8 Aug 2019

Sudan's recent violence against protesters casts a shadow over power-sharing deal

Analysis: New violence against protesters has created a difficult situation for both the Forces of Freedom and Change and the ruling military council, so where does the future lie?

Last week, five high school students were killed and many others injured during a protest in the Sudanese town of Al-Obaid. The death toll may rise as there are critical injuries.

People in Al-Obaid say the killings were perpetrated by a sniper who was seen on the roof of the Bank of Khartoum (the bank was set ablaze later on by angry masses).

However, some videos show soldiers from the notorious Rapid Support Forces militia on a pickup truck opening fire at the protesters.

The students were rallying against deteriorating conditions and the difficulties they say they are facing with regard to transport from homes to schools amid continued shortages of bread and fuel, and rising prices of basic commodities. 

The governor of North Kordofan State subsequently declared a 9am-6pm curfew in four major towns, including Al-Obaid, and ordered the closure of schools for an undefined period.

The incident in Al-Obaid, like instances of regime violence against unarmed civilians, once again shocked the Sudanese people. Angry masses took to the streets in Khartoum and other Sudanese towns. In various neighbourhoods in Khartoum, protesters burned tyres and made roadblocks, and were tear gassed by anti-riot forces. 

One of the major protest organisers from the very start, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) called for demonstrations all over the country, and in the afternoon of 29 July, key members of the Forces for Freedom and Change opposition coalition left for Al-Obaid to offer condolences and support to the families of the bereaved. 

According to the request of the African Union Envoy, the TMC and FFC were supposed to start negotiations over the constitutional declaration on Tuesday 30 July. The talks stalled briefly, but have since resumed.

 

A shadow over the negotiations

The killings in Al-Obeid created a difficult situation for both the FFC and TMC. Angry and frustrated masses are calling on the FFC to stop negotiating with the TMC. The public sentiment is against talks with the military, and members of the TMC are seen as untrustworthy.

Indeed, the killings in Al-Obaid took place just one day after a disappointing Public Prosecutor's report on the 3 June sit-in massacre, which exonerates the TMC and dismisses claims of rape during the massacre. The Public Prosecutor's report also claimed that the bodies which were recovered from the Nile were not from the sit-in massacre, further angering the Sudanese public.

For the TMC, the latest incident in Al-Obaid eroded its credibility, which is already at a low level. On 30 July, the TMC sent its head of security, General Gamal Omer, along with high-ranking military officers, to Al-Obaid. This happened 24 hours after the killings. 

Since the incidents of 12 and 14 May, and the sit-in massacre on 3 June, FFC supporters have perceived the TMC as an extension of Bashir's regime, and are more or less justified in their position. 

To be sure, the TMC did not take any serious or credible measures to address concerns of the masses with regard to the legacy of the Bashir's regime. Amid calls for nationwide civil disobedience by the FFC in May 2019, the TMC reinstated Bashir's trade unions, thus reversing a decision it made in April. The TMC was also reluctant to take Bashir-era officials to court. 

In May 2019, Sudan police failed to arrest the country's UAE-backed former intelligence chief Salah Gosh after members of the security services threatened prosecutors. This was seen as a clear indication that the TMC is either unwilling or unable to deal with Bashir's legacy in ways that are acceptable to the Sudanese people.

The killings in Al-Obaid happened as the TMC and FFC are heading to negotiations to sign the Constitutional Declaration that would pave the way for forming the civilian government (the Sovereign Council and the Cabinet). The two parties had already signed a political declaration on 18 July, which paved the way for power sharing arrangements.

Will the killings in Al-Obaid obstruct negotiations between the TMC and FFC? 

Not likely, even though the negotiations were already delayed. Although there is a strong public sentiment against resuming talks between the two parties - manifest in the social media discussions - there is not yet an official statement from either party calling for talks to be cancelled. 

Negotiations have since resumed. Already a joint technical committee from the TMC and FFC met last week to prepare for further negotiations. Those who are in favour of the negotiations argue that the TMC and FFC must conclude a power-sharing deal to stop incidents like what happened in Al-Obaid, and that only a civilian government can properly investigate killings that have happened since 11 April, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

 

Is a parallel or deep state behind the massacres?

While video footage and individual accounts shows that RSF forces are to blame for the killings in Al-Obaid, there is a concern some protests are being incited by the so-called "parallel" or "deep" state; a description given to the structures created by the former regime. 

This belief holds that Bashir's people would do whatever it takes to thwart an agreement between the TMC and FFC. Indeed, such an agreement if concluded, would put an end to the aspirations of former regime loyalists, and would also put corrupt ones behind bars. 

This line of thinking blames the killings on military and paramilitary structures of Islamist elements, while also blaming these structures for inciting high school students and forcing them to take it to the streets. Yet regardless of who incited the students or who shot them, there is consensus that what happened was horrendous.

The Chairman of the TMC, General Abdul Rahman Al-Burhan condemned the killings in Al-Obaid last week, telling reporters they were unacceptable, and that the perpetrators must be swiftly brought to justice. On Tuesday evening General Al-Burhan appeared on TV condemning the killings and asking for the negotiating teams to swiftly agree so that a government is formed. 

He blamed the negotiating teams for what he said was an unnecessarily long time spent debating petty issues, giving the enemies of the revolution a chance to deepen problems in the country. 

This was one of the rare occasions in which the chairman of the TMC came out clearly to condemn the killings blamed on the RSF. It is doubtful that this means there's a rift between the TMC and the RSF, but what is not doubtful, is that the RSF is under mounting pressure to redeploy out of the major towns and residential areas. 

How these developments will impact the negotiations between the TMC and FFC remains to be seen in the coming few days. But it seems that they will resume the talks, and the two parties seem to agree that the longer it takes to reach an agreement, the worse the situation in Sudan will become.

Munzoul Assal is Professor of Social Anthropology, and Director of the Peace Research Institute, University of Khartoum.

This article is also published in the New Arab.