With Jędrzej Czerep on the chances of reaching stabilization in multi-ethnic Sudan, and the spirit of Maidan among people protesting against dictatorship in Khartoum, talks Małgorzata Schwarzgruber.
Sudan regained independence in 1955. However, peace in this country lasted for only about 25 years. Is there any chance that this year’s protests will end the longest ever conflict on the African continent?
It seems so. Previous wars, in 1955–1972, and 1983–2005, took lives of 2.5 million people. Not many other conflicts after WWII have resulted in so many casualties. These two wars have caused the still unsettled crisis situations on the fringes of Sudan – in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. The current revolution is the third one in Sudan. The previous ones followed a similar scenario: after quite chaotic parliamentary control, power was taken over by military dictatorship, later a new generation grew up and started a revolution, as a result of which a multiparty system appeared, and power was again overtaken by the military. The breakthrough point were the mass peace protests which started in December 2018. In April 2019, the military dictatorship of president Omar al-Bashir, who had ruled the country from 1989, fell.
The protests, however, did not end with the fall of the dictator.
The rally in the center of Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, was similar to the Ukrainian Maidan and lasted for several months. It was astonishing that in a state lying on the border of the Arab and the African world, the demonstrations were led by women. Thousands of Sudanese people protested in front of military barracks. They wanted to infect the soldiers with the revolutionary fever, so that they would convince their commanders to support the opposition. The plan was only partially successful – the military helped to remove al-Bashir, but at the beginning of June 2019, the militants of Mohamed Dagalo, known as Hemetti, the ex-president’s enforcer, joined the forces of the former regime and killed over one hundred protesters. Due to the total blockade of the Internet, for a whole month it was impossible to find out what had happened. It was also a time when the protesters started, i.a., printing fliers, as their activity had been previously based mainly in the social media.
How does one start talks after such a tragedy?
Everyone decided that it is necessary to reach some kind of a compromise. The mediation between the Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the African Union helped. Most paramilitary forces withdrew to the outskirts of the capital, and the military agreed to transfer some power to civilians. On September 8, Abdallah Hamdouk’s transitional government was sworn in. Hamdouk is a Sudanese economist of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. The majority of the ministers were proposed by the opposition coalition of the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), which gathers groups fighting against al-Bashir. The military could propose the Ministers of Defense and Interior, as well as fill five out of the eleven posts in the newly created Sovereignty Council – a collective head of state with limited competencies. A close associate of Hemetti, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, was appointed the Chairman of the Council. Many competent people refused to become a part of Hamdouk’s government, as it is considered a suicidal body. When the state is facing economic collapse, a forced partnership between those who protested and those who oppressed is very fragile.
What are the most important tasks of this government?
The most important task is to reinstate peace in the country, i.a. in Darfur and on the border with South Sudan, and also to put the economy back on track and clear the state of people belonging to the former regime. The Sudanese know what mistakes they had made in the past, and that’s why the country is to be ruled by experts for the next three years. The transitional period is to enable the formation of a multi-party political system. The first democratic election will take place not earlier than in December 2022.
What happened to president Omar al-Bashir?
He is being tried in Sudan. He has been charged with taking from the Saudi heir to the throne a large sum of cash, which he then kept for himself. He is also pursued by the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide in Darfur, but he has not yet been accused of that in Sudan itself. However, with people of the old regime being gradually removed from the justice system, there is a growing chance that al-Bashir will ultimately face trial in Hague.
Mohamed Dagalo is a member of the new government authorities. What is his role?
As a member of the Sovereignty Council and the Chairman of the committee for negotiating with the rebels, he is in fact the most powerful politician in the state. He is still the leader of Kuwat al-Dam as-Sari, the so-called Rapid Support Forces, i.e. Arab tribal paramilitary groups. Their core are Janjaweed militants responsible for ethnic cleansing in Darfur, in which 300,000 civilians were killed. Hemetti, once a camel salesman, proved to be the most skillful tactician, who has always been able to stand on the right side. He is active on many fronts. He participates in creating new authorities in Sudan, but he is also interested in taking control over Chad and the neighboring states. He got rich on the conflict in Yemen, where not so long ago 20,000 of his militants supported the Saudis engaged in the fights. Another several thousand mercenaries, financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are fighting in Libya, supporting Gen Chalifa Haftar who is close to overtaking power by force.
What future awaits Hemetti’s militias, which are outside the government’s power, and which currently form the biggest private army in Africa?
They are the most important political power in Sudan and the best employer in this part of the continent. The barracks of the Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum are located in a prestigious district of the city and look very impressive. During my visit to Sudan I saw modern fighting vehicles delivered by the Emirates parked in front of the barracks, pickups with missile launchers and a lot of ammunition. Confronted with this, the army and the police look very poor and underinvested. In August 2019, in Khartoum, I observed several-hundred-meter-long lines of volunteers who wanted to join the Rapid Support Forces. They cannot still be referred to as Arab tribal militias from Darfur. More than a half of this one-hundred-thousand-man-strong army comes from Chad, Francophone states, or the poor communities living on the outskirts of Khartoum, among others.
What are the threats to the agreement between the governing Military Council and the civilian opposition?
One threat is the lack of balance between civilians and military men in the transitional government. The international pressure exerted on Saudi Arabia and the UAE to limit support for Hemetti might help to restore the balance. In fact, his militias can also become a threat to the concluded agreement, as well as the ambitions of liberation movement leaders, with whom the government must make peace to end the local wars unleashed by Al-Bashir. It is necessary to put all armed forces under a uniform command, include the numerous uncontrolled fractions in the army, and dismantle the old structures connected with the Muslim Brotherhood. In the times of al-Bashir, 70% of the state budget was spent on maintaining security structures. Almost all profits gained from exporting oil and gold was spent by the authorities for that purpose.
