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Sudan’s military shut down a mutiny. What does that mean for the democratic transition?

Dismantling the former security services won’t be easy

- January 19, 2020

Firefights rocked Sudan’s capital on Tuesday, as members of the country’s security service, the General Intelligence Service, mutinied against the government. The rebellion prompted the closure of Khartoum’s airport and raised fears about a coup that could overturn the democratic progress the country has made since a revolution overthrew longtime President Omar Hassan al-Bashir last year.

These developments triggered a flurry of speculation about the motives of the mutineers. Sudan is negotiating a perilous political transition, in which civilians representing the opposition to Bashir share power with representatives of the military junta that overthrew him. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan currently heads the Sovereignty Council, Sudan’s transitional governance body, pending national elections that are expected to take place in late 2022.

What just happened, and what does it mean for the future of democracy in Sudan? Here’s what you need to know.

Who were the rebels?

The mutiny broke out within the Operations Corps, a combat-equipped branch of the General Intelligence Service. Under its previous name, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the General Intelligence Service was the backbone of Bashir’s repressive apparatus. To address revolutionary demands, the new authorities last year dissolved the corps, whose estimated 12,000 to 13,000 members carried out crucial operations — from protecting oil fields to conducting brutal counterinsurgencies in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile — during Bashir’s era.

Most Operations Corps agents chose to demobilize rather than to remain in the General Intelligence Service or to join other government forces, such as the military or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force dominated by former Janjaweed from Darfur. But central authorities appear to have changed the terms of the deal, shrinking each agent’s severance package from approximately $2,500 to $250.

The motivations aren’t entirely clear

The mutiny began midday, when corps agents blocked the streets around their barracks and started firing shots. Other mutinies took place in the provincial capital of Obeid and around oil sites in the west of the country.

The military and the RSF responded with armed assaults that left several dead. Fighting engulfed neighborhoods in Khartoum, continuing into the evening, when authorities announced the army had quelled the rebellion with a handful of casualties, including two civilians.

Contradictory statements bred confusion about what actually happened. The civilian government and the military said the mutiny broke out over the severance packages. Burhan, the Sovereignty Council chair and an army general, described it as “a conspiracy intended to undermine the Sudanese revolution” and said the authorities would show evidence that it had been coordinated in advance.

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The head of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), a former Janjaweed leader who serves as Sovereignty Council deputy chairman, echoed the suggestion of a conspiracy. He accused former NISS head Salah Gosh, who created the Operations Corps in 2005 and is currently in hiding, of fomenting the rebellion.

There are reasons to be skeptical of these conspiracy theories. Areas surrounding GIS bases bore the brunt of the fighting. The mutineers pushed back against military and RSF assaults but did not try to capture strategic sites. These factors suggest the rebellion was probably a haphazard show of anger by frustrated corps members who are now out of a job, rather than an attempt to overthrow the regime.

Who benefits?

Hemedti and Burhan, who cracked down on revolutionaries in June, leading to the massacre of about 130 people, emerge stronger from this episode. They can leverage the military’s and RSF’s roles in putting down the mutiny as a propaganda opportunity, painting themselves as protectors of the revolution and scoring points against rivals such as Gosh.

These events illustrate the deeper obstacles to the democratic transition that arise from the sprawling military and security apparatus Bashir created to discourage challenges to his power. In the 2000s, NISS’s growing Operations Corps protected him against the military; a decade later, the rise of the RSF counterbalanced the threat that NISS was posing. With each such move, Bashir brought tens of thousands of armed men into the military and security sectors.

Sudan’s military alliances are fragile

Disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating GIS agents into civilian life poses a daunting policy challenge. The new authorities have not articulated plans on this front, focusing instead on economic policy and peace negotiations with armed groups from the marginalized areas. The mishandling of the Operations Corps’ severance packages inspires little confidence that the authorities have the means and expertise to prevent other, potentially more serious, rebellions.

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Reforms within Sudan’s security sector could also shake the current fragile alliance between the military and the RSF. While Hemedti maneuvered to position himself at the center of the new regime, his rise and that of the RSF caused dismay among military officers. Many of them come from the central elite groups that have dominated Sudan since its independence in 1956 and have a poor opinion of Hemedti, an Arab from Darfur without a high school degree.

Sudan’s delicate balance of power could well unravel if the army and the RSF compete for the General Intelligence Service’s men, as well as the General Intelligence Service’s interests in strategic sectors such as gold, fuel, wheat and weapons. The General Intelligence Service reform process falls under the purview of the interior minister, a junta appointee. Having civilian control over the service’s reforms would probably prevent infighting between the RSF and the army, but this shift in authority seems unlikely without an initiative from Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Hamdok, a civilian, does not appear eager to change the status quo. That leaves Sudan facing new questions about how to peacefully dismantle its former security services, as well as the bigger issue of the transition to civilian control over the military and the RSF.

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Jean-Baptiste Gallopin is a sociologist and researcher with a PhD in sociology from Yale University, and the author of “Dilemma and Cascades in the Armed Forces — The Tunisian Revolution,” an examination of what drives armed forces’ disloyalty during mass uprisings.