Sudan suspension, African Union’s bold move against strongmen

Ebrahim Hamid, AFP | African Union's envoy to Sudan Mohamed Hacen Lebatt (C) speaks with members of a delegation from the Alliance of Freedom and Change, in the Ethiopian embassy in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, on June 7, 2019.

The African Union’s suspension of Sudan over a paramilitary massacre of civilians this week has been welcomed by the international community. But can the bloc succeed in delivering African solutions to African problems?


Days after the UN Security Council failed to agree on a statement condemning the killing of civilians by Sudanese security forces, the African Union (AU) on Thursday suspended Sudan from the 55-member bloc “until the effective establishment of a civilian-led” transitional authority. In an age when the failure of multilateral organisations dominates the discourse in international policy and human rights circles, the robust response by the AU to the June 3 massacre of more than 100 civilians, according to Sudanese opposition groups, was a welcome change that caught many analysts by surprise.

“It’s one of the toughest decisions that the AU has made,” said Patrick Smith, editor of The Africa Report. “Everyone laughs at the AU, and the criticisms are valid of course, but this sends a signal about the disapprobation from Africa. Monday’s massacre in Sudan happened on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and China, Russia, India had nothing to say about it. The linking of Monday’s massacre with the decision [to suspend Sudan] is a clear statement about the disapproval from Africa.”

The censure didn’t just stop at suspension. In an excoriating, 14-point communique, the AU demanded “the immediate resumption of negotiations, without preconditions, between all Sudanese stakeholders” and warned that if the military failed to hand over power to a “civilian-led” transitional authority, the bloc would, “automatically impose punitive measures on individuals and entities obstructing the establishment” of a transitional authority.

Shortly after the decision was announced on the Twitter account of the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) -- the bloc’s equivalent of the UN’s Security Council – social media sites erupted with messages of gratitude from opposition supporters inside the country as well as the vast Sudanese diaspora displaced over decades of authoritarian rule.

“Doing the rounds: Thank you African Union, Damn you Arab League,” tweeted a former Sudanese journalist in Arabic and English.

UN passes the buck

For nearly six months, a mass but loose opposition movement across the country staged a model protest campaign, with members careful to stress that the Sudanese people appreciated international support, but were not seeking any foreign intervention in their quest for democratic freedom after 30 years of Islamist autocracy.

But following the April 11 ouster of strongman Omar al-Bashir and the formation of a Transitional Military Council (TMC), regional powers have played a disturbing and critical role in the Sudan crisis.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt were widely believed to be supporting the TMC in the military council’s bid to sideline civilian participation in the transition process.

The June 3 massacre occurred just days after Sudan’s top military leaders, Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo – a reviled former Janjaweed commander widely known by his nickname “Hemedti” – returned from trips to the UAE and Saudi Arabia respectively.

The scale of the crackdown – including bodies dumped in the Nile River, widespread rape reports and shutting down of hospitals – shocked the international community, sparking condemnations from a number of Western countries as well as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

But a UN Security Council bid to issue a statement condemning the killings failed on Tuesday, when China and Russia blocked the move at a closed door session.

China objected to the proposed text calling on Sudan's military rulers and protesters to "continue working together towards a consensual solution to the current crisis". Russia meanwhile insisted that the council should await a response from the AU, diplomats at the session told the AFP.

“The UN finds it easier to have AU cover. It’s a tactical approach because they don’t want to be seen as streaming into Africa. Their position is, let’s use the organs based in Africa, if the position spins out of control, it becomes a UN Security Council matter. But for the moment, the UN views the situation as an internal dispute,” explained Smith.

For over half-a-century, China has adopted a non-interference in the internal affairs of member states policy -- one mirrored by countries like India -- that is designed to deter international scrutiny of Beijing’s and New Delhi’s internal human rights abuses, particularly in troubled provinces.

But for the AU, the stakes are higher and closer to home.

Dangerous divisions within security ranks

Monday’s brutal crackdown -- which saw Bashir-era atrocities that were perpetuated in areas such as Darfur unleashed in the heart of the capital, Khartoum – has exposed the dangerous divisions within Sudan’s vast security-intelligence establishment.

The Sudanese regular army comprises around 180,000 troops, but under Bashir, they were sidelined by the powerful National Intelligence Security Services (NISS), whose troop figures are not public, but whose arsenal – including tanks, armoured carriers and attack helicopters – have been on display in security crackdowns in the hinterlands of Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Kodorfan.

Meanwhile Sudan’s deputy military leader Dagalo commands the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force that merged militia groups such as the Janjaweed, which committed war crimes in Darfur. Dagalo is an immensely rich man, who has business interests in the gold mining sector and has been handsomely remunerated for his troop provisions in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. His irregular fighters are also better paid and equipped than regular forces, sparking resentment among army ranks, who regard RSF troops as unprofessional hicks.

Ever since a massive protest camp was set up outside the Alqiyada al Amaah military headquarters complex in Khartoum in early April, protesters have repeatedly told journalists that lower and mid-level army soldiers and junior officers are “with the people”. Senior officers who have benefited from Bashir-era patronage networks are believed to have a vested interest in the country’s security services retaining power.

Following the June 3 crackdown by RSF forces, reports of differences among security services ranks have increased, raising the prospect of armed men turning on each other and a likely descent into civil war.

