East Africa: Attempted Coup Mirrors Building Tension, Unsolved Horn of Africa’s Conflicts
By Aggrey Mutambo, Mawahib Abdallatif And Garang Malak
The recent attempted coup in Sudan has exposed the delicate political ground not just in Khartoum but also the Horn of Africa. The neighbourhood is already struggling with a now humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region that threatens to suck in all countries in the region one way or other.
But inside Khartoum, the failed coup exposed the widening gulf between the military and civilian components of the transitional government.
On September 21, officials in Khartoum said they had foiled a coup reportedly masterminded by loyalists of ousted Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, currently serving a jail term for corruption crimes. “What happened in this coup attempt, is an extension of previous attempts against the Transitional Council,” Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok said.
“They tried to take advantage of the situation in different towns by closing ports and roads and tried to stop us from moving forward during this transitional period,” he added.
At least 40 soldiers had been arrested by last Thursday for questioning, but the PM himself admitted that the plot was led by both military and non-military elements in government which he said had ties with al-Bashir.
The incident was widely seen as an added threat to the transitional government. The PM said there will be a “total review of the transition experience.”
From the outset, it looked like recent conditions in the country would fuel an attempt to topple the transitional government. Sudanese security and military affairs expert Maj-Gen Amin Mjazoub told The EastAfrican that the coup was probably just to test the waters.
Sudan has had three coups and eight coup attempts going back to 1957 and includes that which brought al-Bashir to power in 1988. Mr Bashir was ousted in April 2019 in a popular uprising, with the help of the military.
Since August 2019 when he took office, Mr Hamdook still faces a crisis and has an uphill task uniting, first the military units and weed out Mr Bashir loyalists; and then unite the military and civilian sides of the government.
Mr Hamdook has had to accommodate in government more representatives of armed factions who agreed to lay down arms; reformed key areas of the economy such as addressing the exchange rate and subsidies, and making the country eligible for debt relief.
“The important thing would be that the civilian side of the government learns from this and accelerate to cleanse the military and security establishment, which is still under the control of remnants of the former regime,” said Maj-Gen Amin Mjazoub.
The US recently announced it will pump $700 million into the Sudanese economy, ending years of being blacklisted under sanctions for being an alleged state sponsor of terrorism. Those sanctions were lifted last December.
Jonas Horner, a Senior Analyst for Sudan at the International Crisis Group had argued earlier that Sudan’s painful economic reforms had actually started bearing fruit as the country lowered a trade deficit by 25 percent, lowered inflation from 423 percent to 388 percent, for the first time in two years.
“Mr Hamdook would do well to publicise this concrete sign of progress to a population suffering under vastly reduced purchasing power to show government can respond to their concerns while communicating the long road still ahead for Sudanese and their fragile economy,” he Tweeted.
That long road includes drafting a new constitution and election laws, preparing the ground for peaceful elections, patching up the economy and encouraging more groups to sue for peace; all hopefully before the end of 2023.
The US Statement Department in a statement Tuesday said; “The US condemns the failed attempt by rogue military and civilian actors to seize power from Sudan’s Civilian Led Transitional Government (CLTG),” calling it a danger to transition. “The US continues to support the CLTG in its pursuit of a democratic transition for Sudan.”
It must be noted that, on the eve of the coup, the civilian side of government spoke of a lack of confidence in guarding democratic transition, and called for urgent reforms in the military seen as still harbouring radicals. February last year, those “radicals” had refused to be purged and staged a mutiny at the national security intelligence services headquatres in Khartoum.
Last month, Mr Hamdook announced a national mechanism to help create a broad consensus to protect the transition. Mr Hamdook said he had consulted widely and that the formation of the mechanism reflected diversity. Then the coup attempt happened and the military said there can never be any way to remove them from power.
“There is no elected government in the country, and the armed forces are the guardians of Sudan’s security and unity,” said Gen Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, stressing that “no one can remove armed forces from the scene during the transition.”
Al-Burhan, nonetheless, stressed the importance of the unity of all military and political components to get Sudan out of the transitional phase of a civilian-state that fulfills the aspirations of the people, saying the military in fact “believe in democratic transformation, the aspirations of the revolution, and the goals of the transitional period to move towards a future that establishes a democratic civilian-state chosen by the Sudanese people.”
His deputy, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo suggested the coup was a result of power struggles within civilian components, which gave the plotters to take advantage of it.
“The political forces have given the opportunity for military coups to take place, because they are preoccupied with power struggles and the distribution of positions among themselves,” he said.
“The political forces deceived the citizens, and we have done nothing for our people. We harnessed all the possibilities of the regular forces for the benefit of the people.” The civilian components under the Forces of Freedom and Change (FCC) have shared power with the military, alongside other groups since the transitional government was set up in 2019. The initial idea was for the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council to alternate between the two sides until proper elections are held. That hasn’t been happening.
In fact, the FCC issued a statement on Tuesday accusing the chairman of the Transitional Sovereign Council and his deputy of threatening democracy. Whether the accusation is true or not, will still worry enthusiast of peace in the Horn. Sudan already faces an ongoing border tiff with neighbouring Ethiopia, adding to the ongoing dispute over the construction of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD).
A bulletin by the International Crisis Group (ICG) had warned that the tension over al-Fashaga border area near Amhara region of Ethiopia was a threat to regional stability and that a wider conflict could draw in neighbouring countries.
On Wednesday, South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Mr Hamdook should hold to account those behind the coup attempt. “We consider this a blatant attack on the process of consolidating peace in our sisterly country and strongly condemn the coup attempt,” President Kiir said in a statement.
“We emphasise our firm position in rejecting the use of military means to undermine the power of people and the leadership of the Transitional Government. Such shortcuts aimed at blackmailing the democratic political transition in Sudan shouldn’t be allowed to derail the efforts of the Sudanese people” Kiir added.
And President Kiir has reason to worry because in Ethiopia, a conflict in Tigray region has caused more than one million people to flee into Sudan, while another 500,000 are facing starvation inside Ethiopia. Last week US President Joe Biden signed an executive order with wide-ranging sanctions for both Ethiopia and Tigray if either of them derailed dialogue towards a peace.
President Biden said “The United States supports ongoing international efforts to promote a negotiated ceasefire and political resolution of this crisis, to ensure the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Ethiopia, and to promote the unity, territorial integrity, and stability of Ethiopia.”
Addis termed the sanction threat as “undue pressure” on the government to negotiate with what it calls a terrorist group. “As a long-time friend, strategic ally and partner in security, the United States ‘recent policy against my country comes not only as a surprise to our proud nation, but evidently surpasses humanitarian concerns,” Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed wrote in an open letter on Tuesday. “The American people and the rest of the Western world are being misguided by the reports, narratives and data distortions of global entities many believe were driven to help impoverished countries like mine, yet have in the past months portrayed victims as oppressors and oppressors as victims.”
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which the government is fighting, said they will comply with the conditions of the sanctions, terming the call by Biden as “correct” to prevent the situation from snowballing, according to Getachew Reda, the group’s spokesman.
Although the conflict has created a humanitarian crisis, the African and Caribbean Group at the UN Security Council, known as A3+1 argued at a recent session on Tigray for donors to be careful not to impose an economic punishment on a country already suffering from effects of conflict.
“We urge caution in the use of any unilateral coercive sanction measures that risk Ethiopia’s economic collapse. Their use will only worsen the humanitarian crisis.” The four countries — Kccccenya, Tunisia, Niger and St Vincent and Grenadines– said in a joint statement last month.