by Aspelta for The Saker Blog
Several months of mass protests in Sudan have succeeded in ousting the thirty-year presidency of Omar Al Bashir and gaining significant international attention, with a Transitional Military Council now in place comprised of many leading officials from Bashir’s government. With negotiations between protesters and the council stalling, and with the council itself divided between military officials and the leadership of independent militias such as the Janjaweed, the country appears to be growing only more divided as the threat of state collapse and possibly open civil war looms. For the leaders of the protest movement, the future of the country largely remains in their hands – namely in how they proceed to deal with the military council and whether they can reach an accommodation. By continuing on their current path – making somewhat unrealistic demands for an immediate transfer to civilian government – a protracted conflict and the eventual quashing of hopes for reform are effectively guaranteed. An understanding of the current threats to national security, the nature of the external actors which have interests in seeing certain outcomes from a transition of power in Sudan, and the broader national interest, are all vital for the protest movement to move forward and reach an accord with the Military Council for the benefit of both parties.
It is critical to understand that the military has legitimate concerns, both for national security and for their personal security, which must be addressed if any sort of agreement can be reached. For officials personally, amnesty from trial for actions which a new republican government may term crimes against the state committed under the Bashir presidency and since remains essential to them reaching any agreement. This is critical for both the military themselves, and the leadership of the Janjaweed (Rapid Support Forces) and paramilitary forces responsible for the killings in Darfur and what is today South Sudan. By threatening these individuals with trial, and very likely imprisonment, execution and a repossession of their assets, the protesters are ensuring that these powerful individuals will be forced to employ all means at their disposal to prevent any sort of transition of power – which they will equate with an imminent threat to their own and their families’ personal survival.
Regarding national security concerns, officials in the military and intelligence will naturally be weary that the coming to power of a republican government based on a Western style system will lead to a serious undermining of the state’s security apparatus, even if temporary, which will leave the state vulnerable to external intervention by hostile states outside the country. States with their eye on Sudan’s resources, which would likely seek to exploit the deposing of the security forces and coming to power of an inexperienced civilian government, are many. Foremost among these are the Western Bloc states – namely Western European powers and the United States – which have for decades benefitted from fostering instability and division within the country. Admittedly, the policies of the Nimeiri and Bashir governments took few measures to counter Western attempts to foster separatism and foment armed rebellion in the country. Sudanese security officials and the former president have repeatedly alluded to the Western Bloc’s aspirations to “split Sudan into five countries,” all weak states and dependencies on the Western Bloc which are beholden to Europe and the United States in their foreign policymaking. Given both Western actions against the Sudanese state in previous decades, including the alleged backing of militants in Darfur and South Sudan which, due to improper and overly heavy-handed responses by the government in Khartoum sparked major conflicts, and considerable Western support for protests today, it is evident that the Western Bloc seeks an undermining of the Sudanese state through the grievances of the protestors. From messages of solidarity from Google executives, to vocal support from officials such as President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, strong comparisons are drawn to the Libyan protests of 2011, the Umbrella Revolution and Tiananmen Square incident among other examples. While the latter two failed to cripple the Chinese state as their sponsors desired, the devastating results for neighboring Libya which saw thousands of Sudanese workers brutally executed by Western backed militias are evident. The government in Khartoum appears considerably more fragile than even Tripoli did at that time, much less Beijing, which makes the Western threat particularly dire.
The second threat comes from Egypt in the north, which not only occupies a part of Sudanese territory the size of Slovenia or Israel in the Hala’ib triangle, but has also long perceived its former colony and its people with some degree of contempt and sought to assert its authority to shape Sudan into part of its sphere of influence. Access to the Sudanese resource base on favorable terms is also considered a potentially invaluable lifeline for the struggling Egyptian economy, which suffers the effects of endemic corruption, environmental decline and serious overpopulation due to uncontrolled growth. For all its faults, the Omar Al Bashir government strongly denounced Egyptian meddling in Sudan’s internal affairs, its occupation and more recent exploration for fossil fuels in the Hala’ib triangle, and its demands that Khartoum alter its foreign policy to align with Egyptian interests. Egypt seeks to engineer the coming to power of a government, whether republican or military, which is weak enough that it need comply with Cairo’s demands – whether in foreign policy, in economic concessions or in acquiescence to Egyptian territorial claims. Egypt’s strong support for the Transitional Military Council, where Arab Gulf States have supported the power of various militias in particular the Janjaweed, indicates that Cairo seeks a stable dependency in Sudan.
