By Rajen Harshé
The military coup in Sudan on 25 October 2021, along with the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and a number of his cabinet ministers, has been a major setback to Sudan’s transition towards constitutional democracy. With the seizure of power by General Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, who dissolved the transitional government that was jointly run by military and civilians, the military has again become all-too-powerful. Incidentally, during the past 10 months, four African countries—Sudan, Guinea, Chad, and Mali—have witnessed military coups. However, since Sudan’s independence in 1956, there were as many as 16 attempted putsches and five successful military coups in Sudan, a record that is comparable to only to Bolivia and Argentina during the same period.
General al-Burhan has declared emergency and the elections that were scheduled in July 2022 are slated for July 2023 to ensure transfer of power from the military to the civilian regime. However, the Information Ministry, controlled by the previous regime, held that Hamdok still is a legitimate authority. Angered by the military takeover, thousands took to the streets in protest against the takeover and as a result, 12 people were killed and 280 injured so far. Various influential civil society groups including doctors and health workers, state oil company workers, and lawyers are a part of this massive protest against military dictatorship.
In the aftermath of the coup, the African Union (AU) has suspended Sudan’s membership; the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), in an emergency meeting following the coup, took serious note of the developments in Sudan and urged for the release all political detainees. The United States Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, apart from dubbing the coup as a “betrayal of the Sudanese peaceful revolution”, has suspended emergency aid worth US $700 million to Sudan. Similarly, the World Bank has ceased disbursing funds to Sudan. Obviously, the coup will not only have an impact on the domestic politics of a large-sized, resource-rich, and strategically-located country in the Horn of Africa but it will shape the contours of the regional and global politics. The major powers including the US, EU, China, Russia, and India are all actively involved in the Horn of Africa. After elucidating a few major developments in Sudanese polity and analysing the international configuration of powers in the Horn of Africa, it would also be feasible to figure out India’s stakes as well as its likely role in Sudan.
Military rule under Omar al-Bashir
To start with, from 1989 to 2019, Sudan had to suffer a brutal military dictatorship of Islamist orientation under Omar al-Bashir. The Bashir regime extracted substantial revenues through the sale of oil, sourced from southern Sudan and purchased weapons from countries like China to be used against Sudanese citizens. Thus, during the first decade of this century, the rebellions in the Darfur region in the west were repressed by Janjaweed militia, supported by the Bashir regime, who were responsible for acts of genocide. Likewise, the demand for self-determination of the people from South Sudan was suppressed ruthlessly for decades. In the early 1990s, Bashir had also hosted Osama Bin Laden, the then supreme leader of Al-Qaeda in Khartoum. Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Consequently, the US and the UN imposed economic sanctions against Sudan that weakened the Sudanese economy. With fragile state institutions and a collapsing economy, Bashir found it difficult to handle the armed liberation struggle that was brewing and being sustained for decades in the south. Eventually, South Sudan attained independent statehood in July 2011 after a referendum was conducted under the aegis of the UN. The secession worsened the economic situation of Sudan as most of the oil fields were located in the territory of South Sudan.
Indeed, the governance in Sudan became all the more difficult in 2018-19 as the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA) comprising doctors, health workers, and lawyers, etc. stood for democracy and rose in revolt against the corrupt administration of Bashir’s dictatorship. What is more, almost 70 percent of women had raised a flag of revolt against the Bashir regime. Female protesters who were referred to as Kandaka (meaning Nubian Queen) became a symbol of the protests in April 2019. Ironically, Bashir was overthrown in a military coup and arrested. The military leaders like al-Burhan who succeeded him promised to oversee the transition of Sudan from dictatorship to democracy. Besides, in August 2021, the Sudanese government decided to hand over Bashir for trial to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague for genocide in the Darfur conflict and gross violation of human rights.
