"Just Fall": 30-Year President Overthrown in Sudan
On April 11, 2019 the President of Sudan was overthrown and arrested after intense protests in the country’s capital of Khartoum. President Omar al-Bashir had one of the longest non-royal reigns in modern history, holding power in the country for 30 years. The scene in Sudan follows similar protests and unrest in North Africa: this Editorial Board most recently covered roiling protests in Algeria, and in the time since, a United Nations-backed government in Libya has faced insurgency from terrorist organizations. The actors involved in Sudan are a familiar narrative — an experienced dictator, an ambitious military, and a massive population demanding change. The U.N., the African Union, and other international human rights organizations, though, have a key role to play as well. Each of the stakeholders in Sudan, demonstrably, have their own agenda for how this transition of power should occur and who should have the most power at the end of it all. To the dismay of democracy, though, the unrest in Sudan has mirrored other recent uprisings in one troubling way: those who are screaming the loudest, but perhaps being heard the least, are the Sudanese citizens.
Protests began in earnest in December, when Sudanese citizens started calling for better quality of life. South Sudan gained 75 percent of the territory’s oil in the 2011 secession, damaging Sudan’s already weak economy. The Sudanese have been heralded for their courage during the protests — the opposing force to this seemingly banal, democratic way of addressing the government is, after all, one of the cruelest dictatorships in African history. The International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) has an arrest warrant out for al-Bashir, accusing him of crimes against humanity and war crimes. His brutality was amplified in the Darfur conflict beginning in 2003 — when hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens died at the hands of his government. Al-Bashir’s violent control of the country has kept him in power for three decades, despite the international community’s consistent condemnations of his reign.
There was a moment in February after months of protesting when it looked as if al-Bashir would step down. Instead, he declared a state of national emergency. In the early hours of April 11, military vehicles entered the President’s residence in Khartoum and arrested him. Defense Minister Awad Ibn Ouf announced on state-run television and radio that al-Bashir’s regime had been toppled. He concluded his statements by announcing the Sudanese army would monitor a two-year transitional period that would lead to national elections. Protestors quickly moved to declare their opposition to this model of regime change, and celebrations were cut short: they returned to the streets for a sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum. Ibn Auf resigned from his position on April 13 and has since been replaced by Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan.
The highly organized protesters, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, refuse to accept a transition of power to the military. The Sudanese women demonstrating have made international news for their bravery and perseverance. A photo of 22-year old Alaa Salah standing on top of a car addressing a massive crowd went viral this week. Salah is being referred to as “Kandaka,” a Nubian moniker for “queen.” She is seen in a video calling out to the crowd, “In the name of religion, they killed us,” and the crowd chants back, “Revolution!” The protestors view the military’s control as a continuation of the same repressive regime.
There is real concern that forces within the military will begin fighting with each other, and that even a promise of a transitional period could dissipate. Protestors outside army headquarters are being protected by the national army. Vestiges of Omar al-Bashir’s power, the National Intelligence and Security Service soldiers, were already firing at the national army and protesters before the coup.
Various actors in the international community have echoed the protesters’ demands for elections and a complete regime overhaul. The United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced a two-year transition period led by the military was “not the answer.” The U.S. also agreed a two-year timeframe was too long. The African Union broadly rebuked a military takeover. The United Nations offered vague comments on the coup, asking for “calm and utmost restraint by all.” The international community seems drawn to the idea of democratic elections and leadership in Sudan, but broad condemnation always falls on deaf ears in an unstable nation’s leadership.
The brave activists have risked their lives to bring change (estimates report at least 70 protestors have died since December). For decades, they have seen the blood of their friends and families spilled on the ground in the name of al-Bashir’s government. They deserve peaceful elections and an opportunity to prosper. Navigating this precarious transition requires placating a number of powerful actors, but the citizens should be heard above all else.
The international community must help mediate power dynamics between factions of the military and help design and implement the infrastructure for democratic elections, but ultimately, it must allow the Sudanese people to take control of a governmental system that has repressed them for too long. Civilian leaders during the recent protests have already shown their effectiveness and ability to lead the population. There is no shortage of capable, willing democratic leaders in Sudan, only a lack of fair and just circumstances upon which to act.