Since the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in April last year, Sudan has seen months of constant upheaval and tumult. As expected, the overthrow of Bashir’s regime did not simply signal the end of one era and the start of another. Instead, it left a void that the Transitional Military Council (TMC) scrambled to fill. Led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, and his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, or ‘Hemeti’ as he is commonly known, what essentially followed Bashir’s fall was a military coup. Protesters, organised by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), demanded a transfer of power to civilians. The response — a massacre.
The massacre on June 3rd made it clear that this would not be a pain-free transition. The Rapid Support Forces are accused of brutal violence, with reports of rape, torture and the dumping of bodies in the Nile. But this group did not emerge from nowhere. Their leader is Hemeti, and they were established by Omar al-Bashir. Whilst he may have been overthrown, his suffocating grip on the country would not be easily removed. Eventually, the TMC bowed to international pressure and a constitutional declaration was signed. A few tense moments ensued, but now Sudan emerges, fragile, but intact, with new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.
Why is all this background information necessary if we are to look at Sudan’s future? The answer is that the trajectory of Sudan’s most recent revolution is not only down to the commitment, resolve and patriotism of the civilian protesters, but also the forces they were battling, and not just the TMC or RSF. These same forces still lurk and will determine Sudan’s future.
Much mainstream media coverage of the events in Sudan rightly focused on the various domestic parties and their roles. However, the likes of Hemeti, a warlord and at one point Sudan’s most powerful general (he possibly still is), did not command the power they did without external support. The relationship between Hemeti and regional powers Saudi Arabia and the UAE goes back to Sudan’s gold rush of 2012 when Hemeti was keen to control Sudan’s gold sales. By 2017, the RSF, and Hemeti, had seized control of Sudan’s most profitable gold mines.
Whilst Dubai was at first just a location for Sudan’s gold — legally or illegally acquired — the nature of their contact changed when a deal was struck for Hemeti to provide units at the Saudi Arabian border with Yemen, with the UAE being provided with RSF fighters to fight in South Yemen. Hemeti is also reported to have sent child soldiers into the war zone.
From the moment Bashir fell and the TMC took power, Saudi Arabia was keen to support it, pledging a $3bn aid package to support the military generals. One thing should be clear — Saudi Arabia’s interests do not lie with the Sudanese people, or their aspirations for a democratic country, but with their own self-preservation. Change, or any form of instability is not appreciated by the Saudis. This is not only true within the Kingdom’s borders, but the surrounding region too.
But what of the other influencers? Whilst protesters did not receive official support from any government during the uprising, the Sudanese diaspora and fellow citizens around the world showed solidarity on social media and donations were made to help treat the wounded. However, there was still an absence of international action, with the US calling on Riyadh to end the military crackdown under the TMC, with no direct action itself. But perhaps this step makes a key point — Sudan’s future is not simply its own, and the US plea with Riyadh shows who is pulling the strings. As we end one decade and start a new one, Sudan lingers in the middle of a complex geopolitical situation that it must navigate its way through.
The country’s protests a few months earlier may have been triggered by the price of bread, but the economic crisis in the country was a symptom of the disease that had paralysed it for 30 years under Bashir’s rule. The corruption, exploitation and greed of a few individuals was aided by not only the support of other countries, but a shared belief that oppression was the price that had to be paid for stability. Hence the Sudanese population were not merely fighting to take back control from the leaders of their own land, but the powers beyond their borders too. But perhaps it is not surprising that Sudan fell into the hands of the autocrats when the US, ‘leader of the free world’, froze it out. Whilst economic and trade sanctions on Sudan were lifted in 2017, Sudan is still a designated ‘State Sponsor of Terrorism’. Meanwhile, the UK still subjects Sudan to financial sanctions.
The appointment of new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is no doubt a hugely positive step forward for the battered country. A wave of reforms have taken place, with the abolition of the Moral Policing Law, and the approval of a law to ‘dismantle’ Omar al-Bashir’s regime, including the dissolution of his party, and the seizure of its assets.
We should not, however, be blindsided by these sweeping reforms. They are no doubt indicative of the country that the Sudanese people crave, the future that the Sudanese youth — 60 per cent of the population are under 24, and they were a key driving force behind the protests — want and deserve. But let’s not forget that the current government is the product of a power sharing deal between anti-Bashir groups and the TMC. There were grumbles from Bashir’s old party when the law to ‘dismantle’ it was announced. Hamdok’s government was denounced as an ‘illegal government’.
Meanwhile, what has come of Hemeti? He is reportedly learning English and has hired a Canadian PR firm to help him ‘polish his image’. He is deputy chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, representing the government in an official visit to South Sudan, with the RSF launching a PR campaign to project a statesmanlike image to the domestic population, and the international community. Despite being accused of massacres and genocide throughout its bloody existence, the RSF is promoting its apparent work in sorting out social and health services and public transport. In a matter of months this paramilitary group has gone from being a death squad to portraying itself as Sudan’s saviour.
