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Sudan's aimless coup

General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan’s takeover is more about protecting himself than helping the Sudanese people.

Analysis | Africa

In Sudan’s long and colorful history of military coups, General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan’s takeover on Monday stands out as the most clearly signaled and the most aimless. It’s a reprise of Sudan’s post-independence cycle in which weak civilian governments struggle to manage the country’s political and economic crises, and army officers promise strong leadership to save the nation from crisis — and deliver even deeper and more intractable crises.

In previous cycles, a military coup has at least promised a new political direction, energetically pursued. Al-Burhan is like a bankrupt tenant, facing eviction, who barricades himself seemingly oblivious to the landlord cutting off power and water.

Sudan’s independence-era parliamentary regime ended in 1958 when the prime minister Abdalla Khalil asked the head of the army, General Ibrahim Abboud, to take power. For the next six years, Abboud ran a military government with an Arab-Islamic agenda and escalated the civil war. A non-violent popular uprising brought him down in 1964. After a six-month transition, free elections were held — but a divided parliament and a feeble leadership left the country adrift.

The second parliamentary era ended in May 1969 when Colonel Jaafar Nimeiri, a “free officer” in the mold of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in partnership with the Communist Party. Nimeiri ruled for 16 years, his politics shifting from far left to Islamist, until non-violent civic protests brought him down. Elections a year later brought many of the same parliamentarians back to power. Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi reprised his inept performance from the 1960s, unable to reconcile the demands of vocal constituencies in Khartoum or to enter meaningful peace talks with rebels in the south.

Sudan’s third civilian era ended in June 1989 when Brigadier Omar al-Bashir mounted a coup in partnership with the Muslim Brothers. Al-Bashir ruled for 30 years, moderating his initial ruthless repression and abandoning the hardline Islamists to make peace with the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Oil was at the heart of the peace deal: the bounty was divided between the dominant north and the oil-rich south. The agreement ultimately resulted in the independence of South Sudan in 2011 — and the loss of three quarters of that oil money, leading in due course to an economic crisis. Al-Bashir meanwhile unleashed brutal wars in Darfur and other discontented peripheries. In April 2019, faced with massive popular protests, al-Bashir’s senior generals stepped in to “side with the people” and depose him.

One of al-Bashir’s most trusted lieutenants, General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, was the face of the Transitional Military Council. His deputy was General Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti,” leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which had grown out of the feared Janjaweed militia that wreaked massacre on Darfur some years earlier. They promised to protect the democratic ideals of the revolution and opened negotiations with the Forces of Freedom and Change, the umbrella of civic groups and political parties that had orchestrated the protests. But the generals’ true colors were revealed on June 3, 2019, when soldiers and paramilitaries massacred more than 1,000 unarmed protesters, chasing them through Khartoum neighborhoods, tying concrete blocks to their feet, and throwing them into the River Nile.

Undeterred, the FFC mobilized what they promised would be a “million strong” march for democracy. The huge turnout — the actual numbers weren’t properly counted — showed that the democrats were well-organized and resolute. Unlike other mass movements in Arab countries, they were also fiercely anti-Islamist — the Sudanese had lived under Islamist rule for three decades and wanted no more of it.

Negotiations facilitated by the quartet of the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates — with the African Union as penholder — achieved a compromise. The Constitutional Declaration, signed in August 2019, set up a complex power-sharing arrangement between the army and civilians. A “sovereignty council” served as a collective presidency, to be chaired for the first two years by Gen. al-Burhan, and the remainder of the transitional period by a civilian. After an agreed delay to the schedule, al-Burhan was due to step down next month. Meanwhile a civilian cabinet, consisting of technocrats and led by the respected economist Abdalla Hamdok, was to run the country for three and a half years, until elections.

In theory, the cohabitation would work because al-Burhan and Hemedti needed the legitimacy of a civilian prime minister, and Hamdok couldn’t run the country without the cooperation of the military. In practice, there was a continual power struggle.

The transitional government faced three main tasks. Each was progressing slowly. Al-Burhan’s coup stalls or reverses each one.

First was economic stabilization — the basic rationale for appointing a professional economist as prime minister two years ago. Achieving this required Sudan being removed from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terror list, which would allow for the normalization of financial relations, followed by debt rescheduling and relief. The international policy wheels were painfully slow to grind, and Sudan was only delisted as a State Sponsor of Terror in January this year (having recognized Israel as a quid pro quo) and joined the World Bank’s highly indebted poor countries’ program in June. In the meantime, hyperinflation has been eroding living standards, and millions are food insecure. Citizens who took to the streets in 2019, protesting the corruption and mismanagement that had led to desperate shortages of fuel and food, weren’t seeing material benefits from democracy.

Al-Burhan’s rationale for the coup is partly that an inept civilian leadership hasn’t resolved the economic crisis. Possibly Hamdok might have done better — the austerity measures introduced earlier this year were delayed and then harsher than needed. But al-Burhan doesn’t have a tangible alternative to offer. Already Washington has put a $700 million package on pause, the World Bank suspended its disbursements Monday, and it’s almost certain that the European Union and the Paris Club of creditors will follow suit.. Al-Burhan will surely try turning to Sudan’s traditional Middle Eastern patrons for cash in hand, but even if the Gulf States are sympathetic, they know that the bills are simply too big for them to shoulder.

