Illustration: Khadijah Ali
Despite dreams of a reversal of its international pariah status, Sudan has witnessed a reversion to type in the last week. In the eighteenth coup or attempted takeover to occur in Sudan since its independence in 1956, General Abdel-Fattah Burhan dissolved the country’s civilian cabinet, arresting Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and other prominent civilians with whom the military initially had agreed to share power. In doing so, he became the most recent embodiment of the Sudanese military’s autocratic streak, which has plagued national politics since 1958.
The two years since the military intervention that toppled Omar al-Bashir’s regime have seen numerous coup attempts, as well as near continuous tensions between the civilian and military arms of the transitional government. The source of much of this tension has been the naked ambition of senior military officials such as Burhan. While civilian officials have concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilising international support for the transitional council, Burhan has led a campaign to undermine Hamdok. The last few months have seen a deliberate attempt to tar the civilian arm of the council as riddled with division, incompetence and as an overall detriment to state stability through public tirades on governmental failures and weaknesses.
This disdainful attitude to civilian politicians has permeated the Sudanese army since at least the 1958 Abboud military government. The pig-headed and self-defeating policies of the civilian government it replaced had created a culture that instilled a belief in the superiority of military men. This view was reinforced by the long-standing neglect of human rights in the predominantly Christian and Animist southern regions by both civilian and military leaders. The near-permanent state of war led to the army being given a free hand, which has bred in generations of military men a staunch resistance to central civilian authority and an unshakeable belief in the perceived virtues of military rule, which they themselves personify.
South Sudan’s status as a nursery where ambitious and autocratic officers are moulded is as old as the Sudanese state itself. The ruthless suppression in 1955 of the revolt of the Equatoria Corps of the Sudan Defence Force, which recruited from southern Sudan, was a sign of things to come. The formations that put the rebellion down were northern, Muslim and either Arab or Arabised. They overwhelmingly identified with the new government that was being formed in Khartoum under British supervision, ruining the apolitical nature of the officer corps. Infiltration of the army’s command structure by communists, Sufi activists and Arab political parties entangled the military in political disputes from which it still has not extricated itself. It did, however, make it extremely unsympathetic to the residents of South Sudan. It became the norm to meet any protest with brutal repression creating a cycle of violence only partially broken when South Sudan gained its independence in 2011.
The joint spectres of a politicised army and war in South Sudan have haunted any civilian authority ruling from Khartoum. The coup that brought al-Bashir to power in July 1989 was a result of military dissatisfaction with the state of the civil war in South Sudan. Earlier that year, a group of Sudanese Army officers presented an ultimatum to the incumbent elected Prime Minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, in which they asked him to either end the war or give the military the means to end it. Mahdi chose the latter, but the crippled Sudanese economy greatly inhibited the resources that the PM could provide, and so, despite conceding near total operational autonomy in rebel regions to the army, Mahdi was unable to put an end to the conflict. The military took the lack of resources provided to them as weakness, and viewed the subsequent peace talks he entered with the South Sudanese as a betrayal. This anger boiled over into military intervention.
The majority of the current senior members in the security services spent the formative years of their career serving the al-Bashir regime, a time when the autonomy afforded to the security services reached its zenith. Many grew used to operating in environments like Darfur, where military authority went unchallenged. Burhan himself was a military intelligence colonel in Darfur, where he coordinated the military, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and militias such as the notorious Janjaweed in attacks against civilians from 2003 to 2005. The deliberate lack of oversight from the Bashir regime was essentially a licence to be brutal, with rape, torture and murder everyday occurrences.
Moreover, this violence makes it impossible for Sudan’s soldiery to accept civilian oversight. The dangers to men such as Burhan are evident in the Transitional Council’s decision to turn over al-Bashir and all those indicted by the International Criminal Court. While Burhan and most of the military officials in the transitional government do not have warrants out for their arrest, they would have good reason to fear that they would be named as accomplices in any war crimes trial. Additionally, when the military government that toppled al-Bashir faced further protests, demanding Burhan and the military relinquish control, they were met with violence. On June 2, 2019, security forces and RSF fighters attacked the protesters. More than 100 people were killed, and soldiers raped dozens of women. The protests that followed forced Burhan to concede a hybrid transitional council, but it is not unreasonable to assume that senior military officers felt threatened about being held accountable for atrocities committed under their command in Darfur and in 2019.
Tackling corruption was another issue that worried the generals. The large scale autonomy that the military had been afforded led to senior officers taking the opportunity to enrich themselves. The cumbersomely named “Commission to Dismantle the June 30, 1989, Regime, and Retrieve Public Funds” was not only exposing the network of companies owned by the Islamists removed from power in 2019, but also the tentacles of the commercial empires owned by senior generals and figures in the security services. Hamdok had become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the military entanglement in the economy. Not only was the army commanding a vast – and still-increasing – share of the national budget, but military-owned companies operate with tax exemptions and often allegedly corrupt contracting procedures.
Since the revolution against al-Bashir’s dictatorship, the military have fancied themselves as the power behind the throne, retaining sufficient influence to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. Clearly however, they have grown tired of entertaining a civilian apparatus that directly threatened their position. The inability to loosen their grip on power is due to a deeply ingrained military culture that doesn’t respect civilian authority and has grown used to doing as they please. While Burhan might see himself as a strong military leader who will “save” Sudan, remaking it in his image, he is in fact operating from a well-thumbed playbook, whose tenets have been passed down among Sudanese officers since 1958.