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2021 in Review: Coup Fatigue: Why Sudanese Civilians Want their Country Back

28 Dec 2021
By Associate Professor Anne L. Bartlett

Sudan’s fragile peace is on the brink. Sudan’s civilians must come together to prevent the transition to democracy failing and the country falling back into authoritarian rule.

Old habits die hard in Sudan. A short cycle of democracy followed by authoritarian rule has now struck again, echoing the country’s history since independence. In 2019, Sudan’s civilian revolution opened the door to freedom and created hope that the country would transition to a brighter and more democratic future. Yet, after only twenty-two months of struggle in an unlikely civilian-military transitional arrangement, a coup has occurred which threatens to slam the door shut on civilian dreams.

Extremism Central

In many ways, this should come as no surprise. From 1956 until 2019, Sudan experienced only eleven years of democracy, with the rest of the time under authoritarian rule.

Yet, for much of that time the population also lived with something much more sinister. From 1983 to 2014, Sudan was dragged into an Islamist black hole that went on to affect the entire world. During this time, the National Congress Party (NCP) of former President Omar al-Bashir and the Popular Congress Party of the late Hassan al-Turabi, ensured that Sudan would become a welcome bolthole for extremists the world over.

Western educated, al-Turabi was well acquainted with how to seduce international governments with what they wanted to hear. At the same time however, he was also a proponent of Political Islam. Using the idea of a Civilizational Project (al mashruu al-hadari), he visualised a utopia for Islamists in Sudan, together with a global affiliate network for jihadists worldwide.

Al-Turabi’s vision soon got help from Osama bin Laden in 1991, when he left Afghanistan and found a welcome home in Sudan. From Bin Laden’s farm at Soba on the banks of the River Nile, al-Turabi and other sympathisers looked the other way while he built up al-Qaeda, until pressure from the US administration finally forced him back to Afghanistan in 1996.

But the damage was already done. By this point, he had supported Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and many others, with weapons, ideology, and financing. The 1998 East African Embassy bombings that killed and maimed thousands shortly followed suit.

Sudan’s Deep State

Failure to reign in these extremists meant Sudan was not only transformed into a haven for extremists, but also that the entire state was reshaped to further their goals. A deep state emerged that leveraged Sudan’s economy around two major goals: the creation of a security-intelligence state and an extractive economy that predated on the poor and marginalised people of the country. The role of Sudan’s military and paramilitary leaders was not only to support the government agenda, but to hold down 90 percent of the population who did not agree with it.

Holding down a large dissenting population is tricky business. Over this period, there were long-running wars in Darfur to the west, and long-running civil wars in the resource rich areas of Southern Sudan (today the Republic of South Sudan), Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile.

Counterinsurgency in these areas required a clear strategy. It was too expensive to fight everyone, so Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan of the Sudan Armed Forces rolled out a tried and tested policy of aktul al-Abid bil’ abid (kill the slave using the slave). Through this strategy, a predatory military-intelligence core emerged in Khartoum which directed inter-ethnic group violence at the periphery.

In the West, a new figure also emerged: Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagolo, the brutal leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). These forces took over in Darfur after questions were raised about the loyalty of the Janjawiid to the government. Taking his opportunity, Hemedti and his RSF soon became the tool of choice in killing civilians whenever the population tried to fight back.

A Parallel Economy

Over the years, Sudan’s formal economy has atrophied, while its parallel economy has grown. The deep state – which until 2019, comprised politicians, national intelligence officials, and the military – worked to grow an extensive network of companies in the aviation, transport, engineering, and petrochemical sectors which funnelled money directly into their own pockets.

Not to be outdone, the paramilitaries also got in on the action. When gold was found in Darfur at Jebel Amer in 2012, the RSF went into the business of goldmining. Income from this activity ran through the deep state company, al-Junaid, with gold revenue often bypassing central bank controls. The gold itself was shipped out of Sudan through the UAE.

Following the 2019 revolution, the NCP was disbanded and Sudan’s Islamists either went to jail or into hiding. For the military faction headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his rival paramilitary leader Hemedti, this provided unparalleled opportunities to seize the spoils of deep state companies and funnel huge amounts of revenue through entities such as the Military Industrial Corporation.

Over this time, the military has diversified its income streams. In addition to gold, they now have large stakes in the country’s wheat, fuel, banking, and telecommunications sectors, to name but a few. Income also comes from engaging the RSF to fight as mercenaries for Saudi Arabia in their war against the Houthis in Yemen.

Whither the Revolution?

When Sudan’s civilians took to the streets in 2019, they did so in the belief they could change Sudan. Unfortunately, the format of a half-civilian, half-military Sovereignty Council always meant that their actual chances of governing over the long term were slim.

For a start, the civilian government was grappling with massive debt and an international pariah status because Sudan remained on the State Sponsors of Terror list. On top of this, the international community didn’t trust half of the government, which made debt forgiveness and other forms of credit slow to materialise.

Like a fox watching the chickens, the military were always there, waiting and watching for their moment to pounce. Immensely rich from their illegal revenue streams, they could finance “rent a crowd” demonstrations against the civilian government, provide bread and other food items for those who followed them, and undermine the civilian government at every turn. Backed by the Egyptian government (whose army works on the same principle), the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, they are politically and militarily unassailable.

This situation is made worse by the infighting among the civilian population and former members of armed groups. Today, as the military’s grip tightens, the signatories of the Juba Peace Agreement are split over what to do. On the street, members of the resistance committees and other factions within the Forces for Freedom and Change also face off over the future of the country they are trying to save. These issues make progress difficult.

For the international community, the main hope is to come down hard on the revenue streams of the military and paramilitary leaders, because while they have money, there is no incentive for them to come to the table. Forensic accounting – particularly given Sudan’s history of extremism – should also be at the top of the list to ensure that illicit revenue stays out of the wrong hands.

Pressure must also remain on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. While the UAE and Saudi Arabia have made statements about peace, they still have a material stake in the military and what they provide to Gulf governments.

Sudan’s people are tired of coups and want their country back. Yet for this to happen, the civilians must come together and face up to a difficult task. This includes an understanding that change is hard and protest, on its own, is just not enough. In this respect, they must take action now. Either this, or they run the risk of falling back into the authoritarian dynamics of the past.

This article was originally published on 19 November 2021.

Anne L. Bartlett is Associate Professor of International Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at UNSW, Sydney. She has worked on Sudan and the wider region for more than two decades. Over this time, she researched armed insurgency in Darfur, population displacement and the effects of humanitarian intervention on the population. She was the chair of the United Nations hearing on the Darfur crisis, UN commission on Human Rights, 60th Session, Geneva, Switzerland, April 2004. She was President of the Sudan Studies Association from 2015-2017 and is currently President of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP). She is also Associate Editor of ARAS (The Australasian Review of African Studies).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.