Cracks in the post dictatorship government
However, with the passage of time, the military and the civilian wings of the Transitional Sovereign Council, which came into being after the fall of Bashir, developed tensions as they functioned together. Al-Burhan thought that the country was mismanaged owing to its dismal economic performance with soaring prices of essential goods and that it was on the brink of another civil war. In contrast, Hamdok felt that the military was exploiting the tensions stemming from the economic crisis to further its advantages. The pro-military forces wanted order to be restored although they were unconcerned about human rights. In the process, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) were supported by Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Hemetti. The RSF stemmed from the erstwhile Janjaweed militia. Further, the Port Sudan which happens to be the largest port of Sudan, was blockaded by a tribal group with military support that led to an acute shortage of food, currency, and fuel causing economic hardships. It appeared as if the military was preparing for a coup. With the reduction of tension in Darfur and the south, it had amassed more weapons and finances. The military was able to risk losing the US aid partly because it apparently has strong links with regional powers such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It needs to be underlined that during the reign of the Sovereign Council, Sudan was undergoing unprecedented political transition by making the Sovereign Council more representative in terms of gender justice and by accommodating diverse religious, geographical, and even rebel groups. For instance, Asma Abdalla had become the first female Foreign Affairs Minister in the cabinet. The government was trying to carry together the insurgent groups from different regions including Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan. Sudan had also normalised its relationship with Israel in October 2020. In addition, certain specific sanctions against Sudan were lifted by the US in 2017, and on 14 December 2020, the determination regarding Sudan as a State Sponsor of Terrorism was rescinded by the US. Besides, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had reached a US $50 billion debt relief agreement with the transitional government during early 2021. Briefly, in the midst of the Darfur conflict, fights with South Sudan, and internal conflicts between farmers and cattle herders that had displaced roughly 430,000 people, Sudan was steadily working towards restoring order. The advent of the military regime now has not merely unsettled these processes, but will further add to violence and violation of human rights.
Amongst the major world powers, the US will be the most affected by the coup. The US had invested millions of dollars in economic aid to stabilise Sudan. Sudan has 400 miles of coastline and roughly 30 percent of container ships of the world travel through the Red Sea on the way to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean to eastern US. The presence in the Red Sea is equally crucial for the US to connect to west Asian countries. Simply put, the Horn of Africa is a troubled region. Tensions between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian civil war, maritime piracy off the Somalian coast and the region’s role as the hub of human trafficking and narcotics smuggling, can ignite and add to intra- and inter- state conflicts. Besides, owing to the geostrategic location of the state of Djibouti, it hosts military bases from the US, China, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Russia is also expanding its presence in the region. Russia has a naval base in Sudan that is likely to stay despite controversies surrounding it. Such presence will also give Russia an entry into extracting ventures in resources such as gold and oil. In its turn, Sudan is being supported by Russia in the realm of telecommunication, agriculture, aviation, obtaining weaponry, and military equipment.
India in Sudan
In view of the growing interest of the major world powers in Sudan and the Horn of Africa, India has to move cautiously in the region. India was committed to support Sudan’s formation of the transitional government. It had already implemented 49 bilateral projects through concessional lines of credit worth US $612 million in areas such as energy, transport, and agribusiness industry in Sudan. India had also backed the Juba Peace Agreement signed in October 2020 by the transitional government. The agreement is quite complex and involves areas such as governance, security, and transitional justice, which were going to affect the future process of constitutional negotiations. India had supported a move to get armed movements from outside within the process of negotiations as well as a national plan for civilian protection involving 1,200 personnel. Under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) India had offered 290 scholarships to Sudan towards capacity building. Besides, India had offered humanitarian assistance including food supplies to Sudan last year and had conducted maiden naval exercises with the Sudanese navy in September.
It must be underscored that in 2002-2003, India had stepped in to cultivate Sudan as another important source of energy for its energy hungry economy although Sudan was ruled by a military dictator. Over the years, the bilateral trade between India and Sudan has grown from US $327.27 million in 2005-06 to US $ 1663.7 million in 2018-19. India’s investments in Sudan and South Sudan were roughly US $3 billion, out of which US$2.4 billion was invested in the petroleum sector from ONGC Videsh, a public sector undertaking. The emergence of South Sudan prompted India to open up separate ties with the newly-born state through the embassy in Juba. From October 18-22, 2021, V.Muraleedharan, India’s Minister of State for External Affairs, visited Sudan and South Sudan to further strengthen their relationship with India.
Since India cannot depend only on West Asian countries such as Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia that constitute the global energy heartland, it has consciously cultivated relations with oil-rich African states like Sudan, Nigeria, and Angola to meet its growing energy demands. At this juncture, the structure of the relationship that India has evolved with Sudan and South Sudan over the years can hardly be disturbed. It will be important for India to protect its investments, trade and other interests in the Horn of Africa. The Red Sea region is crucial to India’s maritime security strategy. Consequently, India needs to wait and watch the developments in Sudan before offering de jure recognition to the military rule.
Briefly, the coup in Sudan has affected the democratic transition in Sudan. The new regime apart from handling protestors has to face growing international isolation and the real prospect of a loss of aid from key partners such as the US. Whether the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Russia choose to come to the defence of the regime remains to be seen. In view of the existing structures of Indo-Sudanese ties and Sudan’s location in the Horn of Africa, India needs to guard its trade, investments, and interests in the region before taking any hasty step of recognising the new regime.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).
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