Everyone is nervous: the potential fallout of Sudan’s unrest

Sudan has witnessed a turbulent month filled with growing civilian-military tensions that could have a global ripple effect

A person wearing a Sudan's flag stand in front of a burning pile of tyres during a protest against the prospect of military rule in Khartoum earlier this week. Reuters
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For a month, Sudan has left global powers and regional heavyweights with frayed nerves. The army and civilian politicians in such a pivotal country have been on war footing. Both sides have traded barbs publicly and blamed each other for their country’s difficulties.

The relationship between these unlikely bedfellows has been fractious and marred by mistrust since the removal of Omar Al Bashir in April 2019. But last month’s failed coup against the civilian-led administration responsible for transitioning the country to democracy after 30 years of dictatorship and kleptocracy was a turning point.

Civilian politicians and locals told me when I was in Khartoum at the time that it was just a ruse orchestrated by some army generals to strengthen their hand, more than two years after a power-sharing deal was inked following mass protests that led to the ouster of Al Bashir.

They believe that mistrust between the two sides of Sudan's government will be near-impossible to bridge in a country that has witnessed repeated military takeovers and failed attempts since its independence in 1956.

The simmering tensions, tit-for-tat accusations and growing public protests (as well as indifference) are very likely to have encouraged the army to put Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdouk under house arrest and detain a number of his colleagues.

The army also has its own narrative of the crisis. Its leader, Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, has said repeatedly the military would always protect the revolution and has admitted that the army needs to purge its ranks of Al Bashir loyalists.

An adviser to Gen Al Burhan told me last month, however, the civilian alliance spearheaded by the Forces of Freedom and Change, the umbrella group that championed the months-long mass protests against Al Bashir, is split, with one splinter faction having broken from Mr Hamdouk and his allies.

Last week, thousands of pro-military demonstrators also gathered in front of the presidential palace in Khartoum, chanting “down with the government of hunger”.

These tensions are a source of considerable anxiety for everyone. The country already grapples with a wide array of national security problems. It has a border dispute with its eastern neighbour Ethiopia, which is also building a dam on the Nile that has sparked a regional diplomatic crisis.

If Sudan begins to unravel, it risks leaving a vacuum for extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda, which has used the country as a base before. Sudan’s proximity to the Horn of Africa, where Al Qaeda-allied terrorist group Al Shabab is powerful, is also cause for concern.

Unrest in Sudan also threatens to raise the spectre of an influx of refugees to regional transit points, such as neighbouring Egypt and Libya, and, eventually, Europe.

This week, US envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman visited Khartoum for the second time in less than a month to voice the White House’s commitment to support the civilian-led transition to democracy in Sudan. His sense of urgency is understandable; many fear that just one spark could trigger a full-blown internecine conflict, with consequences that would likely extend far beyond Sudan’s borders.

Published: October 25, 2021, 7:43 AM