Since the overthrow and arrest of President Omar al-Bashir on 10 April last year, there has been a fragile cohabitation between civil society and the semi-privatised “armed forces”. Indeed the Prime Minister, Abdallah Hamdok, who represents the civilian side of the set-up, told a visiting US congressional delegation in Khartoum in January that “the civil-military partnership in Sudan could serve as a model for other countries.” The idea, far from just being a piece of triumphalist braggadocio, raises the question of what has been going on in Sudan in recent months.
A Return to Civil Society
After 25 years of dictatorship, the Islamist regime in Khartoum had nothing more to offer than further failures and mounting corruption. The economic crash was the last straw. In 2018, the price of a kilo of lentils went up by 225%, rice by 169%, bread 300%, and fuel 30%. There was no cooking gas, or even running water. At the same time, the 2018 budget of Sudanese pounds (SDG) 173 bn (about €35 bn) allocated nearly SDG 24 bn to the military and security sectors, but only just over SDG 5 bn to education and less than SDG 3 bn to health.
Civil society responded to this descent into hell with a spontaneous mobilisation whose roots went back to October 2012, and which now gathered momentum. Workers’ groups began setting up professional organisations. Today there are 17 of them, federated under the umbrella Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA). This clandestine unionism operated with an organisational rigour worthy of the pre-1917 Leninists, but without any particular ideology apart from an embryonic democratism and a rejection of violence. The slogan “Silmiyya!” (Peaceful!) was to become the rallying cry of the protestors. Political parties which had become more or less forgotten under the 30 years of military-Islamic dictatorship regained at least a little strength, brought together in the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).
Despite its extraordinary popularity, this democratic movement had three weak points: it was very urban in nature, it grouped essentially the Awlad al-Beled (the Arabs of the central provinces), and apart from the trade unionists of the SPA, it was very divided.
A General Backed by the UAE
The situation at the beginning of 2019 was thus somewhat special. The Islamic-military regime was no longer Islamic, and the regular army had been set into competition with paramilitary forces which had become autonomous when then-President Bashir deployed them into overseas conflicts. The despatch to Yemen of the “volunteers” of the Rapid Support Force (RSF) by their commander, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemetti, was crucial.
After arresting Bashir, Hemetti became vice-president of the Transitional Military Council and was effectively its real boss, rather than its official president, Gen. Abdel Fatah Abderrahman Burhan. Significantly, these volunteers are better armed than Burhan’s regular army. The RSF’s military and technical equipment in fact come from the United Arab Emirates.
Cunning, brutal and intelligent, if little educated, Hemetti became a millionaire through the “muscular” exploitation of the gold mines in western Sudan. He was the Janjaweed militia chief in Darfur, where he committed massive violence before overthrowing President Bashir, who saw him as his protector. Hence the ambiguity of the situation: was this a military coup d’état or a democratic revolution? The popular uprising was a mixture of jamboree, open-ended political forum and social solidarity display. Everybody was looking after children—there are lots of them—women were everywhere, and the provincials had discovered the capital. The basic slogans: “Silmiya!” (Peaceful!), “Hurriya!” (Freedom!), “Thawra!” (Revolution!), “Didd al-haramiyya!” (Down with the thieves!) and “Madaniyya!” (Civilian!). A camp, a festival, a space for joy and celebration, the sit-in was essentially revolutionary.
But while some soldiers were fraternising with the crowd, others, especially in the provinces, were killing or injuring the supporters of change. Those who opened fire on the demonstrators were not soldiers of the regular army, the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), which was doing its best to protect them. It was either mercenaries of the RSF who came from Darfur, or an operations unit of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)—the secret services, set up by Salah Gosh.
The uprising in Darfur had already destroyed the image of a “homogenous nation” led by a radical version of Islam, and had exposed the reality of a mafia regime which had deviated into illegal commerce during its dream petrol period between 1999 and 2011. The “deep state” created by the Islamists had established itself as the ideological (and financial) flipside of a Sudan which had become phoney. For many in Sudan, the events of 2019 were an occasion to go back over developments since independence in 1956. Everything was brought out in the popular debates: the “civil war” with the disparate South, the coups, the empty rhetoric of a democracy lived in fits and starts, Islamism as the magic solution, the colonialism of the centre over all the outlying areas. Even Arabism did not escape criticism. In this amazing thirst for demystification, the overthrown regime seemed to embody all the mistakes of the past.
