Protests are continuing following the formation of a military-led transitional government.
Rabat – After months of protests, state television and radio all over Sudan interrupted regular programming on Thursday to allow the military to make a statement. Defense Minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf announced that President Omar al-Bashir had been taken to a “safe place” after the “toppling of the regime.” After 30 years of authoritarian rule, Bashir is out.
Tens of thousands poured into the streets of Khartoum, many chanting, “It has fallen, we won.”
In his broadcast, Ibn Auf announced the formation of a military-led transitional government set to rule for two years. In the short term, the military has also instated a three-month national state of emergency, a ceasefire, the closure of Sudanese airspace for 24 hours, and closure of the borders until further notice.
According to AP, eyewitnesses said the military has deployed units at key sites around Khartoum with armored tanks and vehicles early Thursday morning. The military has also imposed a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. which defiant protestors have largely ignored.
The Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), speaking for thousands of protestors, have rejected Ibn Auf’s move as a “military coup” and vowed to continue their demonstrations until a civilian transitional government is established and given power.
The chants on the streets have quickly turned to include, “Fall, again,” an indictment of the new military leadership as no different from al-Bashir’s regime.
Culmination of months of protests
The protests in Sudan began on December 19 in the northern town of Atbara and rapidly spread throughout the country. Initially sparked by economic issues, including increases in food and fuel prices and cash shortages, the protests quickly began calling for al-Bashir to step down.
The SPA has led the protests in association with a number of smaller groups and has managed to keep them highly organized.
Women, in particular, have been at the forefront of the protests. An image of a woman in Khartoum leading a crowd of protestors in a chant of “Revolution” has become the identifying image of the movement after going viral on Twitter.
In February, al-Bashir declared a year-long state of emergency and replaced all state governors with members of the army and security forces.
The demonstrations reached their climax on April 6, the 34th anniversary of the nonviolent Sudanese uprising against dictator Gaafar Nimeiri.
In the four months of protests, government forces have killed between 45 and 60 people by firing on protestors and has arrested hundreds more.
Last week, protesters in Khartoum converged on the compound housing the Ministry of Defense, army headquarters, and al-Bashir’s personal residence. With their numbers growing daily, they kept a 24-hour presence at all three locations, alternating shifts when necessary.
Al-Bashir ordered his forces to disperse the demonstrators, but, according to the leak-prone security elite, there were internal divisions about how to do so.
Security and paramilitary forces fired into the crowd while some army units rallied to defend the protestors. Since Saturday, security forces have killed 22, including 5 soldiers who were defending the protestors. At least one officer defected to join the protestors—an early sign that the army would turn against al-Bashir.
Fears of civil war
Sudan has two precedents of peaceful popular uprisings which removed military rulers: The removal of Ibrahim Abboud in 1964 and that of Gaafar Nimeiri in 1985. Both managed to stay peaceful in large part because of swift and decisive action taken by the army which chose to side with the people. But, the situation has the potential to go differently today.
The divisions within military forces could make the coming weeks messy. There are numerous groups in addition to the army operating within Khartoum alone, each with separate commands and many with ties to foreign countries.
These groups include the National Intelligence and Security Service led by “ruthless spy chief” Salah Gosh with ties to the UAE, an Islamist militia with ties to Qatar, and at least two separate paramilitary groups.
There is real danger of opposing forces in security and militia turning their weapons on each other, said BBC World Service Africa editor Will Ross.
Amidst uncertainty, the international response has primarily encouraged calm. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for “utmost restraint by all” and expressed hope that the transition moving forward would meet the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people.
Both the African Union and UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt condemned the military takeover while Amnesty International Secretary General Kumi Naidoo said he is “alarmed by the raft of emergency measures” the military instituted.
But there are some who worry that the international community will fail to intervene to the extent which is necessary. The executive director of Tufts University’s World Peace Foundation, Alex de Waal, expressed fears that the caution shown by Western powers in the wake of conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Yemen “risks missing the slender opportunity for snatching solution from the teeth of potential calamity.”
Fears are especially high because Sudan already has roughly five ongoing civil conflicts and was only held together by tightly controlled power in the hands of an authoritarian leader.
Who is al-Bashir?
The 75-year-old al-Bashir ruled for 30 years, ever since he seized power in 1989 in an Islamist-backed coup. A former military leader who came to power in the midst of Sudan’s 21-year civil war between the North and South, al-Bashir always focused his public image around his military power. He often dressed in military uniform when appearing in public.
The large part of his power base lies with the armed forces—so it makes sense that he was forced to step down as soon as he lost the military’s loyalty.
The International Criminal Court indicted al-Bashir in 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The crimes include counts of genocide, murder, extermination, forcible transfer, rape, torture, attacks on civilians, and the pillaging of towns and villages. After the ICC indicted him, it issued an international arrest warrant.
Now that al-Bashir is no longer in power, there are many questions in the international community about whether he will finally have to face the ICC. Naidoo called for him to be held responsible, saying, “Al-Bashir is wanted for some of the most odious human rights violations of our generation and we need to finally see him held accountable.”
The overthrow of al-Bashir marks the second time in less than a month that a North African leader has been removed from power. President Bouteflika of Algeria stepped down after two decades in power following mass protests.