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Uncertainty in Sudan – Ethiopia’s expectations

Uncertainty in Sudan – Ethiopia’s expectations

The situation in Sudan remains uncertain where the transitional military council is already expressing turbulence and the protests are still far from over.

Just a week ago, the people of Sudan witnessed a major milestone in their history where the country’s long-serving President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir was ousted by the military following months of public protests.

The news of his removal came on April 11, 2019, where the former President was said to be under house arrest. Later in that day, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, the defense minister and vice president, announced Al-Bashir’s removal from power and that the former president us under house arrest in a safe place.

His statement also heralded the beginning of another rule by the top brass of the Sudanese military which has been instrumental in the Sudanese politics for the past half a century. He announced the establishment of a transitional military council which will stay in power for two years and the declaration of a three month State of Emergency.

This was a surprising turn of events in Sudan, in which dismayed Sudanese youth have been calling for regime change since December, 2018. This again gave protestors another reason to stand against the coming of the military brass into power in general and the appointments of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf as the head of the military transition, in particular.

The youth of Sudan made it clear that they do not want to see the military and ask for the establishment of a civil government.

Just minutes after the removal of Al Bashir and the coming of the military, Professionals Association of Sudan, which was instrumental during the protest against Al-Bashir’s government, said it is against the takeover of power by the military. The stance from the association was in fact shared by many who stayed in the streets of Khartoum and continued protesting.

“We assert that the people of Sudan will not accept anything less than a civil transitional authority composed of a patriotic group of experts who were not involved with the tyrannical regime,” read a statement from the association.

The association also called for more protests and called for the military to hand-over power to the people of Sudan.

“We are not satisfied with the military because it is a coup over a coup and those who are now within the coup are the same old people,” a journalist based in Khartoum, who requested anonymity, told The Reporter.

“Our demands are that the former regime should go in its entirety; and form a transitional government of civilians, not a military force; within a period not more than three months and less than a year. Second, the accountability of all those involved in the crimes of the former regime,” said the journalist who is also actively participating in the protest against the regime.

The continuation of the protests forced Lt. Gen. Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf to step down 24 hours after he assumed power. Sudanese youth mocked the incident and the short time Auf stayed in power and called Ahmed a deodorant that stayed on for only 24 hours after being sprayed on the body.

The political disorder continued even after General Auf left the military council and was replaced. The majority of the protestors opposed the military council and called for the establishment of a civil government.

The unprecedented protests, which led to the demise of Al-Bashir’s three-decade rule initially emanated from the frustration and anger that was built up through time over the escalation of prices of bread and fuel. Later on, the demands took a political angel following different political groups, workers’ associations and civil societies joining the protest and calling for President Omar Al-Bashir to step down.

For years, especially following the departure of South Sudan as an independent state, the economy of Sudan was deeply affected. More specifically, Sudan lost its significant revenue from oil and petroleum exports which exacerbated the downfall of Sudan’s economy.

Fearing the protests, Al-Bashir who took power via a coup-d’état back in 1989, promised to come up with new foreign investments to heal the current economic crises. In addition, the Central Bank of Sudan has also proposed plans to boost the country’s revenue by bringing in more hard currencies and printing more banknotes.

However, these promises could not save Al-Bashir from being ousted by his comrades.

Unfortunately, many youth, just hours after the statement of his removal and establishment of a military council, expressed their dismay and said that this is not the change they were expecting.

Reports that came after the removal of Al-Bashir indicate that aside from the public protests the role of his close allies and officials were also significant in convincing or forcing him to give up his power.

On 11 April, following six days of protests, a cabal of military officers, security chiefs and paramilitary commanders overthrew Omar Al-Bashir. They were the president’s most senior lieutenants and their intent is to keep the existing system intact along with the power and privilege they enjoy.

A recent article from Alex de Waal indicate that it was after hours of negotiations between the leaders of the army chiefs of staff, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and paramilitary commanders that they decided to remove and appoint Awad Ibn Auf.

Months before his removal Al-Bashir accused a third party of fueling up the protest and using it for their own agenda.

"Some traitors, agents, mercenaries and infiltrators are exploiting the current daily life hardships to sabotage and serve the enemies of Sudan," Al-Bashir said during his speech in Wad al-Haddad, Gezira State.

However, externalizing the problem and trying to crash the public’s demand gave rise to more protests which led Al-Bashir to lose his power despite a three-decade rule over Sudan with an iron and fist.

“During these 30 years in power, Al-Bashir built an elaborate political-security structure with himself right in the center. A remarkable skilled tactical operator, he was able to balance various factions within his fractious government, manage an intricate patronage system often with very modest resources, and keep afloat amid the turbulent waters of Middle Eastern politics,” Alex de Waal, a political scientist and commentator, wrote in an article.

“He has lasted nearly three decades in power through a combination of moderated ruthlessness, tactical political intelligence, and luck,” he said.