The Arab League condemned the takeover on Monday, and Saudi Arabia joined the United States in public opposition soon after.

The unstated economic rationale for the takeover is much more self-interested. Hamdok had set his sights on reducing the bloated military budget and dismantling the far-reaching commercial empire of military-controlled companies. Removing the tax privileges of the crony capitalists and their ability to win government contracts without competition is a precondition for legitimate business to prosper and Sudan’s economy to recover. A committee for investigating the companies owned by the Islamists, securocrats, and generals, and rooting out corruption, was intensifying its work over recent months. Al-Burhan dissolved it in one of his first actions Monday morning.

The transitional government’s second task was peace — resolving the long-running insurgencies in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile. The negotiations convened in the South Sudanese capital Juba and dragged on for months. The military delegates were experienced at negotiating ceasefires and cutting deals with armed rebels and quickly gained the upper hand over civilians whose concerns with democratic principles and equitable development provided less immediate inducements for the insurgent commanders. A deal with most of the rebels was signed in Juba a year ago — incomplete but a step forward.

Al-Burhan’s takeover imperils the Juba Peace Agreement. Two of the armed group leaders who signed — Minni Minawi of the Sudan Liberation Army and Jibreel Ibrahim of the Justice and Equality Movement — have sided with al-Burhan. Neither has a big constituency, and they are more comfortable cutting deals with soldiers than facing the electorate in a free election. Another group, the Sudan Revolutionary Front of Malik Agar and Yasir Arman — politicians who have shown themselves capable of mobilizing significant civilian constituencies — have sided with Hamdok.

The biggest armed opposition groups — the Sudan Liberation Movement of Abdel Wahid al-Nur in Darfur, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, in the Nuba Mountains — had not yet signed the Juba Agreement, arguing that their demands for constitutional guarantees in the national political system weren’t yet met. Their sympathies are with Hamdok, not the army, and peace in those areas is now more fragile than ever.

Al-Burhan claims that his putsch was intended to ”prevent war.” It’s a largely spurious claim, but it contains an element of truth. The way that al-Bashir managed Sudan’s troublesome peripheries was through paying off tribal chiefs and local militia leaders, skillfully playing local political rivalries to his advantage. Al-Burhan is using the same playbook, most notably stirring discontent in Eastern Sudan, which he them blamed on the civilians and said — correctly — that he could resolve. The urban technocrats deride the skills of transactional provincial politicking as corruption and tribally based divide and rule, but they have no alternative other than bargaining with local big men to maintain local peace. When they fail to do so, rural discontent can cause wider problems. Protesters in Eastern Sudan blocked the road from Port Sudan to Khartoum, causing immediate shortages of essential goods in the capital. Al-Burhan promptly cut a deal with the troublesome local chief.

The third transitional agenda was putting in place the institutions and laws for a working democracy. Perhaps the biggest failing of the civilians was that they didn’t set up the promised Transitional Legislative Assembly, so there was neither an official forum for political debate nor formal oversight of the executive. The main rationale for the delay — it should wait until all the rebel groups had joined the government — had worn thin. The civilian parties simply couldn’t agree, much to the frustration of the populace.

Meanwhile, popular demands for justice met with stonewalling and anxiety from the soldiers. After he was deposed, al-Bashir was jailed, and the government then agreed to send him to The Hague to face prosecution at the International Criminal Court. It was a polarizing decision, not least because many army officers feared that their embittered former commander-in-chief might name them as co-conspirators in his alleged crimes in Darfur. Al-Burhan and Hemedti are also justifiably anxious that the long-promised investigation into the June 2019 massacre might point a finger of blame in their direction.

As the date for al-Burhan’s rotation off the Chairmanship of the Sovereignty Council approached — his days as de facto head of state running out — he had reason to be worried. Sudan was stumbling along the right track, but he and his cabal of senior officers and crony capitalists were facing the reality that democracy, the rule of law, and the creation of a level economic playing field, meant that they were set to lose out.

Al-Burhan is a feeble imitation of his predecessors as military dictator. He has shown no confidence on the political stage, produced no powerful backers at home or abroad, offered no practical alternatives to Hamdok’s policies. He doesn’t command the institutions of state — the ministry of information and Sudan’s diplomatic corps, among others, still profess loyalty to the ”legitimate” government of Hamdok. The protesters are back on the street, undeterred by threats of violence. Al-Burhan’s coup is transparently an attempt to protect personal and factional interests, and the Sudanese populace and international community have instantly seen it as such. It’s less a seizure of power than a gesture of powerlessness.

Washington has the correct approach to date, which is to stick to a principled support for the democratic transition, and work with Sudan’s Middle Eastern allies and sponsors to keep them in line too. Up to now this is working: no Arab country has broken ranks to back al-Burhan’s coup. The next step is to line up a broad-based coalition to walk al-Burhan back from his misstep, and double down on supporting the key reforms needed to diminish the army’s influence over Sudan’s politics and economy.

Sudan's Head of Transitional Military Council, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, talks to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed during the signing of the power sharing deal, that paves the way for a transitional government, and eventual elections, following the overthrow of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir, in Khartoum, Sudan, August 17, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
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