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Vol 60 No 10

Published 17th May 2019


Cutting a deal on a knife-edge

From armed clashes to roundtable talks to threats of a walk-out, the transition jolts from crisis to crisis

Veering from armed clashes to roundtable talks, the negotiations between the ruling generals and civilian activists remain fraught, with hundreds of thousands of protesters camped outside key military installations in Khartoum. One day after several fatal shootings in the capital on 14 May, the generals and the activists agreed on a three-year political transition.


The outline of the deal – with civilians and military officers sharing power on a sovereign national council with 11 members, a civilian-dominated council of 17 ministers and a legislature of some 150 representatives with a definitive, negotiated end to the country's armed conflicts – was announced jointly by the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the Declaration for Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF). That left a critical issue unsettled:  the balance of power between the military and civilians on the sovereign national council. Then, late on 15 May, when the issue was due to be resolved, the civilian negotiators said the military was refusing to continue negotiations until all the protesters had dismantled the sit-in around Alqiyada al Amaah, the military headquarters in the capital.

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Before that, as news of the three-year transition deal reached the mass sit-in outside the military headquarters, there were muted celebrations among the protesters still mourning their fallen comrades.

Coming after the killing of at least five protesters and an army major, according to the Sudanese Physicians' Association, and the threat of much wider protests and strikes, the situation is febrile, alternating between jubilation and fear of a return to armed repression (AC Vol 60 No 9, A battle against the clock). With 60 people treated for gunshot wounds in clinics around the capital, it was the worst outbreak of violence since the ousting of President Omer el Beshir on 10 April.

It also sparked more distrust of the ruling generals who denied any responsibility for the shootings, blaming instead 'unidentified armed groups'. A theory peddled by military sources was that the decision to charge Beshir with complicity in the killing of protesters prior to his overthrow, as well as for corruption, and reports of a deal on the transition had prompted a bid by the ousted President's allies to derail the process.

Other reports point to more splintering among the military and security units, all concerned about their loss of power and financial autonomy in a civilian-led transition. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as 'Hemeti', deputy leader of the TMC and Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), had already said he would not tolerate 'chaos' and the interruption of business in the capital by the protesters, despite his earlier support for the sit-in (AC Vol 60 No 8, The revolution rumbles on).

A mercurial figure, Hemeti had tried to burnish his street cred by publicly supporting the protesters, claiming he had deployed some of his forces to protect them against attacks by armed units under the command of Salah Mohamed Abdallah 'Gosh' and the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). This time it looked even murkier.

In the days leading up to the shootings on 13 May, the RSF deployed hundreds more armed pick-up trucks around the military HQ, encircling the main protest site. On 12 May, the more than 20 groups and parties making up the DFCF called for an escalation of protests and strikes backing a transfer of power to civilians and an agreement to be signed within 72 hours.

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2019

The following day, protesters put up brick and iron barricades along Nile Street at the back of the University of Khartoum stopping traffic along one of the city's main arteries. The sit-in outside the military HQ had already blocked goods trains on the main west-east railway line into the capital.

That evening, several reporters saw fighters dressed in RSF uniforms shoot into the crowds of protesters around the Nile Street barricades. The shooting went on into the night as unarmed protesters crawled behind cars, parked alongside the riverside cafés. Armed men also fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, later beating some of those who could not get away.

Khalid Omer, Secretary General of the Sudanese Congress Party and a leading member of the DFCF said his organisation held the TMC responsible for the shootings.  The United States Embassy backed that view, saying the security forces actions had 'led directly to unacceptable violence that the TMC was unable to control.'

One of the first tests of the new transitional authority will be to oversee an investigation into those shootings, and all the violence by state forces that resulted in over 90 protesters being killed over the past five months. It could reveal continuing rivalries between armed factions as well as the ability of the civilians to confront the military.

That will get harder as the transition moves on. The next six months will be dominated by negotiations between the transitional authority and armed opposition groups such as the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Minni Minawi, the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibril Ibrahim and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement–North whose factions are led by Malik Agar and Yasir Arman (AC Vol 57 No 22, The securocrats get stronger).

The first phase will be for the new government to sign peace treaties with each faction. Since the ousting of Beshir, almost all the armed groups have agreed a bilateral ceasefire with the TMC.

Bringing all the factions into a coherent transitional authority and a reformed military is likely to take most of the three years available. Jealous of its firepower, political and financial autonomy, the military commanders will try to dominate the reform programme.

Aside from calculations of military force, the other factor will be the government's financial weakness and the urgent need to cut state spending. The economic strategies drawn up by technocrats close to the DFCF all envisage substantial shifts in state spending towards the wider economy, administration and social services but away from the security-centric budgets under Beshir.

'Deep State'
When asked about how the transitional authority would be able to take down this system, Lt Gen Shamsudeen al Kabbashi, spokesman for the TMC, replied: 'We have to dismantle it together'. But he admitted that it could take decades. That suggests a project well beyond the planned transition and raises questions about the good faith of the military, many of whose senior officers were direct beneficiaries of the Islamist Deep State.


Transition talks

As negotiations over the transition move into the details of economic and political reform, both soldiers and civilians are preparing their teams. Neither side was well known to the public before 10 April. The Declaration for Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF), founded on 1 January as an amalgam between civic groups such as the Sudan Professionals' Association and established parties, has led civilian negotiators.

The DFCF is yet to choose a leader to be the top civilian in the transition, probably an executive prime minister. The main names in contention are: Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, an engineer and human rights activist, formerly a political detainee in Kobar prison;  Muntasir el Tayeb Ibrahim, a professor of microbiology at University of Khartoum and a leading force in the political agenda of the DFCF along with his academic colleagues; and Abdalla Hamdok, special advisor to the Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank and a former Deputy Executive Director of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa (AC Vol 52 No 1, Freedom – North and South & AC Vol 53 No 12, The new Thabo Mbeki).

On the military side, two men dominate for now and are likely to hold the ring in the proposed sovereign national council. They are Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, head of the Transitional Military Council; and Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', deputy head of the TMC and Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Burhan is taciturn and stolid but thought to have kept his distance from the Islamist factions that had penetrated the army under the rule of President Omer el Beshir. With over 180,000 forces under his command, Burhan should be the senior partner in this ruling duo.

But his relationship with Hemeti is complex. Hemeti's troops in the RSF number about a third of the regular army but their salaries average twice as much and they are better equipped. Burhan and Hemeti's relationship dates back to Darfur in 2003. Then, Burhan was commanding a military unit and worked with local militias to attack opponents of Beshir's regime. One of those militias was the Janjaweed, commanded by Hemeti, whose family hails from Chad.

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