Continued standoff between military, rallyists may slide Sudan into deeper chaos

Supporters of Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy head of the military council, cheer at a meeting in Aprag village, 60 km from Khartoum. (Reuters)
Updated 04 July 2019

Continued standoff between military, rallyists may slide Sudan into deeper chaos

  • It was the biggest show of determination by the protesters since security forces dispersed their main sit-in outside the military headquarters on June 3

CAIRO: The mass marches held in Sudan this week breathed new life into the uprising that toppled long ruling president, Omar Al-Bashir, but the protesters and the ruling military council remain at an impasse amid fears the country could slide into further chaos.

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of the capital, Khartoum, and other areas on Sunday, vowing to complete the revolution they launched in December. 

Nearly a dozen people were killed in clashes as security forces prevented the demonstrators from reaching the military headquarters and the Nile-side presidential palace.

It was the biggest show of determination by the protesters since security forces dispersed their main sit-in outside the military headquarters on June 3, killing at least 128 people. That triggered the suspension of talks on forming a transitional government just as the two sides seemed on the verge of an agreement.

Ethiopian and African Union (AU) mediators are working to restart the talks, but both sides have hardened their demands since last month’s violence, with the generals saying earlier proposals are off the table and the protesters calling for an immediate transition to civilian rule and an investigation into the killings. Here is a look at where things may be heading.

Protests first erupted in December in response to price hikes but rapidly escalated into near-daily marches calling for an end to Bashir’s nearly 30-year rule. Troops largely refused Bashir’s orders to fire on the protesters, and the military removed him from power on April 11. Bashir now languishes in a Khartoum prison where his forces once jailed and tortured his opponents.

But the protesters remained in the streets, fearing that the military would cling to power. When the military announced it would govern for up to two years until elections could be held, the protesters demanded an immediate transition to a civilian body that would govern the country for four years.

After several rounds of talks the two sides appeared to be closing in on a power-sharing agreement in which the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which represents the protesters, would hold 67 percent of the seats in an interim legislative body and appoint a Cabinet. But the two sides remained divided over the makeup of the sovereign council, which would hold executive power for three years.

The process came to a screeching halt on June 3, when security forces attacked the sit-in. The generals annulled all previous deals but announced to hold elections in nine months.

An unwieldy coalition

Sunday’s marches provided a powerful show of unity, but internal divides among the protesters threaten to undermine their struggle going forward.

The initial uprising was led by the Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella group of independent unions, which later joined forces with the country’s various opposition parties.

The parties appear more eager to cut a deal with the military. Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the head of the Umma Party and Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister, opposed calls for a general strike after the June 3 crackdown. He has also agreed with the military on expanding the negotiations to include other political groups that many protesters view as too close to Bashir.

The Sudanese Revolutionary Front, a rebel group that is part of the protest movement, meanwhile threatened to negotiate separately with the military council, the English language Sudan Tribune reported Monday.

Gibril Ibrahim, an SRF leader, was quoted as saying that decision-making within the coalition has been “kidnapped” by a small committee “formed in vague circumstances with limited representation.”

Mediation efforts

Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with both sides in Khartoum last month, and his administration along with the AU has sought to mediate the crisis. The White House has expressed support for those efforts and has appointed a special envoy to Sudan.

Last month, the AU and Ethiopia offered a joint proposal based on previous agreements that left the makeup of the legislative body open for negotiations. The generals welcomed it as the basis for future talks, but the protesters refuse to meet with the military until it fully accepts the roadmap.

“We are back to square one,” said Amany El-Taweel, a Sudan expert at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “I believe they are playing for time, especially after the pressure from the street decreased due to the breakup of the military headquarters sit-in.”

Fears of civil war

The deadlock in the negotiations has stoked fears that Sudan could slide into civil war, as Yemen, Libya and Syria did after their own uprisings.

Sudan has been at war with rebels in Darfur and other regions for decades, and the centrifugal forces that have convulsed the country since independence could tear it apart in the absence of a stable central government.

“Civil war is a terribly distinct possibility,” Sudan researcher Eric Reeves said. “The failure of the international community to push harder for civilian governance — for various reasons — is proving deeply counterproductive.”

Osman Mirghani, a Sudanese analyst and the editor of the daily newspaper Al-Tayar, said resuming negotiations offers the only hope of avoiding the “Libya model.”

“If the impasse continues, Sudan could become a new Libya, which means a set of militias control parts of the country and each militia has its government.”

Sudanese novelist Hamour Zyada blamed the impasse on the military, calling it a threat to the country’s peace and stability.

“In the near future, I am not optimistic. I do not expect that the military council will relinquish its grip on power,” he said. “But at the far future, I am optimistic. The public mood is with the civilian state and the revolution.”


How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.

INNUMBER

45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.

 

Twitter: @saeedalBatati

 

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