Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir brutally crushed dissent during the three decades he ruled the North African nation. But his overthrow in April hasn’t ushered in peace. Instead, the military council that replaced him is accused of some of the worst-ever violence in the capital, Khartoum. A crackdown on June 3 left more than 100 protesters dead after talks between the military and opposition on forming a civilian government stalled. Now targeted with arrest or worse by a powerful militia, Sudan’s fledgling pro-democracy movement risks being snuffed out.
1. How did Sudan get here?
The coup against Bashir on April 11 followed four months of nationwide protests over soaring prices for food, medicine, fuel and transportation in which scores of people died. When the the 75-year-old ruler, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and genocide in the western region of Darfur, refused to step down, some of his erstwhile allies from the military and security forces pushed him out. They promised to hand over power to civilians within two years, but protesters -- skeptical that a group comprising Bashir’s old guard would deliver democracy -- have kept up demonstrations to demand an immediate transition. A general strike that began June 9 has brought much of Khartoum to a standstill.
2. Who will succeed Bashir?
The transitional military council is headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a veteran lieutenant general, but he’s being overshadowed by his deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces, a notorious militia with roots in the Janjaweed group that terrorized Darfur. The RSF was behind the assault on protesters and is the main armed presence on Khartoum’s streets. The council insists it wants to surrender power, but talks have repeatedly foundered on the role the military would play in a transitional government.
3. Why is the world taking notice?
Few nations mourned the fall of Bashir, who seized power in 1989 and spearheaded an Islamist revolution that for a time in the 1990s turned Sudan into a haven for terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. Hopes of democratic renewal have been tempered by the fresh violence, which prompted the African Union to suspend Sudan’s membership. On the other hand, regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made no secret of their desire for a smooth transition to avoid a repeat of the upheaval that rocked the Arab world in 2011. In late April, they extended a lifeline to Sudan’s new rulers by pledging $3 billion in aid.
4. How did things get so bad in Sudan?
Sudan was engulfed in civil war for two decades before a 2005 peace deal that partitioned the country six years later. South Sudan took control over three-quarters of the oil fields, stripping the north of a large chunk of its revenue and foreign exchange. Lower crude prices have further dented income from what’s left of Sudan’s output. The government has tried to diversify the economy by encouraging mining, but it remains a fledgling industry, and the bulk of the country’s 40 million people depend on subsistence agriculture. Sudan is among the world’s poorest nations, ranking 167th out of 189 countries on the UN Development Program’s human development index.
5. Where is this heading?
After crushing the Khartoum sit-in, Hamdan’s militia and the security forces have continued arresting protesters and prominent opposition members, and moved to break up the general strike. But the council isn’t monolithic, and other elements of Bashir’s former regime within it may also be jockeying for control. International pressure may play a role too. The U.S., which had appeared to take a back seat, has condemned the assault on protesters. The premier of neighboring Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, visited June 7 in an attempt to broker a solution.
6. What’s the economic impact?
Beyond humanitarian concerns, there are trade issues involved. Prior to the south’s succession, Sudan ranked as sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil exporter, and it still produced 72,000 barrels of oil a day in 2017. It also serves as a conduit for all crude produced in the south. Sudan’s government has signed an accord with Russia’s Rosneft Oil Co. and Rosgeologiya OAO to build a 200,000-barrel-a-day refinery at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. The country is also the world’s biggest exporter of gum arabic, a sap that’s extracted from acacia trees and used in sodas and pharmaceuticals.
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