‘They lied.’ Inside the frenzied days leading up to the coup in Sudan
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NAIROBI, Kenya – For days, the U.S. envoy navigated between the Sudanese army chief and the prime minister, working to avoid the collapse of a fragile democratic transition in the country that had been in the making for ever. two years.
In a series of frenzied meetings in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum over the weekend, Jeffrey Feltman, the US envoy to the Horn of Africa, sought to narrow the differences between army chief Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who had shared power since the 2019 ousting of longtime autocrat Omar Hassan al-Bashir.
In a final meeting late Sunday afternoon, General al-Burhan assured Mr. Feltman that he would do nothing to undermine the country’s transition to democracy. With this apparent commitment in hand, the American diplomat wrapped things up and took a flight to Qatar where, upon landing, his phone turned on: a coup was underway in Sudan.
“They lied to him,” said Nureldin Satti, Sudan’s ambassador to the United States, referring to his country’s military leadership. “This is very serious, because when you lie in the United States, you have to pay the consequences.”
No factor appeared to prompt General al-Burhan to end Sudan’s democratic transition. It is also not certain that his coup will succeed, given the mass protests called this Saturday.
In a series of interviews with analysts and numerous American, Sudanese and European officials, the image of an army that has become frustrated with its civilian partners and determined to maintain its privileged position and avoid any investigation into its affairs or violations human rights has emerged. during the three decades of Mr. al-Bashir’s rule.
Some also criticized the civil opposition for failing to allay fears of prosecution by the generals while the transition to democracy was still underway, while a US official said Russia had encouraged the coup. in the hope of obtaining commercial advantages and a port on the Red Sea.
Sudanese civilian leaders had lived in fear of a military coup for at least 18 months. Last weekend, as pro-military protesters camped outside the presidential palace and a pro-military ethnic group closed the country’s main seaport, it seemed imminent.
At around noon on Monday, General al-Burhan announced the dissolution of the country’s governing bodies, arrested the prime minister, blocked the internet and announced a nationwide state of emergency. He also dissolved the management committees of the country’s unions, while his security forces arrested senior civilian leaders, at least one of whom was badly beaten, according to Western officials who requested anonymity in connection with the report. ‘normal diplomatic practice.
His measures plunged the nation into a wave of deadly protests and work stoppages, and drew condemnation from regional and world leaders who insisted on the need to return to civilian leadership. But none of this seemed to soften the resolve of General al-Burhan and his accomplices.
“We are back to square one,” said Sudanese researcher and analyst Dr Jihad Mashamoun. “General al-Burhan has once again sealed the army’s dominance in Sudanese affairs, and the people will come out to face him.
Little known until 2019, General al-Burhan, 61, came to power in the tumultuous aftermath of the military coup that toppled Mr. al-Bashir. Then inspector general of the armed forces, he played a role in sending Sudanese troops, including children, to fight in the civil war in Yemen. He had also served as the commander of the regional army in Darfur, when 300,000 people were killed and millions more displaced in the fighting between 2003 and 2008.
A close associate of Mr al-Bashir, the general firmly believed that the military was the country’s most important institution, equivalent to the state itself, said Cameron Hudson, a non-resident senior researcher at the Center for Africa of the Atlantic Council.
Propelled into the public eye following a popular uprising against the strongman, he has proven to be a reluctant leader, unaccustomed to the international scene. Under the long decades of isolation and international sanctions under Mr. al-Bashir, his sphere of travel had been limited to a handful of countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
In contrast, Prime Minister Hamdok, 65, an economist by training, had spent much of his career working in international financial institutions and consulting firms.
The two leaders remained friendly at first, with Mr. Hamdok’s government overseeing a series of reforms that succeeded in removing Sudan from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, outlawing female circumcision and abolishing laws on it. ‘apostasy. He also signed a peace agreement with rebel groups.
But their relationship quickly deteriorated over the issue of how to better run the country and the economy. These differences worsened after an attempted coup in September.
Tensions have grown further in recent months, as pro-democracy groups have stepped up calls for the military to hand over power to civilians and for the transitional government to investigate human rights violations and corruption under Mr. . al-Bashir. The military has hesitated, analysts and officials said, fearing that any measure of accountability would expose their personal, financial and factional interests.
“It’s all a tactical retreat,” said Mr. Hudson, saying the generals signed the power-sharing agreement in 2019 in order to relieve pressure on the military, not because they really believed in it. “The only course of action in all of this is the survival of the army.”
“The two generals have very close relations from Darfur and have everything to fear if Mr. al-Bashir is brought before the ICC,” said Mr. Mashamoun. “They would like to see some sort of immunity.”
The armed forces and intelligence services have also resisted efforts to harness their vast financial power.
Together, they control hundreds of state-owned enterprises specializing in the production and sale of minerals, including gold, imports and exports of livestock, building materials and pharmaceuticals. Corrupted, companies rarely contribute their profits to the national budget, said Suliman Baldo, senior advisor to The Sentry, a Washington-based group that seeks to expose corruption in Africa.
General al-Burhan also heads the board of directors of Defense Industrial Systems, one of the military’s largest companies. “He doubles as a corporate baron while he is also the general commander of the army and now the de facto head of state,” Baldo said.
But civilian leaders in the transitional government bear part of the blame for the breakdown in relations, said Satti, the Sudanese ambassador, who the military said on Thursday had sacked along with other ambassadors who had publicly condemned the coup. of state. Mr Satti insisted he was still in office.
“There is a standoff and a mutual provocation between the two parties,” he said. He added that some civilians did not understand the importance of alleviating the fears of the military.
With rising inflation and a shortage of commodities, Hamdok also faced great pressure. A technocrat by training and temperament, he lacked the political skills to manage tensions, Satti said.
There were “too many players, a lot of disagreement and not the right context to understand the demands of the moment,” he said. “And he pushed too hard, too fast.”
Analysts said General al-Burhan would not have undertaken the coup without at least the tacit approval of powerful allies in the Middle East. Two of them, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, have yet to criticize the coup, while Saudi Arabia has condemned it, the US State Department said in a statement.
General al-Burhan has defended the coup as necessary to avert a “civil war” and vowed to hand over power after the 2023 elections. It is a timeline that many young Sudanese say they are not okay, a point they plan to make during the protests on Saturday. .
“It will be a showdown,” Mashamoun said.
Abdi Latif Dahir reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Declan Walsh from Washington. Simon Marks contributed reporting from Brussels.
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