Sudan’s military rulers open to dialogue on democratic transition

Our basic mission is to maintain the country’s stability and security.
Lieutenant General Omar Zain al-Abdin, the head of the new Sudanese military council’s political committee, addresses a press conference on April 12, 2019 in the capital Khartoum, one day after Sudan’s army ousted the Arab-African country’s veteran president Omar al-Bashir. – Sudan’s military council pledgeed talks with ‘all political entities’ and vowed the new governtment will be ‘civilian’, adding that it will allow no security breaches. (Photo by ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

Sudan’s new military rulers vowed Friday to open a dialogue with all political groups on forming a civilian government as protesters railed against their seizure of power after ousting president Omar al-Bashir.

But the military council warned it would tolerate no breaches of security after protesters defied a night-time curfew to keep up a sit-in demanding immediate civilian rule.

The head of the council’s political committee, Lieutenant General Omar Zain al-Abdin, confirmed that Bashir, who had ruled the country for 30 years and was one of Africa’s longest serving leaders, remained in custody.

But he said the council would never extradite him, or any other Sudanese, despite a longstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes.

Protesters had held mass demonstrations for four months demanding Bashir’s overthrow, defying repeated deadly attempts to crush them by riot police and the feared intelligence services.

But when the ouster was finally announced on Thursday in an address to the nation by Defence Minister Awad Ibnouf, it was met not with joy but anger.

Protest leaders dismissed the transitional military council as the “same old faces” from the old regime which had led the country into multiple conflicts and worsening poverty and social inequality.

Thursday’s announcement meant “we have not achieved anything”, said one protester who gave his name only as Adel.

“We will not stop our revolution. We are calling for the regime to step down, not only Bashir.”

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Analysts said that Bashir’s overthrow in a palace coup made the transition to democracy in Sudan a more distant prospect.

“Ironically, the prospects for democratic transition may be more remote than when Bashir was in power as there’s no centre of power with which to negotiate,” said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

“The power struggle within the security cabal that took power yesterday is just beginning. Bashir had kept their rivalries and ambitions in check; his removal brings in its wake an unregulated uncertainty.”

Calls for restraint

Thousands defied a warning from the military council to respect the night-time curfew imposed from 10 pm to 4:00 am, to maintain their vigil outside army headquarters in Khartoum for a sixth straight night. 

Protesters were seen chatting with soldiers posted outside. They said their quarrel was with the commanders who had led the coup, not the rank and file.

“There was no difference between last night and previous days and nights for us,” said one protester who gave his name as Abu Obeida.

“This is now our square. We have taken it and won’t leave until victory is achieved. 

“We broke the curfew. We will continue doing it until we have a civilian transitional government.”

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Calls for restraint on all sides have poured in from abroad.

Washington called on the military council “to exercise restraint and to allow space for civilian participation within the government”.

The European Union urged the army to carry out a “swift” handover to civilian rule.

UN chief Antonio Guterres called for a transition that would meet the “democratic aspirations” of the Sudanese people and appealed for “calm and utmost restraint by all”, his spokesman said.

That came after the African Union decried Bashir’s military overthrow, saying it was “not the appropriate response to the challenges facing Sudan and the aspirations of its people”. 

Most shops and offices were closed on Friday which is the day of prayer and rest in Sudan.

But vast crowds were expected to throng the streets of Khartoum and its twin city Omdurman after the main weekly Muslim prayers at noon raising fears of confrontation between protesters and the security forces. 

“Our basic mission is to maintain the country’s stability and security,” the head of the military council’s political committee told Friday’s news conference.

“We will not allow any breach of security anywhere.”

Sudan’s last elected prime minister, opposition Umma party leader Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was overthrown by Bashir in a military coup in 1989, was expected to address supporters after prayers at one of Omdurman’s most revered mosques.

Since returning to Khartoum from self-imposed exile, Mahdi has allied his party with the grass-roots who were the driving force behind the mass protests that preceded Thursday’s military takeover.

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The military council said it was declaring a ceasefire across the country, including in war-torn Darfur.

But the rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA-AW) fighting government forces in Darfur denounced what it called a “palace coup”.

It was the Bashir government’s brutal response to the ethnic minority rebellion which erupted in the western region of Darfur in 2003 that prompted the ICC genocide charges against him.

The ousted president stands accused of unleashing Arab militias in a scorched earth campaign against minority villages that killed tens of thousands of civilians and forced hundreds of thousands more into camps.

But the military council’s political chief said it would never hand over Bashir.

“We as a military council, we will not deliver the president abroad during our period” in office, Abdin said when asked about the ICC arrest warrant.

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