The face off between the Sudanese Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the civilian demonstrators trying to pressure it into abandoning power ended abruptly on June 3rd when the soldiers opened fire on the population , killing immediately over one hundred people , wounding many more and opening a massive national and international crisis. Final casualty lists will certainly be way higher. Who were the victims? Practically anybody. The movement which had started on December 19th last year had managed to touch every social class and every ethnic group in the country. Both sexes too; there were more women than men in the huge sit-in crowd in front of the Army Headquarters and many were accompanied by their children. For the time being the information is focalized on Khartoum but scattered reports say that the soldiers have started the same repression / control in all the main cities where the democratic opposition was occupying many city centers. How can we describe what has been and still is happening?
Since June 30th 1989 the Sudan has been under the control of an Islamist movement called at the time the National Islamic Front (NIF), led by Hassan al-Turabi. In 2000 an internal coup brought the Islamist-controlled Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) into the reality of power after they eliminated Hassan al Turabi, but without breaking with his Islamist project. The new regime, led by General Omar al-Beshir thus changed its label and moved from pure Islamist to “militaro-Islamist”. In terms of its functioning it was a disaster. Its economic policies were catastrophic and a limited number of corrupt politicians, in the revamped NIF now called National Congress Party (NCP), both fumbled ineptly and stole enormous amounts of public funds. At the political level the new government dealt brutally with the popular uprising in Darfur, killing at least 350,000 people. It also lost the war against the Southern Peoples Democratic Movement (SPLM) and was forced in 2005 into a political settlement.
After wasting the period between the peace agreement and the agreed-upon referendum — Omar al-Beshir never even attempted to get the southern electorate to vote for unity — the settlement led to a referendum on unity or separation in 2011 and the majority of the southern electorate voted for secession. This had a massive impact on the Northern economy which instantaneously lost the 370,000 barrels of oil per day it was getting from the South. Meanwhile the NCP regime had over-borrowed “development” money from China and painted itself into a corner by erecting numerous prestige buildings which had no obvious economic effectiveness. The peace with the South was only partial because many Black Muslim fighters who had fought against the Arabs did not agree with being sidelined by the peace-cum-secession, eventually excluded from the peace process and forced to remain in the North after the Southern separation. They took up arms and rebelled against Khartoum. Since the conflict in Darfur had never ended, after 2011 the NCP regime had to face two instances of regional civil wars while trying to manage a collapsing economy.
Beshir and his associates tried to reach for any stopgap possibilities, be they part of the “grey economy” (makeshift gold mining in the West) or of “grey diplomacy” (sending forcibly drafted troops to Yemen to shore up the Saudi/UAE war on the Houthi regime). In September 2013 an attempt at uprising was brutally crushed, killing hundreds, and whatever protection for human rights remained, was removed. The country sank into a deflating spiral of economic poverty where every basic product — fuel, cooking gas, basic foodstuffs and finally in December 2018 even flour and bread — became scarce or massively overpriced. On December 19th 2018 the population, clandestinely organized by unofficial trade unions — the official ones had been devitalized and forced into submission after the 2013 uprising — and federated by the clandestine Sudan Producers Association (SPA) supported a massive movement of civil disobedience where the civilians took to the streets, demanding the stepping down of Omar al-Beshir and of the NCP regime. Last April 11th a “Transitional Military Council” (TMC) deposed President al-Beshir and jailed him. In the wake of his deposition, a number of the government’s worthies were arrested and sent to Kober prison.
But it soon appeared that the TMC’s idea was to operate a superficial cosmetic “regime change”, eliminate Beshir, blame him for the global catastrophe and keep power into its own hands. Those who were arrested, like Ali Osman Mohamed Taha or Ghazi Salah ed-Din, were NCP members who were considered “soft” and had been marginalized previous to Beshir’s arrest. They did not have good connections with Salah Abdallah “Gosh”, the former boss of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) who on the contrary remained both free and in the heart of things. Another key person who had been chosen to become Vice-President of the TMC was Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka “Hemeti”. “Hemeti”, a militiaman from the Rizzeyqat Mahamid Arabs, had been subcontracted by Omar al-Beshir to carry out the anti-African repression in Darfur after the previous Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal had rebelled against the President and been arrested in 2017. “Hemeti” picked up from where Musa Hilal had stopped and kept on with the repression in Darfur. But contrary to his predecessor, he played the card of extreme loyalty to Beshir and the President, who was afraid of the possibility of a military coup, gave an increasing role to the new man.
In about a year “Hemeti” had become essential to the power structure in Khartoum. The Saudi and the Emirati, who strongly disliked the Islamist tinge of the SAF Officer Corps, entered into a direct bilateral relationship with “Hemeti” and gave him weapons and money above the head of the national army. Soon Hemeti’s militia, the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF), started to recruit independently, bypassing the Army recruitment services. Himself born in Chad, he preferred to enlist nomads from the Sahel or even Centralfricans . Soon, his force had more soldiers than the regular Army and could boast a fair amount of heavy equipment (armored vehicles, artillery) which had been bought for him by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Beshir tolerated the whole process, up to the moment in April when the puppet decided that he could do without the puppet master. But for the SPA-led protest movement, this pseudo-change was not acceptable and soon hundreds of thousands took to the streets, demanding the resignation of the TMC, the instauration of a 100% civilian government and elections after four years.
Why such a long transition period? Because many in Sudan remembered the fall of the Nimeiry dictatorship in 1985 and how the military-led transition lasting only one year eventually resulted in the thirty year long Islamo-military regime now ending. This time around, the civil society wants a long, structured and coherent transition that would take its time and introduce a well thought-out democratic constitution , allow for the creation of new political parties (the old ones are felt to be too tainted by their long cohabitation with the fallen dictatorship), new electoral laws , an independent Electoral Commission, new media laws, a Human Rights Charter, dismantling of militias, a negotiated peace with the armed insurgents, changed patterns of Army recruitment, a new Legal Code and a new Education Bill, all such changes that cannot be achieved overnight.
At present the situation is catastrophic and could easily get worse. Khartoum is in the hands of a barbaric horde, made up of all the floatsam and jetsam of the Sahelian bandits and deserters from several national armies. Many spend a good part of the day (and night) under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Shootings are random and the casualty figures we are offered are more the produce of hearsay than the results of serious public security enquiry. The Saudi and the Emirati, who were scared of seeing a democratic movement just on the verge of taking power from an authoritarian military regime keep sending weapons and money to try to bolster the coup-makers. Right now, the pattern the Arab monarchies adhere to is the Egyptian one. But “Hemeti” is a bit primitive to become an al-Sissi equivalent. Salah Abdallah “Gosh” has disappeared and many think he might be waiting it out, preparing for a coming out of the shadows at the right time to inherit power from the hands of the TMC. After all, he is a “civilian” and would benefit from Saudi and Emirati support. And six months ago, when the US intelligence community debated about what could happen in the Sudan, the C.I.A. had chosen him as their Great Hope for the future. It is unlikely that the Sudanese public would concur with that choice.