Peaceful revolutions seldom stay that way for long. Sudan’s desperate decline from bloodless coup to civilian massacre is surely testament to this. Where just weeks earlier jubilant song had filled the Khartoum air, the clatter of gunfire melded with the anguished screams of men, women and children. Protestors seeking an amicable transition from military leadership to civilian government were, on June 3, beaten, shot and raped by state-backed troops. At least a hundred were killed, with scores more critically injured. Among the dead lay Mohamed Mattar, a 26-year-old engineer who – despite his short life’s numerous achievements – is foremost remembered for his favourite colour: blue.
It was this colour that loved ones, bereft at Mattar’s death, began changing their social media pictures to in tribute. “It all started as a way of coping with our grief,” recounted his friend Abdullah Al Fazh. Soon #BlueforSudan was trending globally, raising awareness of Sudanese plight. It has been picked up by the likes of pop megastar Rihanna, helping propel it to the highest echelons of online recognition. Not that the intended beneficiaries would know – Sudan’s beleaguered people have been without internet for weeks, just one of the military’s repressive measures.
Western governments have called for a cessation of violence, and the International Criminal Court has demanded the extradition of deposed president Omar al-Bashir on genocide charges. Sudan’s generals have chosen to ignore both. Instead, the junta has mobilized the Janjaweed militias under the guise of the ‘Rapid Support Forces’ (RSF). It was this outfit that perpetrated the June 3 massacre, independent observers say. And rather than put al-Bashir before international judges, the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) has chosen to imprison him themselves.
Attempts to marshal a global response have been stymied by East-West divides, as is so often the case. Amid the worsening violence, the UN Security Council met to negotiate a united position – but a bid to condemn the slaughter and issue an urgent call from world powers to halt the violence failed in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition. Russia’s Deputy Ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, noted the need to be “very cautious in this situation”, while reports suggest that China was adamant that the issue be treated as an internal matter.
One multilateral group has mustered a unified response, however – the African Union (AU). In response to the upsurge in bloodshed the organisation moved to suspend Sudan, making clear that “exit from the current crisis” can only be achieved by a transition to civilian-led governance. With the Northeast African state now outwith the 55-member group, the threat of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation looms large.
But some regional powers have opted for dialogue with the TMC, exacerbating an already febrile situation. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt have thrown their support behind the military junta, pledging a $3bn aid package to Sudan’s ruling generals. The two Gulf states have ties with the TMC leadership through their participation in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen. Egypt, on the other hand, supports the Sudanese army – but, likely fearing their Islamist ties, is no fan of the RSF militia.
The full consequence of this disunity is not yet evident, but one thing is clear: the TMC regard their most influential constituencies to be outside of Sudan – in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. These power bases are driven by the hope that the junta – friendly as it is to their interests – will survive the civil unrest. But analysts warn that Sudan’s fragmented military, hollowed out by al-Bashir who favoured state-backed militias, lacks the cohesion to form an enduring government. For any hope of future peace, regional players must “rapidly shift tack,” warns the International Crisis Group, a conflict NGO.
Expediting this change in approach is, perhaps, the best course of action for the West while the UN route remains closed. Parties with influence over the Gulf states, particularly the US (but also Europe), should urge them to press Khartoum’s military leadership to reverse their repressive course of action, humanitarian groups say. Targeted sanctions, asset freezing and travel bans are all weapons in the Western world’s arsenal yet to be deployed. Intimation that these could be utilised would send a stark message to the more bloodyminded of Sudan’s generals.
But as it stands, full blown global intervention in Sudan seems remote. Given the main opposition group, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), has suggested it doesn’t want foreign involvement, this is – in the minds of some – no great tragedy. But the systematic beating, murder and rape committed by the murderous RSF plainly is. Continued dialogue between the military and the people is fundamental – but for Sudan to take a step back from the precipice of civil war, the world might need to give it a meaningful nudge.