The death of Sudan's defence secretary in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was not only a shock for Sudanese people, but it placed unprecedented pressure on the country's traditions and customs. The death highlighted Sudan's precarious economic conditions and its inability to date to find a breakthrough in the peace process.
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Lt. General Jamal Omar was found dead in Juba, South Sudan. The 60-year-old officer had suffered a heart attack. Neither foul play nor the coronavirus were suspected. Omar, who was from northern Sudan, was a celebrated member of Batch 31 of the Armed Forces and had recently been promoted following his participation in the plot to overthrow former President Omar Al-Bashir.
In a statement released later the same day, Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, who heads the Sovereign Council, said he mourned the death of Omar "who died while struggling for the stability of Sudan" — a reference to talks with rebels to end Sudan's civil war.
Images of his funeral depicted unprecedented scenes from Khartoum Airport, where army officers wearing protective masks against the coronavirus gathered at a distance behind Lt. General Burhan, who warned the crowds they would not be able to attend the funeral. In Sudan, burials are a huge participatory cultural affair and preventing others from attending or non-attendance when one is able, is often seen as a hostile show of disrespect.
Burhan told the crowds that the coronavirus had put paid to any hopes of staging a mass funeral and asked people to stay away. With one reported death and two other cases of coronavirus confirmed, the epidemic has not yet taken hold in Sudan. However, the government has responded rapidly by imposing an evening curfew between the hours of 8pm and 6am.
The curfew has eased pressure on transport services but has also made intra-state travel more expensive. The government announced Friday that transport between the states would be stopped. Private hire cars are also being prevented from making journeys.
On Thursday, students from Darfur completely paralysed part the city when they protested in great numbers against the higher prices of transport. They complained of being unable to meet the exorbitant prices, equivalent to two months basic salary, and demanded that the government pay the fares.
The curfew also denies drivers wishing to get fuel the opportunity to do so at night. The government originally ordered petrol stations to operate on a 24-hour basis but reversed the decision in the light of the new coronavirus restrictions. The streets of the capital Khartoum appear to be far less crowded and the coronavirus curfew has resulted in foreign and regional students returning home.
The coronavirus appears to have increased political tensions. On Friday, supporters of the deposed President Omar Al-Bashir stormed the prosecutor general's office demanding the release of all regime figures to protect them from COVID-19. Prisoners include the former first lady Widad Babiker.
The protesters pointed to the release of prisoners in countries like Iran, where up to 54,000 prisoners have been released and 10,000 have been pardoned. Salah Abdel-Khaleq, a spokesman for the supporters of the ex-president, claimed at the protest that the Sudanese army is prepared to enter a new war in order to prevent the extradition of Al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court.
Supporters of the old regime are accused of burning arable crops in Al-Jazirah State and preventing fuel reaching gas storage centres in Khartoum in order to exacerbate the economic crisis and wrestle back control of the country. Footage on social media shows raids being carried out on secret cartels aligned to the previous regime allegedly involved in manipulating the informal currency trading on the black market.
Over in Juba, seven months after the transitional government vowed to prioritise achieving a comprehensive peace deal in the first six months, the two sides appear to be some way from striking a deal. The death of the defence secretary has led to the postponement of talks with the various rebel groups representing Darfur, South Kordofan being some way from reaching a consensus.
The main sticking points centre around the request for self-determination, secularism, reparations and separation of wealth. However, the government has been careful to keep the details and mood of the negotiations under wraps. Sudanese are therefore hopeful that a final agreement will lead to the country working to reconcile long-standing grievances. The issues were never going to be simple to resolve. There has long been anger over the relationship between the central and regional governments. The expectation is that a final agreement may now come within the next 8-12 weeks.
Others do not share the same optimist outlook. Sources close to the negotiations criticised the rebel groups for having "unrealistic" demands: "The issues of peace have become more about sharing the tiny national cake rather than how the country should be governed," said the source. "It is unlikely the 30 or so factions taking part in the negotiations are going to agree. And the coronavirus makes it hazardous to keep talking – in any case, we fully expect talks to break down one way or the other," the source added.
In the last 48 hours, a new defence minister, Lt. General Mohammed Osman Al-Badry, has been appointed to help negotiate the peace and tackle the coronavirus crisis. Sudan is used to dealing with a multitude of problems, but the coronavirus and events in the past week have only served to exacerbate the unrest.
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