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Remembering the 1989 coup in Sudan

Many see the 1989 coup as instrumental in leading Sudan to many of the crises it is currently undergoing, and the country seems far from the civilian and democratic rule its people have long hoped for.

June 30, 2023 at 8:30 am

What: Military coup against civilian government in Sudan, beginning a 30-year-long dictatorship

When: 30 June, 1989

Where: Khartoum, Sudan

Sudan has long been known to be a country of coups, with its history subjected to a staggering 35 coups, attempted coups and coup plots since its independence in 1956 – more than any other country in Africa. That with the greatest impact until today, however, was likely the military coup of 1989.

Three years prior, in 1986, Sadiq Al-Mahdi was elected Prime Minister of Sudan after a military coup the year before, and set about forming a civilian government which was lauded as welcoming improvements to human rights and expanding civil and political liberties.

That record was marred, however, by his continuation of the repressive policies in the south and west of the country, where Sudanese forces were reported to have persecuted black and non-Arab ethnic groups, while arming militias affiliated with opposing ethnic groups.

Amongst the policies listed as human rights abuses and violations was the use of starvation as a counter-insurgency tactic, by preventing the entrance of peace forces and humanitarian aid to certain areas.

His rule was gradually being threatened, though, by a brigadier in the Sudanese army, Omar Al-Bashir. Hailing from a peasant family, Bashir had studied in Cairo and fought with the Egyptian army against Israel in 1973, before returning to Sudan and rising through the military ranks, leading the Sudanese army’s campaign against the rebels from the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in the mid-1980s.

READ: The Rwandan tragedy must not be repeated in Sudan

As the second civil war in Sudan’s history dragged on, army officers gave Al-Mahdi an ultimatum in February, 1989, to either resolve the conflict himself or hand authority to the military, of which the Prime Minister chose the former option. His failure to bring an end to the war – either politically or militarily – and the struggling Sudanese economy only exacerbated the tensions between him and the army and, on 18 June, he ordered the arrest of dozens of military officials and civilians who his government accused of plotting a coup.

Yet, the real coup came almost a fortnight later, on 30 June, when the army led a pre-dawn operation to arrest numerous civilian and military officials, including the Prime Minister, Al-Mahdi. Omar Al-Bashir, who led the military coup, then announced on the official Omdurman radio that a new Revolutionary Council would rule. In a televised communique, he stated that the coup was “to save the country from rotten political parties”.

What happened next?

Having been declared head of state, Prime Minister, Defence Minister and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, all on that same day, it became clear that Bashir had no intention to give up power any time soon. Unlike some previous military coups in the country, authority was not to be handed to a civilian government and there were no apparent immediate plans to hold elections.

As Chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council for National Salvation, Bashir dissolved the country’s parliament and banned political parties and political activity, and strictly limited freedom of the press. The Revolutionary Council was disbanded in October 1993, when he was appointed President of Sudan, but continued the status quo of military rule.

Aside from his authoritarian policies and measures, he was especially criticised by Western media and diplomatic figures for his alliance with and support by Hasan Al-Turabi, leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF). That alliance – which was later to end with Turabi’s fall from favour and multiple detentions over the years – enabled the county’s transition to Shari’ah (Islamic) religious law, despite the contradictory and numerous human rights violations and torture committed by the Sudanese government.

READ: Sudan Bashir in Military Hospital, Army says

Over the three decades of Bashir’s rule after the 1989 coup, until his own ousting by a military coup in 2019, his legacy is one that is said to have significantly impacted the current situation in Sudan today.

This includes his bending and utilisation of government institutions to benefit his regime, his former alliances groups and figures which have mobilised to block a transition to civilian rule, despite an agreement by a military and civilian coalition in December 2022 and his support of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which is now in a direct and prolonged conflict with the Sudanese military.

Many see the 1989 coup as instrumental in leading Sudan to many of the crises it is currently undergoing, and the country seems far from the civilian and democratic rule its people have long hoped for.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.