The political calculations of Sudan’s military regime

How Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown and what happens next in Sudan.

General Hemedti
General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo 'Hemedti' speaks during a news conference at the Rapid Support Forces headquarters outside Khartoum on November 5, 2017 [Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah]

On April 11, after 30 years in power, the longstanding dictator, General Omar al-Bashir, was forced out of power by his right-hand man, defence minister and vice president, General Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf.

Al-Bashir’s ouster was welcomed as a major victory by Sudanese protesters who had been out in the streets of Khartoum and other major cities since December. However, many remain wary of the dubious transition of power that Sudan’s military leadership has undertaken.

In his April 11 statement, with which he declared the removal of al-Bashir, Ibn Auf also announced the suspension of the Constitution, the imposition of a state of emergency and the formation of a transitional military council headed by him.

But just two days later, after mass protests continued to call for the whole regime to step down, Ibn Auf resigned along with his deputy, General Kamal Abdelmarouf al-Mahi. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan was appointed his place as the head of the council and General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, also known as Hemedti, as the deputy chair. Meanwhile, General Salah Abdallah Saleh, also known as Gosh, resigned as the head of the notorious National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).

So what do all these reshuffles in the Sudanese regime mean and how will they affect the Sudanese struggle for democratic civilian rule?

How al-Bashir deposed

Over the past few years, it became increasingly clear that al-Bashir was doing everything to consolidate his power and prevent any possible conspiracy against his presidency.

On the foreign policy front, he was trying to reach out to anyone who could guarantee the security of his regime. When the US eased the sanctions in October 2017 but made it clear that they still demand that he step down, al-Bashir went on a visit to Russia to seek the backing of the Kremlin. He also continued to deal with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, on one side, and Qatar and Turkey, on the other, hoping to secure their support.

On the home front, al-Bashir undertook a number of reshuffles in the past few years, plagued by suspicions of conspiracies against him. In the process, he managed to alienate a number of different factions within the Sudanese regime and important commanders within the security sector and the militias. He also angered members of his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) when he declared he was a national figure that stood above all political parties in Sudan.

Most importantly, al-Bashir alienated his own people. For a long time, he had been playing the ethnic card, trying to divide the Sudanese people and justify his destructive wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile.

In December, however, public anger once again boiled over and people across Sudan, from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, took to the streets to protest against his failing regime which had left the Sudanese economy in tatters and the general population struggling to put bread on the table.

Fearing a coup, al-Bashir kept Ibn Auf, who is on a US sanctions list due to his involvement in the Darfur conflict, and former governor Ahmed Haroun, who is also indicted by the International Criminal Court, close, believing they would not hand him over to the international prosecution. When the Sudanese streets escalated the pressure, Ibn Auf was appointed vice president and Haroun took over the chairmanship of the NCP.

Al-Bashir’s fate was sealed once the protesters managed to win over the sympathies of mid and lower-ranking military officers, as well as soldiers. This became apparent when on April 8, NISS security forces attacked the sit-in in front of the Army High Command headquarters in Khartoum, causing some soldiers to intervene and protect the protesters.

The Sudanese president and other loyalists had planned to disperse the sit-in with force, hoping that the violence would keep the protesters away. Fearing an insurrection within the lower army rank and file, the top brass of the military could not go along with the plan. More importantly, there are speculations that General Gosh, the head of the NISS, also switched sides at that critical juncture and refused to unleash a bloody crackdown.

Gosh, who is widely despised by the Sudanese people, was one of the people al-Bashir had alienated early on. In 2009, he was removed from his position as head of the NISS and made presidential adviser, only to be sacked in 2011. The following year, Gosh, who had been a point of contact in Sudan for US intelligence agencies, was accused of plotting a coup against the president and imprisoned for a year. Although he was politically rehabilitated and reinstated to his former position in 2018, he surely continued to bear a grudge against al-Bashir.

He, along with other generals, saw an opportunity to get rid of al-Bashir and seized it. Their consensus on ousting the president, however, did not mean that they were willing to give up power or that they actually agreed on a clear-cut plan of succession.

As political ambitions clashed and outside forces intervened, General Ibn Auf took over with the intent of securing al-Bashir’s exit and maintaining the status quo within the regime.

However, the general lacked charisma and was not well-respected within the ranks of the army. He was also tainted by the role he played in recruiting Janjaweed militia in Darfur and commanding armed forces that committed war crimes in 2007.

It was evident that he was not going to be accepted as a transitional leader neither by the Sudanese people, nor by various international players.

While his resignation could be seen as another victory for Sudan’s protest movement, the appointment of General al-Burhan as the head of the military council and General Hemedti as his deputy shows that the deep state and its foreign backers are by far not ready to give in to the demands of the protesters and allow for a smooth transition to civilian rule.

The rise of General al-Burhan and General Hemedti

General al-Burhan is the commander of the Sudanese ground forces and is believed to enjoy some popularity within the army’s lower ranks. Some opposition groups see him as more acceptable because he is considered not to be an Islamist. Yet, he, too, has a murky past.

