By Khalid Abdelaziz and Nafisa Eltahir
KHARTOUM – When Sudanese authorities announced last month that they had averted a coup, alleged ringleaders were swiftly rounded up and daily life continued.
Some Sudanese greeted the news with a weary shrug of the shoulders, as public trust wears thin in military and civilian groups’ attempts to bring democracy after the overthrow of long-time leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
“We understand what’s going on. Politics is very dirty and this is how they play it,” said Mujtaba Idris, a student in the capital Khartoum.
The coup, however real, has also exposed divisions between civilian and military leaders, who have been unusually vocal in criticising one another in the weeks that followed.
The outcome of the power play is likely to decide the country’s course.
Key areas of contention include justice over Darfur, where the now-imprisoned Bashir stands accused of atrocities in crushing a revolt in which some 300,000 people were killed. He denies the charges.
Also at play is the fate of a peace process aimed at ending decades of internal conflict in the country of 45 million and Sudan’s nascent reconnection with the international economy.
“It’s about who determines the next step on the road towards transition,” United Nations Sudan envoy Volker Perthes said in an interview.
CHANGE IN TUNE
Prior to news of the Sept. 21 coup attempt, civilian officials were celebrating signs that an economic crisis was easing following promises of debt relief and international financing.
Since, they have openly accused the military of a power grab, and of fomenting unrest in eastern Sudan that closed the country’s main port. As a result, Khartoum has experienced acute shortages of bread and key imported goods in recent days.
“I am sure that until now, the military component is not keen on the completion of a civilian, democratic transition,” said Madani Abbas Madani, a former trade minister and key civilian negotiator, citing what he said were military attacks on civilians in the wake of the coup plot announcement.
“They aim, by weakening the civilian authority through economic sabotage and encouraging ethnic protests … to create a reality that allows them … to take control of power in Sudan,” he told Reuters.
A senior military source rejected accusations of encroachment into civilian matters, and said: “We are keen on continuing the partnership to carry out the duties of the transition and hold elections.”
Bashir’s former generals and the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) have been sharing power in the ruling Sovereign Council since signing an agreement two years ago. Elections are expected by late 2023.
A collapse of the partnership could cripple the economy and aggravate insecurity in a country that borders Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia, among others, as well as the Red Sea.
The military has blamed recent turmoil on civilian politicking and mismanagement.
“The root of the problem is the divergence of the parties that are controlling the FFC from the transitional constitution by monopolizing power for themselves,” said the military source.
The reasons for the coup attempt and unrest in the east, he added, were the economic and political crisis and growing public anger over what he described as deteriorating services.
Some diplomats said the military was unnerved by calls for the extradition of Bashir and several others to the International Criminal Court, where they are wanted for alleged war crimes in Darfur, and demands for justice over the deaths of dozens of protesters outside army headquarters on June 3, 2019.
Some civilians also note that top commanders now leading the country participated in the Darfur war, and see them as responsible for the 2019 killings. The military denies any involvement in the deaths.
Other civilian goals include purging Bashir’s allies, seizing assets and reforming the military, including by putting its extensive economic holdings under civilian control.
A new faction of the FFC has emerged since the coup that has been more conciliatory towards the military’s position. It is led by rebel leaders Jibril Ibrahim, now minister of finance, and Minni Minawi, governor of Darfur.
Many Sudanese are exasperated at economic deterioration under the transitional government, but rejection of the coup attempt and suspicion of the military’s motives are also widespread.
Mediation attempts between the civilian and military wings have been launched, chiefly by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, but their fate is unclear.
“Once trust is broken, and it wasn’t very strong in the first place, it’s much more difficult to re-establish,” said UN envoy Perthes.
Some diplomats and analysts said agreement was possible on the handover from Sovereign Council head General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan to a civilian figure for the remainder of the transition, as well as on military restructuring.
But they added that compromise on the sensitive issue of justice was more elusive, as well as more crucial.
International pressure is being brought to bear, with a flurry of high level visitors recently, including World Bank President David Malpass and U.S. Special Envoy Jeffrey Feltman.
U.S. officials have warned that any military takeover would result in a return to the sanctions that hobbled the country under Bashir, and a rollback of debt forgiveness and international financing that are among the transition’s biggest achievements.
“Sudan’s economy is probably the most fragile component of the transition,” said Jonas Horner of the International Crisis Group. “Any turning off of these taps would have a strongly negative effect and turn the transition back a long way.”