On October 25 a military-sponsored coup d’état deprived of its power the civilian component of the Sovereign Transitional Council, putting an end to the political experiment started only two years ago following the fall of Omar al-Bashir’s regime.
The tensions that for days had characterized relations between the military and civilian wings of the government, after months of growing differences, along with an attempted coup by some rebel units of the army and the blockade of Port Sudan, had suggested in recent days that the political tension had now reached alarming levels.
It was the same General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of the Sovereign Council of Transition, to announce the action of the armed forces, citing serious political and economic reasons that required the adoption of a technical government capable of leading the country toward the elections scheduled for 2023.
The Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok refused to support the coup d’état and was therefore placed under house arrest, as were numerous civilian government ministers, while the Khartoum airport was closed and the capacity of the internet network drastically reduced. The Minister of Industry Ibrahim al Sheikh, the Minister of Information Hamza Balou, the advisor for communication and press of the Prime Minister Faisal Mohammed Saleh, the spokesman of the Sovereign Council of Transition Mohammed al Fiky Suliman and the Governor of Khartoum Ayman Khalaid have also been arrested.
Finally, many television and radio stations in the country suspended broadcasting, while the Ministry of Information was occupied by the military and the minister arrested, after inciting the Sudanese to take to the streets and protest against the conduct of the armed forces.
Numerous public demonstrations have been organized spontaneously, especially in the capital, where barricades have been erected and fires set, while the Army is said to have opened fire on several occasions causing the death of at least 7 civilians and the wounding of about 150.
The roots of the coup
The October 25 coup is rooted in the continuing political difficulties that arose in the aftermath of the fall of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who was dismissed by the armed forces in April 2019.
At that time, the army leadership understood how the continuity of al-Bashir’s regime appeared unsustainable, even though they wanted to defend their own prerogatives and those of the many militias set up by the former dictator above all to support the genocidal policy against the Zaghawa, Fur, Masalit tribes and other ethnically African communities, especially in the Darfur region.
In addition, the country’s serious economic crisis caused by sanctions and international isolation demanded the adoption of immediate solutions and visible political change. The opportunity emerged in early 2019, when, driven by the economic crisis, thousands of Sudanese poured into the streets demanding reforms and an end to Omar al-Bashir’s regime.
The armed forces then seized the opportunity, dismissing the former dictator and bringing about a three-year political turnaround led by a mixed civilian-military government that, through a constitutional agreement, was supposed to guide the country towards free elections to choose an entirely civilian-led government by 2023.
The political turnaround, appreciated by the international community and above all by the United States, sealed by the constitution of the Sovereign Council of Transition and then by the recognition of Israel, allowed Sudan to be removed from international terrorism lists, to unblock programs for the cancellation of public debt and to start procedures for the disbursement of financing by the International Monetary Fund.
From the outset, however, it was clear that the coexistence of civilian and military components within the Sovereign Council of Transition would be problematic, above all due to the insistent request by the civilian authorities to disband the paramilitary militias and absorb them into the armed forces.
On the contrary, the latter, expression in most cases of the previous regime and of the Islamist inspired forces, have systematically resisted the possibility of integration in the Sudanese army, in order to defend the substantial economic and political interests related to their independence.
Particularly ambiguous in the same phase was the behaviour of the regular armed forces, which on the one hand constantly reassured the civilian authorities of the imminence of the process of dissolution and absorption of the militias, while on the other hand never really started it, in order not to alter the delicate balance of political, economic and military power with the forces closest to the former regime of al-Bashir.
Although dismissed from power and under arrest, he continued to exert influence on large segments of the security apparatus and political Islamist groups, managing to weave an intricate web of relations that he then systematically used to his own advantage.
The acceptance by the Sovereign Council of Transition of the request for the extradition of the former dictator to be tried before the International Criminal Court of Justice, however, has altered the fragile political balance in Sudan, leading to the acceleration of that process of crisis which then led to the fracture between the civilian and military units of the government.
Who rules Sudan?
General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in announcing the seizure of power by the military and the arrest of some leading figures in the civilian government, has reiterated the commitment of the authorities to respect the electoral timetable aimed at organizing free elections by 2023.
However, the Sovereign Council of Transition has been dissolved, and the state of emergency proclaimed, leaving little hope for an effective democratic evolution in Sudan.
With the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and many of his ministers, and the simultaneous dissolution of the Council, therefore, the exercise of political power officially passes into the sole hands of the military leadership of the Sudanese armed forces.
At the top of the military structure sits General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who ideally represents the face of this political shift and who has formally assumed the political leadership powers associated with this transitional phase.
The military structure of Sudan, however, is complex, articulated and quite heterogeneous in the composition of interests, making a simple hierarchical analysis of the prerogatives of the chain of command ineffective.
In particular, the relations between the regular armed forces and the various independent militias, created by former dictator Omar al-Bashir as an instrument for the repression of ethnic African communities in the south of the country, is very complex. The military capacity of some of the militias and their independence, in fact, is viewed with increasing suspicion by the armed forces themselves, which, however, do not have the necessary capacity to integrate them into their own system and bring them back into the traditional Sudanese military chain of command. For this reason, therefore, despite being bearers of different interests, the armed forces and the militias maintain a collaborative structure according to the mutual benefit derived from it.
The relationship with the civilian authorities of the Sovereign Council of Transition has instead always been problematic, but it has been respected until today in the terms of the constitutional agreement as it guaranteed social stability and the legitimacy of the role of the armed forces.
The continuous request for the dissolution of the militias and the stubborn attempt of the governing civilian formations to assume a prominent role in the management of politics, however, has progressively altered the ability to survive the difficult balance between the two different governing entities.
Particularly evident, even today, is the weight of the Islamist political formations and their support for former dictator Omar al-Bashir, who, although under arrest, continues to exert a certain degree of influence on some departments of the armed forces and on some political components. Not a predominant role, at least at present, but certainly capable of generating the necessary consensus to bring about significant political changes, such as the last coup d’état.
What has favoured the consolidation of the armed forces and militias in this most recent phase, therefore, has been the common perception of a threat related to the attempted emancipation and supremacy by the civilian components of the Sovereign Transitional Council, with a view to further strengthening through legitimacy arising from the 2023 vote.
Although publicly reiterating their intention to support the transition to a civilian state and free elections, therefore, the armed forces assert that the 2019 agreement on the transitional government has led to a crisis capable of undermining Sudan’s stability, requiring the intervention of the army to ensure collective security.
As much as General al-Burhan appears to be the top element of the military system, however, there are several components within the security apparatus that exercise an autonomous and non-subordinate role. Among these certainly stand out the Janjaweed militias, commanded by General Mohamed “Hemeti” Dagalo, a sinister character of the war in Darfur, which today emerge in the confused post-Golpe climate in Sudan showing their full role in the fall of the Sovereign Council of Transition.