As an officer in the ground forces, he had served in both South Darfur and South Sudan. In the 2000s, he was also a mid-raking commander in the notorious Border Guards, a sub-group of the Janjaweed militia.

In recent days, people in Darfur have expressed their outrage at al-Burhan’s appointment as head of the military council, claiming that under his command, the Border Guards committed killings and forced displacement.

He also seems to support the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), which was created in 1989 by al-Bashir as a loyal paramilitary organisation with an Islamist ideology which in the 1990s fought in the war in South Sudan.

Over the past few days, a video from a news broadcast has been widely circulated on social media, which shows General al-Burhan addressing the PDF, calling them the “legitimate sons” of the Sudanese army, and saying that he would never accept their dissolution under any circumstances.

General al-Burhan was also in charge of recruiting Sudanese armed forces and militia to go fight in Yemen along with the Saudi-led coalition and is said to be close to senior military officials in the Gulf.

Al-Burhan’s deputy, General Hemedti, also has a similar background. In the mid-2000s, he was a commander of the Fut-8 battalion of the Border Guards in Darfur, where, in 2007, he led a rebellion against the army, which had failed to pay his men salaries. He eventually made up with Khartoum and in 2013 he was appointed head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which absorbed former Janjaweed militia. The move was engineered by al-Bashir to punish Janjaweed leader Sheikh Musa Hilal who had started criticising him.

But more recently, not fully trusting Hemedti, al-Bashir began appointing some of his loyalists to the RSF, to ensure the paramilitary force was under tight control. Hemedti was said to have had close ties to Taha al-Hussain, the former director of the president’s office, who was dismissed in 2017 and then swiftly appointed as an adviser at the Saudi ministry of foreign affairs after moving to Riyadh.

Since the protests erupted, Hemedti has been careful about his public statements, displaying a great deal of political acumen and opportunism. He distanced himself and his militia from any act of violence against the peaceful protesters and expressed support for the demands of the Sudanese people and respect for human rights.

His appointment as a deputy chair of the transitional council prompted outrage on social media and was widely rejected by people in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, where his militia has been committing crimes against the civilian population.

Hemedti also appears to be involved with the war effort in Yemen. In fact, in 2017, Sheikh Hilal accused him and al-Bashir’s former vice president Hassabo Abdel Rahman of stealing funds Saudi Arabia and the UAE had offered in exchange for the deployment of Sudanese fighters in Yemen.

The fact that the two generals in charge are linked by the major roles they have played in the wars in Darfur and Yemen is not coincidental. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have hastened to recognise the military council, while the African Union and the European Union have both rejected it. General Hemedti, in turn, announced that the Sudanese troops would abide by its commitments to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. 

What happens next?

No doubt, the overthrow of al-Bashir and his close corrupt and brutal clique out of power is a positive development, but what is currently going on is not a full-fledged revolution, like the ones in October 1964 and April 1985. There is yet to be a break with the old regime.

It is true that General al-Burhan has struck a conciliatory tone and seemingly accepted the popular demands for freedom, peace and justice. He also made some promises about moving away from the old regime by uprooting it, fighting corruption and pursuing justice and accountability.

But there are also plenty of doubts about his true intentions and agenda.

There are real concerns that the new transitional military council is just a puppet of the old regime, which was created to buy time and ensure the continutity of the status quo. To date, it is not clear what the fate of figures of the old regime, including al-Bashir, will be and how the military council will deal with the deep state and its militias, security and financial arms.

At the same time, tensions within the regime itself remain. The appointment of Hemedti, a commander of a militia who did not graduate from a Sudanese military academy to such a high position within the state is a shocking precedent and could play a detrimental role in Sudanese politics.

It shows the weakness of the Sudanese army and the collapse of the Sudanese state institutions. This situation could trigger tensions between different groups in the regime and destabilise the state further.

Meanwhile, there are also real fears that the popular opposition could also fragment along generational, ideological, geographical and ethnic lines. A rift between the youth and traditional political forces has started to appear over how to deal with the military council and what political priorities should be pursued.

Such divisions could be exploited by the military council and the old regime to carry out a full-fledged counterrevolution. Many regional powers are not interested in seeing the foundations of democracy being laid in Sudan and are ready to do whatever it takes to undermine any peaceful democratic transition.

Furthermore, the Sudanese people also fear that their country could descend into chaos and total war, if the change does not come soon.

There are many lessons to be learned from the fate of post-independence of Sudan, the October Revolution of 1964, the April Uprising of 1985 and the separation of South Sudan. The popular protest movement has a unique opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of the past, and seek national unity, equal citizenship for all ethnic groups and reconciliation. Only a strong and united popular front could withstand the counter-revolution the Sudanese generals, the deep state and foreign powers would surely launch in order to undermine the revolutionary movement.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.