Sudan’s Burhan promises return to democracy in 2023

The general behind last month’s coup in Sudan has said he is committed to holding elections and returning power to civilians, after mass protests and widespread international condemnation of the military takeover.

“We are definitely committed to holding elections in 2023,” Abdel Fattah Burhan, told the Financial Times in his office at the presidential palace in Khartoum, in his first interview with western media since the army seized power on October 25.

On Sunday, Sudan’s military and civilian leaders agreed a deal to allow the return of economist and former UN official Abdalla Hamdok as prime minister. The coup, more than two years after a popular uprising forced the removal of autocrat Omar al-Bashir and his Islamist government, has shaken the country’s fragile transition to democracy.

Since the 2019 overthrow of Bashir, the country has been ruled by a joint civilian and military council, chaired by Burhan. He had been due to hand over the chairmanship to Hamdok this month, but will now remain as chair. Burhan, who is forbidden from running in elections under the 2019 transitional deal, has said he will leave politics in 2023. “After that, I’ll leave and mind my own business. I will also leave the armed forces,” he said.

Sunday’s agreement with Hamdok allowed for “an independent technocratic government without politicians and concentrating on the essential issues of the transitional period — the economy, elections, peace and security,” Burhan said. Hamdok has said he agreed to the deal to end “the bloodbath” of recent weeks, in which Sudanese doctors said dozens had been killed, but critics argue the civilian politicians have caved-in to the military.

Burhan said he was “communicating with Hamdok on a daily basis” after the military had kept the prime minister locked up in his house for weeks “to protect him from any harm, because some political actors don’t want this transition to succeed”.

The general defended the military takeover.

“We thought the country was stepping into the unknown,” Burhan said, referring to Sudan’s economic and political crisis. Khartoum, struggling with runaway inflation, a tanking currency, and fuel shortages, has been negotiating relief on $56bn in external debts. In the wake of Sunday’s deal, Burhan said “we hope everything will be OK” with donors and creditors. The US and World Bank froze funds soon after the coup.

“This was not a coup. It was correcting the track of the transition, putting it on the right track,” he said, blaming “political parties that infiltrated the government organs of the state to get gains for themselves, that was the problem”.

People in Khartoum demonstrate against the coup. A Sudanese doctors’ committee said more than 40 people had been killed by security forces during protests © EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Civilian members of the deposed administration disagree. “He staged a coup to preserve his chairmanship of the sovereign council and he’s accusing political parties, whose natural role is to rule or try to rule, of seeking benefits. He is playing a dangerous game or Russian roulette,” said a former senior official in the civilian government, adding, that “the civilians should have an oversight of the military, not the other way around”.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said he spoke to Burhan and Hamdok on Tuesday and “expressed support for the initial steps to restore Sudan’s democratic transition” but “underscored” the need to “rebuild” the confidence of the Sudanese people.

Still, the deal may not bring an end to the protests that greeted the coup. A mass rally is planned for Thursday. At least 41 people have been killed by security forces in these protests, according to a Sudanese doctors’ committee.

Official figures say only 10 died, said Burhan, placing his hand on a folder of a “preliminary investigation” from the attorney-general. He vowed those responsible would be prosecuted. The victims were “not” killed by the military or the Rapid Support Forces, a militia headed by his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, but, possibly, he said, by some elements within the police and “armed” people linked to political parties.

Mariam al-Mahdi, one of the leaders of the National Umma party and a former minister under Hamdok, said “it is not the political parties”. Fathi Fadl, spokesperson for the Sudanese Communist party labelled Burhan the “leader of the coup” and rejected the deal, calling it a “betrayal of the Sudanese people”. For Mahdi: “What happened was a coup, there is no word other than coup to describe it.”

“The road is clear now,” said Burhan, referring to the transition to a democratic, civilian government after the promised election. “This was not a coup. We have a civilian government, that cannot be a coup,” he said.

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