Fighting is raging once again in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where a power struggle between rival factions has claimed the lives of hundreds of people. Around 185 people have been killed and more than 1,800 injured in the wake of an attempted coup.
A US diplomatic convoy came under fire yesterday and the EU’s ambassador in Sudan, Aidan O’Hara, was reportedly assaulted at his home. Journalists have been detained and beaten up by soldiers for breaking newly-imposed curfews. Across Sudan, international agencies, non-governmental organisations and charities are scrambling for a solution to prevent further bloodshed.
Military aircraft have flown low over urban centres and engaged targets on the ground. Residents in Khartoum are terrified of the eruption of what feels like a war within what is normally a peaceful city. Gunfire has been heard on state TV, presumably taking place within the building.
A contest appears to be shaping up between the country’s regular army – which is effectively a military junta – and a paramilitary force called the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), whose leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was supposed to be a figure in the current military regime: a council of officers, led by the army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. But the council, it seems, has been dissolved.
This feels a little like a traditional military coup, where the aims are to capture state TV, the national leader’s residence, and so on. It has, however, hit a few snags.
The RSF announced – even crowed about – its capture of Egyptian soldiers, who were arrested and photographed blindfolded and in custody in Merowe, between Khartoum and the Egyptian border. The RSF has said it will return the troops, but already the damage is done: Egypt has a large military and a strongman leader; it won’t be happy that some of its visiting personnel were detained. Whether Cairo will seek revenge remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the fighting continues, with very little sense – at least outside the country – what is going on and who is winning.
The military council on which both Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan sit had held power since a military coup in 2021. This regime had overturned a provisional government that formed after protests in 2018-19 brought down the country’s long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir.
At that time, the protestors were jubilant. Their revolution had been peaceful and – significantly for both the region and the international media covering the story – led by women. At least initially, the army and its various groups seemed pleased Bashir was gone. They said they would respect the will of the people.
They promised a swift transition from temporary council rule to a full democracy. A document was drawn up in 2019, a draft constitution, that seemed to point a way forward. Activists hoped the country could become a democracy, or at least increase the political rights of the people, whose representation in power has in living memory been limited. This is a country which has been defined for decades by civil conflict – including with South Sudan, which is now independent – and allegations of genocide in Darfur.
The Bashir government was a pariah internationally. Many hoped that, with his removal, better things – and better governments – were possible. They hoped that Bashir could be handed over for international trial for allegations relating to the war in Darfur, and that Sudan could benefit from the aid and trade that tends to flow to countries who oust their dictators – if they can stabilise things. Sadly, it did not work out quite like that.
This has been a period of military coups in Africa. We have recently seen multiple coups in Mali and in Burkina Faso, in Guinea Bissau and the Republic of Guinea. Sudan is only the latest in a long list. Part of the reason for this wave of coups is to do with the pandemic: economic crises, exacerbated by Covid, made unpopular leaders even less popular and tempted generals to chance their arm. Many uprisings involve outside actors: Russia is often alleged to be behind coups and coup attempts, with the intention of creating a new alliance of military regimes dependent on Moscow and prepared to do Moscow’s bidding.
Things remain muddy in Sudan. We don’t yet know what will happen, or why it has happened at all. But one thing’s sure: this is the precise opposite of what millions of Sudanese wanted when they took to the streets for democracy less than five years ago.
This piece was originally published in The Spectator.