How former Prez Omar al-Bashir’s brutal legacy influences Sudan’s latest conflict?
The latest Sudan conflict has entered its third week as the fighting between the country’s military and Rapid Security Force (RSF) continued despite the ceasefire.
Both the rival forces, on April 27, had agreed to extend the humanitarian truce for another 72 hours — due to expire at midnight Sunday — but violence again erupted.
Acknowledging the ceasefire violation, the United Nation’s spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said, “It’s frustrating for the UN, but it’s devastating and tragic for the people of Sudan, for the people who are trying to go out and get food, for the people trying to flee, for the people trying to receive humanitarian aid and for our national colleagues who are trying to deliver that humanitarian aid”
“It is critical that the leaders of Sudan who are involved in this violence put the interests of the Sudanese people over their own personal interests.”
The battle broke out on April 15 after weeks of heightened tensions between Sudanese army chief Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the RSF head Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemetti.
Although both generals are currently fighting to control Sudan’s major institutions, they were once allies. In 2019, they joined forces to oust the authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir after a months-long nationwide uprising against his rule.
Bashir came to power in 1989 after staging a coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Sadiq Al Mahdi. In his 30 years of rule, what Bashir left behind was a legacy of economic ruin, human rights violations, suppression of civil society and international isolation of Sudan.
Omar al-Bashir’s regin
Having ruled for over 30 years, Bashir is one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders. Born in 1944, in a village north of Khartoum, he joined the Army in 1960. Bashir rose through the ranks to become a member of the elite parachute force, also serving in the Arab-Israeli War in 1973.
He came to power in 1989, by orchestrating a coup d’etat, when Sudan was in the midst of a 21-year-long civil war — between the northern and southern parts of the country.
Aligned with him was Hasan al Turabi, an Islamist ideologue who served as the head of the Sudanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. He became the ideological backbone and power behind the throne of Bashir.
The Turabi years witnessed a war against the secessionist southern rebels claiming 2 million lives, as reported by the Guardian. Stricter dress codes for women were introduced, persecution was carried out against the Coptic community, and the non-Arab population in Darfur was oppressed.
Between the years 1992-1996, Sudan also played host to Osama Bin Laden who had heavily invested in the country’s infrastructure at the time. This action led to the US declaring Sudan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in 1993. The United Nations imposed sanctions on Khartoum in 1994, as Turabi’s agents allegedly attempted to kill the then-Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, as per another report by The Guardian.
Turabi helped set the theocratic tone of Bashir’s regime, but by 1999, he fell out of favour with Bashir, who removed him from the position of parliament speaker. During the next few years, Turabi reinvented himself as the champion of democracy, facing repeated arrests and detainment.
After the wild west years with Turabi, came the darkest episode of Bashir’s regime.
Accusing the government of oppressing Darfur’s non-Arab population, two rebel groups – Sudan Liberation Movement and Justice and Equality Movement – took up arms against the Bashir government in 2003.
In response, the authoritarian ruler unleashed a reign of terror through militias called the Janjaweed, who committed mass slaughter and rape of men, women and children in Darfur.
According to UN estimates, about 3 lakh people were killed and 2.5 million were displaced.
In 2009, an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Bashir for crimes against humanity and in 2010 for charges of genocide.
Meanwhile, Bashir’s presidency saw a deal brokered between the north and south after a long bloody war, leading to the creation of South Sudan in 2011. But what went with the newly created country was the majority of oilfield regions, leaving Sudan into an economic crisis, which deepened with each passing year.
Uprising against Bashir
Two decades of Bashir’s regime were marked by systematic repression of civil society, opposition leaders and damaging the social fabric of the society. Fed up with his despotic rule there were sporadic protests led by activists after Bashir was officially elected as President, in elections which were allegedly ‘rigged.’
Although he managed to keep his iron grip on the country, despite the 2011 Arab Spring that had knocked off authoritarian dictators in neighbouring countries, he faced a major uprising in 2013 after he removed fuel and cooking gas subsidies.
Anti-government protests which began in Wad Madani spread to 8 other cities including the capital Khartoum. Thousands marched through the capital city, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime” — adopting the slogan of the Arab Spring.
Faisal Saleh, a political commentator in a daily newspaper Khartoum, said the new protests were significant because of their geographical extent, the variety of protesters and the bloody response by the security forces.
Bashir resorted to the ‘shoot to kill’ policy. A document by Amnesty International and the African Centre of Justice stated that about 50 people were killed. However, the activists put the actual toll in hundreds.
Although it was isolated internationally, in 2017 the US lifted some sanctions on Sudan. But the economy continued to worsen and by November 2018 the inflation in Sudan had reached 70%, the BBC said.