Unlike his allies in the Middle East who lost their power during the Arab Spring, Al- Bashir managed to maintain his power. Throughout his time, he successfully established close friendships with all Arab countries and his strong neighbors like Ethiopia.

Particularly, when it comes to his relationship with Ethiopia, he maintains his friendship with the Ethiopian government despite the change of leadership within the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). In fact, his relationship with the EPRDF dates back to the 1980s where he was providing support to the then rebel fighters of the EPRDF and particularly the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then Sudan maintains its close relationship with Ethiopia, in economy, politics as well as social issues.  

After Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power, many feared that the relationship between the two countries might not be the same. However, over the course of the protest Ethiopia has sent two of its top officials; Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen and its Foreign Minister, Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD).

The visit of the two officials did not come by accident where both affirm their government’s strong stance when it came to the relationship between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Just a couple of months ago Martin Plaut a well-known researcher on the Horn of Africa told The Reporter that that an unstable Sudan would have an impact.

“Clearly PM Abiy has been trying to have good relations with Khartoum, so my guess is that it would be a blow to him - a setback to his plans for regional stability and growth,” Plaut told The Reporter.

It is to be recalled that few months ago, the then President Al-Bashir, upon the invitation of Prime Minister Abiy, came to Ethiopia along with his top aides including his foreign minister and head of national intelligence. The two leaders inaugurated the Jimma Industrial Park with together with their Djiboutian counterpart; President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Be that as it may, the diplomats in the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even after the sudden departure of their former boss Workneh, who took a UN job, were closely looking at the developments in Sudan, where over one million Ethiopians reside.

Following the military takeover, Ethiopia through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted to the new development and issued a more ambiguous statement.

“Ethiopia expresses its confidence that the Sudanese will surmount this difficult moment. Ethiopia fully respects the sovereignty and political independence of Sudan and sincerely hopes that all Sudanese political stakeholders will find a peaceful solution to the problem,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Because of Ethiopia’s national interest and since Addis Ababa has a lot to lose if things in Sudan went downhill, the leadership has been and still is actively engaged in the process.

Sudan for years have been supporting the government in Ethiopia and has a lot of agendas the two countries shared in terms of socio-economic as well as political issues. 

“The relationship between the two countries has many aspects to it,” an Ethiopian diplomat, whose name is withheld upon request, told The Reporter. The two are connected in terms of infrastructure, economy and culture.

For instance, Sudan have shown its strong support when Ethiopia decided to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River.

“I don’t think the incoming government – be it a military of a civil government – will have a different stance on the issue of the GERD,” said the diplomat. “They have been supporting the construction of the dam because it was also beneficial for them.”

“So, if the new government decides to depart from this stance, it will be a betrayal on the Sudanese people,” the diplomat argues. “Unless they want to repeat the mistake that the late President of Sudan, Ibrahim Abboud, committed back in 1959, I don’t think the Sudanese will come up with a different stance on the GERD. Ibrahim was the first military leader of Sudan after its independence who signed the 1959 agreement on the share of Nile waters which gave Egypt full control.

The other aspect of the political instability in Sudan could be its implication on the economy of Ethiopia in addition to the political situation in Sudan if it continues to deteriorate. For instance, economy wise, Ethiopia uses the Port of Sudan as one of its alternative sea outlets. In addition, Ethiopia imports almost 50 percent of its fuel from Sudan – a few years back the amount stood at 80 percent.

In an attempt to have some kind of regional alliance, days after it took power, members of the military council paid a visit to Addis Ababa. They met and discussed with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as well as officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the same week, the Office of the Prime Minister issued a statement admiring the effort by the military which took the initiative to address the demands of the Sudanese people.

“The message from Prime Minister Abiy was positive and constructive,” said Gen Galaedin Alsheikh, a member of the military council.

“All our international agreements including on GERD will not change,” he said.

However, as the protests and pressure continue where many are calling on the military to give up power to a civilian government things in Sudan remain uncertain.

It is to be recalled that he African Union (AU) opposed the military’s takeover and said that the move was not the appropriate response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people and ask the council to hand over power.

“If the council manages to break a deal with political groups in Sudan, it is ready to hand over power to a civilian government within a few days,” a source from the Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa told The Reporter. However, sources close to the developments in Khartoum said that even if the council is saying it will hand over power within 15 days some in the military are also saying it might not be attainable.

Many fear that this and similar disagreements with in the military might cause division.

“The situation now is that the military is ultimately in control. However, there is evidence of division at the senior levels of the military,” Ann M Fitz-Gerald, Director of Security and Defense Management and Leadership, Cranfield University Defense Academy of the United Kingdom, told The Reporter via email.

However, she speculates that “the military will lead the various aspects of the ‘transition’ and it is likely that former retired generals - who still play an active advisory role in the defense institutions and in Sudanese politics more generally, will become involved.” 

According to Ann M Fitz-Gerald, given the fact that most of the civil society including Sudan Profession Association never had a strong voice in Sudan “at the end of the day, the military is the only institution capable of enacting transformational change in the country.”