2 Generals Took Over Sudan. Will They Deliver Democracy or War?


KHARTOUM, Sudan — It’s not in Berlin, Jerusalem or along the southern U.S. border. But the long concrete wall that is rising in the heart of Sudan’s capital, snaking around the perimeter of its military headquarters, has, like other more famous barriers, come to symbolize the precarious divisions of a fractured country.

The wall cuts through what is hallowed ground for many Sudanese: the area where, four years ago, protesters massed at the military’s gates to demand the ouster of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the widely detested ruler of three decades. Their victory brought euphoric hopes for a new Sudan; Mr. Bashir was consigned to a prison by the Nile.

But the revolution was derailed 18 months ago when Sudan’s two most powerful generals joined forces to seize power in a coup. Since then, the country has slumped — its economy tanking and street protests continuing as the two generals struggled to impose their authority. And now they are fighting between themselves.

Alarmed foreign powers, led by the United Nations and the United States, have persuaded the generals to hand power back to the civilians — at least on paper — by April 11, the fourth anniversary of Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster.

But as talks have dragged on in recent days, tensions between the rival military camps have spiked. Anxieties soared on Wednesday when images of tanks crossing the Nile went viral on social media.

Now, nobody is sure if the two generals are going to lead the country back to democracy, or into a fight.

Two bosses is rarely a good idea. In Sudan it has been a disaster. What started as private sniping a year ago between the army chief, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, and a powerful paramilitary commander, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, has exploded into open conflict. The two men have issued veiled threats against each other. They made competing trips to neighboring countries. And they are repositioning their military forces.

The capital, Khartoum, has become a hotbed of rumor and speculation. Anxious residents scan social media for videos and other clues to gauge the temperature of relations between the two generals, described by one foreign official as “a loveless marriage where they hate each other’s guts.” Rival camps of soldiers are posted across the city, marking each other like opposing sports players. Reports of late-night troop movements stoke fears that the shouting could turn to shooting.

Most residents, though, just feel trapped in limbo.

The coup cost Sudan dearly, depriving it of billions of dollars in foreign aid and debt forgiveness. Food prices have soared. The electricity cuts out frequently. A plunging currency means it takes a thick wad of bank notes to pay for a small meal.

Visiting a retired Sudanese diplomat one sweltering evening, he welcomed me in the gloom of a darkened home; the power was out again. Moments later his wife walked in, triumphantly brandishing a jerrycan. She had found fuel for their generator.

“We are hanging between the sky and the earth,” Saif Osman told me as he piloted his car through the capital’s shabby streets. A veterinarian in his sixties, Mr. Osman drives a cab to earn enough to feed his family. He warned me to hide my cellphone; street crime, once a rarity in Khartoum, is rising rapidly.

The wall has become a factor in the fight. When it started to to go up, about a year ago, many Sudanese saw it as an effort by the military to forestall another popular revolution. But now it’s viewed as a symbol of the divisions inside the military, not least by the protagonists themselves.

“Burhan built the wall to protect himself,” General Hamdan’s brother, Abdul Rahim Dagalo, told me one afternoon at his Khartoum villa, as he lounged on a gilt-edged sofa, eating from a small pot of honey. “He doesn’t care what happens outside the wall. He doesn’t care if the rest of the country burns.”

Mr. Dagalo is the deputy leader of the Rapid Support Forces, which stemmed from the notorious Janjaweed militias that terrorized the western region of Darfur in the 2000s. But now General Hamdan has made clear his ambition to lead the country, and he and his brothers insist that they are the country’s foremost defenders of democracy, eager for elections to take place.

“All we think about is protecting civilians,” Mr. Dagalo said.

In one of many reality-distorting shifts of Sudanese politics today, General Hamdan has allied with civilian politicians who once viewed him as a bitter enemy. He has called the 2021 coup a “mistake.” But for others, General Hamdan’s ambitions should stop at the suspected mass grave on the edge of the city.

Investigators identified the site, at the foot of a mountain beside an old cemetery, in 2020, during the search for the missing bodies of at least 50 protesters killed by the security forces a year earlier, in June 2019, in one of the most notorious massacres of recent years. Witnesses blamed the killings on General Hamdan’s R.S.F. paramilitaries, and some said they saw his brother, Mr. Dagalo, on the scene.

To uncover the truth, the U.S. government hired a team of Argentine forensic anthropologists, specialists in exhuming mass graves, who traveled to Khartoum in 2021, joined by human rights experts from Columbia Law School. After visiting the suspected mass grave, and reviewing satellite images from the area and bloodstained clothes and bullet cases found nearby, the experts drew up detailed plans to excavate the site.

But with the coup in November 2021, everything stopped. “There’s no political will for it,” El Tayab Al Abbasi, a senior lawyer heading the investigation, told me. “This is the price of the coup.”

The sparring generals are just the most prominent actors in a bewildering constellation of forces — rebels and revolutionaries; Islamists and communists; business tycoons and stalwarts of the deposed Bashir regime — that are competing to shape Sudan’s future.

Foreign powers are meddling, too.

Egypt, the old colonial power, has sided with General Burhan and the army. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which see Sudan as a future source of food, have allies on both sides. The United States and European countries are leading the push for democracy — in part to fend off the Russians, who covet Sudan’s gold and seek access to its Red Sea ports for Russian warships.

Still, Sudan can be a tricky country for foreigners.

One afternoon I came across a group of Russian gold miners, wearing T-shirts and flip-flops, at a compound in central Khartoum. They worked for Wagner, the private military group that has spearheaded Russia’s drive into Africa in recent years.

But they seemed lost; their mine had been shuttered, and 40 of them had been detained on suspicion of smuggling. Nobody seemed sure why. “It’s politics,” their lawyer, Huweda Mursal, said, without explanation.

As the generals duke it out, many of the idealistic young Sudanese who helped topple Mr. al-Bashir in 2019 are sitting it out this time.

On the weekend, street photographers hustle for customers by the Nile at sunset, offering portraits for a dollar a pop. They take images of swaggering young men or young couples in Instagrammable poses by the storied river.

One photographer, Walid Abdul Karim, 22, an art student, said he once believed the fall of Mr. al-Bashir would open the door to “all good things — freedom, a better economy, hope.” He shrugged. “Now we realized that it just made a mess.”

But for others, the battered dream of a better Sudan lives on.

At a small cafe in Bahri, a bustling neighborhood north of the Nile, young men and women clustered over small cups of coffee. They belonged to “Anger Without Limits,” a group of hard core protesters leading the weekly clashes with the security forces. The risks are considerable. Scrolling through phones, several pointed to smiling pictures of dead friends — some of the 125 people killed, and 8,000 injured, since the coup.

On the day I left Khartoum they were out again, on streets covered in broken bricks and swathed in tear gas. As my flight climbed over the city, inky plumes of smoke billowed from the bridge that leads to Bahri — the fires lit by young Sudanese who insist they will never accept the rule, or the power games, of their generals.

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