Late on Sunday, Abdalla Hamdok appeared on state television to announce his resignation as Sudan’s prime minister.
The announcement came just six weeks after the Western-backed civilian leader had returned to the post following his overthrow and house arrest in a military coup on October 25 – but it did not come as a surprise.
Reports citing sources close to Hamdok say he was fed up with the decision of Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – the top military commander and leader of the coup – to restore the widely feared intelligence service, as well with his refusal to allow the prime minister to freely appoint members of his cabinet.
Hamdok had only been reinstated as part of a controversial deal that he inked with al-Burhan in November that also said elections would be held in July 2023. But while Western leaders pushing for Hamdok’s restoration swiftly welcomed him back, the sprawling pro-democracy movement saw his return as a “fig leaf” that legitimised the coup and ensured the military’s dominance.
With Hamdok now gone, analysts say the military may look to co-opt a new civilian face to retrieve billions of dollars in much-needed foreign aid, which was suspended following the coup.
Several unconfirmed reports say military leaders have already approached Ibrahim Elbadawi, a former finance minister who served under Hamdok in 2019 as Sudan embarked on a democratic transition following the military removal of longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in the wake of mass protests. However, the United States, United Kingdom and Norway, as well as the European Union, have warned the ruling military against unilaterally imposing a new prime minister, threatening to withhold financial assistance if “a broad range of civilian stakeholders” was not involved in the process.
“I believe that Elbadawi is a man of integrity, and that he would never accept to be a figurehead of an authority that is de facto controlled and directed by the military,” said Suliman Baldo, an expert on Sudan with The Sentry, a policy-investigative team tracking corruption in Africa.
“The military now needs to do some serious soul searching,” he added. “They can continue killing Sudanese people in the streets with battlefield guns, or act responsibly by stepping back and allowing a transitional government led by civilians to take over.”
At least 57 protesters have been killed in mass rallies that have gripped Sudan since the coup and continued following the November 21 deal between al-Burhan and Hamdok, according to medics.
Kholood Khair, the managing partner of Insight Strategy Partners, a think-tank based in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, said she anticipated the military to escalate repression to provoke street violence. That way, she argued, the military could portray the pro-democracy movement as a bunch of young angry men who are a threat to national security.
“The military wants the streets to lose credibility, so that they can say that they’re putting down a violent insurgency. They could then call the [street] violence whatever they want. They could stick a label of terrorism on it,” Khair said.
Fears of protracted standoff
The military is already trying to control the narrative by cracking down on the press. During mass protests on December 30, security forces raided television stations and assaulted journalists. This came just days after they were bestowed with expansive powers and legal immunity.
However, protests have shown no signs of slowing down, raising fears that a protracted standoff could plummet the country – already grappling with a severe financial crisis – into further conflict.
The worst-case scenario could see security forces fracture, warned Jihad Mashamoun, a Sudanese researcher and political analyst based in the UK. He stressed there was a real risk junior army officers could attempt to topple al-Burhan and the rest of the old guard.
“Al-Burhan is always worried about junior officers orchestrating a coup,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty and mounting violence, analysts say Sudanese political parties and Western powers should corner the military by rallying behind the demands of the street movement.
One way to do so is through supporting Sudan’s “resistance committees”, a decentralised network of neighbourhood groups that is spearheading the pro-democracy movement. The resistance committees are planning to unveil their political roadmap this month, which is intended to push political parties to adopt the public’s demands, according to Khair.
“My sense is that some of the [demands] will be watered down because you need to get a broad number of people to agree on it, and some of it will be hardline because people are sick and tired of settling for the bare minimum,” she said. “But as a starting point, I can’t imagine anything better than this [road map] in terms of reflecting the popular will.”
Outside Sudan, meanwhile, some called for Western countries to pile more pressure on the military.
“My concern is that Washington is taking this wait-and-see approach and not trying to shape events and outcomes,” said Cameron Hudson, a non-resident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Africa Center, as he called on US officials to hold consultations with the pro-democracy movement.
According to Hudson, the White House should also consider sanctioning Sudan’s military rulers, including the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the General Intelligence Service, and the deputy commander of the Rapid Support Forces, now that Hamdok – a man formerly at the centre of US policy – was no longer in the picture. He stressed the threat of sanctions from US Senator Christopher Coons previously compelled the military to release Hamdok from house arrest and restore him as prime minister.
“If [Washington] says repeatedly … that human rights are part of their foreign policy outlook, then why are we having a debate about whether or not they should sanction the people that are murdering pro-democracy protesters in the street?” Hudson said.