On 3 June 2019 security forces launched an operation to disperse protesters in Sudan, resulting in the most bloody incident since the start of the protests late in 2018. In a move that revealed the unwillingness of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) to continue peaceful engagement with the protest movement to form a transitional authority, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group under the command of the deputy head of the TMC, forcibly moved against the main protest camps in Khartoum where sit-ins were taking place. The excessive use of force involving live amunitions and teargas to disperse protesters who had been camping out near the military facility since the April ouster of long-time President Omar al-Bashir led to the death of over 30 people. The security forces also reportedly assaulted many protesters, blockaded roads and hospitals so that medical support could not reach the wounded and the dying. There are also reports of the RSF forces shooting at medical facilities where the wounded were receiving emergency care. Happening during the holy month of Ramadan and on eve of Eid ul Fetir, the incident transformed the atmosphere in the city and across the country.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, the coordinating body of the protest movement, announced suspension of talks with the TMC and called for total civil disobedience including closure of roads. Protesters are back on the streets. The Foreces for Declaration of Freedom and Change, which represented protesters in the negotiations with TMC, called for end of the military council and more street protests.
With the assault ending the sit-in at the heart of the protest movement, the TMC leader, Gen Abdul Fattah Al-Burhan, announced the decision of the TMC recinding all agreements reached with the protest movement. He also said that the TMC would move to set up an interim government to prepare elections in nine months.
The 3 June events have been widely condemned. Mahamat in a statement issued on 3 June expressed his strong condemnation of what he called ‘the violence that erupted today which led to reported deaths and several civilian injuries’ and called for an independent investigation. On his part UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “condemns the use of force to disperse the protestors at the sit-in site and he is alarmed by reports that security forces have opened fire inside medical facilities,” said his spokesman. Similarly, the EU, stating that there is no justification for the use of forces to disperse the peaceful sit-in, expressed its expectations that the TMC respectes ‘the right of people to voice peacefully their concerns, without any threat or use of violence’ and that the ‘priority should remain to find a swift consensus that allows a transfer of power to a civilian-led authority, as also prescribed by the African Union.’ The US and the UK issued used even stronger formulations. While John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, described the violence as adhorrent and said the TMC must speed transition to civilian-led transition, the Assistant Secretary of State said on Twitter that ‘We condemn the attack by #Sudan’s junta on the peaceful protesters in #Khartoum. Sudanese are calling for new leaders who will not subject them to this kind of coordinated and unlawful violence.’ Describing the attacks as ‘an outrageous step that will only lead to more polarisation and violence’, the UK Foreign Office held that the TMC ‘bears full responsibility for this action and the international community will hold it to account.’
What next for the AU?
With these turn of events, the African Union has now to decide on whether it should wait until end of the two months period it gave to the Sudanese parties for establishing a civilian-led transitional authority and continue to postpone the application of the Lome Declaration after military seizure of power.
As the AU weighs its next steps, the question worth examining is whether the conditions for grating the TMC time for negotiating the establishment of a civilian-led transition have been lost. This depends on whether the negotiation process between the TMC and the protest movement have been completely broken down. All indications are that both parties have turned their backs on continuing with negotiations. The Foreces for Declaration of Freedom and Change, the platform negotiating on the part of the protest movement, has called off negotiations with the TMC. More crucially, as noted above, the TMC has recinded the agreements reached thus far and announced plan to form an administration for preparing elections in nine months.
Thus with the violent steps from the security forces for dispersing peaceful protests and the resultant loss of lives and injuries and with the rescinding of agreements reached thus far, there are no basis for giving the TMC more time for transferring power to a civilian-led authority.
In its communique of 27 April not only that the Peace and Security Council (PSC), AU’s peace and security decision-making organ, reiterated its condemnation of military rule and urged transfer of power for a civilian-led transitional authority, it also indicated that it reserved the right to take measures it deems necessary at any point. This is an indication that the AU does not have to wait until the end of the two month period. Indeed, it does not even need to wait the three-week briefing from a AUC Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat. The concern now is that any further appeasement will make the AU lose from all worlds – it would be unable to standby its norms and it would not either be in a position to influence events on the ground. If the AU postpones any further the application of the measures under the Lome Declaration, not only that it may set a precedent that will substantially erode its norms and longstanding practice of zero tolerance to military sizure of power but also it risks kissing its credibility good bye.