When Sudan ousted long-serving president Omar al-Bashir in April, it was hailed around the world as a new Arab Spring. At first, like so many of the 2010s’ uprisings in Africa and the Middle East, it produced only a new autocracy. A power-sharing agreement between the military junta and pro-democracy forces has offered hope for a better outcome, though many in Sudan are skeptical about whether it will pan out.
Sudan’s ruling military council, backed by paramilitary forces descended from the feared Janjaweed, spent the first few months of the post-al-Bashir era cracking down on democratic opposition. Protests were met with violent and sometimes deadly reprisals, and a government ban on internet access stifled dissent and stalled the economy. On July 17, the two sides signed an accord to govern together for more than three years before holding elections. The pro-democracy movement hailed the deal as a victory, but now they have difficult tasks ahead in making sure civilian rule eventually returns.
This is only the latest chapter in decades of uprisings, turmoil and economic crisis that Sudan has faced since independence in 1956, and since South Sudan’s secession in 2011. A historical overview of Sudan’s history can provide context for the present-day upheavals. Here’s a primer.
At a glance
- Capital: Khartoum
- Population: 40 million
- Independence date: 1956 (from Britain and Egypt)
- Languages: English, Arabic
- Religions: Majority Muslim, some Christian and indigenous religions
Omar al-Bashir: He ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years after seizing power in a 1989 military coup. At the time, Sudan was in the midst of a civil war between the north and south. Despite an international warrant for his arrest, Mr. al-Bashir was re-elected multiple times. On April 11 this year, the military announced that he had been ousted and would step down.
Opposition groups: Sudan’s pro-democracy movement is mainly made up of young voices, with women at the forefront. Alliance for Freedom and Change is an umbrella group that has been in talks with the government. Chief among the alliance’s members is the Sudanese Professionals Association, a labour movement that has been behind many of the strikes and rallies. The People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) is a banned political group that founded the Sudan Revolutionary Front in the 2000s. Sudan’s veteran opposition leader Sadiq al-Mahdi was overthrown in 1989 by Islamists, and is calling for an independent probe into the violent attacks by the current military regime.
Military council: The military forces that overthrew Mr. al-Bashir organized themselves into the Transitional Military Council. The TMC had agreed with protesters to transition to civilian rule, but later scrapped all agreements. The de facto head of state is Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, Mr. al-Bashir’s former army chief of staff, but the real decision-maker appears to be his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.
Paramilitary groups: Supporting the TMC are the Rapid Support Forces, a militia that evolved in part out of the Janjaweed forces formed in the 2000s to suppress the Darfur insurgency.
Joint sovereign council: On July 5, the opposition and TMC announced a power-sharing agreement that will create an 11-member temporary governing body: Five military officials, five civilians chosen by the protesters and one civilian chosen by both sides. A military general will head the council for 21 months, and then a civilian for 18 months. The goal is to have free elections by 2022, at which point the military would stand down.
How things started
Protests had started to flare in December, 2018, as sharp rises in food and fuel prices left the country’s economy on the verge of collapse. In February, Mr. al-Bashir called a state of emergency. He then said he would not run for re-election at the end of his term, but that didn’t deter further strikes and sit-ins.
When Mr. al-Bashir stepped down, the military seized what was meant to be temporary control. Instead of engaging with the demands of protesters, it responded with violence. It also said it could hold an election in six months, whereas the protesters were asking for years to organize a healthy multi-party system. Protesters pushed back against the government, whose forces raided a protest camp on June 3 and killed dozens of people. Talks and more protests continued until the two sides finally worked out a power-sharing agreement, which they officially signed on July 17.
Will the power-sharing deal hold?
The pro-democracy movement’s leadership hailed the July power-sharing agreement as a victory, but it also involves a significant concession on their part: Allowing the joint sovereign council to be led by a military official, at least initially, instead of the immediate civilian rule the protesters had sought. Those 21 months will be a crucial test of whether the military’s commitment to peace is genuine, or if more crackdowns will continue.
Sarah Mouawia, a 20-year-old demonstrator imprisoned by the Sudanese secret police for her activism, told The Globe she suspected the deal was a ruse to buy time. She promised the protesters would not back down:
We can’t be broken. The revolution will overcome, no matter how long it takes. I believe in this, more than ever.
Where the world stands
African Union: The AU, based in Sudan’s neighbour Ethiopia, wants Sudan to lead its own transition to democracy. It suspended Sudan’s membership in the union and has warned of further action if civilian rule is not restored.
Saudi Arabia and its allies: Saudi Arabia, a major regional power and U.S. ally, lies just across the Red Sea from Sudan. Its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been trying to expand Riyadh’s influence by backing authoritarian regimes across Africa and the Middle East. The Crown Prince has been a patron of the Sudanese junta’s leaders since they and the Rapid Support Forces helped suppress an insurgency against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. After the coup, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates also pledged US$3-billion in aid to Sudan, though open support for the TMC has been controversial among Riyadh’s Western allies.
The U.S: U.S. policy toward Sudan was in upheaval when Barack Obama’s administration gave way to Donald Trump’s. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. had placed Sudan under trade and economic sanctions to press it to increase efforts to combat terrorism, but Mr. Obama began to lift those sanctions before he left office. Mr. Trump’s plans for Sudan have been vague and it is unclear if he will make any big moves. In June, Mr. Trump assigned former U.S. diplomat Donald Booth as a Sudan adviser to help craft U.S. policy.
Canada: The Trudeau government has decried the Sudanese regime’s violence against protesters and called for a peaceful transition to democracy.
Amnesty International and the UN: Amnesty International has recorded serious crimes by the RSF in the past, such as unlawful killing and sexual violence. Some Sudanese are protected by UN and AU peacekeepers, who are facing pressure to give their territory to RSF.
Canadian companies’ questionable role
Dickens & Madson (Canada) Inc.
To polish its reputation overseas, the Sudanese junta is getting help from an unlikely source: A Quebec lobbying firm, Dickens & Madson (Canada) Inc. It signed a US$6-million deal to get diplomatic recognition for Gen. Hamdan and seek government funds for him. The deal also involved “striving to obtain funding and equipment for the Sudanese military,” which could break sanctions on arms dealing with Sudan. Amnesty International called the deal “deeply disturbing” and is calling on the federal government to investigate the contract closely. Canada has asked the RCMP to investigate.
The TMC, which rarely gives interviews, has offered no insight about what they believed the deal entailed. But the firm’s president, Ari Ben-Menashe, insists his firm did not break the law and he only intended to help the transition to civilian rule in Sudan. He also says the TMC asked for its money back when he criticized their violent handling of the June 3 protests. He’s also described arguments between him, Gen. Hamdan and the general’s entourage that suggest divisions within the junta between hard-liners and moderates willing to share power with the protesters.
Sudan’s military rulers have another Canadian-owned company, Streit Group, to thank for the Cougar armoured personnel carriers that patrol Khartoum’s streets, The Globe first reported in July. But while company owner Guerman Goutorov is a Canadian citizen, his factory is based in the United Arab Emirates, putting the vehicles beyond the reach of Canadian rules that embargo arms sales to Sudan. With new Canadian arms-brokering regulations coming this fall, Streit’s role in Sudan has rekindled debate about what if anything countries like Canada can do to regulate companies supplying military equipment to repressive governments.
The Globe in Khartoum
Commentary and analysis
Compiled by Sierra Bein
Associated Press and Reuters, with reports from Geoffrey York
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