Al-burhan’s coup continues to undermine democratic aspirations in Sudan


“I’m very sad, not only for me but for all the people.”

These are the powerful words of Alaa Salah, a young student who rose to notoriety during the August 2019 protests that saw Sudan’s military remove dictator and President Omar al-Bashir. Salah became a global symbol of resistance amid popular protests that allowed many to dream of stability and prosperity in Sudan under civilian, largely democratic, rule. This week, she is forced to hide from a government that should protect her. 

Since the Sudanese revolution (2019) the country has existed under a coalition of civil and military power, known as the Sovereign Council, as they seek to transition towards democratic elections and full civilian rule. However, this has been an uneasy alliance from its onset. All that had truly united the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) – the civilian coalition formed in the protests – and the army ranks was a disdain for al-Bashir’s decades of autocracy.

General al-Burhan has been insistent that his coup was designed to prevent a civil war

On the 25th October the alliance shattered as General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, formerly Chairman of the Sovereign Council, staged a rapid Coup d’état, arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and dissolved the Government. This tragic return to military rule is another chapter in Sudan’s long history of false starts and military interjections; since independence in 1956, Sudan has experienced three revolutions and five military takeovers, including two coups in the last three years.

On Sunday (21st November) Hamdok was reinstated as Prime Minister in a brand new power-sharing agreement. However, his official reinstatement does little to alter what this ultimately remains – a desperate power grab from a military whose authority was becoming threatened. 

General al-Burhan has been insistent that his coup was designed to prevent a civil war, and he continued to pledge democratic elections in 2023. This was rhetoric believed by few and the placement of al-Burhan himself as Chairman of the Sovereign Council, and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo ascendancy to second-in-command did little to suggest a legitimate civilian transition was imminent. Dagalo, leader of the highly feared Rapid Support Forces, is accused of crimes against humanity dating back to 2014 and is understood to be responsible for the Khartoum massacre of 2019 which left over 120 people dead.

A military power grab in the face of demotion

For weeks ousted Prime Minister Hamdok refused to cooperate with the new regime as he, and the civilian coalition he represents, sought to deprive the coup of any legitimacy – especially in the face of significant civilian protest. This context is crucially indicative of the insincerity of Hamdok’s reinstatement. Speaking on Sunday, Hamdok emphasised: “Sudanese blood is precious, let us stop the bloodshed and direct the youth’s energy into building and development.” His emphasis on bloodshed and his previous refusal to cooperate has led to the belief that the deal has been struck with a gun to the head.

The new agreement does little to outline what, if any, legitimate power the Prime Minister will have under this new agreement. Importantly, it is the military leaders, the organisers of the coup, who retain control over the Sovereign Council – the executive of Sudan’s Government.

The people of Sudan continue to reject the military takeover and reassert their democratic aspirations. Following the initial coup Central Bank staff went on strike, doctors have been refusing to work in military hospitals, and nearly 100 teachers have been arrested following civil disobedience and strikes. Protestors have been on the streets for nearly a month now, building barricades and facing up to tear-gas and live ammunition. In the breaks from the state-orchestrated internet blackout, social media has been flooded with graphic images of civilians shot at and beaten. 

The people of Sudan continue to reject the military takeover

It is clear from Hamdok’s own words, and the mitigation of UN and US officials, that this new agreement is designed to ease tensions, and to prevent the violence that has seen at least 40 die within the last month. The early signs are not promising. A new wave of protests began today, with thousands once again taking to the street and the military continuing to use tear gas on its own people. Last week one ex-government official commented “we don’t want this government. They cannot kill us all. They cannot kill this dream.” On Sunday, the Sudanese people continued to pursue that goal, wrapped in flags, chanting that “there is no going back to military rule.”

There is little internal political support for this new agreement. The Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) – the vital civilian coalition formed in the midst of the 2019 protests and central to Hamdok’s previous legitimacy – has refused to acknowledge the deal and continues to support civilian action against this regime. This places the international community in a precarious position. Having almost unanimously condemned last month’s coup and withdrawn support, the role of the UN and US in the new deal may place pressure to reinstate the financial aid they withdrew.

Yet it is crucial to remember that this still represents an illegitimate coup. A cynical military power grab in the face of demotion. According to the Sovereign Council’s initial 2019 agreement to transition to democratic rule, al-Burhan would have been obliged to step down as chairman of the Sovereign Council in a month’s time. A council made up of FFC members would appoint a new head of state in his place and Sudan would have been under purely civilian rule for the first time in decades.

Further, Hamdok had been publicly critical of the military’s tight entanglement in Sudan’s economy. Last year the Prime Minister admitted that eighty percent of the country’s resources were still not under the control of the finance ministry. There is no official estimate for what proportion of resources are under military control but it is well established that a huge number of major businesses and industries are part owned or controlled by the military, Hamdok had sought to alter this, and was looking to bring dictator al-Bashir before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity – including murder, extermination, torture and rape. Hamdok’s goals, essential for stability in Sudan, caused significant opposition from the military as key officials were likely to be implicated, particularly al-Burhan’s right-hand-man Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo.

In reinstating Hamdok as Prime Minister, the military seek to ease internal and external pressure whilst ultimately undermining the reforms and transition Hamdok had sought to impose. In his new nominal role the Prime Minster will lack the power to disentangle the military from the economy, to bring al-Bashir to justice, or to establish a purely civilian government before 2023. While al-Burhan’s takeover has no longer ousted the Prime Minister, it has certainly thrown out the vital reform he sought to make. 

Compromise with the military was unfortunately indispensable following the 2019 revolution, and sadly the US and UN have deemed it so again. But if the Sudanese people once again rise up and successfully resist this crude interjection, they must prioritise strong mechanisms to counter the ease with which these takeovers continue to happen. International assistance may prove necessary or useful, but the international community cannot undermine the legitimacy of any future civilian Government. For beneficial change to become long-lasting, it is vital that change occurs through the establishment of political norms in the context of a genuinely Sudanese political culture – imposed norms do not last, legitimate civilian foundations are essential.

Despite Hamdok’s reinstatement, this still remains a coup. The people of Sudan demand democracy, this has been betrayed.

Image: United Nations Photo via Creative Commons

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