Sudan: The struggle for power between army and civilians

Friday April 07 2023
Sudan citizens

Sudanese protesters gather n southern Khartoum on April 6, 2023 for a fast-breaking meal as they demonstrate against the army and paramilitaries. April 6 is a symbolic date for Sudan's civilian opposition serving as the anniversary of uprisings in 1985 and 2019 that ended up ousting two leaders who had seized power in coups. PHOTO | EBRAHIM HAMID | AFP


Sudan's military leaders and a coalition of civilian parties have postponed the signing of a deal to launch a new political transition to democracy. The following outlines the struggle for power in Sudan in recent years:

Who has been in charge in Sudan?

Sudan began its halting transition towards democracy after military generals ousted long-ruling autocrat Omar al-Bashir amid a popular uprising in April 2019. An Islamist long shunned by the West, Bashir had presided over the country for nearly three decades.

Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir

Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir. PHOTO | ASHRAF SHAZLY | AFP

Under an August 2019 agreement, the military agreed to share power with civilians ahead of elections. That arrangement was abruptly halted by the 2021 coup, which triggered a new campaign of mass pro-democracy rallies across Sudan.

Read: Sudan transition talks hit roadblock


Where does the balance of power lie?

Since independence in 1956, Sudan’s military has been a dominant force in staging coups, fighting internal wars and amassing economic holdings in the country.

During the 2019-21 power-sharing arrangement, distrust between Sudan’s military and civilian parties ran deep.

The civilian side drew legitimacy from a resilient protest movement and support from parts of the international community.

The military had internal backing from rebel factions that benefited from a 2020 peace deal and from veterans of Bashir's government who returned to the civil service following the coup.

The coup put the army back in charge, but it faced weekly demonstrations, renewed isolation and deepening economic woes.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and deputy leader of Sudan's ruling council since 2019, has swung behind the plan for a new transition bringing tensions with ruling council head and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to the surface.

What are the fault lines?

A central cause of tension since the uprising is a civilian demand to gain oversight of the military and to see the integration of the powerful RSF into the regular army.

Civilians have also called for the handover of lucrative military holdings in agriculture, trade and other industries, a crucial source of power for an army that has often outsourced military action to regional militias.

Read: Sudan eager for civilian rule return by April

Another point of contention is the pursuit of justice over allegations of war crimes by the military and its allies in the conflict in Darfur from 2003. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking trials for Bashir and other Sudanese suspects.

The International Criminal Court.

The International Criminal Court in Netherlands. PHOTO | AFP

Justice is also being sought over the killings of pro-democracy protesters on June 3, 2019, in which military forces are implicated. Activists and civilian groups have been angered by delays to an official investigation. In addition, they want justice for at least 125 people killed by security forces in protests since the coup.

What about the economy?

A worsening economic crisis that sent the currency plunging and created frequent shortages of bread and fuel was a key trigger for Bashir's downfall.

The 2019-21 transitional government implemented harsh, rapid reforms monitored by the International Monetary Fund in a successful bid for debt relief and to attract foreign financing.

But billions of dollars in international support and debt relief were frozen after the 2021 coup which led to halting of development projects, straining the national budget and worsening an already dire humanitarian situation.

What's the regional picture?

Sudan is in a volatile region bordering the Red Sea, the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Its strategic location and agricultural wealth have attracted regional power plays, complicating the chances of a successful transition.

Several of Sudan's neighbours including Ethiopia, Chad and South Sudan, have been affected by political upheavals and conflict. Sudan's relationship with Ethiopia in particular has been strained over disputed farmland along their border, over conflict in the Tigray region that drove tens of thousands of refugees into Sudan and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Read: Ethiopia makes new step for lasting peace

Regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have seen Sudan's transition as a way of pushing back against Islamist influence in the region. They along with the US and Britain formed the "Quad", which has sponsored mediation in Sudan along with the UN and AU. Western powers fear the potential for a Russian base on the Red Sea, which Sudanese military leaders have expressed openness to.

Egypt, which has deep historical ties with Sudan and a close relationship with its military, has pursued an alternative track with groups that supported the coup.