The Arab Gulf States for their part, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have a primary interest in ensuring continued Sudanese participation in their ongoing war effort against Iranian backed Ansurullah coalition forces in Yemen. Sudanese forces have taken the bulk of casualties against coalition units in Yemen, and formed a valuable frontline which has shielded the casualty averse gulf troops from attack. Attesting to the importance of the Sudanese presence to the war effort, a member of a Sudanese contingent in Yemen, Mohamed Suleiman al-Fadil stated in a recent interview with the New York Times: “Without us (Sudanese forces), the Houthis would take all of Saudi Arabia, including Mecca.” Gulf states have in turn provided considerable economic assistance aimed at propping up the Military Council and in particular its deputy leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – commander of Janjaweed forces. As pressure from the protests continues to grow, the Military Council’s reliance on assistance from the Gulf and resulting weakness and lack of independence will only grow.
Ultimately the protest movement in Sudan must recognize that by setting unreasonable demands and working against rather than seeking to cooperate with the government, the state overall is weakened which benefits only external powers. The three factions which today strive for power, the militias led by the Janjaweed, the military and the protestors, are all increasingly forced into a greater dependency on their external sponsors – the Arab Gulf States, Egypt and the Western Bloc respectively. As the parties continue to weaken one another through conflict, this ensures that whichever triumphs it will be a considerably weaker and less sovereign government than that of Omar Al Bashir which preceded it – which for all its faults remained largely independent in its foreign policymaking.
Should the protest movement proceed on its current trajectory, all three parties will continue to be weakened and the serious undermining or collapse of Sudanese statehood for the interest of external powers will become a real possibility. It is thus in the interests of both the nation and the protest movement to propose more reasonable terms to the military council which can unify the interests of both parties for the sake of the national interest. This can include formation of a transitional council comprised of a balance of military officials and civilian leaders selected by the protest movement – perhaps in an assembly with 55:45 representation. Demands must be not for the ousting and punishment of officials, which remain wholly unacceptable, but rather for the reform of the state to better suit national interests. A joint military-civilian government which prioritizes the protection of national sovereignty, economic and military modernization, and the protection of the rights of all ethnic groups, remains a viable alternative to protracted and seemingly unending conflict. The latter point remans particularly vital, given the use of ethnic conflict by the Western Bloc to undermine the state and the alienation of many parts of the country from the political process by the Omar Al Bashir government which increased polarization and fueled separatist sentiments. An enshrined equality for these groups, and guaranteed representation in whatever council or assembly governs the state, will be key to reducing chances of civil war and undermining Western efforts to support separatism. (A similar approach was taken by Indonesian revolutionary forces in 1945, and guaranteed participation in the political process and parliamentary representation for all ethnic groups was key to undermining Western efforts to foster division and recolonize the country.)
Finally, it is important for the protest movement not to assume that the only alternative to the corruption and stagnation of the Omar Al Bashir and Gaafar Nimeiry years is a Western style liberal democracy. States which pursue such a course in an atmosphere of serious national security threats and from a position of economic underdevelopment have almost without exception failed – with often severe consequences. A progressive and nationalist party state or military government, however, poses a far more viable alternative. The Chinese CCP, DPRK’s Worker’s Party, South Korea’s Park Chung Hee military government, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew military government and Taiwan’s Jiang Jieshi and Jiang Jing Kuo military governments are all prime examples, some of the few, of third world states which have managed to quickly modernize and progress while retaining sovereignty and self-determination despite considerable national security threats. The writer suggests that it is by looking to these examples, and certainly not to the Western Bloc whose models have provided repeated failure and whose policies towards Sudan are demonstrably hostile, that a brighter, more secure and more prosperous future for the Sudanese state can be achieved.
Aspelta is a former resident of Sudan (2018) writing under pseudonym. Well known defence and security analyst with over 900 publications widely cited in over a dozen languages. Expert on international politics specialising in East Asia and U.S. foreign policy.