Symptoms of the Nostalgic Revolution
This “nostalgic revolution” has been very ill understood by the international community. There are, of course, parallel with the various “Arab springs”—the same hostility to dictatorship, the same aspiration to democracy, but with no illusions about political Islam, which aroused obvious hostility among the protestors, no doubt because of Sudan’s ethnic heterogeneity. The killer General Hemetti hails from the outlying Darfur area and he has rallied to the RSF flag many soldiers straying from the wars of the Sahel—Chadians1, Nigerians, Central Africans, and even some Boko Haram deserters. He does not harbour hostility to Islam because it is too much part of Sudanese culture to be rejected. But the Islamists who prefer the Islamist “deep state” to their Sudanese homeland have lost control of the population. That is why the attempt by the Saudis and the UAE to preserve an Islamist regime without the Muslim Brotherhood has little chance of success.
Clean-up at the NISS barracks
The UAE leader, Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed (MBZ), realised this more swiftly than his Saudi “allies”, as indeed did Gen. Hemetti. When on 14 January semi-demobilised elements of the NISS mutinied in two of the barracks where they were cooling their heels, Hemetti’s reaction was immediate: his men attacked the barracks, and fighting went on late into the night. The mutineers had just learned that their operations unit, which was involved in racketeering, kidnapping and illegal taxation, had been disbanded.
The NISS groups got the worst of it, and their dead were written off. But the General had to make a trip to Abu Dhabi to explain to MBZ precisely what he was up to. He may be the UAE’s ally in Sudan, but he is far from being a passive tool in the region, as MBZ realised when Hemetti declined to send reinforcements to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, stalled outside Tripoli without being able to take the city. The Emiratis were reduced to recruiting “security guards” through small ads using Black Shield Security Services, a UAE front company.
Another example of the Darfur General’s autonomy came on 11 January, when groups linked to the Islamist “deep state” tried to organise antigovernment demonstrations at Wad Madani, in central Sudan. Hemetti did nothing to help them, and they had to pay unemployed agricultural workers to swell their ranks.
So was Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok justified in portraying civil-military relations in Sudan as a model to the Americans? Half. By “military” one means Hemetti, because the regular army no longer controls the situation, either politically or militarily. When there were negotiations in Juba with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (a guerrilla faction which still exists in Kordofan, in the south of Sudan), it was Hemetti who took charge of the talks and won SPLM-North agreement to a framework accord which may be ratified on 14 February.
Prime minister accused of sluggishness
Under the power-sharing agreement signed in Khartoum on 5 July last year, there will be no elections until 2021, and those involved in the current transition will not be allowed to stand. PM Abdallah Hamdok is certainly doing what he can. But he is doing it at a pace which is irritatingly slow for a population which had struggled with astonishing determination until June 2019. He has only just dismissed the Foreign Minister, whose incompetence was a drag on Sudanese diplomacy, resurgent after 30 years of paralysis and corruption.
It remains for the World Bank to be begged for aid which the Americans continue to block on the basis of sanctions imposed earlier on the Islamist regime, and which are now obsolete. Hemetti appears to maintain correct, but not warm, relations with the Prime Minister. He has talked to old political parties such as the Ummah of Sadeq al-Mahdi, and more discreetly with others. His men are involved in distributing free foodstuffs and medicine. Nowadays he recruits his soldiers not just from his native Darfur, but also from among the Awlad al-Beled, the inhabitants of the country’s central Nile Valley regions.
What about the people of Darfur, whose relatives he may have massacred? They are queueing up outside his offices in Khartoum. “At least he’s someone we know, we know how to handle him. And it would be nice to have one of our own in the Presidency, after having been colonised.” How far will the camel trader turned militia chief go? People may object to his lack of education, and to his non-Sudanese origins. That has not prevented him becoming a key player on the national and regional scenes.
1His cousin is chief of staff of the Chadian army.