Omar al-Bashir is out as president of Sudan, but protesters suspect that the military-led transition is a game of musical chairs. A new curfew raises the spectre of bloodshed. International actors should press vigorously for civilian leadership of a process that must promise further-reaching change.
Late at night on 10 April, after defying the most sustained protest movement in Sudan’s modern history for months, Omar al-Bashir finally lost his hold on power. In an early afternoon announcement on state television the next day, Lieutenant General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, Sudan’s defence minister and vice president, confirmed the rumours that had been swirling in Khartoum: the security forces had ousted the president and, he said, placed him in detention. Bashir, who took power in 1989 and was one of Africa’s longest-ruling strongmen, would rule no longer.
Reaction to this news has been mixed. Initially rapturous at the fall of an authoritarian figure whose tenure was stained by major human rights abuses, economic decline and entrenched corruption, protesters soon expressed disappointment at the terms of the handover the defence minister laid out. Ibn Auf announced that a military council would take charge of the country for two years. He also dissolved the government, suspended the constitution and ordered a three-month state of emergency. Many protesters had demanded a civilian-led transitional authority; in their eyes, the regime seemed to be trying to preserve itself under the guise of a coup.
It is thus apparent that the transition remains incomplete. The protesters’ ranks in Khartoum have continued to swell, with campaigners demanding more substantive change. Protester anger was captured in a new slogan declaring that “the revolution has just started”. Where before they chanted the “regime must fall”, thousands of protesters who marched on the streets in sweltering heat after the army announcement declared in a new chant that “the regime has not yet fallen”.
The danger of fighting among disparate armed groups in the event of a chaotic breakdown is high.
The protest movement that began on 19 December has already notched an impressive achievement in compelling Bashir’s ouster. The peaceful campaign has drawn participants from nearly every stratum of society. Women have been prominent throughout. The urban middle classes have joined with farmers and herders to stage near-daily protests not just in the capital but also in smaller cities and rural villages. Traders, students and a cross-section of professionals, notably doctors, have all backed the campaign. Ruling-party supporters, including in the regime’s traditional strongholds, joined opposition activists in the marches. At the four-day, 24-hour sit-in outside the military headquarters that tipped the scales against Bashir, Sudan’s tapestry of religious and ethnic diversity was on vivid display, with members of Sufi orders mingling with Christians and singing together late into the night. Thousands of protesters have paid a high price, including imprisonment, torture and death, for their participation.
A number of factors explain the protesters’ impressive staying power and the authorities’ eventual decision to respond – up to a point – to the calls for change. First, discontent is widespread over the country’s economic crisis, which entails runaway inflation, crippling shortages of essentials including fuel and a currency crunch. All but the wealthiest Sudanese have felt the pinch. The government’s ill-judged attempt to increase the price of staples such as bread sparked the initial street actions that soon became a popular uprising. Secondly, many young Sudanese view their elderly leaders as representing a self-dealing, kleptocratic order focused on its own survival and unresponsive to their needs and aspirations. Thirdly, the security forces have themselves fractured, with mid- and lower-ranking soldiers joining with the protesters, making clear that the regime’s base has spindly legs. Ibn Auf reportedly delayed the announcement of a transitional military council for hours because many younger military officers were demanding a full handover to civilian hands. Bashir’s senior security sector allies had to intervene. Reportedly, the intervention was eventually announced after Ibn Auf, intelligence chief Salah Abdallah Gosh and head of the Rapid Support Forces militia Mohamed “Hemeti” Hamdan Daglo stitched together a backroom agreement to push Bashir aside.
Protesters are right to be sceptical of the ruling elite’s intentions. Ibn Auf, who will head the transitional military council, hardly represents a break with the past. He is one of Bashir’s most trusted confidantes, having been in his circle since 1989. He is allegedly complicit in some of the worst abuses in Darfur, where the regime’s scorched-earth campaign against rebels beginning in 2003 left between 200,000 and 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million displaced. The U.S. State Department placed Ibn Auf, who was head of military intelligence at the time, on a sanctions list in 2007. Some in the protest movement accordingly perceive the announced change as a game of musical chairs. As one protester told reporters in Khartoum, in a refrain that has repeatedly been voiced among the crowds: “They just replaced one thief with another”. Nor is it lost on many Sudanese that Bashir’s camp has played this game before. In 1989, when Bashir took power in a bloodless coup, he claimed to have detained one of his closest advisers, the National Islamic Front leader Hassan Turabi, in what was later revealed as an effort to disguise the putsch’s Islamist nature.
