On 25 October 2021, General Abdel Fattak al-Burhan of the Sudanese military became the de facto head of state after arresting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The takeover comes nearly a month after an assassination attempt by members of the military of the Prime Minister, and almost 2 years and six months after the long-standing Prime Minister Omar al-Bashir was deposed after ruling Sudan for 30 years.
Announcements by Burhan
Burhan held a press conference shortly after the takeover. In the press conference, Burhan insisted that the military was holding Hamdok for his safety. He said that the military was still committed to the peaceful transition to democracy, but, recently, the political climate of Sudan had grown increasingly unstable. He insisted that there was no choice but to take direct control of the state. He plans to declare an emergency and for the military to retain power until elections can be held in July 2023. Until then, a government of technocrats would administer the government until elections are held. He accused politicians of inciting the population against the military and denied accusations of this takeover being a coup d’etat, and that his administration is still committed to the peaceful transition to democracy.
Through mass demonstration, Omar Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years, was deposed and a transitional government was put in power. The Transitional government was to oversee the establishment of a civilian government over a 5 year period when elections would be held. The Transitional government faced a crisis during the COVID pandemic, owing to rising food and fuel prices.
September Coup attempt
On 21 September 2021, 40 officers were arrested for planning to overthrow the government already. Hamdok accused many officers loyal to Omar Al-Bashir of preventing Sudan’s transition to democracy. The coup attempt highlighted that there were many factions in the army and that peace was at risk if these factions could not be reined in under a civilian head.
Weeks after the coup attempt, many pro-military protests broke out in Khartoum. The protesters were able to enter the Presidential palace with no resistance from the police. They called for Burhan to take over the government.
Hemetti: An important faction
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, or Hemetti, is the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF was a paramilitary unit that was hired by the Sudanese government during the Darfur war, operating in western Sudan. They currently act under the intelligence wing of the government and have relative autonomy.
After the 2019 deposal of Omar al-Bashir, the future of the RSF has been unclear. Hemetti is currently part of the Transitional Government but is forbidden from taking part in the elections in the transition. The RSF, and particularly Hemetti, has also been accused of war crimes in Sudan. Hemetti has also openly accused politicians of stoking hatred against the RSF.
This has led many international speculators to ask what the role the RSF had in the overthrow. The RSF and Burhan’s Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have had a tense relationship, but the establishment of a civilian government might threaten them both. Both the SAF and the RSF have been accused of war crimes against civilians by the Transitional Government, most notably the Khartoum massacre during the Darfur War under Omar Al-Bashir. There also appears to be a concern that a civilian government may decide to look back at the crimes of the earlier regime with adequate amnesty for the military. They may hope to develop some sort of influence on Hamdok, or in some other way gain stronger influence during the transition to a civilian government.
Who the International sides with
There is a tightrope between the different factions of the Sudanese military. Burhan has had close ties with Egypt, while Hemetti is close with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Ethiopia, UAE and Saudi Arabia all have economic and strategic interests in Sudan. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have opposed the takeover, siding with the United States, while Egypt and Ethiopia have remained neutral, considering it an internal issue in Sudan. China has invested a large amount in Sudan, as it holds a strategic position in its Belt and Road initiative. China is interested in a stable government in Sudan and has agreed to recognize the de facto head of state.
After China and Saudi Arabia, India is the third-largest trading partner with Sudan and has historically remained neutral concerning regime changes. India has provided peace-keeping troops through the internal conflicts of Sudan and was one of the first countries to recognize the succession of South Sudan from Sudan. Like China, India’s neutrality is strategic and economic to allow India to maintain good relations across different regimes in Sudan.
The takeover comes months after a huge change in Sudan’s relationship with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In July 2021, the IMF agreed to withdraw $50, bn of its nearly $57 bn debt from Sudan, bringing back the amount of debt to the levels of the 1970s, before Omar Al-Bashir was in power. The $57 bn debt made Sudan ineligible for future loans, and the debt forgiveness makes Sudan eligible for debt with strings once again. The IMF hopes to provide credit to Sudan soon in the form of development aid to recapture Sudan in debt under the new government in time. Since the IMF withdrew its extremely onerous debts on Sudan earlier this year, meaning that the West’s influence over the region was weakened. The IMF has recently suspended any loans or aid to give while the military is in charge, but there have been plans to entangle Sudan into the debt trap.
The Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change (FDFC), an umbrella group of the various protesting factions has been leading protests against the military takeover.
Burhan has close ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, while Hemetti is considered to have closer ties with officials in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia—all countries with vested interests in Sudan. Two U.S. officials said they expect the State Department to closely engage with those regional powers in response to Burhan’s seizure of power. Contrary to press reports, Western powers, such as the United States, the World
The Forces for the Declaration of Freedom and Change, or FDFC, the main protest umbrella group, has been stepping up calls for the military to hand leadership over to civilians in the government. The FDFC is made up of various anti-al-Bashir political parties, professional movements and rebel groups.
The author is a mathematician based in Bangalore. Views are personal.