Transitional Military Councils from 1985 to 2019: Why the intransigence today?


During Sudan’s last major civilian uprising in 1985, the military leadership overthrew the established army-backed dictatorship of Jafa’ar Nimeiri and established a Transitional Military Council (TMC) under the commander in chief Abdel Rahman Siwar al-Dahab. Siwar al-Dahab’s TMC oversaw a one-year transitional period before convening multi-party elections in 1986 that were dominated by the same political forces which had dominated the last era of parliamentary democracy in Sudan. The rise of the Transitional Military Council of 2019 seemed to bear a number of superficial parallels with the events of 1985. Its head Abd al-Fattah Burhan is regarded as a broadly apolitical and unambitious figure, just like Siwar al-Dahab was in 1985. The TMC ousted the incumbent president and declared that it was siding with the popular uprising, just as its predecessor had done in 1985. Yet while in 1985 the TMC and the urban political opposition rapidly agreed on the structure and personnel of the interim government, in 2019 they failed to come to terms after well over two months of talks. On 3 June 2019, the TMC – or at least forces within it – launched a devastating counter-revolution, forcefully bringing an end to the three-month sit-in at army headquarters and massacring well over 100 defenceless protestors. The Transitional Military Council is now being referred to in some media organs as the ‘Military Revenge Council’ (al-Majlis al-Askari al-Intiqami) or ‘Military Coup Council’ (al-Majlis al-Askari al-Inqilabi).

So why are things different this time? It has been widely acknowledged that one of the factors enabling the counter-revolution was the lack of effective pressure by the International Community on the TMC in the era of Trump, Putin and Brexit. But then the 1985 transition occurred with relatively little support from the International Community, in the era before the end of the Cold War led Western nations to push for democratic transformation in Africa. Evidently, Burhan represents the military establishment, but so did Siwar al-Dahab and his generals in 1985.

However, the military establishment may have a much greater deal to fear from a democratic transition in 2019 than they did in 1985. In 1985, they were quickly able to marginalize the more left-wing voices in the professional movement, and were happy to agree to the Islamist chief of the Doctors’ Union, Jizouli Dafa’allah, as interim prime minister. The transition to one person one vote parliamentary democracy predictably enabled the rise of the Umma Party of Sadiq al-Mahdi, which although genuinely committed to parliamentary democracy was close enough to vested financial and military interests that it did not excessively challenge the status quo.

Today – given the Islamist character of al-Bashir’s 30 year regime – there are few Islamist voices in the Sudan Professional Association (SPA). Jizouli Dafa’allah has himself formed his own separate ‘Reform and Peace Initiative’, but has failed to come to terms with the SPA. Meanwhile, although Sadiq al-Mahdi remains prominent and has been attempting to de-escalate the uprising in his role as the formal head of Sudan Call – the most substantial political coalition within the opposition Forces of Freedom and Change – it is unlikely that his Umma Party would emerge as the dominant political force in free and fair elections. More radical political voices among the signatories of the Declaration of Freedom and Change pushed successfully for that declaration to stipulate a four year transitional period before the return to multi-party democracy. This would give the opportunity for new political parties that could speak to Sudan’s crucial demographic – the urban youth – to emerge and challenge both the old parties from previous democratic period and the political forces represented by National Congress Party, the de facto ruling party in the era of pseudo-democracy under Umar al-Bashir. A party like the Sudan Congress Party, formed by university students who participated in the 1985 uprising, might do well out of such a scenario. It was the generals, not the Force of Freedom and Change, who maintained that elections should be held after negotiations broke down following the massacre in early June.

A four-year transitional period would almost certainly entail a much more rigorous process of transitional justice than that which occurred in 1985. Then, only those generals who were active members of the political establishment were put on trial, and they were tried for corruption and overthrowing the previous democracy rather than for war crimes perpetrated during the country’s civil war. The civil war was then being fought predominantly in the now seceded region of south Sudan, and the then rebel leader, John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), refused to travel to Khartoum to enter into talks with the TMC of the day. The transition failed to end the war, which marginalized the more left wing voices in the urban opposition who had hoped to formed a coalition with the Marxist-orientated Garang. Today, rebellion has spread to regions of Sudan that are less socio-politically distant from the riverain centre of the country than the south was in 1985 – notably, the region of Darfur where the regime’s murderous counter-insurgency has drawn so much international attention since 2003. A few weeks ago Yasir Arman arrived in Khartoum to represent the SPLM-North (the faction of the movement which remained in Sudan after the secession of the south) in talks with the TMC. As student communist from the riverain centre who rose through the ranks one of Sudan’s most prominent rebel factions, Arman’s political history represents a convergence of urban-based and periphery-based forms of dissidence that is extremely threatening to the established military order. After repeated demands by the TMC that he leave Khartoum, Arman was arrested and then forcibly deported to South Sudan. Evidently the TMC was too afraid of the potential demands for justice and redress of regional inequalities that talks with Arman’s group might entail.

Another major factor today is that regional powers have encouraged the intransigence of the TMC by providing it with funding and arms. Al-Bashir’s regime had played both the anti-Islamist Saudi-Egypt-UAE and Islamist-orientated Qatar-Iran-Turkey axis off against each other, giving a variety of regional powers the motive to compete over Sudan’s economic resources and diplomatic support. Since 2014 he appeared to bring Sudan closer to Saudi Arabia, by allowing the participation of Sudanese troops in the Saudi led coalition fighting against the Houthis in Yemen. The general overseeing that troop deployment was Abd al-Fattah Burhan, and a substantial bulk of the Sudanese military contingent was formed by the Rapid Support Forces militia that appears to have been the principal perpetrator of the 3 June massacre. The Rapid Support Forces themselves in effect represent the private army of TMC vice president Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo aka Himeidti, a former commander of the Janjaweed militias that perpetrated mass atrocities during the Darfur conflict. Both men have been travelling to Saudi and the UAE to secure support for the TMC, and it is being reported that the 3 June massacre at the sit in was ‘greenlighted’ by the Saudis following a recent trip by Burhan to Riyadh.

The Saudis in particular are now far more regionally ambitious than they were in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Umar al-Bashir may have departed but the vast array of parallel security services and militias that he created has not. This parallel security infrastructure – including groups like the Rapid Support Forces – is far more substantial than was the case in 1985 and is hungry for the kind military and financial investment that Saudi Arabia and competing regional actors such as Qatar may be willing to provide.

Dr Willow Berridge is the author of Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan: The ‘Khartoum Springs’ of 1964 and 1985 (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)