As Crisis Group has stressed since the protests broke out, many risks attend a political transition in a critical country in one of Africa’s more conflict-scarred neighbourhoods. To preserve his grip on power, Bashir kept the security forces fragmented. The danger of fighting among disparate armed groups in the event of a chaotic breakdown is high. Already, there are credible reports of clashes between elements of the army, who are more sympathetic to the protesters, and the loyalist National Intelligence Security Services. To smooth the transition, several steps will be required:
- A first priority is to prevent further violence. Since December, security forces have repeatedly fired on protesters, killing dozens. In announcing Bashir’s ouster, Ibn Auf declared a 10pm to 4am curfew. In effect, he was ordering the thousands of protesters outside the military headquarters to go home. Sudanese authorities must not attempt to disperse the demonstrators by force. Such a move would be not only bloody but counterproductive. A lesson from the last four months is that repression – including Bashir’s 22 February order banning public gatherings and opening the door for mass roundups of protesters – has done little to change the course of the protest movement. Authorities should avoid violence and instead seek to reach an accommodation with protest leaders on the way forward.
- More broadly, Sudan’s generals should rethink their outlined plan to rule by extra-constitutional fiat for two years. An African Union declaration adopted in 2000 expressly forbids military coups as unconstitutional changes of government. Unless the security forces quickly hand over power to a civilian-led transitional authority, the AU should suspend Sudan’s membership and follow up with sanctions. The leadership of the country’s security organs should see a clear self-interest in avoiding such ostracism by giving the reins to civilians. If they do not, protests will continue, raising the spectre of an ugly confrontation that could plunge the country into the deeper turmoil they say they are intent on averting.
- Demonstrators should form an umbrella group and put its leaders forward to negotiate with the military council. Up to this point, protesters have been understandably unwilling to reveal their leaders’ identities given the security forces’ brutal record; they arrested and reportedly tortured the Sudanese Professionals Association leaders who issued public statements in January. With the transition having picked up pace, they should now change tack.
- Ensuing talks should lead to a transitional authority along the lines Crisis Group has advocated since 2012: civilian leadership that includes members of the opposition, the ruling party and civil society; a defined period of constitutional reforms; and, at the end, free and fair elections. Without such a transition, Sudan should not receive the assistance from international financial institutions that it desperately needs to emerge from its economic doldrums.
International actors, viewed by protest leaders as having been lamentably quiet as campaigners braved police bullets, torture and arrests, need to weigh in more vocally and forcefully to achieve these goals and do everything possible to ensure protest leaders that do identify themselves come to no harm. The U.S. and EU, which both maintain ties with elements of the administration in Khartoum, should clearly warn against a violent crackdown and signal that individual commanders will face sanctions should they allow it. They should make clear that economic and other forms of cooperation with Sudan depend on genuine transfer of power to a civilian leadership. In a statement hours before the coup was announced, the U.S., UK and Norwegian governments called for an “inclusive dialogue” and asked Sudanese authorities to respond to protesters’ demands in a serious and credible way. They and others, including the EU, should follow that public message with behind-the-scenes diplomacy with the generals now in charge in Khartoum. Their message should be that greater repression will carry the price of continued isolation and will prevent Sudan from addressing the long-term economic and political crises underpinning the unrest. Sudan’s other partners, notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, likewise should encourage the military leadership to avoid a crackdown that would provoke further unrest and instability.
Sudan’s partners ought to move quickly to persuade military authorities in Khartoum to heed the Sudanese people’s call and allow for a credible, inclusive, broad-based transition.
Sudan sits at a strategic corner of Africa, surrounded by neighbours facing internal difficulties of their own. Not least of these is South Sudan, for whose peace agreement Sudan remains an important guarantor. Other adjacent states – Egypt, Libya, Chad, the Central African Republic, Ethiopia and Eritrea – will also watch developments anxiously. Should Sudan descend into chaos, the turmoil could spill across borders. Sudan’s partners ought to move quickly to persuade military authorities in Khartoum to heed the Sudanese people’s call and allow for a credible, inclusive, broad-based transition to steer Sudan to greater stability after Bashir’s long, chequered and bloody tenure.