Sudan, Mahdi’s bloody legacy, holds the record number of coups d'état

It is one of the largest countries in Africa and also one of the least stable. From the beginning of independence, marked by divisions causing constant civil war. A country of military coups, Islamists and rebellions.

The Mahdist War. Who hasn't heard of Mahdi? In 1966, he was made famous by Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier in the movie "Khartoum". And 55 years earlier, by Henryk Sienkiewicz [Polish writer] in his novel "In Desert and Wilderness" [translated by M.A. Drezmal and S. Novikov, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016]. The turbulent events of the 1880s marked the beginning of the modern history of Sudan. Today, it is an independent country. Then it was a British-Egyptian condominium.

Sudan’s is one of the bloodiest stories on the African continent. Today, when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s army clashes with the troops of General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, we are seeing its latest episode. The current civil war is a consequence of the last two coups. Actually, any new war in Sudan is in some way a consequence of the previous one.

In the last 70 years Sudan experienced two long civil wars (1955-1972, 1983-2005), that finally ended with the secession of the south of the country in 2011. Added to this, it witnessed the bloody rebellion in Darfur (2003-20), the conflict in the provinces of South Kordofan and Blue Nile (2011) and violent ethnic clashes in the east of the country, between the Nuba and Beni-Amer peoples (since 2019).

Khartoum itself has been the scene of important events, from the Mahdi uprising against Egyptian-British rule, symbolized by the fall of the city in 1885, through the nationalist revolution of the White Flag League in 1924, to the 1964 revolution that established a short-lived democracy, and then the April Uprising that brought President Gaafar Nimeiry’s regime to its knees in 1985. The city survived a military coup in 1958 and a violent coup in 1971. In 1976, the capital was attacked by Islamist troops, then there was the 2019 revolution, and finally another military coup in 2021.

Today the streets of Khartoum are running with blood again. This drama for the Sudanese is all the more shocking because during the presidency of Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir (1989-2019), the capital was an oasis of peace in a country torn by wars and rebellions.

Era of dictatorships

There are 54 countries in Africa. In the last 70 years, there has been at least one coup attempt in 45 of them. Topping that list is Sudan with 18 coup attempts, every third one of which proved successful. We still do not know how the latest, that initiated on April 15, 2023 by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo and his Rapid Reaction Force (RSF), will end.

From the film "Khartoum" and the Sienkiewicz novel, we know that after defeating the Mahdists, the vast Sudan became the condominium of Great Britain and Egypt. London, inevitably, had the greater say. In 1946, the British government decided to merge two previously separate administrative regions of Sudan: the Muslim Arab North and the Black South, the latter dominated by animists and Christians. This decision was to become the source of many bloody conflicts later.

In 1953, Great Britain and Egypt decided to grant independence to Sudan. In 1956, when it transpired that the Khartoum elites had no intention of keeping their word and they rejected the idea of a federation granting extensive autonomy to the southern part of the country, the first explosion occurred. On August 18, 1955, several military units from southern Sudan mutinied. The "Anyanya Rebellion" launched a 17-year guerrilla civil war that was to cost half a million of lives.

It wasn't long before the generals were heard from. On November 17, 1958, a successful coup took place in Khartoum. The military overthrew a civilian government whose chief Abdalla Khalil was actually privy to the plot. General Ibrahim Abbud, the commander of the army, became Sudan's new leader. Shortly after independence, Sudan entered an era of dictatorships and coups. The military junta reigned until 1964, albeit with two attempted coups in the interim (May 21, 1959, and November 9, 1959). General Abbud pursued a policy of Arabizing the South, a goal that only served to fuel further resistance and civil war. Finally, he ceded power to civilians in 1964. As it turned out, not for long.

Coups were attempted on December 18 and 28, 1966. The coup that was successful took place on May 25, 1969. Colonel Jaafar Nimeiry became prime minister. Initially, Marxists were a significant force in the ruling junta. However, the new regime abolished parliament and banned political parties, including the Sudanese Communist Party. On July 19, 1971, there was another successful coup, this time by the communists.

