrocious actions in the latter dispute led the International Criminal Court (ICC) to accuse the Sudanese leader of war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa ethnic groups. A military record that inflicts fear and provokes rejection despite the declarations of Prime Minister Hamdok, who assures that the division is not between civilians and the military, but between those who support this process and those who oppose it.

Primer ministro Sudán Hamdook
PHOTO/FILE-  Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok
Territorial tension

While tempers flared in the capital, the eastern states near the Red Sea, Kassala and Gadarif, the country's most impoverished regions despite their strategic location for supply chains, also witnessed an escalation of tensions between tribes and armed movements, albeit of a different hue. Since the overthrow of Al-Bashir, the provinces bordering Eritrea have been a headache for Khartoum.

The east is home to a long list of tribes, but two stand out: the Beja, a variety of Afro-Asiatic ethnic groups of Kisite origin, and the Arab peoples. There are also the Nuba and mixed races. This tribal mosaic is a constant source of friction. Coexistence is turbulent, which explains the recent clashes within the tribes themselves, between the different branches that make up the tribes. The ultimate goal is to gain leadership and set the political agenda in relations with the western part of the country.

In 2019, the interim government reached a peace agreement with the armed movements integrated into the Revolutionary Front after a year of negotiations to accommodate them in Sudan's new political life. However, some tribal components flatly rejected the terms of the agreement and refused to abide by it, causing tensions to escalate since October 2020.

Manifestaciones Sudán
AFP/ ASHRAF SHAZLY  -  Mass demonstrations against Al-Bashir. Sudanese had been demanding his surrender to the ICC for months

The Hadwah tribes, a branch of the Beja, oppose the agreement, while the Amer tribe, also part of the Beja people, is in favour. The Arab tribes remain on the sidelines. This explains why Hadwah chief Mohamed El-Amin Turk, a well-known political figure linked to former President Al-Bashir, instigated the latest demonstrations against Khartoum, which resulted in the blocking of two key oil pipelines.

The transitional government succeeded in halting the protests on Sunday. A delegation from Khartoum led by Shamsidin Kabashi, a member of the Sovereign Transitional Council, signed a document committing the government to resolve the grievances of the Beja people, who want to join the peace agreement signed in 2020 between the government and rebel groups. Khartoum also reactivated the transit of oil through the region.

A transition with a veneer

Attempts at institutional cleansing do not appear to have been effective. If anything, the uprising revealed the existence of officials loyal to the previous regime in the administration. This, coupled with complex social and tribal divisions, prevents effective political progress in Sudan. A country that until now represented an island of stability in the middle of a turbulent region.

AFP/ASHRAF SHAZLY  -  Members of the African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID)

At the same time, the remarkable division between civil society and the army highlights a conflict of interests within the government. Senior military commanders blame civilian politicians for the crisis. The models of the country sought by both seem incompatible, although only time will tell how strong the executive is, with elections scheduled for the end of next year.

The territorial establishment of the state itself is weak, so much of the power rests with the tribes. According to international observers, the recent uprising in the eastern part of the country threatens to follow the independence path of the south if solutions are not found in the short term.

In any case, the country's international pariah status disappeared just over a year ago, when it ceased to be considered a "sponsor of terrorism", coinciding with its last-minute foray into the historic Abraham Accords. The normalisation of relations with Israel unlocked $700 million in aid from Washington and facilitated a future $2 billion grant from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), benefits that would have vanished had the coup attempt succeeded.