In Sudan lies true test of AU stand on coups, military rule

Sudanese forces are deployed around army headquarters as they try to disperse a sit-in protest in Khartoum, Sudan, June 3, 2019. [AFP]

The Transitional Military Council (TMC) has resorted to a massacre as a way of crushing a people-driven agitation for civilian-led transitional rule in the troubled Sudan. It is safe to assume that the TMC will do everything to remain in power, because it now needs to shield itself from accountability for mass killings perpetrated under its watch.

Already, the Peace and Security Council has invoked an African Union article of faith, the Lomé Declaration on the Framework for a Response to Unconstitutional Changes of Government, in suspending Sudan from all AU activities until the country restores civilian rule.

The AU ultimatum limits the new military rulers to two choices. The first is to hand over power to civilian authorities and the second is to transform themselves into a civilian authority in the hope that they would then validly remain in power. The evidence is TCA is working on the latter option. While re-characterising the on-going violence, the new rulers maintain they will hold elections within nine months, a timeframe surely unreasonably short, given the general state of the country.

The TCM must be hoping to emulate the recent example of Zimbabwe where a civilian/military coalition overthrew long-term strongman, Robert Mugabe, and then arranged sham elections that were still good enough to serve as a basis for Zimbabwe’s return to normalcy.

Although Zimbabwe and Sudan share a history of long-term dictators whom they have now found a way of overthrowing from power, the two countries are also quite different. 

Zimbabwe has a credible, though long-suffering, opposition whose existence gave the first post-Mugabe elections a veneer of competitiveness, and, therefore, legitimacy. Sudan has not had such luck.

In the general election in 2015, the incumbent Omar El Bashir won 94 per cent of the vote in elections boycotted by the main opposition parties. His ruling National Congress of Sudan only avoided a complete sweep of other elective positions by donating a number of seats, so as to allow some opposition.

In a country parts of which have experienced a campaign of violence amounting to crimes against humanity, attracting the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC), where the opposition was pulverised, and where new rulers have announced themselves through a massacre against defenceless civilians, it is difficult to argue the case for quick elections as happened in Zimbabwe.

Long in coming, the AU position against unconstitutional change of government was finalised in 2000 and was a reaction to a trend of coups d’état around Africa, most recently then in 1997, when rebels backed by the Revolutionary United Front overthrew the Sierra Leonean government, negating the country’s return to democracy and jeopardising a nascent peace process after seven years of civil war.  

The Lome declaration has since been reinforced by the African Charter on Democracy and Good Governance, whose provisions also stipulate that “the perpetrators of unconstitutional change of government shall not be allowed to participate in elections held to restore the democratic order or to hold any position of responsibility in political institutions of their State.”

Enforced only intermittently, the clear provision that coup plotters must not be included in subsequent democratic processes should be applied in the Sudan, particularly because the coup makers there have already shown themselves unworthy of the demands of leadership in that country. In the talks that are reportedly underway in Khartoum, the AU position must include giving effect to its own rules regarding the unconstitutional change of government.

It is unlikely that the AU can secure the cooperation of the new junta when to do so opens rulers to the risk of accountability. At the same time, no credible elections are possible in the near future.

This almost certainly means that the situation in Sudan will not be resolved without the intervention of an international peacekeeping force. Such a force would leverage the political and diplomatic pressure that is needed to establish a balanced approach towards a transition in Sudan. For all their lethal eagerness, the new rulers are far from entrenched: a combined application of political isolation and people-power would quickly bring them around.

There are obvious regional implications if the situation in Sudan is not addressed resolutely. After three years of serious conflict, a new peace process in breakaway South Sudan is yet to consolidate. Although a murderous dictator, Bashir was the guarantor of that process and of the stability in the two countries. The risk of anarchy filling the void created by his sudden departure is real.

Political instability in Sudan imperils the region and negates the tremendous freedoms that the courageous people of the Sudan deserve and have actively earned. To make a deal with the murderous junta would excuse their crimes, compound Bashir’s unresolved crimes and postpone an inevitable reckoning with the people who cannot now be held back.  

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]