It lasted just a few days. Nimeiry's supporters in the army restored him to power. He had escaped house arrest through a window. Disillusioned with the Soviet Union, he began to cooperate with China.

Islamic Revolution

A year later, the authorities in Khartoum managed to conclude a truce with the rebels from the south and end he nation's first civil war. The 17-year-long conflict ended with a treaty signed in neighboring Ethiopia. Sudan’s president granted autonomy to the southern part of the country.

So began a decade of relative peace. Relative insofar as there were three failed coup attempts in this period: September 5, 1975, July 2, 1976, and February 3, 1977.

The first coup, which lasted a matter of hours, was organized, yet again, by communist officers.

The second was the work of an Islamist leader: a thousand Libyan-trained, armed rebels entered Sudan, passing through Darfur and Kordofan, and managed to reach Khartoum and Omdurman. The ensuing three-day street battle ended in the defeat of the attackers, leaving some 3,000 people killed.

The third attempt was the most grotesque. A group of air force officers sympathetic to southern rebels unsuccessfully tried to seize Juba airport in the south.

The fourth attempt was on April 6, 1985, when President Jaafar Nimeiry was overthrown after 16 years in power. And this time it was successfully carried out thanks to the support of the army. Why did it happen? In 1981, Nimeiry did a political about-turn. To neutralize Islamist opposition, he formed an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, in 1983, announcing the "Islamic revolution", he introduced Sharia law into the country. To underscore the sincerity of his views, he ordered $11 million worth of alcohol poured into the Nile River.

It was obvious that such a policy would provoke opposition from the south. In violation of the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement that had ended the first civil war, Nimeiry dissolved the autonomous government of the south and altered the administrative boundaries. This sparked off the so-called second civil war. Led by John Garang, the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army rose up against the authorities in Khartoum. They demanded a change from the Islamist government and sought the creation of a secular democratic "New Sudan".
Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir, former president of Sudan. Year 1989. Photo: Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures / Panos Pictures / Forum
In 1984, Nimeiry declared a state of emergency. The country was experiencing serious economic problems caused by inflation and famine. On April 6, 1985, while Nimeiry was on an official visit to the US seeking financial support, Defense Minister General Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab staged a coup. This time, the army did not intend to rule alone. Elections were held and the Islamist leader Sadiq al-Mahdi became prime minister.

The years that followed brought successive coalitions (involving parties from the south) and political quarrels. The economic situation was bad. On June 30, 1989, another coup took place, with Brigadier General Omar Bashir becoming the new leader. He was to remain in power for 30 years, the longest in the history of independent Sudan. In the fall of 1993, the junta known as The Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation (RCCNS-Sudan) dissolved itself and handed over power to President Bashir. Not that he was a democratically elected president. He gave himself the title.

Militia on horses and camels

The dictator introduced Sharia law throughout the whole of Sudan and started a war with dissenters from the south. Millions of civilians fled the country. And in the south there was a split between the partisans when one of the factions began to fight not for autonomy, but for independence. In the north, rebels fought with the government in the provinces of Eastern Sudan, Blue Nile and in the Nubian Mountains.

  This 22-year-long civil war claimed at least 2 million lives and another 4 million fled the country. On January 9, 2005, the southern Sudanese leader John Garang signed a peace deal with Bashir's government. Key to the agreement negotiated with Kenya's mediation was the exclusion of the south from Sharia law and the guarantee of six years of autonomy before the 2011 referendum on the future of south Sudan.

In 2011, more than 93% of the inhabitants in the south voted for independence. The oil-rich country declared independence on July 9, 2011. Africa's largest state, as it was at the time, was divided.

And then came renewed insurgency in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile province, where guerrillas calling themselves the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North (SPLM-North) fought the government. In the spring of 2012, clashes broke out between Sudanese and South Sudanese troops in the oil-rich border area. Long before, war had also moved to Darfur, Sudan's western province. In 2003, a rebellion was started there by the aforementioned Sudan People's Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Non-Arab armed groups there had lashed out against the Khartoum government, accusing it of racial discrimination, marginalization and exclusion. In response, Khartoum created the armed formation of Janjaweed, an Arab militia fighting on camels and horseback that linked up with the regular army in attacking Darfur villages.

