One year after military takeover, Sudan faces chaos, violence and near economic meltdown

Differences among pro-democracy groups and military's insistence on staying in charge perpetuate crisis

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Sudanese grocer Mohammed Ibrahim complains that his regular clients are now buying only basic items such as beans, lentils, sugar and cooking oil.

Everything else, the 50-year-old father of four laments, is gathering dust on the shelves of his shop in the Qadissiyah district of Khartoum, Sudan's capital. And that’s merely one of his problems.

A year ago — shortly before military ruler Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan seized power in a military takeover on October 25 that upended Sudan’s democratic transition — the rent of Mr Ibrahim's shop was 20,000 pounds ($35).

It is now 80,000 pounds, he says.

“I am not doing enough business to cover the rent and the running expenses of my family," he tells The National. "I am thinking of giving up the store and starting a small neighbourhood eatery to make ends meet.

“All I care about is putting food on the table and for me and my family to be safe. Al Burhan must go. Our lives became something akin to a slow death since he took over.”

Twelve months on from the takeover, Mr Ibrahim’s economic hardship is only too common among the Afro-Arab country’s 44 million people.

Sudan is mired in chaos and violence, teetering on the brink of an economic meltdown and languishing in international isolation similar to that felt during dictator Omar Al Bashir’s three decades in power.

Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan led the Sudanese military in a coup on October 25 last year. Some people say their lives have since been 'something akin to a slow death'. AFP

That takeover ended a unique two-year partnership between the military and pro-democracy groups in a transitional government that took office soon after Mr Al Bashir was removed from power in April 2019, amid a wave of street protests against his 29-year rule.

The 2021 power grab sparked a wave of anti-military rallies that has drawn millions to the streets across the nation. The protests have been met with deadly violence by security forces acting at the behest of the generals. At least 117 have been killed and 6,000 injured.

The country then plunged into its worst economic crisis in living memory, a dire state brought about partially by the suspension of billions of dollars’ worth of western aid in response.

Citizens protesting against military rule on a barricaded street in central Khartoum. AFP

People leaving in droves

The chaos that followed has reignited deadly sectarian and tribal feuds in the nation’s western and southern regions, with hundreds killed and tens of thousands displaced.

Affecting millions of poor Sudanese, the takeover ended a programme funded by the EU that gave the most vulnerable a monthly stipend of $5 to help them cope with soaring prices.

“We have learnt to cope with the hardships we face in our daily life," said Sulaima Ishaq, a women rights’ campaigner who participated in the uprising against Al Bashir from December 2018 to April 2019.

"Most of us have no clue what the next day will bring. No one can look ahead, let alone plan ahead.

“You can see frustration on the face of everyone. People are leaving the country in droves, escaping economic hardship and seeking safety for their young ones. They are restarting their lives elsewhere.”

Daoud Abdul Aziz, a member of the pro-democracy Resistance Committees — a hardline rank-and-file movement — echoed Ms Ishaq’s sentiments.

“Al Burhan has virtually no support outside a circle of army loyalists,” he said. "He is in power courtesy of the firepower available to him. What future do we have with people like him in power? It’s not pessimism, but what future do we really have?”

Protesters construct a makeshift roadblock outside Aljawda Hospital in Khartoum. AFP

Now Sudan’s de facto head of state, Gen Al Burhan, insists seizing power was meant to correct the course of the revolution, spare the nation a civil war and restore the prestige and respect the armed forces deserve.

“They claimed the coup to be a corrective measure when in reality it was a historical conspiracy,” said Rehab Fadl Al Sayed, a pro-democracy activist and a political researcher. “They said they wanted to correct the course of the democratic transition, but ended up crushing the entire process along with the aspirations of the Sudanese people.”

Under mounting international pressure, the military in late summer said it was prepared to step aside and allow civilians to name a new prime minister and a head of state to replace Gen Al Burhan during the remainder of the transitional period and until elections are held.

However, Gen Al Burhan has since suggested the military would retain the final word on policy as the nation’s guardian and defender when civilians take the reins in the impoverished nation.

Army 'will not back down'

Traditional political parties, pro-democracy groups and rebel leaders who signed a peace deal with the military in 2020 are divided on the way ahead for Sudan, with the political role of the military the main bone of contention.

“Although the armed forces will not effectively participate in politics, it will continue to monitor the situation in a way that will prevent the country from slipping and will continue to realise the slogan ‘one people, one army',” Gen Al Burhan said this month.

“The armed forces will not back down or retreat from fulfilling its commitment to protect the country and its people."

A young protester runs for cover from teargas fired by security forces at a demonstration against military rule in Khartoum. AFP

It is not surprising that the military would insist on being the ultimate source of power in Sudan. Generals of all ideological stripes have ruled the nation for most of its 66 years since independence from Britain and Egypt, routinely deposing elected governments to take power.

The only exception is when the military removed from power one of its own — Jaafar Nimeiri — in 1985, but handed power to an elected government a year later.

However, hardline pro-democracy groups such as the Resistance Committees are adamant that the military takes itself completely out of politics and submits, along with the police and security services, to civilian oversight. The military categorically rejects civilian oversight.

Activists also want the generals to stand trial for the killing of protesters. Reforming the military and integrating all paramilitary and rebel forces in its ranks is another of their key demands.

To mark the anniversary of the military takeover, they are planning mass anti-military rallies in Khartoum and other major cities on Friday and next Tuesday.

“Escalating popular struggle against the military is the most realistic choice available,” said Abdul Nasser Ali, a political science lecturer at Khartoum’s Al Zaeem Al Azhari University. “The political forces must close ranks and overthrow the regime.

“But the present time is not suitable for a political resolution.”

A Sudanese anti-coup protester flashes the victory sign. AFP

A multitude of proposals to unlock the political crisis have surfaced in recent months, including blueprints by tribal groups, Sufi orders, political parties, professional unions and pro-democracy groups. A UN-backed dialogue between all the stakeholders collapsed this year when pro-democracy groups boycotted the process, saying they would not deal directly with the generals.

Differences among civilian groups have also meant no serious attempt has been made to reach an inclusive agreement on Sudan’s democratic transition.

Compounding the impasse, signs of cracks within the military establishment have begun to surface.

Ominously, Gen Al Burhan and his military associates have found a semblance of a power base in extremists who once supported Mr Al Bashir, allowing their reinstatement in key government and media jobs from which they had been fired, unfreezing their assets and giving them the freedom to be politically active again.

They have also suspended the work of a post-Al Bashir commission mandated to dismantle his legacy. The military also arrested members of the agency and sought their prosecution on drummed up corruption charges.

Breaking with the narrative embraced by Gen Al Burhan and other army generals, the powerful commander of a paramilitary force stated his disillusionment with the result of last year’s military takeover.

“Eleven months after the change, we have no government and made no progress,” Gen Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo of the Rapid Support Forces told a religious ceremony on Wednesday, echoing comments he made in a BBC interview that the takeover had failed to realise its goals.

Updated: October 20, 2022, 11:18 AM
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