By Abdi Latif Dahir
The military in Sudan is in control once again, jeopardizing the country’s already fragile hopes of a successful transition to democracy.
With the resignation of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Sunday night, Sudan has no civilian government to help steer a country that was just emerging from a dictatorship that lasted three decades.
There are now fears of an escalation in the confrontations between protesters and security forces that have gripped the capital, Khartoum, and beyond in recent weeks, resulting in the deaths of at least 57 people, a doctors group said.
A vast country of about 43 million people in the northeast of Africa, Sudan has neither the political structures nor the independent political bodies in place to legitimately appoint a new prime minister, analysts said, dampening further the country’s hopes of exchanging a military dictatorship for democratic rule.
“It is very clear that the military and its alliance won’t hand over power peacefully, so they will try to crush the peaceful resistance,” said Dr. Sara Abdelgalil, a Sudanese doctor and a former president of the doctors union. “We are expecting the worst.”
Hamdok took office in 2019 in part of a power-sharing deal negotiated between civilian and military forces after widespread protests ousted the country’s longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir.
An economist, Hamdok was a novice politician who spent much of his career working for international organizations, including the African Development Bank and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
In the months after the transitional government took power, it signed a peace deal with rebel groups, outlawed female genital mutilation and was taken off a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. The changes, with Hamdok as prime minister, gave hope to many Sudanese that their nation was taking a turn for the better.
“He was an affable, grandfatherly figure who really in his person symbolized a better future,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. “He came to symbolize the hope and change of Sudan.”
But in the end, Hamdok, 66, faced the herculean task of attempting to unite the disparate actors who strove to shape Sudan’s future.
There was the military, the country’s long-dominant force, which removed him from office Oct. 25, kept him sidelined under house arrest and then reinstalled him a month later after he signed a deal with them.
There was the constellation of political parties and trade unions, many of which all along had rejected any power-sharing agreement with the military.
And then there were the protesters, who have flooded the streets since late October, despite a violent crackdown. In chants and on signs, they labeled Hamdok a “traitor” who had undermined their quest for “freedom, peace and justice.”
On Monday, the United Nations and countries including the United States called on Sudanese political leaders to patch up their differences through consensus and dialogue. U.S. Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Hamdok’s resignation “completes” the military coup of Oct. 25, and urged the military to “hand over power to elected civilian leaders.”
Sudan’s military leader, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on Monday promised to form what he called “an independent government.” He also said the military was committed to peace and holding elections, according to the Sudan News Agency. Al-Burhan’s office did not immediately respond to questions.
Experts say that inastalling a legitimate civilian government now will not be easy.
As part of a constitutional declaration signed in 2019, a legislative council would have selected a prime minister. That appointee would then be approved by the Sovereignty Council, a transitional body composed of civilian and military leaders.
But the transitional legislative council was never formed. Al-Burhan dissolved the Sovereignty Council after the coup and established a new one stacked with military appointees and their allies, said Lauren Blanchard, a specialist in African affairs with the Congressional Research Service, a research institute of the U.S. Congress.
Another option, according to the 2019 agreement, Blanchard said, would call for the Forces of Freedom and Change — which led the civilian side of the transitional government — to select a prime minister. But with the general’s crackdown on protesters, the participation of the Forces of Freedom and Change seems unlikely, she said.
With no prime minister or civilian government, the military, former rebel groups and a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces are now in control of Sudan.
Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a research group, said some of the names floated for appointment as prime minister — as the military tries to temper both international criticism and domestic protests — include a former finance minister, Ibrahim Elbadawi, and Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a human-rights activist. But both men and others are likely to decline the offers, he said, given the pressure coming from the general public.
“So, for now, it is the generals who will make the decisions,” el-Gizouli said. “If you command an army and have guns in Sudan, you now make the decision.”
Hamdok’s resignation does put increased pressure on the military, Hudson said. The generals have used Hamdok as cover, he said, shielding them from international pressure and financial sanctions targeting their extensive business networks.
But even as they paid lip service to democracy and elections, the generals undermined Hamdok’s leadership, and over the past two months, they responded with brutality to the protests of those calling for a fully democratic Sudan.