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Vol 60 No 12

Published 14th June 2019


Freedom under fire

As it tries to shoot down the democracy protests, the junta underplays the deepening splits in its own ranks

Such was the horror wreaked by the Rapid Support Forces' (RSF) massacre squad on 3 June that the tentative steps towards dialogue this week between the pro-democracy protesters and the junta have been greeted with some relief but low expectations in Khartoum.

The inability or unwillingness of soldiers in the Sudan Armed Forces to protect civilians against murderous attacks by the RSF militia and armed operatives from the National Intelligence and Security Services, has ended activists' hopes for an alliance with younger officers and their troops. It was the protection of those troops, some of whom exchanged fire with NISS operatives, that emboldened the activists to expand the sit in outside Alqidah al Amaah, the military headquarters in Khartoum, after 6 April.

However, there are continuing reports of schisms within the ruling Transitional Military Council, arrests, detentions or banishments of dissident junior officers. A security source in Khartoum tells us that when some soldiers heard of the RSF and NISS plans to attack civilians at the sit in, they were told to stay in the barracks and that no arms would be issued to them.

Some generals, either professional cadres or adherents to the now banned Islamist National Congress party, are said to see the deputy leader of the junta and RSF commander, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as 'Hemeti', as a useful figure in diverting attention from the army's own political plans. Their aim is to set up an authoritarian regime, with a civilian patina, modelled on President Abdel Fattah el Sisi's in Egypt. They want to avoid an open election en route to that.

There is a common bond between the junta leader, General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan and Hemeti (AC Vol 60 No 9, A battle against the clock). After running the regime's operations in Darfur in 2003 – Burhan was a regional army commander and Hemeti led the pro-regime Janjaweed militia – the two men jointly coordinated Sudan's dispatch of fighters to the Yemen war front, financed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They both commanded units in Yemen, getting to know their Saudi and Emirati counterparts (AC Vol 60 No 8, The revolution rumbles on).

Military means
Apart from military ties, there are lucrative commercial deals. It is the RSF's control of gold mines in Darfur that it has enabled it to build up substantial foreign exchange reserves. Business sources tell us that the militia has been exporting gold directly to Dubai, without paying any local taxes, and managing the foreign currency earnings, running into hundreds of millions of dollars, independently of the central bank. 

This has established the RSF as a fully funded security entity alongside the army, with its controlling stakes in the military industrial complex, and NISS, with its network of wholly owned companies funding security and surveillance operations, as well as building the personal fortunes of its top echelon. 

It is the financial, military and diplomatic backing from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that is the most critical foreign support system for the junta. Before the massacre of 3 June, there were substantial deliveries of military hardware from the UAE across the Red Sea to Port Sudan. Emirati-made armed personnel carriers, driven by the RSF militia, are now a common sight in Khartoum. 

Others say the schisms run far deeper and that the factionalised armed forces are one of deposed leader Omer el Beshir's most poisonous legacies. They see little prospect of more professional army officers bringing either the RSF militia, the armed intelligences services (with helicopters and tanks) under control. That doesn't rule out the possibility of a wider and more violent breakdown in the security system of which many outsiders have warned. 

After United States officials warned Saudi Arabia and the UAE that their unbridled backing for the junta's repression could trigger a national conflict for which they would be held responsible by Sudanese and the wider region, both issued unconvincing statements urging a return to dialogue.  

A key figure is Taha Osman Al Hussein, Riyadh's Advisor on African Affairs, who flew into Khartoum on the last scheduled flight before the overthrow of el Beshir was announced on 11 April. Al Hussein, a former minister in the Presidency in Khartoum, broke with the Sudanese regime and took Saudi citizenship. Today he is a key intermediary between Hemeti, whom he knew well from the Darfur war, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  

In the wake of the 3 June massacre, the Gulf States' preferred strategy appears to be to stretch out the negotiations, making a few cosmetic concessions but leaving a joint force of the RSF and the NISS to run security in Khartoum and other towns and cities. 

Their specific interests are: to keep Sudanese troops fighting in the Yemeni war; block any moves towards the political pluralism and democracy demanded by the protesters; to push back against Iranian, Turkish and Qatari interests in the country; and protect the massive Saudi and Emirati land holdings in Sudan, particularly the fertile Nile valley. 

In some areas, particularly over support for the RSF militia, there is tension between Egypt's interests and the Gulf States. Should rivalries between RSF fighters and the national army spin out of control in Sudan, Egypt's already overstretched military would be confronted with a new and unpredictable crisis on its southern borders. All in a state where some of el Sisi's Islamist foes have put down deep roots. 

Despite scheduled visits of US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy and the return of Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, no date has been set for a resumption of negotiations over a transition to civil rule. And there is no sign that the Transitional Military Council is prepared to accept an independent investigation into the murder of over 110 people, mass rapes and the wounding of over 600 on 3 June. 

The incremental trade-off announced on 11 June by Mahmoud Dirir, the mediator appointed by Abiy, was that the junta would release all political prisoners and the Declaration for Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) would suspend the civil disobedience has ratcheted down tension. 

But this has changed none of the main political and security conditions, including security guarantees, the role and powers of civilians in a transitional authority, or indeed whether there will be a transition at all.

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