Prime Minister Hamdok may be the country’s global spokesman, but the TMC’s sinister leader and deputy are undertaking their own microcosmic campaign for public support. There isn’t a suggestion that the RSF may at all be trying to regain full control, but at the very least they do not want to disappear from the public’s consciousness, and this is not surprising. For years they have had it their way, stealing from the country they now claim to be protecting, and slaughtering the people they now grovel to.
This deal between the civilians and the TMC (and by default, the RSF), should not be overestimated. They perhaps tolerate each other more than collaborate. But I would argue that every last remnant of Bashir’s brutal regime should be removed from positions of power. Those who inflicted decades of suffering on the people of Sudan should not be granted a say in its recovery from their ruthlessness. I do, however, understand that compromise for now allows for peace, and it’s certainly better for my grandmother to call me from Khartoum and say that there is ‘nothing going on, it’s quiet’.
That being said, Hamdok’s words of warning should be heeded. Before flying to Washington to meet President Trump, the Prime Minister noted that the remaining US sanctions are accelerating Sudan’s collapse. Hamdok acknowledged what many regional players do too — Sudan is key to the area’s stability. The fate of nearby ‘failed countries’ is a forceful reminder of one way in which Sudan could go if it is not embraced by the international community and supported in its attempt to reorganise and rebuild. Indeed, during the protests, many Arab social media users were not supportive of the efforts of the protesters, citing Libya and Syria as the consequences of rising up against your leaders.
Of course, Sudan is fragile and vulnerable right now, and whilst the shine of a new diverse cabinet including women and Christians sends a loud signal of the direction Sudan wants to go in healing its wounds, we come back to the point made at the start. It’s not all in Sudan’s hands. Whilst Hamdok fights to get the country a fair chance at survival as he garners support and investment, Hemeti and the RSF position themselves as a credible replacement if he fails.
And what about that promised $3bn from Saudi Arabia and the UAE? The Sudanese finance minister has said Sudan has received half of it, with the remainder set to be paid by the end of this year. It’s not yet clear if these two regional powers will fully get behind Hamdok. On his recent visit to Riyadh, Hamdok was accompanied by the one and only General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Time will tell if the TMC duo are really accepting the will of civilian rule, or if they are simply making themselves seem more palatable as a possible alternative.
Away from the gulf, China and Russia have also long shown an interest in Sudan, and this has not wavered throughout the country’s recent upheaval. Even after Bashir was overthrown, his Russian allies continued operating in Sudan. Bashir said of a vast deal with Russia, including weapons, that it was giving ‘keys to Africa’ in return for ‘protection from aggressive US actions’. And now, General Abdelfattah El Burhan has said that the economic and military cooperation with Russia will continue. Meanwhile, China has long been involved in projects throughout Sudan, including constructing the presidential palace, and has recently launched Sudan’s first satellite.
It would be reasonable to say that both China and Russia are interested in Sudan for purely economic reasons (part of a wider campaign to increase economic ties in the region), with the former operating on a ‘non-interference’ policy. But, whilst they may not actively be hindering the country’s progress, their sales of arms could be troubling. After all, they didn’t mind providing Bashir’s regime with deadly force. China’s ‘non interference policy’ may refer to political matters, but under Bashir’s regime violence and brutality were intertwined with his governance, so handing over weapons to him and his private armies renders the ‘non interference’ policy somewhat redundant. It should also be noted that both Russia and China blocked an attempt by the UN Security Council to condemn the killing of civilians by the TMC, and call for an immediate end to the violence.
So Sudan is perhaps now in a precarious position. Its people have done their part. There is not a section of society that wasn’t touched by these protests. It may have been mobilised by an organisation of middle-class professionals, but every part of society united. They stood up and they died for change. The Sudanese people should be praised for the remarkable restraint they showed in their fight, even when faced with the brutality of the RFS. Now they watch intently, and wait for the international community to extend a hand to them.
Sudan is full of bright young minds. It has doctors and lawyers, farmers and engineers, journalists and writers, musicians and artists. Its culture is rich and its people are some of the most hospitable you will find. The members of the vast diaspora scattered across the world wait with bated breath as the path of their beloved homeland is etched out. But for all it has to offer, there are vultures circling it. The country’s history cannot, unfortunately, simply be written out with the abolition of laws and a shiny new front. Whilst they are currently subservient, I cannot believe that the sinister characters from Sudan’s past will so easily let go of all the power and fortunes they have amassed, and that their power will dissipate as long as they have the support of some of the world’s most powerful. But I also know that Sudanese people everywhere love their country, and they will not be fooled, they will not give up.