Coronavirus: Sudan begins three-week lockdown to contain outbreak

Country’s fight against virus coincides with renewed tension between military, civilians in government

Sudanese medical laboratory students prepare sterilisers to combat the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, on April 14, 2020 in Khartoum. / AFP / ASHRAF SHAZLY

Sudan this week began a three-week lockdown to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus, as the government’s military and civilian allies muddled through the latest test of the Afro-Arab nation’s increasingly bumpy transition from authoritarianism to democratic rule.

Authorities announced 10 coronavirus-related deaths and 44 infections, numbers they feared could spiral beyond control if drastic preventive measures were not taken.

The government had earlier shut down air travel and land borders, as well universities and schools. Mosques have also been closed, a tough measure in the vast and conservative country where an ostensibly Islamist regime ruled for nearly 30 years until April last year.

The country’s main fear is that its health care system, one of the sectors hardest hit by corruption and neglect in decades of authoritarian rule, would be likely to collapse if overwhelmed by patients of Covid-19, the deadly disease caused by the coronavirus.

The lockdown, which began on Saturday, followed rumours that a military coup was imminent. Those rumours won traction because supporters of Omar Al Bashir, the Sudanese leader removed by his military a year ago, have over the past week been emboldened, organising anti-government protests in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The firing on Thursday of the city’s military governor, Gen Ahmed Abdoun Hamad, by civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok added fuel to those rumours.

They were intensified by speculation that a coup would be partially helped by the coronavirus outbreak since it would prevent pro-democracy activists from mobilising a sizeable number of protesters to oppose such a coup.

The dismissal of the Khartoum governor was over his refusal to close mosques in the city as part of the fight against the coronavirus. His refusal to leave his post tested the often tense relations between the military and its civilian partners in the transitional government formed under a power-sharing agreement reached last August.

On Saturday, Information Minister Faisal Mohammed Salih denied the rumours. The military, for its part, issued a statement warning against what it called plots to sow divisions in the country as it prepared to shift to democratic rule after elections at the end of the transitional period in 2022.

“We will not allow anything that undermines the gains of the Sudanese people or their will and we call upon them not to pay attention to rumours,” said the military.

Mr Salih acknowledged the tension between the government’s civilian and military wings. They held “a very tough series of meetings” in which participants included Mr Hamdok, military representatives and leaders from the Forces for Freedom and Change, the opposition coalition that led months of street protests against Mr Al Bashir in the run-up to his removal by the military a year ago.

He said they agreed that civilians would replace all provincial military governors within the next week and that a transitional parliament would be appointed by the start of next month. Mr Salih said the Khartoum state governor had been replaced by a civilian, and the 17 other provincial heads will be changed in the next few days.

The posts will be temporary until final peace deals are reached between Sudan’s government and a patchwork of rebel groups. Months of peace negotiations between the government and rebels in the west and south of the country have made little headway.

Sudan has, since independence in 1956, shifted on at least half dozen occasions between democratic rule and authoritarian leaders hailing from the military. In those 64 years there have been numerous military coups, some of which failed or were violently crushed. There have been at least two military coup attempts since Mr Al Bashir was removed.

The country’s post-independence era, moreover, has been defined by ruinous civil wars that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, as well as outbreaks of famine and acute economic crises.