13 November 2021: A demonstrator heads to the pro-democracy protest in Omdurman, Sudan. (Photograph by Stringer/ Getty Images)
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Sudan’s military uses violence to hold on to power

The coup on 25 October inflamed already rising tensions in the Horn of Africa, with the military assaulting and shooting demonstrators at mass rallies calling for a democratic government.

Following the “million-people march” on 13 November, and the deaths of teens Remaaz Hatim al-Atta and Mogahed Mohamed Farah from gunshot wounds, pro-democracy protesters have renewed efforts to oust the military forces who orchestrated the recent coup weeks before they were scheduled to hand over control of the transitional Sudanese government to civilian leadership.

The fragile power-sharing agreement between civilian leaders and the military, after a pro-democracy uprising swept through the northeast African country in 2018 and 2019, is derailed. In defiance of the terms of the Interim Constitutional Declaration, military chief Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan illegitimately appointed himself chair of the sovereign council – the highest transitional governance structure – until the agreed elections in July 2023 that end the transition period.

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The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors reports that more than 20 protesters have been killed since the coup began. The number of those shot and injured with live ammunition continues to rise. And many youth, civilian and political activists have been detained.

The district court in Khartoum ordered the MTN, Sudani, Canar and Zain networks on 11 November to restore internet connectivity. But getting on-the-ground figures on human rights violations, arrests and deaths is difficult because Sudan’s telecommunications authority has subjected the country to an internet blackout since 25 October.

Why now?

Hamid Khalafallah, an activist from Khartoum who is completing a fellowship in France, says one of the reasons the coup took place was because the military wanted to avoid taking accountability for its alleged role in the June 2019 massacre, as well as other atrocities and human rights violations that the civilian government was investigating. The military, in collaboration with other forces, dispersed protesters who were staging a sit-in outside the military headquarters on 3 June that year, killing about 120 people in a couple of hours.

Sudan gained its independence from Britain in 1956, but the Sudanese people have persevered through at least five military coups – and many revolutions – in the past 60 years. The independence of South Sudan in 2011 and United States sanctions meant Sudan lost a huge chunk of its income and oil reserves, leaving the economy uncertain and inflation soaring to over 400%.

Autocrat Omar al-Bashir, who wielded merciless power for more than 30 years, was deposed in a coup in 2019. Protests at that time revolved around mass killings, displacement in the Darfur region, and rising food and fuel prices. There have been several coup attempts since, including one blamed on officers in the ministry who were loyal to and affiliated with Al-Bashir’s regime.

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Al-Bashir, who is in prison serving two years for corruption, is supposed to appear before the International Criminal Court. This has sparked fear in the military, who see that as a threat to its monopoly on power, impunity for crimes committed and grip on the apparatus of government.

“One of the solutions that the military is now proposing is to bring back … Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, but with a completely new government,” says Khalafallah, “which they would obviously have a lot of influence in who comes in … They will choose people who have loyalties to the military, who would never ask these questions and will never touch on [this].”

Hamdok is Sudan’s first non-military leader in more than three decades. He is under house arrest.

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Khalafallah says the military’s commitment to shared rule was in question before this coup. They had stopped attending sovereign council meetings and staged coup attempts, despite immense opposition, in September and October. The fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and divisions in the civilian block added pressure to an already tenuous situation.

Military personnel assaulted and detained bankers and teachers who organised protests and demonstrations just weeks before the coup. Doctors were also assaulted and arrested, leading to wider conversations around military reform. Khalafallah says this shows that people don’t want a return to the status quo, they want a fully civilian government.

“The military is basically continuing to violate human rights and only using their guns and machinery against citizens … The popularity and the respect for the military is significantly decreasing,” he says, adding that it is exercising an unequal level of power and violence against peaceful protesters.

Interests in Sudan

Khalafallah says that if this coup succeeds, primarily it will be because of the regional and international support it is receiving. The military isn’t willing to hand power back to civilian leaders because it has been emboldened by regional powers.

“In Sudan, the military is very strongly supported by the military in Egypt … There were a lot of indicators about these secret visits between the Sudanese military and the Egyptian military just [a] few days and even few hours before the coup took place. There is a high level of arrangement and coordination between them,” he says.

Hundreds of Sudanese protested in Khartoum in April 2019 against Egyptian president General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s interference in the country’s affairs.

There is also competition for influence among Gulf states such as Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and countries with port interests such as Turkey. “The emirates have a lot of … economic, but also strategic ambitions and interests in Sudan that are much more attainable under a military authoritarian regime,” says Khalafallah, adding that the military regime cares more about support that makes them sustainable as rulers than the best interests of Sudan.

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Sudan is important geopolitically because of its location in the Horn of Africa. Russia, for example, one of Sudan’s strongest investment partners, has its eye on a 25-year deal in Port Sudan, close to the Red Sea. “Russia has had this interest in establishing a [naval] base in eastern Sudan. So that is much easier with a military regime,” he says.

“Israel is also interested in gaining access to the region … So normalising ties with Sudan is [easier] with the military, who have been coordinating with Israel anyway in the past year or two … There is high involvement and intervention by both Russia and Israel supporting the military.”

A plan for dreams

Khalafallah says the youth need a proper framework to get rid of dictators in the region. “Sudan was bringing hope to the continent that change could happen and young people could have the futures that they dream of and [that] the democratisation process could work … it obviously can. It’s a huge setback, not only to Sudan but across the continent, for all pro-democracy activists and people globally.”

For some, this evokes the spirit of the December 2019 revolution, which the Sudanese Professionals Association of trade unions, the Sudanese Communist Party and localised resistance committees spearheaded. But for others it triggers trauma from 2019 tensions around the safety of family members. Khalafallah’s mother, who is based in Khartoum, tells him she feels isolated when the internet is shut down.

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“That isolation … it intimidates you and makes you feel unsure about what’s happening in other places of the country and other places of your town, because you’re only connected to neighbours around you but not to other loved ones,” he says.

Internet blackouts are not new to the Sudanese. So although coordinating resistance and response is difficult because revolutionary movements opposed to the coup are scattered across the country, Khalafallah says “people are very resilient … they have developed a lot of alternative ways to coordinate”.

Another million-people march is scheduled to take place on 17 November.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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