Sudan’s military arrests PM Hamdok, ministers amid reports of coup

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok holds a press conference at the Council of Ministers in the capital Khartoum, Sudan, Aug. 15, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Military forces detained at least five senior Sudanese government figures and put the country’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest on Monday, officials said, as the country’s main pro-democracy group called on people to take to the streets to counter an apparent military coup.

According to Al-Hadath TV, Industry Minister Ibrahim al-Sheikh, Information Minister Hamza Baloul, and media adviser to the prime minister, Faisal Mohammed Saleh are among the arrested. The spokesperson for Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council, Mohammed al-Fiky Suliman, and the governor of Sudan’s capital Khartoum, Ayman Khalid, were also detained.

“Civilian members of the transitional sovereign council and a number of ministers from the transitional government have been detained by joint military forces,” the information ministry said in a statement on Facebook. “They have been led to an unidentified location.”

It said armed forces detained Hamdok on Monday after he refused to support their “coup”.

“After he refused to be a part of the coup, a force from the army detained Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and took him to an unidentified location,” the ministry said.

The Sudanese Professionals’ Association (SPA), a group leading demands for a transition to democracy, said there were internet and phone signal outages across the country. It urged the people in a press release to resist attempts by the army to seize power.

In response, thousands flooded the streets of Khartoum and its twin city of Omdurman to protest the apparent military takeover. Footage shared online appeared to show protesters blocking streets and setting fire to tires as security forces used tear gas to disperse them.

Protesters could be heard chanting, “The people are stronger, stronger” and “Retreat is not an option!” as plumes of smoke from burning tires filled the air. According to media reports, armed forces fired live rounds at Sudanese demonstrators.

“Military forces have fired live bullets on protesters rejecting the military coup outside the army headquarters,” the country’s officials said, adding that “casualties are expected”.

The opposition Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) said at least 12 people were injured in Khartoum clashes.

A possible takeover by the military would be a major setback for Sudan, which has grappled with a transition to democracy since long-time autocrat Omar al-Bashir was toppled by mass protests.

Monday’s arrests come after weeks of rising tensions between Sudan’s civilian and military leaders. A failed coup attempt in September fractured the country along old lines, pitting conservatives who want a military government against those who toppled al-Bashir more than two years ago in mass protests.

The whereabouts of Hamdok were not immediately clear, amid media reports that security forces were stationed outside his home in Khartoum. Photos circulating online showed men in uniform standing in the dark, allegedly near his home.

“We call on the Sudanese people to protest using all peaceful means possible… to take back their revolution from the thieves,” Hamdok’s office said in a statement.

The arrests followed meetings the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman held with Sudanese military and civilian leaders Saturday and Sunday in efforts to resolve the dispute.

Sudan’s state news website highlighted the meetings with military officials. NetBlocks, a group that tracks disruptions across the internet, said it had seen a “significant disruption” to both fixed-line and mobile internet connections across Sudan with multiple providers early Monday.

“Metrics corroborate user reports network disruptions appearing consistent with an internet shutdown,” the advocacy group said, as The Associated Press (AP) reported. “The disruption is likely to limit the free flow of information online and news coverage of incidents on the ground.”

According to Reuters the Khartoum airport was shut and international flights were suspended on Monday, the Dubai-based al-Arabiya TV channel reported. There was no announcement from the Sudanese government on the status of the airport.

Sudan has been undergoing a precarious transition marred by political divisions and power struggles since April 2019. Since August 2019, the country has been led by a civilian-military administration tasked with overseeing the transition to full civilian rule. The main civilian bloc – the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) – which led the anti-Bashir protests in 2019, has splintered into two opposing factions.

“The crisis at hand is engineered – and is in the shape of a creeping coup,” mainstream FFC leader Yasser Arman told the Saturday press conference in the capital Khartoum. “We renew our confidence in the government, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and reforming transitional institutions – but without dictations or imposition,” Arman added.

Last week tens of thousands of Sudanese marched in several cities to back the full transfer of power to civilians, and to counter a rival dayslong sit-in outside the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum demanding a return to “military rule.”

Hamdok has previously described the splits in the transitional government as the “worst and most dangerous crisis” facing the transition.

On Saturday, Hamdok denied rumors he had agreed to a Cabinet reshuffle, calling them “not accurate”. The premier also “emphasised that he does not monopolise the right to decide the fate of transitional institutions.”

Also on Saturday, U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met jointly with Hamdok, the chairperson of Sudan’s ruling body Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan, and paramilitary commander Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo. “Feltman emphasized U.S. support for a civilian democratic transition in accordance with the expressed wishes of Sudan’s people,” the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum said. Analysts have said the recent mass protests showed strong support for a civilian-led democracy, but warned street demonstrations may have little impact on the powerful factions pushing a return to military rule.

International reaction

The United Nations said Monday that Sudanese security forces’ detention of civilian leaders was “unacceptable”.

“I am deeply concerned about reports of an ongoing coup and attempts to undermine Sudan’s political transition. The reported detentions of the Prime Minister, government officials, and politicians are unacceptable,” the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG), Volker Perthes said. “I call on the security forces to immediately release those who have been unlawfully detained or placed under house arrest,” he said in a statement on Twitter.

The Arab League has released a statement of “deep concern” about the apparent military coup in Sudan. The Secretary-General of the 22-member bloc, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, urged all parties on Monday to “fully abide” by the constitutional declaration signed in August 2019, which had aimed to pave the way for a transition to civilian rule and democratic elections.

“There are no problems that cannot be resolved without dialogue,” Aboul Gheit said. “It is important to respect all decisions and agreements that were decided upon… refraining from any measures that would disrupt the transitional period and shake stability in Sudan,” the statement added.

The United States and the European Union expressed concern over Monday’s developments. Feltman said Washington was “deeply alarmed” by reports, while EU foreign affairs chief Joseph Borrell tweeted that he’s following events with the “utmost concern.”

“The EU calls on all stakeholders and regional partners to put back on track the transition process,” Borrell wrote.

Germany has joined the chorus of concern and called for an “immediate end” to the action.

“The news of a new coup attempt in Sudan is troubling,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement. “I call on everyone in Sudan responsible for security and order to continue Sudan’s transition to democracy and to respect the will of the people. The attempted overthrow must come to an immediate end.”