Sudan’s Sharpeville moment?
Sudan’s coup for a brief moment offered the beleaguered country hope of a democratic future. The optimism has unwound dramatically, with paramilitary forces opening fire on peaceful protestors
On June 3, Sudanese paramilitaries opened fire on a peaceful protest against military rule, gunning down more than 100 civilians in Khartoum and injuring hundreds more.
It was an event that could prove to be the country’s Sharpeville moment — and the ramifications are still rippling outwards.
Tensions in Khartoum flared up in December, when a restive population Sudanese took to the streets to protest against soaring food prices and inflation of 70%.
Taking advantage of the unrest, a faction of Sudanese generals on April 11 ousted president Omar al-Bashir, a three-decade-long dictator accused of being a genocidaire. The move appeared to offer the giant but hobbled country a real shot at redemption.
Initially, the military appeared conciliatory. When Bashir ordered intelligence services to fire on protesters, it was the regular soldiers who protested. After the coup, a transitional military council stabilised around Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. He promised no harm to peaceful demonstrators, and ordered that political prisoners be released. He started what was supposed to be a transition to civilian rule — albeit at a pace unacceptably slow for the pro-democratic bloc, which coalesced as the Forces for Freedom and Change.
Then, on June 3, it all came unstuck.
The military council admitted late last week it had ordered the crackdown on a crowd staging a sit-in outside the military headquarters, after talks between the parties had collapsed. But it seems to have been the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), under the leadership of Burhan’s deputy, Gen Mohamed Hamdan "Hemeti" Dagalo, that did most of the dirty work.
The RSF is a thinly disguised reorganisation of the feared Janjaweed — the militia held responsible for genocide in Darfur, starting in the early 2000s. Back then, it was Burhan who co-ordinated army and Janjaweed attacks against civilians in Darfur, while Hemeti, a Chadian refugee, camel trader and furniture-store owner, reportedly established himself as a Janjaweed warlord.
Patricia Huon, reporting for Libération and other French outlets from Khartoum, tells the FM that protesters simply call the RSF "Janjaweed 2".
RSF members reportedly used sjamboks against the protesters in addition to live ammunition, as well as their old terror tactic: rape. The result, over the subsequent days, was 120 dead, according to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors, with at least 40 bodies thrown into the Nile, more than 700 wounded, and about 70 people raped.
The event, says the military council, was precipitated by an impasse in negotiations: the council wanted a military-guided transition; the opposition demanded a civilian-led one. "We ordered the commanders to come up with a plan to disperse this sit-in," council spokesperson Shamseddine Kabashi told reporters. "We regret that some mistakes happened."
But the true guiding hands seem to have been powerful regional players, all of them hostile to the civilian-led Arab Spring protests that pushed the region towards democracy from late 2010.
In seeking diplomatic support after taking power, Burhan visited Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — a former military intelligence chief, like Burhan himself. Sisi, too, came to power by military coup, and is held responsible for the 2013 Rabaa massacre of more than 800 peaceful protesters.
Burhan then visited crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The UAE and Saudi Arabia, which both bankrolled Sisi’s putsch, pledged $3bn to Khartoum after the coup and have consistently backed anti-Arab Spring forces in the region, according to human rights activist Iyad el-Baghdadi, writing in The New York Times.
Meanwhile, Hemeti visited crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. "Mister Bone Saw", as the prince is known after the grisly torture-murder of The Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last year, leads the war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has precipitated a famine that is putting millions of lives at risk.
Burhan’s ties to the Saudis are close: he personally commanded a contingent of 10,000 Sudanese troops in Yemen alongside Hemeti’s RSF.
Burhan and Hemeti, it seems, returned from their diplomatic tours ruthlessly emboldened.
As with Sharpeville, the massacre of peaceful protesters drew global condemnation. And on June 6, the AU — ironically presided over by Sisi — suspended Sudan, pending a transition to civilian rule.
Like apartheid SA, however, international pressure looks set to be ignored; Hemeti’s RSF seems almost unassailable, says Huon, because the massacre is likely to have stripped the protest movement of all but its most militant youth.
Time will tell whether, as in SA, the bloodletting will turn a pacifist opposition towards armed struggle, forcing the people to hunker down for a long war of attrition — after 30 years of already repressive rule.