By Annisa Essack
April saw Sudanese citizens overthrew dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled for 30 years and was previously indicted for war crimes and genocide in Darfur. After the ousting of al-Bashir, military leaders claimed they would support democracy and reportedly came up with a plan to share political power with the Sudanese people.
However, one of the main differences between the military leaders and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which led the civilians’ move toward a democracy, is that the SPA wanted a long transition period to give the country time to prepare for an election, while the military wanted to take a vote in nine months.
With those alleged disagreements, the military reportedly took hold of the temporary government it had formed, and the Sudanese people held a protest. Even though their protest was a nonviolent strike, on June 3, the military reportedly responded violently. The World Health Organization reports that the military killed 52 protestors and injured 700 others, but civilian reports claim those numbers are much higher and bodies were thrown into the Nile River.
Also, many women have reportedly been singled out, raped, and had their underwear stolen as a “war trophy,” according to media outlets and human rights organisations. A protest leader is reported to have said, “The [militia] knows that if they break the women, they break the revolution. In this culture, there is no greater punishment for women than sexual crimes.”
In an attempt to keep people from reporting the military for the attack and to keep people from asking for help from other countries, the military reportedly shut down the internet across Sudan.
Theses pictures sadly conjure up the bloody spectre of Egypt. But this is not merely a civil war.
“We are stuck in the middle of the proxy war,” said Reem Abbas, a local journalist.
“We don’t even know who our enemy is. It may be an entire region with interests here that we are fighting against,” she added.
The biggest concern, she said, was the impact of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who sent a $3bn aid package to prop up the military authorities as soon as Bashir was toppled.
The two Gulf states have ties with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and his deputy, the head of the RSF Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemitte”, due to Sudan’s participation in the Gulf-led war in Yemen.
At any point as many as 14,000 Sudanese militiamen, many from the Janjaweed, have been fighting for the Saudis and the Emirates against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.
The Saudis and particularly the Emirates, who lost 45 men in a rebel missile attack on an arms depot in 2015, are loath to lose any more of their own soldiers and so have turned to allies and mercenaries. That troop support is likely at the heart of the Gulf’s interest in keeping Sudan from civil war and the country’s transitional military council in some sort of a driving seat.
How would the Gulf react if a new civilian government in Sudan decided to pull all troops from Yemen and decimate the Janjaweed, by holding it accountable for the horrific crimes its men allegedly committed in areas like Darfur?
The other, more innocuous and mundane interest in Sudan is vegetables!
Over the years food-insecure Gulf countries have been buying up swaths of Sudan’s fertile ground along the river Nile, outsourcing growth of food crops to keep their growing populations alive.
Most recently, in July 2016, the Sudanese parliament approved an agricultural bill allowing Saudi Arabia to cultivate 1 million acres of land in eastern Sudan, less than a day’s sail from the Saudi port of Jeddah.
Investors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Egypt and Kuwait have acquired huge areas of land to produce food crops, animal feed and biofuels.
It is a known fact that investors from Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi are battling to secure another 8.5 million acres of land in deals which are under negotiation. Sadly, the mass land grabs, and overuse of Sudan’s resources like water, has meant one of the most fertile countries in Africa is struggling to feed its own people.
That has fuelled hunger protests that together with myriad other grievances snowballed into the revolution which toppled Bashir.
Herein lies the question of whether a democratic, civilian government, will be willing to sign over more of Sudan’s resources or even honour corrupt deals already in play?
Lurking in the background are security concerns from countries like Egypt, which will no doubt be concerned by yet another security breakdown along its borders.
Egypt is struggling to keep its western borders secure as Libya descends into its third civil conflict in less than a decade. It is battling insurgents and jihadis in North Sinai and trying to stop the complete collapse of the Gaza Strip further east, and so will not want a flood of refugees from the south if Sudan topples into yet another civil war.
So, can the West provide hope for the Sudanese crisis?
The short answer is a resounding NO! Despite the demands for a smooth transition to civilian rule, countries like the US will likely take the lead from their Gulf partners. Americans’ top diplomat in Khartoum arrived in Washington in May to brief government officials and experts about what was going on in Sudan.
Many believe that the US will align with the interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have provided military, financial and diplomatic support for Hemitte and the junta, to help it hold on to power.
So what hope is there for the protesters in the middle of this?
Some have invested some belief in Ethiopia’s PM Abiy Ahmed, who is regarded as a moderate and inclusive force in the region, and who may be able to bridge the gaping void between the protesters and the security apparatus while batting off outside influences.
He was in the troubled country last Friday for a short visit where he called for a “quick” transition. But no deal was struck. His departure saw two opposition figures he met – Ismail Jallab, secretary general of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N), and the armed group’s spokesperson Mubarak Ardol – being detained.
On Sunday, meanwhile, protesters taking part in the first day of a new civil disobedience campaign were teargassed by riot police in the capital.
Zack Vertin, in his book "A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World's Newest State, so eloquently states: "There are no easy answers in South Sudan. It is hard—and in many ways, too early—to draw conclusions about the country’s fate. The task of forging a viable state will continue, even though the country is now worse off than it was on the occasion of its euphoric birth. But that doesn’t mean that popular self-determination, and the realization of independence were mistakes in and of themselves. The story of South Sudan is one of triumph and one of despair; but above all, it is an unfinished story and one that need not end in tragedy."