The first anniversary of Sudan's coup d'état has passed
More hunger, poverty, a dismantled economy, a more divided society and a threatening return of radical Islamism. This is the grim assessment that some experts are making of the situation in Sudan, on the first anniversary of the coup d'état at the hands of the military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
The country was enjoying a democratic transition for the first time in decades after years under the corrupt rule of Omar al-Bashir, one of the great dictators of the Horn of Africa. After his overthrow manu militari, amid huge protests over corruption scandals, a civilian transitional government took the reins of a country that is key to the region's geo-strategy.
Led by UK-educated economist Abdalla Hamdok, the new civilian transitional government to whom the military handed the keys was striving to build a social consensus to stabilise power and address Sudan's historic problems. Kholood Khair, a Sudanese-born analyst and founder of the think-tank Confluence Advisory, believes in an interview with Atalayar that the Transitional Government was achieving these goals, or at least was on the right track.
Abdalla Hamdok, who has a long track record in international relations after serving in organisations such as the African Union, managed to lift the application of US sanctions on the battered African country. "The projections indicated that Sudan's external debt would be cleared by 2024, an impossible goal today," says Khair.
The turning point for Sudan came on 25 October with the second coup d'état in two years.
Sudan is a country extremely vulnerable to destabilising factors, as has been demonstrated throughout its history, since its independence from the British Empire. Surrounded by 7 other countries (Libya, Egypt, Chad, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea) with geostrategic relevance as well as internal problems. After independence, the country was culturally divided into two opposing north-south poles, in a paradigm of domination by the Arab and Muslim community in the north against the black and non-Muslim ethnic groups in the south. The ongoing civil wars concluded the separation of the south with a forged peace process in 2005 and finally an unfinished independence in 2011. Tensions between the two sides of the country are still simmering in 2022, with ethnic clashes regularly resulting in deaths in the western region of Darfur.
Today it is a transit point for migratory routes, has admittedly porous borders and serves the interests of some of its neighbours across the Red Sea. For Saudi Arabia it is an important supplier of foodstuffs. The Sudanese economy is based on agriculture and livestock farming, which are organised around the tributaries of the Nile that flow through the country. The country's mineral deposits are of great value and are therefore in the sights of countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which is interested in extracting gold from the country. Finally, access to the Red Sea makes Sudan a relevant factor in the security of other countries in the maritime basin. In particular, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel, which are watching with suspicion Russia's intentions to develop a naval base in the vicinity of Port Sudan, with the capacity to house nuclear submarines.
In this context of "geopolitical Carrefour" for Sudan, on 25 October 2021 and with the approval of Egypt, the main ally of the Sudanese military establishment, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took to the streets of Khartoum against the order established two years earlier between the military junta and the Forces for Freedom and Change, the umbrella organisation for different voices in Sudanese civil society.
Al-Burhan, one of the same people who participated in the coup against Bashir, was rising again alongside the country's second most prominent military officer, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemeti. Al-Burhan comes from a classic Sudanese military career. Military academy in Khartoum and additional training in Egypt and Jordan. According to Cidob analysts, his military career was not disrupted by the change of power in 1989 when the Islamists ended Sudan's brief democratic experience and Bashir came to power.
He was assigned to border surveillance, a task for which he was soon to become chief of staff. In his international career, al-Burhan served as military attaché at the Sudanese embassy in China. In the 2000s, he led Sudanese government troops against Sudan People's Liberation Army militias during the civil war until 2005. He later participated in the deployment of Sudanese troops to Yemen along with Saudi Arabia to fight Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Omar Bashir was always close to al-Burhan, especially when he appointed him lieutenant general of the Land Forces Command and inspector general of the Armed Forces. The good feeling between him and al-Burhan was demonstrated when the general avoided extradition to the International Court in The Hague, instead being tried in Sudan on much more favourable terms. His affiliation with Sudanese Islamists is notorious, as is tradition among the military in Sudan.
The 25 October coup was received very negatively by Sudanese society, which, eager for democracy, took to the streets in demonstrations organised largely by the Forces for Liberation and Change. The response from Sudan's neighbours was not the same. Initially, major stakeholders such as Israel and Saudi Arabia gave a discreet green light to the coup d'état of a military man they considered an ally and aligned with their interests. Faced with al-Burhan, another military officer, Hemeti, could have taken the same initiative with a less favourable outcome for these countries.
