Some military takeovers are carefully orchestrated, plotted in secret for months; others are haphazard affairs conjured in the heat of the moment. The coup in Sudan last week was neither. It had looked like a strong possibility for a year and a half; then, with four weeks to go, it was heralded by a round of strenuous manoeuvring and astroturfing. Yet the timing was awkward and the execution sloppy, and now General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, the head of the junta, is facing off against intense domestic and international pressure.
Ethiopia’s latest civil war is being closely observed by Ethiopia’s neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, but also – from further afield – by Egypt. For Cairo, water is the issue, and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. On 28 November, Egypt’s president, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to meet with his counterpart, Salva Kiir. Sisi was accompanied by the head of his intelligence service. Egypt had just completed two high-profile joint military exercises in Sudan. At the Marwa air base near Khartoum, the Sudanese military chief of staff had vowed to deter the country’s enemies and protect its borders.
Last week, on Monday 3 June, Sudanese paramilitaries attacked the protest camp outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, killing dozens of people, injuring hundreds and destroying their two-month-old sit-in. There is a government blackout on internet and phone services, but activists from the Alliance for Freedom and Change, who have been leading the protests that saw the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in April, are asking people to keep each other informed, and have called for a general strike and ongoing civil disobedience. The strike began on Sunday.
During his last years in office, Bashir used his formidable political talents simply to stay in power, and did nothing for the country. Anti-government protests erupted last December, first against the high prices of bread and fuel, and then against Bashir’s endless rule and the corruption that accompanied it. Despite weekly demonstrations in Khartoum and other cities, Bashir imagined he could outlast the protesters. He thought they lacked leadership and would be easily divided, bought off or demoralised. He was wrong. On 6 April the biggest ever crowds surrounded the Ministry of Defence and military HQ, and refused to disperse.
The corridors of the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, one of the very few health facilities in the rebel area of the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, are cluttered with beds. Half the patients here have been wounded in the civil war that broke out in June 2011. The first war in the Nuba Mountains, between Khartoum’s government and the Nuba rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, started in 1985. When a ceasefire was signed under international pressure in 2002, the Nuba, rebels and civilians alike, were on their knees. Gidel Hospital, built soon afterwards, was made to resist a bomb blast. And with good reason. Sources close to the SPLA estimate that more than 900 bombs were dropped on the Nuba Mountains between June 2011 and January 2012, killing 86 civilians and injuring 170. More than 400,000 civilians have been displaced. Possibly hundreds of thousands of Nuba now rely on wild plants to survive. Khartoum’s tactics ten years on haven’t changed much since the first war: aerial bombing and ground shelling, attacks by the army and proxy militias, without much attempt to distinguish between military and civilian targets. But new arms have appeared as well.