According to UN data, the conflict claimed 300,000 lives in its first five years, the result of direct combat as well as disease and malnutrition. About 2.5 million inhabitants have been displaced. In 2009 and 2010, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued arrest warrants for President Bashir accusing him of responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide committed in Darfur.

The army ran down the street

The first attempt by a military group to overthrow Bashir took place shortly after South Sudan's secession, in November 2012. To no avail, however. As it turned out, poverty proved to be the greater threat to the dictator. In December 2018, crowds took to the streets of the city of Atbara in protest at rising bread prices, widespread corruption and unemployment. The protests quickly spread to other parts of the country, eventually reaching Khartoum. The security services, trained and supported by Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, responded with tear gas and live ammunition.

Bashir's long reign came to an end in April 2019. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. They organized a tent city in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum. It was already clear to everyone that a dictator isolated on the international scene was incapable of leading the country out of its deep economic crisis.

The generals, who had until then carried out Bashir's orders and committed criminal acts in places such as Darfur, for example, could not allow the civilian opposition to stage a victorious street revolution and simply takeover power. Instead, they seized power, placed the dictator under house arrest, suspended the constitution and imposed a three-month state of emergency.

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However, the protests did not stop. The demonstrators demanded that power be handed over to civilian authorities. In June 2019, RSF forces killed at least 128 protesters in Khartoum. In August, after mediation by the African Union and Ethiopia, civilian and military leaders agreed to share power for a three-year transitional period. Elections were scheduled for 2023, and a government was formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. However, the deal drew criticism from some protesters who feared the army would backtrack on its promise.

In March, 2020, there was an unsuccessful attempt to oust Hamdok. The situation between civilians and military became increasingly tense. In addition, supporters of the deposed Bashir were conspiring. Soaring inflation exceeding 100 % and the Covid-19 pandemic caused economic problems to surge. The government was forced to announce the devaluation of the currency.

Good news came from the rebelious provinces. In the fall of 2020, the Sudanese government and several rebel groups from the provinces of Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan signed a landmark peace agreement. However, since two of the most powerful rebel groups refused to accept the deal, the fighting was not over yet.

Another civil war

In the fall of 2021, there was a political turning point. First, an attempted coup by Bashir-linked military was thwarted. Immediately afterwards, some civilian parties called on the military to seize power and bring order to Sudan. However, many citizens took to the streets in support of the government.

On October 25, 2021, the army arrested civilian members of the government, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. A state of emergency was declared. The US and the World Bank suspended aid to Sudan. On November 11, 2021, a new junta was formed with General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at the helm. However, massive protests against the coup resulted in Hamdok being reinstated as Prime Minister. But, only until January 2, 2022. Then he resigned. Difficult negotiations between the military junta and the civilian opposition began.

On December 5, 2022, a preliminary agreement was signed that undertook to restore civilian rule within two years. However, the streets were still full of demonstrators.

Military and civilian leaders met in early January 2023 to discuss key sticking points. The deputy head of the junta, the commander of the RSF, General Dagalo, clearly played against General Burhan. He said the 2021 coup was a mistake that revived the remnants of Bashir's regime. He tried to get along with part of the civilian opposition.

Twice, the planned signing of the final agreement on democratic transition was postponed. On April 13, 2023, the army warned that Sudan was at a "dangerous turning point". The military feared that the RSF, in alliance with civilians, would dominate the government in the country. Two days later, Dagalo struck. The bloody civil war that we now read about began.

– Grzegorz Kuczyński

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Khartoum, May 3, 2023. Fighting continues between the Sudanese army and the Rapid Reaction Forces/Photo: Ahmed Satti / Anadolu Agency/ABACAPRESS.COM/ Forum
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