by Walt Kilroy, IICRR Associate Director
In the end, the fall of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir seemed to come quickly, with rumours circulating on the morning of 11th April that a debate was underway within the state security services and the military about how it would be handled – and who would replace him. He was gone by that evening, after almost 30 years in power. But the dramatic events came after months of protests, which began in December over food price increases and quickly turned into a demand for his regime to go. They continued despite a harsh crackdown in which scores of demonstrators were shot dead by state forces, including medics. It is hard to overstate the importance of these events, even though it’s not yet certain that fundamental and lasting change will happen, or whether some factions in the security forces will manage to hold on to the real power.
The background to the demonstrations is explained in a previous blog post on the Presidential Power site, and the regime itself is also analysed here. The organisers remained relatively united and channelled the anger felt by many ordinary people. At a certain point, it seems that many lost their fear of the regime, felt that there was a realistic chance of change, or were simply prepared to risk sacrificing their lives. Eventually a demonstration outside the national military headquarters in Khartoum on 6th April became a round-the-clock affair, and then a remarkable thing happened: soldiers were seen on the streets supporting the protesters. The various elements and ranks of state security apparatus, which Omar al-Bashir had managed so skilfully over the years, were clearly at odds with each other. On a number of occasions, soldiers returned fire on units of the state security which turned up and shot at the protesters. Several soldiers lost their lives. The future of the country was no longer being decided on the streets, but now also through a struggle within the security services.
On 11th April, it was clear that a coup had taken place. Later in the day the country’s First Vice President, Lt Gen Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, announced that he was in control. The constitution was suspended and there would be a two-year transition period. However the protesters outside the headquarter in Khartoum remained determined, knowing that Auf was not only the defence minister but also a key figure in the old regime. He was replaced the following evening by another military officer, Lt Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, who is seen as more open to the protesters’ demands, and had in fact met with them in the previous days. There were scenes of joy, as soldiers and demonstrators mingled outside the headquarters.
Transition process underway
Power is currently held by the Transitional Military Council, under al-Burhan, while negotiations on a transition continue with an alliance of opposition groups. These talks were continuing as this piece went online. The opposition is grouped under an umbrella body, the alliance of the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”. Agreement apparently reached so far included a three-year transition period, with a parliament whose 300 members would be appointed rather than directly elected. Two thirds of the members would come from the Freedom and Change group. A cabinet of technocrats would be nominated by the opposition groups, however a “Sovereignty Council” would also have real powers, and be made up of both military and civilian representatives.
As a sign of ongoing tensions within elements of former regime as the talks continued, protesters continuing the sit-in outside the military headquarters were attacked on 13th May by unidentified elements wearing uniforms of one of the state security services. Five civilians and one army officer were killed. The Council later announced the arrest of those responsible, who it described as infiltrators. Meanwhile, the Popular Congress Party, which held power under al-Bashir, is unhappy with the power-sharing arrangements, in which they would apparently have little say.
There is some international pressure on the Transitional Military Council to finalise a handover of power, from the African Union (AU), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the EU. The AU’s Peace and Security Council called at the end of April for the transition to civilian rule to be completed within 60 days. However both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have supported the Council, with an offer of $3 billion in budget support and aid.
The fate of the detained former President al-Bashir is a key question for whatever political order replaces his authoritarian regime. An indictment for genocide and other crimes in Darfur still hangs over him, despite which he managed to travel internationally as president without any attempt to arrest him. His fate is more likely to be decided within Sudan, however, although it is far from certain what will happen. Having been held initially in what the military called a “safe place”, he was later moved to the notorious Kobar prison in Khartoum, where so political opponents suffered at the hands of his regime. He has now been charged in relation to the deaths of protesters during the four months of demonstrations since December which ended his 30-year rule.
The resilience of different elements of the former regime is not to be underestimated – but neither is the determination, capacity, and resourcefulness of the civil groups staging these protests, along with a well-educated and mobilised diaspora. Whoever is control, the severe economic problems facing Sudan which prompted the protests last December, along with the civil war in neighbouring South Sudan, will be a significant challenge. But it is clear that things will never be quite the same.
This blog was originally posted on the Presidential Power website at www.presidential-power.com