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Revolution and Counterrevolution in Sudan

In December 2018, thousands of people took to the streets in protests responding to cuts in subsidies for bread. The protests started in a small rural town and spread to major cities. Familiar with local protests caused by poverty and desperation, the Sudanese people could not imagine the revolution was about to occur. The rural protests were not like ones in the past, though; protesters stormed the military barracks and burned it to the ground. In the coming days, massive protests erupted in the cities. In April, military leaders dissolved the government, deposed dictator of 30 years Omar al-Bashir, and established the Transitional Military Council (TMC) with the aim of ruling the country until democratic elections could be held. Now it is July, and following a series of sit-ins and demonstrations—one which ended in a massacre—the TMC is still firmly in control of the government.

Power Struggle

On 5 July, military leaders and the opposition—the Declaration of Freedom and Change—agreed to a power-sharing arrangement for three years until elections. What extent civilians would hold power in the transitional government, as well as how many years it would remain the governing body, were central points in the negotiation. The deal stipulates executive military leadership for the first 21 months. Some observers have hope that Sudan will eventually transition to civilian rule. Others assume that the military leaders have no intention of giving up power, and that they could use the next 21 months to institutionalize their rule. What is obvious at the moment is that Sudan is experiencing a popular revolution at the same time a military counterrevolution.

Omar al-Bashir and Darfur Genocide

Since independence in 1956, the role of Islam in government has been a contentious issue. Gaafar Nimeiri, a socialist who came to power in a coup d’état in 1969 pledging to confront Western imperialism and bring unity among Arab civilization, found it necessary to compromise with religious leaders who were threatening to undermine his rule. One of these men was a Hassan al-Turabi. Part of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Western-educated Islamic and legal scholar, al-Turabi, would provide the intellectual groundwork for the coup d’état, organized by political and military leaders within the National Islamic Front, which brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989. While in power, Omar al-Bashir presided over a genocidal war in Darfur, which the United Nations in 2013 estimated killed up to 300,000 people. Many of these killings occurred at the hands of a government-formed militia known as the Janjaweed, which means “evil men on horse”. The Janjaweed were mostly poor cattle-herders from northern Darfur, paid by the central government and carried out the genocide. No one knows whether Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in March 2009 and July 2010, will be held accountable for his crimes. Currently, he is being held in the custody of the TMC.

Challenges Going Forward

Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, once a cattle-herder himself, today is the deputy leader of the TMC. He commands  Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is composed of Janjaweed fighters and is not part of the national military. On 3 June 2019, the RSF dispersed a peaceful sit-in killing over 130 people. They beat people, raped women, and threw bodies in the Nile river. The brutality was reminiscent of the genocide in Darfur. In spite of ongoing RSF presence in the cities, Sudanese people have continued to participate in protests. Mass mobilizations and the power-sharing arrangement of 5 July 2019 provide hope for the revolution, but Hemeti’s and the TMC’s willingness to allow for a transition to civilian rule in three years must be held in question. Civilian leadership could result in them being tried for the June 3rd massacre, or even their role in the Darfur genocide.