“One reason why the AU took a tougher line is because they were starting to see the real situation on the ground go very badly. The AU does not want another Libya and it does not want to be held responsible for not acting when they should have,” said Smith.

AU attempts to fulfill its mandate despite the odds

Since the April 11 ouster of Bashir, the AU’s Peace and Security Council has attempted to uphold the Sudanese people’s democratic aspirations. But the 15-member council’s efforts have been stymied by Egypt, who currently holds the 55-member bloc’s rotating presidency.

Negotiations between the TMC and the opposition started floundering in late April over the make-up of a joint military-civilian council to administer the country until elections are held.

The opposition umbrella Declaration for Freedom and Change (DFC) wanted more civilian members as well as a civilian head of the joint council. Another key DFC demand has been a three-year transition period to ensure a genuine political change, not just a takeover by cronies of the old regime in new guises.

But Egyptian President Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi succeeded in maneuvering in favour of Sudan’s military leaders by giving the TMC additional time for a power handover to civilians.

On April 15, just days after Bashir’s ouster, the AU’s Peace and Security Council issued a communique calling on the Sudanese military to “hand over power to a transitional civilian-led political authority” within a “maximum period” of 15 days.

But a week later, Sisi convened a meeting in Cairo of select African heads of state, which recommended a handover extension to three months.

Following sustained Egyptian pressure on AU members, the Peace and Security Council on April 30 extended the deadline for an additional 60 days, an extra two-month compromise that undermined the bloc’s role as a promoter of democratic principles on the continent.

Thursday’s suspension of Sudan from the AU represents another effort by the Peace and Security Council to support Sudan’s return to constitutional order and rejecting “the unilateral actions taken by the Transitional Military Council, notably the suspension of dialogue with other Sudanese stakeholders”.

While Egypt holds the current AU presidency, it is not a member of the Peace and Security Council. The AU is made up of different bodies, including the PSC, which is led by former Chadian prime minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat. Under AU rules, the council’s two-seats for the Northern African region are currently held by Algeria and Morocco.

Egypt’s Sisi plays spoiler

Sisi is unlikely to take kindly to Sudan’s suspension from the AU for political and personal reasons.

The Egyptian general-turned-president is a close associate of Sudan’s military ruler, Burhan, since the two men were classmates at a Cairo military academy.

Sisi has also experienced an AU suspension: shortly after he ousted the country’s only democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, the AU suspended Egypt for breaking constitutional order. The suspension ended a year later after Egypt held elections and passed a new constitution.

The spectre of Egypt has haunted the Sudanese opposition since the current protest movement began in December, with “No to the Egyptian outcome” and “Victory or Egypt” turning into popular chants at the Khartoum sit-in.

But parallels between the crackdowns on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the Khartoum sit-in as well as the promotion of army generals to power have increased fears that the Egyptian outcome will be Sudan’s fate.

The AU’s temporary suspension of Egypt only to re-admit the country a year later after a compromised election exposes the limits of the African bloc.

“The suspension is the strongest display of collective multilateral action regarding the situation in Sudan. But it doesn’t ensure that it will have an impact on decisions made by the TMC and other parties in Khartoum. Suspensions from multilateral organisations have happened elsewhere in the past and they have not necessarily had the desired effect,” said Richard Barltrop, a UK-based Sudan expert and author of “Darfur and the International Community”.

Most analysts believe Sisi will continue to support a fellow military man in power in Egypt’s southern neighbour. “Sisi can still try to stymie the process,” said Smith. “But there’s been a dynamic difference after the massacre. No one is inclined to give the military a chance.”

All eyes on Ethiopia's Abiy

The international community has also been forced to up the ante following Monday’s massacre.

Britain this week summoned the Sudanese ambassador in London to raise concerns about the violence while US undersecretary David Hayes had phone conversations with Saudi Defence Minister Khalid bin Salman as well as Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash over the Sudan situation this week. The US State Department’s public announcements of the phone calls were taken as a sign in policy circles that Washington -- which has appeared disengaged in African affairs since Donald Trump’s election – is engaging in the Sudan crisis.

The diplomatic spotlight right now is on Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s visit on Friday to Sudan, where he met with Burhan in a bid to broker a deal between the country’s military rulers and the opposition.

With his track record of political reforms in Ethiopia and a peace deal with Eritrea, Abiy is viewed as a credible third party negotiator in the Sudan conflict. “He’s a respected leader in the region, he’s managed his own incredibly complex transition and he’s one of the few leaders who could get an ear from the opposition and the military,” said Smith.

There’s little doubt that Abiy, or anyone in the international community, will have an uphill task convincing Sudan’s military bosses to handover power to civilian leadership and quit stalling the transition process until international attention shifts elsewhere.

The wealth and power of men like Hemedti is also a major challenge to resolving the current crisis. But the AU has shown that it’s come a long way from the “dictators’ club” moniker the bloc once had. Resource scarcity continues to plague the 55-member bloc and like all multilateral organisations, the AU’s activities are constrained by the geopolitical imperatives of its individual members. But the Sudan crisis has shown that Africa is ready to take ownership of its crises and try to realise the democratic hopes of the African people on the ground.

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