Note: This post was written by David L. Phillips. Mr. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
Replacing Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir with a military transition council does not advance democracy or create conditions for sustainable peace. Real reform requires eliminating military representatives from political leadership. Sending Sudan’s war criminals to face charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague is the only way to purge the country of its calcified and corrupt leadership.
The exercise of people power started in Atbara on December 19, when Sudanese went to the streets protesting a decision by the Government to cut food and fuel subsidies. The price of bread increased threefold and fuel prices spiked. Protests against the National Congress Party (NCP) spread to Khartoum and across the country. They were led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), composed of doctor’s, women, and youth groups as well as mainstream opposition parties.
Popular outrage was aggravated by Sudan’s economic collapse. Corruption, currency depreciation, capital flight, and mismanagement of the country’s natural resources are drivers of the conflict. Lack of democracy and abuse of human rights also contributed to popular grievances. For decades, Sudan has been consumed by conflict from Darfur to the Nuba Mountains.
The armed forces, police, and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces responded with violent repression. They beat protesters exercising their right to assembly and freedom of expression, firing on the people with live ammunition, stun grenades and tear gas.
Bashir’s heavy-handed crackdown compounded the crisis. He imposed a year-long state of emergency, dissolving the federal and state governments and replacing all 18 state governors with cronies and military officials. Bashir promised to investigate tactics of the police. However, the Freedom and Change Forces (CFC) – a coalition of civil society groups – rejected appeasement, demanding an independent, impartial, and public investigation with genuine accountability. They insisted on the resignation of Bashir and a transitional government organizing credible elections.
Sudan’s military staged a coup on April 11 in a bid to forestall popular demands for Bashir’s ouster. Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Awar Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced that Bashir had been arrested and was being held “someplace safe.” Ibn Auf indicated that a military council would take control, declaring a state of emergency for three months and an immediate curfew. He suspended the constitution for two years, after which the military council would hold elections.
The CFC rejected Auf’s deceitful plan. Bashir is not in jail. He was detained at home with his family, protected by elite security services. The CFC scoffed at Auf’s curfew, viewing it as an attempt to get them off the streets and quell popular protests. They refused to disperse.
Facing determined popular will, Auf stepped down 24 hours after announcing Bashir’s arrest. He was replaced by another military man, Lt. Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman, inspector general of the armed forces. Then Sudan’s feared intelligence chief, Salah Abdallah Gosh, stepped down. Both Ibn Rauf and Gosh are implicated in militia crimes in Darfur. Both have blood on his hands as a core member of Bashir’s inner circle, which ruled violently for decades. Members of the military council may be stepping down from their posts, but they are far from relinquishing power. They want to keep the NCP security structure in place. Protesters chanted: “We do not replace a thief with a thief.”
Sudanese want institutional change, not just a leadership rotation. Measures by the military to re-arrange seats on the deck of the Titanic are a delay tactic. The CFC demands a complete end to the malign rule and endemic corruption of the NCP.
Sudanese also demand justice. They seek Bashir’s extradition to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague where he has been indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They also want Auf and Ghosh to stand trial at the ICC for orchestrating the genocide in Darfur and other crimes. The Sudanese army and militias under their command killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced 2.5 million people. The ICC has indicted Bashir and Auf was declared personal non-grata by the US government. The perpetrators of recent violence against civilians should also stand trial before an international tribunal.
The Trump administration has been a silent spectator to Sudan’s recent drama. Rather than focusing on democracy and human rights, its primary concerns are stability and Sudan’s cooperation in counter-terrorism.
Washington can help prevent further violence by publicly endorsing the need for a total make-over in Sudan. It should call for an interim civilian government to prepare the country for elections within one year. It should demand the extradition of Bashir and other war criminals to The Hague. Sudan should be kept on the list of state-sponsors of terrorism until Bashir is delivered to the ICC.
Previous US administrations raised the profile of America’s engagement by designating a Special Envoy for Sudan. Washington should appoint a Special Envoy to coordinate US policy towards Sudan at this critical moment. The US can reward Sudan’s democratic progress or intensify sanctions if the military tries to hold onto power or kills more peaceful pro-democracy protesters.