NAIROBI — Sudan marked a major symbolic milestone Saturday as the military officers who overthrew President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April signed an agreement to share power with civilian leaders in an arrangement that sets up elections in 2022. Bashir, who ruled Sudan for 30 years, is awaiting trial, with proceedings expected to begin Monday.
The agreement to form a transitional “sovereign council” to govern the country was signed amid a celebratory mood in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Protest leader Mohammed Naji al-Assam said in a speech at the signing ceremony that the agreement begins a “new page” in Sudan’s history after Bashir’s decades of “repression and corruption.”
The council will be made up of equal numbers from the military and civilian sides, although Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who has led the country since just after Bashir’s ouster, will lead it for the first 21 months.
The council will operate at a level above the bureaucratic government, which will be led by an economist, Abdalla Hamdok, who will assume power on Sept. 1.
Hamdok represents a coalition of civilian groups known as the Forces for Freedom and Change, which includes professional associations that spearheaded nine months of nationwide street protests, playing a central role in the military’s decision to ultimately depose Bashir. While the protests began in response to a faltering economy and rising prices, they quickly morphed into a popular revolt against Bashir.
But Bashir’s removal barely quelled the protests, as many believed the military council that took power represented holdovers from his authoritarian regime.
The protests took place on a scale unprecedented in Sudan, and in Khartoum, they coalesced into a sprawling sit-in outside the military’s headquarters, where people chanted slogans, watched musical performances and decorated walls with protest art. The sit-in was violently dispersed by paramilitary elements on June 3, and protest-aligned doctors groups say nearly 130 were killed — with some victims thrown into the Nile River, which passes through Khartoum.
One of the main sticking points in the negotiations between the military and civilian leaders was whether the former would be granted immunity against prosecution that could stem from ongoing investigations into the events of June 3, as well as other violent crackdowns. Rights groups say at least 250 people have been killed by military or paramilitary forces since the protests began in December.
Sudan’s military is not a unified force. The leaders of the transitional military council hailed from the army and national and regional militias. Its deputy, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known more commonly as Hemedti, commands the Rapid Support Forces, which protesters accused of the worst of the crackdowns. Hemedti claims the June 3 crackdown was carried out by rogue elements and criminals who had stolen RSF uniforms.
The RSF has played a dubious role in Sudan’s recent history. Its forces were behind a brutal campaign in Sudan’s Darfur region during which the United Nations said 300,000 were killed and millions displaced.
That campaign resulted in charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide being brought against Bashir and other military leaders, but not Hemedti. The trial that is scheduled to begin for Bashir on Monday doesn’t relate to those charges but to financial misconduct. Bashir is still wanted by the International Criminal Court, but Saturday’s power-sharing agreement does not compel him to be turned over by the incoming government.
Hemedti has come to be seen as the man wielding real power in Sudan. The RSF has grown in the past year by tens of thousands of soldiers and is deployed across the country, as well as in huge numbers in Yemen, where its troops fight on the front lines of Saudi Arabia’s effort to beat back Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, Hemedti and his family run a massive business empire, including gold mines and airlines.
In a region where the memories of the Arab Spring’s failures are fresh, many Sudanese hope their country can buck the trend. Despite the concessions given to the military in the power-sharing deal, celebrations played out across the country, and larger ones were planned in Sudan for Saturday night.
The three-plus-year period between now and the planned elections presents a chance for a new civilian leadership to continue chipping away at three decades of military-backed rule, or for the opposite: a further entrenchment of military rule, with perhaps less pressure from relentless street protests. Many international observers remain skeptical of the prospects for a civilian-led democratic government in Sudan.
“The [military-civilian] negotiations deal only with the facade issues of the composition of the civilian organs of government and not the real sources of power: who controls the gold, the foreign exchange, and the guns,” wrote Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. “At present, Gen. Hemedti is making the Government of Sudan subordinate to his transnational mercenary and gold business. While this power hierarchy prevails, Sudan cannot achieve economic stabilization or democracy.”
Hemedti granted a rare interview to the BBC on Saturday, in which he pledged to abide by the terms of the new agreement.
“We will stick to every single letter we have agreed on,” he said. “Even without the agreement we [would] have to work in this direction because it’s in the country’s interest.”
Western and African countries have mostly backed the negotiations, pushing for the civilian leadership to hammer out an agreement with the military as quickly as possible. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, played a particularly active role in mediating the discussions between the two sides.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which borders Sudan to the north, have more forcefully backed the military leadership, hosting its members on multiple occasions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE pledged $3 billion in monetary and in-kind aid, but it is unclear how much of it has reached Sudan.
Sudan’s incoming government will be faced with immense economic hurdles, including fuel and food shortages, which provided the initial spark for the protests in December.