Our last cover story (June 2019) asked ‘What are the limits of people power?’ in reference to the massive series of protests in Sudan that led to the ouster of Omar al-Bashir and the opening of talks between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the leaders of the protest movement.
At that stage, it seemed that reason had prevailed and that the military which has ruled Sudan for well nigh five decades (with intermittent civilian governments) had finally realised that the era of government through the barrel of a gun had been overtaken by history and was willing to relinquish power, rightly, to a civilian democratic system. By so doing, it would keep in step with political developments in the rest of Africa where civilian governments – for better or worse – are in charge of their nations.
The point of discussion in our Cover Story was to ask whether a mass protest mobilised against a perceived common enemy could transform itself into a structured organisation capable of governing a nation as vast as Sudan, while maintaining law and order as it worked towards meeting the aspirations of the nation.
We did this keeping in mind the salutatory lessons of the largely failed Arab Spring uprisings, where similar mass protests had either been strangled soon after birth, as in the case of Egypt, or had descended into utter chaos, as in the case of Libya. Tunisia and Algeria on the other hand, have shown that people power could indeed force change although the transition would be fraught and often uncomfortable.
History indicates that similar popular uprisings have had to undergo often severe birth-pangs before the new entity, conceived through overwhelming public desire, could complete the transition and emerge as a young but henceforth robust new system, in which the wishes and needs of the majority prevailed over the interests of a powerful elite.
The French, Russian, American, Chinese, Cuban, and in more recent times, Eastern European revolutions are some examples of these seismic and often violent alterations of the course of history.
However, our June issue had hardly hit the stands when news arrived that progress in Sudan had taken a sudden reversal. Army units believed to be made up largely of the dreaded Rapid Support Forces (RSF) had opened fire on protesters gathered near the army headquarters in Khartoum and killed several people.
The forces, under the command of the ominous figure of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as ‘Hemedti’, then proceeded to go on the rampage, shooting, stabbing and beating people indiscriminately. Hemedti had earlier made a name for himself as utterly ruthless when he led the terrifying Janjaweed on their blood- and fire-soaked campaign in Darfur.
It is significant that days after Bashir was deposed, Saudi Arabia and the UAE provided a $3bn aid package to the TMC, including a $500m cash injection to the Central Bank in a bid to stop the Sudanese pound from crashing.
Saudi, the UAE and Egypt have been the strongest supporters of the military in the current conflict.
Right: Hemedti (c), deputy leader of the ruling military council and commander of the Rapid Support Forces, waves a baton at crowds of supporters as he rides in a vehicle in Qarri, not far from Khartoum, in mid-June
Hemedti himself met the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. Observers believe this meeting encouraged Hemedti to order the crackdown on the protesters – perhaps against the wishes of the rest of the TMC. Hemedti steps in The brutality of the crackdown, which amounted to a massacre of innocent and unarmed civilians, including harrowing eye-witness reports of soldiers openly raping women, was meant to send a clear message to the citizens that Hemedti was in charge and would not hesitate to kill and torture anyone who stood in his way.
People who know him say he is “extremely ambitious” and that he has made no secret of his wish to become President. For someone who hails from a family of camel traders originally from Chad and who dropped out of primary school, this would indeed be an extraordinary achievement.
Hemedti was formerly actually more of a warlord, leading the Janjaweed militia in their scorched earth campaign in Darfur on behalf of Bashir’s army, and it was only in 2013 that this militia was reorganised into the Rapid Support Forces in an attempt to curb some of its more extreme excesses.
As such, Hemedti was seen as an outsider within Sudan’s military establishment and given his lack of education, as not on a par with the army top command. But his RSF proved a useful tool as an ruthless enforcer for Bashir. Hemedti has also supplied ground forces to the Saudi-led coalition in its brutal war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are some of the only very few remaining absolute monarchies in the world – all the others have lost their crowns, either through coups or popular revolutions. This in part explains the Saudi and UAE anathema for Iran and Libya, both of which deposed their monarchical leaders. Their abiding fear is that any uprising against a monarchy that succeeds will fuel republican sentiments in their own countries – where the population is kept strictly under the thumb.
This overt interference from outside forces is seen as the key in the about-turn of the military and the change in stance from one of dialogue with the representatives of the people to one of confrontation. Internet blackout The crackdown was immediately followed by an internet blackout to prevent stories, experiences and images from Sudan reaching the outside world. It was also designed to shut down communication among the people and the organisers of the protests, who have used social media to coordinate their defiance.
Hemedti made the ridiculous claim that the protesters had caused the abuses and murders but it was quickly shot down by the EU, which laid the blame squarely on the TMC.
Despite the attempt to throw a blanket over the events unfolding in Sudan, condemnation for the assault poured in from all over the world. Social media in Africa and elsewhere, especially among Sudanese in the diaspora, generated immense traffic. Coverage on radio and TV was also almost at saturation level
20 new african july 2019