Civil society groups are warning that Sudan's October 25th coup could reignite ethnic cleansing against people in Darfur and non-Muslim Black African minorities. In addition, women are being targeted as the military and Islamists regain control of the country.
As reported in ICN, the Khartoum coup has been instigated by Sudan's military leaders working with Islamists from the former regime of Omar Bashir, overthrown in 2019. Sudan watchers point to the role of General Dagalo, known as Hemedti, who was the deputy chair of the now defunct Transitional Military Council. Hemedti began his career in the Janjaweed, the mainly Arab militia responsible for the genocide of Black African Sudanese in Darfur. He rebranded the Janjaweed as the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group involved in the brutal suppression of peaceful civilian protests during the people's revolution of April 2019.
Hemedti is the link between the military and China, which has oil interests in Sudan and was a faithful backer of Bashir's regime. While other international actors condemned the October 25th coup, China urged dialogue, rather than the reinstatement of the transitional government.
Analysts say that since the downfall of Bashir, Hemedti has sown discord to stir up ethnic grievance in a bid to undermine the move to a free and democratic society. In 2019, the transitional government inherited an economy in ruins. Sudan watchers say it has been sabotaged by elements of the old Islamist regime who had personal financial interests in businesses connected to corrupt government procurement and a web of military-owned companies. The old regime has also resisted the progressive drift of the transitional government (e.g. signing international laws on human and women's rights, and overtures to Israel) and it has provoked economic chaos through currency manipulation.
According to Sudan specialist Gill Lusk, "Recent moves by the civilian cabinet to send Beshir [sic] and other leaders to the International Criminal Court for trial over genocide in Darfur threatened all senior Islamists, many of whom are in goal in Sudan. Once the evidence of their atrocities was exposed in public, they too could find themselves at the Hague or on trial in Sudan. It was time to act."
The Makings of a Regional Mess
China's reaction, urging dialogue, is in stark contrast with the immediate condemnation offered by the Biden administration, the EU, France, Germany and even the normally cautious African Union and the Arab League. The USA has paused the transfer of $700 million of aid.
Sudan watchers fear that the military/Islamist coup would not have gone ahead without the approval of regional powers like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter two bankrolled Bashir for years, and all three regimes are alleged to have a vested interest in stopping Sudan's planned elections. It is doubtful that these countries want genuinely free and fair elections in a majority Arab and Muslim country.
Also of concern is an escalation in the regional war of words with Ethiopia about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which, Cairo believes, will disrupt Nile water reaching Egypt. The Sudanese military and the South Sudan regime are believed to have sided with Cairo in the GERD dispute.
Egypt has followed Saudi Arabia's lead in calling for self-restraint, rather than defending the transitional government, democratic transformation or the Constitutional Declaration of 2019. Meanwhile, in contrast, Ethiopia pointedly "reiterates the need for the respect of the sovereign aspirations of the people of Sudan and the non-interference of external actors in the internal affairs of the Sudan."
The Civilian Response
Since the coup, thousands of protesters have been met with tear gas and bullets. There are ten confirmed deaths and hundreds of injuries, but with the internet and phone lines cut, it is hard to establish the scale of the military reaction. At least 400 soldiers allegedly invaded a student dormitory on the night of October 25th, torturing students. There are reports that civilian members of the government have been beaten by their captors.
The heavy-handed tactics of the former regime are familiar to Sudan's Black African minorities in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. They now fear a resumption of Bashir's sustained ethnic cleansing campaign. Suzanne Jambo, leader of the STEPS civil society group, warns that "human rights violators in Sudan will continue to kill Darfurians and other marginalized communities in Sudan." She also warns against the destabilizing factors in the Horn and east Africa region.
Sonja Miley from the human rights NGO, Waging Peace, points to a disturbing video of a woman "surrounded by uniformed men who were ferociously beating her with long batons as she walked down a Khartoum street in broad daylight." The UK's Sudanese Doctors' Union reports that "the University of Khartoum female residential blocks have been attacked and girls have been accosted and beaten."
A Sudanese woman told Waging Peace, "Sudanese people continue to fight peacefully the counter revolution and the brutal military coup in Sudan. They deserve urgent support from Sudan friends, human rights defenders and the international community." Meanwhile, the Sudanese Doctors' Union-UK warns of "hundreds of casualties and many fatalities."
Rebecca Tinsley's novel about Sudan, When the Stars Fall to Earth, is available in English and Arabic.