The general leading the coup in Sudan has promised to lead the country to an elected government. But Abdel-Fattah Burkhan has powerful allies, including the Gulf states and a dangerous Sudanese paramilitary commander, and he seems intent on keeping the army firmly under control.
Burkhan first rose to prominence in 2019, when he and other high-ranking generals toppled Omar al-Bashir under pressure from massive demonstrations against the autocrat’s 30-year rule.
He remained in power for several months until international pressure forced the military to come to an agreement to share power with the protesters. The result was the creation of a joint civil-military Sovereign Council, led by Burkhan, to govern Sudan until elections scheduled for 2023.
Burkhan’s dossier was relatively clean, and he was not indicted by the International Criminal Court, like al-Bashir and others, for crimes against humanity during the conflict in Darfur in the early 2000s. He was a rare non-Islamist among the top generals during al-Bashir’s Islamist military regime. This helped the Sudan to get out of the international status of a pariah, which it had under al-Bashir.
Burkhan swept away the remnants of the civilian government on Monday. He dissolved the Sovereign Council and the transitional government, detained Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok and other officials, and declared a state of emergency. Hamdock was released on Tuesday, but others remain in custody.
The takeover came just weeks before the 61-year-old Burkhan was to be replaced by a civilian as head of the council. He promised that the military would transfer power after the election of a government in July 2023.
Civilian control will not only undermine the political power of the armed forces, but also jeopardize their vast financial resources and could lead to prosecutions for rights violations over the past 30 years.
In recent years, Burkhan has been supported by Egypt, led by a general-turned-president, and the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates. He studied at the Egyptian Military College and since 2019 has visited the de facto ruler of the Emirates, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan on numerous occasions.
These countries avoided criticism of Monday’s coup, calling instead for calm and dialogue.
“In general, preference is given to a strong military leader who conducts a lot of negotiations. This is more in the interest of the Gulf than a democratic government, ”said Cameron Hudson, a former US State Department official and Sudan expert at the Atlantic Council’s African Center.
“They fear what the success story of the Arab Spring looks like,” he said, referring to the 2011 uprisings that inspired the Sudanese protests.
Behind Burkhan is another more feared general: Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, commander of the Rapid Support Force, a paramilitary unit that grew out of al-Bashir-backed Janjaweed militias infamous for their atrocities and rapes during the conflict in Darfur.
RSF fighters were instrumental in Monday’s coup, taking part in the arrest of Hamdok and other senior officials and suppressing protests in the streets. The force is effectively “a de facto parallel army of tens of thousands of battle-hardened combatants,” said Suliman Baldo, a senior advisor to The Sentry, an investigation and policy group that focuses on war crimes in Africa.
Burkhan has long-standing ties with Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. According to Baldo, Burkhan was a commander in Darfur, where the military and RSF fought a brutal campaign to suppress the insurgents. The campaign of mass rape and ill-treatment killed 300,000 people and displaced 2.7 million people.
He distanced himself from the atrocities, once telling the BBC, “I am not responsible for any bad action in Darfur. … As far as I know, I fought the enemy, like all regular troops. ”
In 2015, Burkhan and Dagalo coordinated the deployment of Sudanese troops and RSF fighters to Yemen to fight the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-linked Houthi rebels. Their troops received huge payouts from the Saudis and the Emirates, forging ties between these countries with the two commanders.
During the uprising against al-Bashir, Burkhan and Dagalo refused orders to violently disperse the protesters and even met with them at their sit-in camp. Behind the scenes, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates encouraged them to oust al-Bashir.
But protests continued after the fall of al-Bashir, with demands for the military to surrender. On June 2, 2019, security forces and RSF fighters attacked protesters. More than 100 people were killed and dozens of women were raped by soldiers. Prosecutors blamed the paramilitaries, but the bloodshed tarnished Burkhan and Dagalo in the eyes of the protesters.
“Burkhan was responsible because he was a leader, it’s that simple,” said Osman Mirgani, a Khartoum-based columnist and editor of the daily Al-Tayyar. “He promised not to touch the sit-in, after which the massacre took place. From that moment, people realized that he would never keep his promises. ”
Opponents of the military believe this skepticism hangs over Burkhan’s promises to establish civilian rule. Baldo of the Sentinel Group said the general and Dagalo intend to remain free from civilian oversight.
Moreover, he said, they are “concerned about being held accountable for atrocities committed under their command” in Darfur and for sit-in killings and rape in 2019.