Can the unstable economic situation delay the introduction of planned reforms?
Yes. The inflation is high. Since the beginning of the revolution, the price for a city bus ride has tripled, there’s a shortage of gas and bread. I need to mention that the inflation is a result of the protests which began when the previous government wanted to cancel the subsidies for bread. The current government has also announced cancelling subsidies for bread and fuels, but not earlier than in two years. It has to be done rationally, with simultaneous introduction of social protection programs.
Can Sudan count on support from its neighbors?
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were the first to help. However, the support was perceived negatively by the people of Sudan, as the first two states support Hemetti’s militants and want to gain the broadest possible political influence and promote their own version of Islam on the African continent. For example, the Emirates have pressured Ethiopia to again give consent to the functioning of Islamic banking, which had been forbidden for the last few years. Sudanese people don’t want this version of religious conservatism or the political system proposed by Wahhabism. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE promised 3 billion dollars of support and ships with grain began to arrive in Sudan, the streets filled with protesters carrying banners saying: “We don’t want this money.”
Despite possessing vast natural resources, Sudan is one of the poorest and the most underdeveloped countries in the world. If Sudanese people don’t want the help of the Emirates and Arabia, what is their alternative?
When Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok took over power, he said they need 8 billion dollars. However, neither the World Bank nor the International Monetary Fund can transfer any financial help, as Sudan remains on the American list of states supporting terrorism. It was put on the list in the 1990s, when Osama bin Laden lived there. The Sudanese expected that after overthrowing al-Bashir, Americans would remove their country from the list. That didn’t happen, but the USA have initiated talks on this matter. As for the success of reforms in Sudan, it depends on consequent international support, especially the support of the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and the USA, as well as noticeable improvement in the quality of life. The first decisions on financial support – over 400 million euro offered by the EU, as well as the promise made by the club of states, the so-called friends of Sudan, to finance the next-year’s budget of the country – sound very positive.
Considering Sudan’s abundance of natural resources and its location, various states are interested in gaining influence and investing in this country. What interests intersect in Sudan?
Turkey and the UAE would like to build military installations on the Sudanese coast, the Emirates are also thinking about political and economic expansion deep into the Sahel. It would be beneficial for the interests of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to keep Sudan under authoritarian power with bigger military influence than the citizens want. These three countries are afraid of the “democratic disease” spreading in the region. Russians have also joined the race for Africa – they had supposedly trained Sudanese militants who were responsible for the massacre during the rally in Khartoum. Their main area of activity is the Central African Republic (CAR). For long months, a contingent of 500 mercenaries of the so-called Wagner Group stationed on the border of the CAR and South Sudan, and no one really knew what they were doing there. Russians have launched and manned a route for mining and exporting diamonds and gold from central Africa, through Darfur, to external markets. They also want to have a military base on the Red Sea. They had a big chance to create it during the rule of al-Bashir, who thought that friendship with Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West. However, this is not the political direction set by the current Sudanese authorities. Russians, however, still cooperate with Hemetti and his militias on the border with the CAR, on the territories where gold is extracted. Sudan’s biggest economic partner is China, the main buyer of petroleum, who invests in infrastructure. Beijing does not, however, have any political ambitions to interfere with Sudan’s internal affairs.
British colonists divided Sudan administratively already in the 20th century, creating the northern, the Islamic, and the southern part, inhabited by black and partly Christian community. Today, most of the tribes living there speak Arabic. Is this country more Arab or African?
From the moment of regaining independence, Sudanese people considered themselves Arabs, who should make minorities descending from African ethnic groups Arabic. However, these groups of African descent are actually majorities. Khartoum has always had a problem with accepting its cultural diversity. It has been forced out of social consciousness, particularly in the central part of the country. Now the situation is changing. The several-month-long revolution was a celebration of Sudan’s diversity. Al-Bashir counted on stirring up the streets when he tried to play the chauvinist card, claiming that the protests had been initiated by students from Darfur connected to the rebels. Meanwhile, the slogan of the protests was: “We Are All Darfur.” On the central rally in Khartoum there were tents presenting the culture and traditions of minorities – music and films of Darfur tribes, as well as tribes from provinces such as South Kordofan or Blue Nile. For the local elites, it was a lesson on how diverse the people of Sudan are. During the protests, the flag that fluttered over the heads was the flag of Sudan from the 1970s. For many Sudanese it became a declaration that they accept the African component of their identity, now perceived as a synthesis of the Arab and African elements.
Doesn’t this variety and multi-ethnicity make it harder to reach agreement?
I am optimistic. Sudan is standing before the biggest opportunity to have new, more just and fair order and development since the moment of regaining independence. In Juba, South Sudan, there are ongoing peace talks, with almost all military movements, which aim at ending conflicts. There is visible will to reach an agreement. Such course of events is not favorable for Islamists connected with the former regime of al-Bashir or the Muslim Brotherhood. The first time they tried to hit the streets and take advantage of the economic problems to stir up people, was in October. They intended to gather in front of the military barracks and ask for an intervention. They made a lot of buzz in the Internet, but no one got involved in the protests. On the contrary, the streets filled with supporters of the reforms. The spirit of Maidan, stifled by the massacre of June 3, returned.
Jędrzej Czerep is an analyst of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz