There’s Unity in Sudan… for Now
Less than a week ago, the country’s generals and its civilians were at each other’s throats over a transition to democracy, but experts say each side is itself a house divided
Following mediation by the African Union, Sudan’s Transitional Military Council (TMC) and civilian groups recently agreed to share executive power in the wake of the April 11 ouster of longtime strongman Omar al-Bashir.
The sides agreed to a rotation of leadership between generals and civilians for a period of three years and three months – the military being in charge for the first 21 months, the civilians for the following 18 – the idea being that by the end of this period, there will be a decision as to a final mode of governance for the country.
The military ousted Bashir following months of mass street protests. The unrest began in December over the price of bread and other staples, and morphed into a general protest against Bashir himself, who in the course of 30 years of rule is believed to have looted the country’s treasury. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during years of ethnic fighting in the country’s western Darfur region.
The protesters, most of them young and eager for a fresh start, were gratified that the military had sided with them against Bashir. They believed that the TMC, too, was thinking along the lines of democracy and would include them in the transition process.
This was not the case, though, at least outwardly, so the protests quickly turned against the generals. Several times, the friction became violent, with more than a hundred deaths as soldiers were sent to crack down on what the generals termed troublemakers.
“The young people in Sudan won’t take no for an answer. They weren’t willing to submit to the diktats of the new interim government,” Dr. Irit Back, head of the Africa research program at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.
For a while, it seemed that Sudan would descend into chaos. Hence, several outside efforts at mediation were attempted, with a representative of the African Union, Mohamed Hassan Lebatt, taking two days to lock up a deal for joint transitional rule.
“I think that both the army officers and the protesters understood that this was the time to make compromises on both sides and sit together to reach an agreement,” Back explained.
Yet things are a bit more complicated than they appear. Let’s start with the TMC.
“I see three very different ambitions,” Dr. Annette Weber, a senior fellow and Sudan expert at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told The Media Line, referring to the fact that the generals represent three security sectors: the military, a large paramilitary group and the country’s intelligence services.
The first sector is represented on the TMC by Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, until recently the military’s relatively unknown inspector-general.
“The traditional military is the [sector that is] most trusted by the protesters to secure the transition,” Weber said, with “an ethos of being partially independent from those who were in power.”
It is Burhan who is the TMC’s official leader – apparently for the optics, because the man seen by most observers as holding the reins of power on the council is Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a Darfurian better known by his nickname Hemeti. He heads the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the second sector represented on the TMC.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine in May, Dr. Jerome Tubiana, an expert on North Africa, tells of having met with Hemeti several times in 2009, describing him as “a tall man with the sarcastic smile of a naughty child.”
Naughty, though, is probably an understatement.
“The story of how an uneducated 40-something chief of the janjaweed – the Arab militias that brought death and destruction to Darfur 16 years ago – became more powerful than his seasoned mentors in the Sudanese junta is to many,” Tubiana writes, “a mystery.”
Perhaps it’s because Dagalo’s RSF grew directly from the feared janjaweed, which Bashir had mercilessly sicced on the restive Darfurians. Or maybe it’s because the paramilitary group operated under Bashir’s direct aegis. Indeed, the then-president sent many of its members to Yemen to fight the Iran-backed Houthis as part of a Saudi-led and -financed military coalition, making the RSF, according to Weber, “financially independent” and giving it “a lot of light arms they can move quickly.”
Dagalo, Weber also emphasizes, is no dummy.
“Hemeti was very clever right in the beginning of the protests when he basically distanced himself from president Bashir and sided with the protesters,” she told The Media Line.
“Very early on, he said [to the protesters]: ‘I will never shoot at you; I will protect you; we’re in this together; we’ll cut the links to the old regime.’ [But] him being from Darfur, him representing a group, a marginalized group – even if he was the leader of the janjaweed – makes him strong,” she said. “[Therefore] it’s quite difficult to see where he’s coming from, but also where he’s going….”
The third sector is Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, known as NIS and led by Salah Gosh – though in typical cloak-and-dagger fashion, he is believed to be working more behind the scenes as part of the TMC. It is said that he personally arrested Bashir, who is now being held in a Khartoum jail.
“His ideas and his understanding of what should happen,” Weber says of Gosh, “is that the system itself should not be replaced…. Bashir should go, and everything else will continue.”
Things are no less complicated among the civilians who insist on a say in the transition.
“What we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is that there is a possibility of compromise,” Weber said. “However, what we haven’t seen and what we don’t know – there’s hardly any practice [of this under democracy] in Sudan – is how to keep [together] the very, very different civilian groups… ranging from the old political parties such as the Umma [seen as moderately Islamist], the DUP [the pluralistic, secular Democratic Unionist Party and] the Communist Party, to the protesters – the students, the workers’ unions, the professional syndicates, and also the Islamists.”
Tel Aviv University’s Back says only time will tell.
“We should wait patiently to see whether this agreement will work out,” she told The Media Line. “We have to see in the long-run whether it will hold water. I’m not too sure about it at this point in time. Hopefully, there will be an equitable distribution of power between the protest movement and the generals.”
Dagalo, the ex-janjaweed leader, could be key.
“The Darfuri people were a major force in this time of protest, so I think they will now look out for their [own] interests and see that nobody stands in their way to [obtain] a more equitable distribution of power and wealth in a new Sudanese government,” Back said.
“Even this guy [Dagalo] can change his attitude in the complexity of power-sharing,” she stressed. “Maybe he could become a better person.”