Bread subsidies were cut, and austerity measures were imposed in a country that was already plagued by widespread poverty, unemployment and corruption.
Sudan was once again rocked by mass protest.
People took to the streets not only to vent their anger on the rise of food prices but also to demand the ouster of a despot ruler who had clung to power for the past 29 years.
A protest began in the eastern city of Atbara over the tripling prices of bread and spread like wildfire, reaching the capital city of Khartoum, Port Sudan and Madani. People even struggled to withdraw their basic salaries from banks.
Khartoum was flooded by Sudanese from all walks of life. On one hand, there were university students, who in their lifetime of 19-20 years had only witnessed authoritarian rule. Then there were women, whose proportion among the protestors was put as high as 70%, according to a BBC report.
Women came out not only to lodge their protest against Bashir but also against the societal oppression and discriminatory laws which they had been subjected to.
And at the helm of the protest was the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA)- an umbrella organisation of different professional unions in the country.
“In the SPA, the protestors on the street found a sort of faceless leader,” said Mayada Hassanain, in an interview with the Journal of International Affairs.
In February 2019, Bashir declared a state of emergency and also declared that he would step down at the end of his term in 2020.
But the protests continued. On April 6, 2019, thousands held a sit-in protest outside the military headquarters, where the president’s residence was also located.
The security forces used tear gas and arrested hundreds of protestors. As stated in a BBC report, the military and security forces were themselves divided on how to respond and on the ground many army units started intervening to protect protestors from security agents.
On April 10, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who had been on the side of the regime declared that they would not attack protestors. The paramilitary force had evolved out of the infamous Janjaweed and had held the fortress of Bashir’s regime in the past few years as he relied on them to be a counterweight to the regular armed forces.
The very next day, the president’s removal was announced by the military.
Declaration of freedom and change
Drafted by the SPA, the Declaration of Freedom and Change called a) for an end to Bashir’s presidency and b) the formation of a transitional government which would assist in the civil reconstruction process for the next 4 years and hold power until the next elections could be held.
After Bashir stepped down, Defense Minister Ibn Ouf came to power, only to be rejected by the protestors and forced to resign in the next 24 hours.
The third ruler in three days, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the inspector general of the Sudanese Army came to power becoming the head of the Transitional Military Council (a military junta to govern Sudan) with Mohammed Hamdan aka Hemedi (head of RSF) as his deputy.
Although not the top-ranking members, Burhan and Hemedi had been important figures in the Bashir regime. They were a witness to many of the crimes, including the Darfur genocide, committed under his rule.
But for the next two months, as the TMC resisted a full transition to a civilian-led transitional government, another sit-in protest was launched by the SPA in front of the military headquarters.
Between June 3-18 Security forces headed by the RSF launched a violent attack on the protestors killing more than a hundred people, in what came to be known as the Khartoum Massacre.
Based on research in August 2019, Human Rights Watch found that at least 120 people had been killed and more than 900 injured between June 3 and 18. Sudanese officials estimate that at least 64 women were raped and others sexually assaulted.
The SPA and military finally reached a negotiation in August 2019, leading to the formation of an 11-member Sovereign Council. The council consisted of 6 civilians and 5 soldiers and it had the responsibility to run the country for a little over the next 3 years until elections could be held.
The council was supposed to be headed by Burhan for 21 months and then by a civilian leader for the next 18.
But when the time came to hand over power to the civilians, Burhan seemed reluctant.
The agreement between the civilians and the military lasted for only 2 years. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was detained on October 25, 2021, and thus a coup by Burhan and Hemedi derailed the path to democracy yet again.
Hopes of democracy shattered
After the coup in October 2021, Hamdok finally resigned in January next year and said that he tried his best to “ stop the country from sliding towards disaster, despite everything that has been done to reach a consensus, it has not happened.”
Protestors who flooded the streets with the chants of “Power to the people” were met with live ammunition and tear gas from the military.
Cut to 2023, the military and RSF who had put Bashir out of power are bow battling each other tearing Sudan apart.
Burhan and Hemedi disagreed over how and when to integrate the RSF with the Sudanese Army. Hemedi suspects Burhan of trying to restore the former regime members (of Bashir’s National Congress Party) to their old positions. And with the recent shifting of Bashir to a military hospital after an attack on the Kober prison where he was detained, Hemedi alleged that the military “forcibly evacuated” the facility as part of a plan to restore Bashir to power, as per The Guardian.
But as the two generals turned from allies to rivals, it is the people of Sudan who are witnessing their dream of democracy being blown away into the bitter black smoke of bullets and rockets that fly above their streets.