Sudanese Military Cracks Down as Opposition Demands Swift Transition to Civilian Rule
“We, the people of Sudan across cities and villages, in the north, the south, the east, and the west; join our political and social movements, trade unions and community groups in affirming through this declaration that we will continue the course of peaceful struggle until the totalitarian regime is removed and the following goals are achieved,” reads the opening statement of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, published on January 1, 2019, by the Sudanese Professionals Association in Khartoum.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) has become the leader among the groups of opposition protesters in Sudan, collectively known as the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change. Their first stated goal, “The immediate and unconditional end of General Omar Al Bashir’s presidency and the conclusion of his administration,” was achieved on April 11, 2019, when the Sudanese military deposed and arrested 30 year dictator Omar al-Bashir, following months of mass protests.
The protests, which began in December 2018 over food shortages and rising prices, quickly turned into anti-government protests calling for al-Bashir’s removal. During al-Bashir’s oppressive 30 year rule, he was accused of violently quelling dissent and perpetuating a genocide in Darfur which led to hundreds of thousands of deaths. The scale, fervor, and coverage of anti-Bashir protests grew quickly from January 2019 to April 2019, when al-Bashir was finally deposed by the Sudanese military forces.
Demanding a Swift Transition to Civilian Rule
The second stated goal of The Declaration of Freedom and Change– the formation of a National Transitional Government which “will be formed of qualified people based on merits of competency and good reputation, representing various Sudanese groups and receiving the consensus of the majority”– has yet to be achieved, and is the cause of the recent turmoil in Sudan.
After al-Bashir’s arrest, the military stated it would take over for two years, after which elections would be held. However, two months since al-Bashir’s removal, pro-democracy protesters are demanding a swift transition to full civilian rule.
The Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change demand a civilian transitional council (with military representation) that would run Sudan during the transitional period. According to the Declaration, this transitional government would rule for four years, “until a sound democratic structure is established, and elections held.”
After al-Bashir’s removal, the opposition worked with the military to develop a transitional process with the goal of establishing a democratic system. Understandably, such processes can take some time to work out after three decades of dictatorship. However, talks between the opposition and the Transitional Military Council (TMC) recently broke down.
“What is delaying the negotiations is the false understanding of a civilian-led government,” TMC spokesman Shams-Eddin Kabashi said on Thursday at a press conference in Khartoum. “In my view, civilian is the authorities, the ruling, the task which we agreed on. After we agreed that government ministers and the legislative council would be civilian-led, they are still screaming civilian, civilian,” he said.
One of the main concerns of the opposition is the military’s affiliation with al-Bashir, which has led to distrust of the military’s ability to serve as a transitional power. Many protesters are wary of the military’s willingness to hand over power to civilian rule.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the TMC, issued a series of decisions in late April that appear geared toward satisfying some of the opposition’s demands. Among these: the arrest of several high-ranking members of Bashir’s party, the announcement of anti-corruption and anti-graft measures, and the decision to retire the eight officers ranked lieutenant general in Bashir’s notorious National Intelligence and Security Service. Bashir has been moved from his residence to the maximum-security Kobar prison in Khartoum, where he is being held on money laundering and terrorist financing charges.
However, talks between the TMC and the opposition protesters collapsed as the two sides failed to agree on the structure of the sovereign council that would oversee the transition period.
Military Cracks Down Violently on Protesters
As talks broke down, protesters took to the streets, and the military cracked down with extreme violence. On June 3, the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group organized by Bashir, violently dispersed protesters at the main demonstration site outside army headquarters in Khartoum, where protesters had been staging a weeks-long sit it.
According to doctors on site, there have been 118 dead and 784 wounded as a result of confrontations with the military. Over 40 bodies were recovered from the Nile River, and over 60 cases of rape and sexual assault have been reported. The military has also imposed a nation-wide internet blackout that has largely impeded protesters from regrouping.
On June 14, Sudan’s military council admitted that it ordered the dispersion of protesters in Khartoum. “We ordered the commanders to come up with a plan to disperse this sit-in. They made a plan and implemented it…but we regret that some mistakes happened,” TMC spokesman Kabashi said on Thursday.
Following the violent attacks on protesters, SPA called for a nationwide general strike which would serve as a civil disobedience campaign. The strike largely brought the capital city of Khartoum to a standstill.
On June 4, General Fattah al-Burhan, leader of the TMC, announced that general elections would be held in 9 months “under regional and international supervision.” He also stated that previous agreements to hand over the country to civilian rule within three years would be terminated, and that officials “involved in corruption or other crimes” would be held accountable.
“We do not want to rule Sudan forever, a few months and we will go home,” Lieutenant General Salah Abdel Khalig, head of the Sudanese air force, told the Financial Times. He said the military would invite the UN to monitor the elections, but must remain in charge until the elections happen for national security reasons, the Financial Times reports. He said that the military would maintain stability to protect against the insurgence of rebels and Islamist groups which shared power under Bashir.
“We are assuring that the Islamic system will not take power again because it brought us a lot of sanctions, a lot of the problems with the free world,” Lt Gen Khalig told the Financial Times.
On June 11, Sudanese protest leaders agreed to end the general strike and resume power-sharing talks with the military council, and advised citizens to return to work.
“The Alliance for Freedom and Change agreed to end the civil disobedience (campaign) from today,” Mahmoud Drir, who has been mediating since the peacekeeping visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, told reporters. “Both sides have also agreed to resume talks soon.”
A Concerned International Response
In light of the violence against protesters, the U.S. sent its top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, to Sudan to aid in securing a stable agreement between the military leaders and the opposition.
According to a statement published by the Sudanese Professionals Organization, “The meeting discussed the necessity of transferring power to an interim civilian authority. The meeting also thoroughly discussed the massacre committed at the army HQ and the acts of murder and horror perpetrated in a number of Sudanese cities and villages in tandem with the massacre on June 3rd, 2019 and beyond.”
According to the statement, both parties affirmed the “importance of the immediate transfer of power to an interim civilian authority in realization of the aspirations of the Sudanese people and the gains of their revolution.”
International leaders and the media have been closely following the precarious situation in Sudan. Thousands of people have partaken in social media campaigns in an effort to show solidarity with protesters, with the hashtag #BlueforSudan trending on social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter.
Stability in Sudan, a nation of 40 million, is important to other countries in the region struggling from conflict and insurgencies. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed Sudan’s new military leaders in an effort to maintain stability in the region, agreeing to send $3 billion worth of aid, including a $500 million cash injection into the central bank to help bolster the plunging Sudanese pound, which has been a cause of Sudan’s woes.
Peaceful collaboration between military leaders and the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change is integral for securing a stable, democratic Sudan in the coming years.