Politics | Sudan

A state held hostage

Politicians, the military, investors: in Sudan, key players are fighting over power and money. On how violence is flaring up again in a state that just won’t settle down
Several men are standing around outside. Several people are climbing on an improvised old scaffolding that towers into the sky. At the top, two young men are waving Sudanese flags

One of Sudan’s many protests: back in May 2019, thousands of people demonstrated in Khartoum demanding that the country’s military government relinquish control


To initiate real change, sacrifices must be made; that’s the lesson learned from revolutions past. When it comes to Sudan, it’s clear who should make the greatest sacrifices: those who have accumulated huge privilege at a time when the rule of law, accountability and equality were largely absent.

Those who accepted these abuses and pretended not to see the violence perpetrated by the government against its own people: those whose only prerogative was ensuring their own sheep were safely warm and dry.

“Sudan of the 1960s and 1970s was more progressive than present-day Sudan”

In Sudan, there has always been people who boast such privilege: influential politicians, public intellectuals, capital investors, the military. Since independence, the Sudanese people have suffered under these elites who time and time again prioritise their own interests while trampling on those of the population at large.

Sudan of the 1960s and 1970s was more progressive than present-day Sudan. After years of mismanagement at the hands of a power-hungry military who repeatedly stage coups whenever peaceful and courageous popular uprisings threaten to initiate a democratisation process, progress has largely stalled.

“Numerous investment projects – not just in the defence industry but also in sectors such as agriculture and mining – were brought under military control”

Here, we need to talk about corruption within the military. During the military-backed rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir, which lasted from 1989 to 2019, the army began to compete with the civilian elites, gaining more and more economic power. Numerous investment projects – not just in the defence industry but also in sectors such as agriculture and mining – were brought under military control.

The worst of it was - and still is - that these deals bypass the state budget, thus removing them from public oversight. The military has become a state within the state, with its own budget over which the Ministry of Finance has neither influence nor access. Today, it controls around 80 per cent of the country’s economic resources.

In 2020, the then-prime minister of the revolutionary government, economist Abdalla Hamdok, gave an urgent warning about the economic activities of the military which was, in his opinion, acting independently and was not under public control.

He called on the army leadership to divest itself of its companies, which, he proposed, should be run by civilians, transparently and with their accounts open for examination. This was precisely what had been demanded during the protests which began in December 2018 and led ultimately to the fall of al-Bashir.

Of course, this didn’t suit Abdel Fattah Burhan and his deputy, Mohammed Hamdan Daglo (called Hemedti), the two generals and chairmen of the military council formed in 2019, who were backed by influential figures from the old regime. In one way or another, they were profiteering off those corporate holdings, particularly when it came to the mining and subsequent smuggling of gold via airports and shipping ports: it is hardly a coincidence that military imports and exports are not subject to any customs controls.

As soon as Hamdok introduced the idea of divestment, tension escalated between members of his interim government and the army and its militias. As a result, the military blocked any decision by Hamdok which could have threatened their interests. On October 25th, 2021, those tensions erupted in a coup by the military council (at that time led jointly by Burhan and Hemedti, whose troops have since engaged in fierce fighting).

“Waves of protesters were massacred in the streets of Khartoum - yet the revolution continued”

The coup was aimed squarely at the interim government and its efforts to stop the corruption endemic to the business leaders in Burhan and Hemedti’s entourage, but also rife among influential representatives of the Islamist movement, all of whom were reluctant to see public institutions increase in strength and the rule of law enforced.

The result was a military coup. The army council had no qualms about inflicting excessive violence against unarmed citizens - waves of protesters were massacred in the streets of Khartoum - yet the revolution continued.

Faced with condemnation both at home and internationally, under mounting pressure from all sides, the military returned to the negotiating table and concluded the so-called Framework Agreement with the civilian forces on 5 December 2022. Hemedti’s paramilitary group, RSF (short for “Rapid Support Forces”) were integrated into the regular army, which in retrospect may have been one of the reasons why fighting broke out between the rival military factions on 15 April 2023. Hemedti’s mercenaries harvest high revenues from gold exports to the United Arab Emirates and Russia with support from the Wagner Group.

“Some of these former allies are now fighting each other, hopefully weakening them all”

In my view, this war is nothing more than a battle between rival criminal gangs. It is neither about the people of Sudan nor about democracy, as Hemedti’s RSF militia would have us believe. It’s a war between warlords in pursuit of money and power with the figureheads of the old regime doing everything they can to keep the conflict going.

In doing so, they have aligned themselves with the army under the de facto head of state, Burhan, in the expectation that this will aid their return to power. Meanwhile, much of the population has lost sympathy with both sides and demands only an end to the war and the suffering caused by both sides.

However, the leaders of the Islamist movement have little interest in this war ending. It provides them with the kind of chaos which allows the evasion of accountability and prosecution. Islamists are also telegraphing the subliminal idea that the revolution was a mistaken one and that had the people of Sudan accepted their rule, their security would now be far greater.

“And hopefully too, the forces of civil society will one day be able to take control of the country’s destiny”

The Bashir regime was plagued by a constant fear of being overthrown. Securing the loyalty of all sections of the military was no easy feat. Once in power, the regime pushed senior officers who had proved themselves disloyal into retirement so that loyal officers could move up the ranks.

In this way, the regime was able to hold on to power for three decades. Nothing remained hidden, not even when lower-ranking officers expressed unease about the fact that the government was intervening directly in the military.

The long rule of the Bashir regime was characterised by repression, terror, arbitrary detention, and killings; bans on certain occupations; the plundering of resources and an un-ending war, all of which has resulted in a massive increase in refugees and migrants.

Bashir weakened independent state institutions, generated a lot of additional revenue for his National Congress Party and promoted corruption and nepotism in government. The entire state apparatus and its resources came under his control.

This system was shaken by the December Revolution of 2018. Many of the protesters died in a hail of bullets fired by Hemedtis and Burhan’s henchmen yet in continuing undeterred, the protest movement managed to break up the corrupt coalition of government, Islamists, the army leadership and the RSF militia.

Some of these former allies are now fighting each other, hopefully weakening them all. And hopefully too, the forces of civil society, such as those that came together in December 2018, will one day be able to take control of the country’s destiny.

Translated from the Arabic by Rafael Sanchez