That veneer of accountability sums up the grim state of Sudan’s fragile political moment. Bashir was brought down in April after protesters took to the streets for months, clamoring for his exit and a transition to a civilian government in the country. Their pressure compelled Bashir’s former allies in Sudan’s security apparatus to remove him from power. But in the weeks since, the junta that replaced Bashir has cracked down on the protest movement and political opposition with brutality reminiscent of the horrors unleashed in Darfur, where government-backed militias carried out hideous slaughters of predominantly non-Arab communities between 2003 and 2008.
On June 3, soldiers from the Rapid Support Forces, or the RSF, a notorious paramilitary group, attacked protesters in Khartoum, ransacking a central site that the pro-democracy movement had occupied for months. At least 128 were killed, according to the main protest organization. Reports continue to surface of militia forces dumping bodies in the Nile, while subjecting protesters to rape, beatings and other acts of torture. A nationwide clampdown on the Internet followed, shutting off many of the avenues the opposition had to share information with each other and the outside world.
“Now that the sit-in site . . . is in ashes, there is an overwhelming feeling of isolation,” journalist Zeinab Mohammed Salih wrote in a BBC dispatch this week. “Not only are the demonstrators no longer able to gather, but they have found it difficult to communicate and share their disappointment, frustration and anger at the turn of events.”
The junta’s de facto leader is Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who’s also known as Hemeti. Hamdan is no would-be democrat — he’s the head of the RSF, which, before being rebranded, rampaged through Darfur as the infamous Janjaweed militia. Now, as Declan Walsh of the New York Times reported, Hamdan is trying to present himself as a savior. Over the weekend, he took an armed convoy to a rally 40 miles outside the capital, where supporters greeted him with chants celebrating army rule.
“If I did not come to this position, the country would be lost,” Hamdan told the Times, denying responsibility for the slaughter of protesters while also blaming the opposition for goading security forces. “People say Hemeti is too powerful and evil,” he added. “But it’s just scaremongering. My power comes from the Sudanese people.”
In public remarks, Hamdan has panned the protesters and appeared to renege on earlier deals made between the junta — known as the Transitional Military Council — and the main opposition groups. A central sticking point remains the composition of a transitional legislative body that would eventually pave the way for fresh elections. Activists fear Hamdan and Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the more senior face of the junta, may move to appoint a parallel body and further erode what hope there is for a civilian-led democracy. Ethiopian attempts to broker a way forward appear to have made little headway.
“There is a total impasse. The negotiations have been suspended, Internet services remain blocked, and the Ethiopian mediations apparently did not make progress,” Dura Gambo, an activist with the Sudanese Professionals Association, the lead protest group, told the Associated Press. Despite the violence, the opposition is planning on reviving its campaign with nighttime vigils and marches in the country’s cities.
International pressure is slowly mounting on the junta. Western governments are demanding it account for the killings this month. “We believe very strongly there has to be an independent, credible investigation to figure out what exactly happened, why it happened, who gave the orders, how many victims there were,” U.S. Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Tibor Nagy told journalists in Ethiopia last week.
“It is clear that the responsibility lies with the Transitional Military Council (TMC) as the authority in charge of protecting the population,” a group of European Union foreign ministers said in a statement on Monday, which hailed the “historic opportunity” posed by the protest movement and added to the calls for an independent investigation.
Hamdan and his allies have so far rebuffed those demands. In their camp are a conspicuous crop of Arab autocracies — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The two Gulf monarchies, in particular, are invested in preserving the military regime; Hamdan recently visited Riyadh and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are instead driven by their own fear that should a major Arab country transition to democracy, it would lead to upheavals at home,” Iyad El-Bagdhadi, an Arab pro-democracy activist, wrote earlier this month. He added that “as long as the military junta has political and financial support from the Saudis and the Emiratis, it will have little reason to back down.”
That’s all the more galling when set against the horrors associated with Hamdan’s career. Niemat Ahmadi, the founder of the Washington-based Darfur Women Action Group, described Hamdan to Today’s WorldView as a “bandit” who gained notoriety amid Bashir’s vicious response to the rebellion in Darfur. The lack of real justice for the government’s actions in Darfur, she argued, underlies what’s happening now.
“The reason Hemeti grew prominent was because of the people he killed, the number of villages he destroyed, the many women who were raped,” Ahmadi said. “Now, they repeated whatever they did in Darfur in Khartoum.”
She said that “the TMC was not as confident until Saudi [Arabia] and [the] UAE came into play,” referring to the assurances of support and billions in promised security aid that Hamdan and Burhan procured after removing Bashir.
The two gulf powers may be offering him some lessons in messaging too. In his interview with the Times, Hamdan was unapologetic, styling his forces as the guarantors of national stability — a mantra often preached in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. “The country needs the Rapid Support Forces more than the Rapid Support Forces need the country,” he said.
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