The continuing political crisis in Sudan

What led to the resignation of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok? Where does the civil-military relationship stand?

The story so far: Sudan’s civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigned on Sunday, plunging the country into further turmoil. Mr. Hamdok, who was sacked by the military in October and reinstated a few weeks later as part of a deal, stepped down as anti-military protests continued to rock the country. The protesters rejected Mr. Hamdok’s deal with the military and demanded the Generals hand over power to an independent civilian authority.

THE GIST

  • Post the resignation of civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Sudan has plunged into a complete political turmoil. Mr. Hamdok was appointed as PM in 2019 post the formation of the Sovereignty Council, an 11-member body comprising military and civilian leaders that replaced the military-led transition council.
  • The military was unable to digest an equal sharing of powers and started processes to gain back political power of the country. In 2021, they disbanded the council, declared an emergency and arrested all civilian leaders including Mr. Hamdock, triggering massive protests.
  • Unable to deal with the rising protests, the military attempted to pacify the protesters by reinstating Mr. Hamdock but without the Sovereignty Council which leaves him powerless. The people did not accept this and have continued their demonstration against the military coup which led to Mr. Hamdock stepping down.

Who is Abdalla Hamdok?

A trained economist, Mr. Hamdok had worked with the UN in the early 2000s. Born in 1956 in Sudan, he did his graduation in the University of Khartoum and earned a doctorate in economic studies from the University of Manchester. In 2018, the deposed dictator Omar Bashir nominated him as the Minister of Finance. But he refused the offer. Mr. Bashir had to resign in 2019 amid mass protests. The military formed a transition council and took the reins of the country in its hands. But the Generals’ attempts to consolidate power were thwarted by protesters. Eventually, the military agreed to share power with the civilian leaders. The Forces of Freedom and Change, the civil society coalition that was spearheading the movement for democracy, proposed Mr. Hamdok as the Prime Minister after the power-sharing agreement was signed in August 2019. Subsequently, the Sovereignty Council, an 11-member body comprising military and civilian leaders that replaced the military-led transition council, appointed Mr. Hamdok as Prime Minister. During the Sovereignty Council’s rule, Sudan entered into a peace deal with rebel groups, banned female genital mutilation, made peace with Israel and reached out to international powers for economic assistance. During this period, the U.S. took the country off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Reforms at home and international recognition suggested that Sudan was on a slow but steady transition into full democracy. But then the military struck again.

What triggered the current crisis?

Ever since mass protests broke out in late 2018, the military has tried everything it could to protect its privileges. It first removed Mr. Bashir and established the transition council. When the direct rule became unsustainable, the Generals agreed to share power. But the civilian leaders’ consolidation of social support and political power upset the Generals. According to the agreement, the acting Prime Minister (Mr. Hamdok) would run the day-to-day affairs while the military chief would remain the leader of the Sovereignty Council for two years. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the military chief, was scheduled to hand over the leadership of the transitional government to the civilian leadership last year. Instead, he disbanded the government, proclaimed himself the new leader, declared a state of emergency and imprisoned the civilian leaders, including Mr. Hamdok, in October 2021. The military was preparing the ground ahead of the coup. Pro-military mobs had carried out protests demanding the government’s removal amid soaring prices of essentials. Port Sudan, the country’s largest port, on the Red Sea, had been blockaded by a tribal group, with help from the military, which worsened the economic situation, including acute shortages of food, currency and fuel. But General Burhan failed to mobilise support after the coup. As protests continued, he reinstated Prime Minister Hamdok, but without the Sovereignty Council. This meant that the military could exercise greater control over the civilian government. The protesters didn’t buy the apparent concession by the military. They called Mr. Hamdok a “traitor” for cutting a deal with the military and pressed ahead with the agitation. Eventually, unable to convince his old comrades that he could form an independent technocratic government, Mr. Hamdok stepped down.

What explains the civilian-military rift?

After the Draft Constitution Declaration was signed on August 4, 2019, along with a power- sharing agreement between civilians and the military, promising elections in late 2022, tensions between the civilian leadership and the military leaders remained over at least one issue — bringing former dictator Mr. Bashir’s regime to account for genocidal acts, human rights abuses and corruption. Analysts say the military was uncomfortable with this as it would expose their own acts and their financial interests that were entrenched during Mr. Bashir’s rule. Gen. Burhan, after all, played a key role as inspector general of the armed forces during the fag end of Mr. Bashir’s tenure – overseeing Sudan’s intervention in the Yemen Civil War. He had also been a regional army commander in Darfur between 2003 and 2008, a period that coincided with the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

What’s next?

The military is now in a difficult position. Given that the civil-military relationship is already at a breaking point, the Generals establishing direct rule—the Myanmar model—would be extremely unpopular. That’s why Gen. Burhan reinstated Mr. Hamdok in the first place. What the military wants is a civilian Prime Minister without real powers. Now that Mr. Hamdok is gone, the Generals would be under pressure to appoint another civilian government. According to the constitutional declaration of 2019, the Prime Minister should be selected by a legislative council and then endorsed by the Sovereignty Council. The legislative council was never formed and the Sovereignty Council was disbanded. So the military is likely to directly appoint another technocrat. But that won’t resolve the crisis. If the protesters did not accept Mr. Hamdok as their PM, they are unlikely to accept anybody else the military would appoint next. And this political crisis is being played out at a time when Sudan is going through a severe economic crisis. Weeks-long protests have paralysed an already weak economy. Inflation has soared to over 400% in recent months.

The UN estimates that at least a third of the country’s 43 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2022. What Sudan wants is a stable, responsive government that can urgently address the myriad problems the country faces. But the question is whether the military is committed to the democratic transition.

With inputs from Srinivasan Ramani

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