Too soon for Sudan's Christians and minorities to celebrate

  • Rebecca Tinsley

Omar al-Bashir

Omar al-Bashir

Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who presided over the destruction of dozens of churches and the deaths of an estimated two and a half million people from religious and ethnic minorities, has been overthrown in a military coup. On Thursday afternoon, the defence minister, General Awan Ibn Auf, announced that a transitional military council would rule Sudan for the next two years. Although he promised elections would follow, civil society leaders and Sudanese diaspora are unconvinced their new military rulers will be any different from Field Marshall Bashir.

The 11 April coup follows four months of pro-democracy protests in cities across Sudan. The peaceful demonstrations, organised by the Sudanese Professionals Association, were met with deadly force, killing more than 70 people. However, this week, junior army officers chose to side with protesters against Sudan's hard-line intelligence and security services. Their actions influenced the response of their senior officers, who appear to have subsequently won a stand-off with the Islamist security services.

Sudan observers welcome the end of Bashir's three decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule. However Sudanese diaspora today warn that the new transitional council consists of the same corrupt and fundamentalist military officers who kept Bashir in power for three decades. Attending a gathering of British Sudanese today, Sonja Miley from the human rights group Waging Peace said that people there feel betrayed by the turn of events. "They see through what appears to be staged politics. Yet again, their revolution has been hijacked."

Bashir, an Islamist, used systematic violence and ethnic cleansing to impose Sharia law on Christians, leading to two million deaths and the secession of South Sudan. He is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide in Darfur, during which an estimated 500,000 civilians have died.

Sudan's civil society leaders are sceptical about the promises of generals who, they say, have worked beside Bashir for years. Protesters have rejected Awan Ibn Auf's declaration, pointing out he is under sanction by the USA for his role in the massacre of civilians in Darfur. Like Bashir, he is indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court, as is the new ruling party chair. It is thought that Bashir agreed to step down on condition that he was replaced by figures who are also wanted for genocide, thereby guaranteeing he will not be extradited to The Hague.

Lord Alton, who has campaigned on Sudan since he visited Darfur at the height of the killing, commented:

"The hallmark of President Bashir's genocidal rule has been the persecution of Christians and the merciless ethnic cleansing of black African Sudanese citizens. Until the transitional authorities in Khartoum distance themselves from the fundamentalist Islamism of the past 30 years, there is no guarantee the Sudanese will enjoy a peaceful, free and prosperous future. The international community must demand that Sudan abides by its commitments to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which it is a signatory. We must not be shy in holding the new rulers in Khartoum to account."

Maddy Crowther from Waging Peace, an NGO that has worked on Sudan for fifteen years, commented:

"The Sudanese people have achieved a remarkable victory over a corrupt, genocidal and authoritarian leader. However, the current situation does not represent a genuine break with the past. The people will not accept musical chairs between army top brass. They want to establish Sudan on a fundamentally different social contract based on respect for human rights, dignity and equal citizenship. The international community must safeguard the people's interests, not those of the leaders who now claim to rule in their name."

Reacting to the news from Sudan, diaspora groups are said to increasingly hold the U.K. and USA responsible for propping up Bashir's regime during his decades in power. Western countries have been criticised by human rights groups for cooperating with the Khartoum authorities to reduce the flow of migrants across Sudan and Libya to the Mediterranean coast. In addition, Saudi Arabia has supported Bashir's regime, while thousands of Sudanese soldiers have fought for Saudi interests in Yemen.

One of Bashir's legacies is the rupture of Sudan into two parts, following Khartoum's war against the Christian and animist black African citizens who lived in what was the southern third of Sudan. After a long and bloody insurgency, leading to a referendum held due to intense international pressure, South Sudan became the world's newest nation in 2011. Only two years after independence, conflict erupted between supporters of the President, Salva Kiir, and his Vice President, Riek Machar. The clash of personalities was said by Sudan observers to be partly fuelled by the covert interference of the Khartoum regime.

Diplomats have also taken the unusual step of repeatedly expressing disgust at the unbridled greed of South Sudan's leaders. It is estimated that the country's ruling elite has stolen $5 billion of aid and oil revenues since 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed. South Sudan remains one of the least developed countries in the world. A teenage girl in South Sudan is more likely to die in pregnancy than graduate from primary school.

This week, the Vatican is attempting to bring Kiir and Machar together at a spiritual retreat in Rome, appealing to them to put the interests of their long-suffering people ahead of their personal self-enrichment. The Catholic Church in South Sudan has led the way in peace-making on a village-by-village basis, trying to reconcile ethnic groups that have been incited to violence by supporters of Kiir and Machar. A peace deal signed last year will theoretically lead to a transitional government in May. Church leaders from South Sudan are in attendance, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who proposed the retreat, has described it as heralding a possible "step on the journey." Pope Francis is scheduled to meet the leaders during their retreat, and to make a statement.

Rebecca Tinsley visited Darfur in 2004, and has campaigned for human rights there ever since. Her novel 'When the Stars Fall to Earth', is about Sudan.

Tags: Sudan, Rebecca Tinsley, Omar al Bahir, South Sudan

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