The very close relationship that Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo "Hemeti" has with the Kremlin is a major concern of these international stakeholders. According to Kholood Khair, neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt, are favourable to the idea of Russia gaining more influence in Sudan and achieving its desires to host nuclear weapons in the Red Sea.
From the moment he took power, al-Burhan has pursued a strategy of keeping a dose of civilian figures in power to give himself some legitimacy in the eyes of Sudan's civilian population. Unsuccessfully, after dismissing Hamdok, he allowed him back into the government, only for the former Prime Minister of the democratic transition to step down a few days later. A second time, in June, under pressure from demonstrations in Khartoum, the military junta agreed to step back to make way for a civilian government once again. In the opinion of analyst Kholood Khair, "the military junta always kept the decision on which civilians and which civilians could and could not participate in this body", says the expert on Sudanese politics. Alongside this, al-Burhan's military junta would maintain effective power over the Central Bank and other government finance bodies, still squeezing to stay in power.
The outcome in this political impasse is uncertain. While civil society is the party most at odds with the military, an international effort to reach a transitional agreement is being negotiated by the UN, the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter two international actors have progressively withdrawn their support for al-Burhan after Sudan's Islamist elements proved strong with the military back in power, a prospect that is at odds with the UAE and Saudi Arabia's agenda of openness and promotion of moderate Islam. Even a success in international negotiations would not imply an effective outcome in Sudanese politics. "These negotiations are being conducted with the back of Sudanese civil society. Without this party, the outcome of the talks between the international community and the military is not going to lead anywhere conclusive," says Kholood. The demonstrations that have been held regularly in Sudan in a determined spirit have not given way to harsh repression throughout this year of military rule. The Sudan Central Medical Union claims that at least 120 protesters have been killed in clashes with the forces of law and order since 25 October 2021. More than 7,000 have been injured during the unrest. Despite this, Sudanese continue to demonstrate. On the anniversary of the coup protesters organised by the resistance committees took to the streets again and the internet was again cut off to prevent communication. The situation is worsening.
Meanwhile, the economy and ordinary Sudanese are suffering the consequences of this political blockade. Despite Saudi Arabia's recent investments in the country, Sudan has gone into full recession and all improvements in its economy have come to a standstill. "The government lives off the taxes it can levy on any citizen or economic activity," says Khair. According to Khair, the end of investment and international aid forces the military to raise taxes on small businesses in order to survive. Meanwhile, power prices have increased fivefold in Sudan. The National newspaper reports the case of a shopkeeper in Khartoum, Mohamed Ibrahim, who has seen the rent for his shop rise from 20,000 Sudanese pounds to 80,000, a price that has quadrupled in just one year. In the fields, a disastrous harvest season threatens a future of terrible hardship and hunger. In a country where 30% of children under 5 suffer from malnutrition, and the economy is based on agriculture, the bad news about the harvest is grim. "Farmers are broke. Inflation is skyrocketing. People feel they have no money in their pockets," sums up Kholood Khair.
Within a year, the rift between the military leaders of the ruling junta has also worsened. From the beginning, Hemeti's pretensions were well known, but according to the latest reports in the local Sudanese press, the confrontation between al-Burhan and Hemeti is growing. "They have two different visions and two different agendas," explains Kholood. "Both want to rule. Even if Hemeti is al-Burhan's lieutenant, in theory".
Al-Burhan denies that there is tension between the two sides, but as the Sudan Tribune notes, the autonomous forces under Hemeti's command, known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), are reportedly increasing their power behind al-Burhan's back. One of the main points of contention between the two military factions is the leeway granted to the Islamists by al-Burhan. According to analyst Amjad al-Naim, the power struggle between Hemeti and al-Burhan can only be negative because of the erosion of state institutions.
It would also complicate negotiations with international parties. This path would be the closest to reaching an agreement to unblock the situation in Sudan, but negotiating with two military leaders is riskier and offers more fragile solutions to Sudan's uncertain future.