Sudan's Burhan rises from obscurity to strongman

Tuesday June 04 2019

Supporters of the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC) hold up a a portrait of its head General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan with a caption in Arabic: "We have delegated you Burhan, we want no president but you", during a rally in Khartoum on May 31, 2019. Al-Burhah has grown more confident after visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates calling for elections in nine months. PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP


General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the interim leader of Sudan who on Tuesday announced elections would be held after nine months was largely unknown until mid April.

"Veteran soldier" Burhan was sworn in as Sudan's second interim leader after long-time president Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the army in April, in response to months of protests.

The announcement on Tuesday, a day after a military operation left 30 protesters dead, came after Burhan consolidated his position as a player on the regional scene.

After the repeated breakdown last month of talks between protesters and his ruling military council over whether a planned transitional body would be led by a civilian or a military figure, Burhan visited Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are crucial donors to Sudan, depositing an initial $500 million at the central bank since Bashir's fall as part of a planned $3 billion overall package to maintain their influence in the country.

On April 12, Burhan became chief of the military council that deposed Bashir, barely a day after the president's immediate successor (and former defence minister) General Awad Ibn Ouf stepped down.


Protesters, who are determined to see a civilian government after the end of Bashir's iron-fisted three decades in power, saw Ibn Ouf as a regime insider.

His exit catapulted Burhan from the shadows to the de facto head of the country.

"Burhan is a high ranking officer within the armed forces, but basically he's a veteran soldier," said an army officer, who did not want to be named.

"He's never been in the limelight like Ibn Ouf or General Kamal Abdelmarouf," the officer said, referring to the army's former chief of staff.

However, there have been claims in Sudan that Burhan is just a figurehead with real power in the military resting with his second in command Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, commonly known as Hemeti.

Hemeti is the only one of the transitional arrangement not to come from the military and appears more in public, including in foreign capitals courting support for the military. He is said to have a dislike for Ibn Ouf and was instrumental in having Burhan elevated to head the military council.

Burhan had a stint as Sudan's defence attache to Beijing.

Hours before he was named as Sudan's new military ruler, he was seen talking to protesters camped outside the army headquarters in central Khartoum.

Born in 1960 in the village of Gandatu, north of Khartoum, Burhan studied in a Sudanese army college and later in Egypt and Jordan.

The general is married and has three children.

He was commander of ground forces before Bashir made him inspector general of the army in February.

Sudanese media and analysts say Burhan coordinated sending Sudanese troops to Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition against Iran-aligned Huthi rebels.

Willow Berridge, author of Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan and lecturer in history at Newcastle University, says the Yemen portfolio saw Burhan work closely with Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

It is with the support of this group that "he now appears to have come to power," said Berridge.

"The role in this latest move of the Rapid Support Forces - branded by many as a revamped version of the Janjaweed militias who committed mass atrocities in Darfur - will make many cautious," Berridge added.

Bashir deployed Sudanese troops to Yemen in 2015 as part of a major foreign policy shift that saw Khartoum break its decades-old ties with Shiite Iran and join the Saudi-led coalition.

Sudanese soldiers and officers have suffered significant casualties in Yemen.