After 30 years, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is no longer the ruler of Sudan. After months of protests, the military has taken charge of the country. This marks the fifth military coup in Sudan’s post-independence history. And while Bashir’s downfall is an extraordinary development, there is a long way to go before the protesters’ goal of a transition to democracy is achieved.
The man now leading Sudan is Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, the defense minister and first vice president. His is not a household name to Americans, but he is one of a handful of Sudanese sanctioned by the U.S. government for atrocities in Sudan’s western Darfur region. In 2003, he was the head of Sudan’s military intelligence. In that role, he helped to stand up the infamous proxy militia force known as the Janjaweed, who brutalized the Darfuri population.
When the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him in 2007, it did so on the grounds that Ibn Auf, along with the minister of humanitarian affairs, Ahmed Harun (who was subsequently indicted by the International Criminal Court), “acted as liaisons between the Sudanese government and the government-supported Janjaweed militias.” During Ibn Auf’s tenure as head of military intelligence, an estimated 300,000 people died and millions were displaced in events that the U.S. government described as genocide.
A 2004 U.N. Commission of Inquiry report gathered substantial evidence of crimes committed in Darfur and identified military intelligence as among those organizations that played “a significant role … including [on] planning, ordering, authorizing, and encouraging” attacks against Darfuris. However, although it issued arrest warrants for Harun and Bashir, the International Criminal Court did not seek action against Ibn Auf.
In the aftermath of the Darfur atrocities, Ibn Auf’s career in government has flourished. He was appointed to the leadership of the joint chiefs, and Bashir made him defense minister in 2015. In February, he became first vice president.
As the head of the transitional military government, Ibn Auf is a far cry from the leadership change that protesters are seeking. The Sudanese Professionals Association, an umbrella coalition of lawyers, doctors and other professionals who have been helping to lead the protests, argues that the military coup has simply “reproduced the same faces and institutions that our courageous people have revolted against.”
Looking back, we see that only once, after the 1985 coup, has the Sudanese military allowed democratic elections. And the results of those elections were short-lived. Three years after Sadiq al-Mahdi won the 1986 presidential vote, he was ousted by the military — in the coup that brought Bashir to power.
If past is prologue, there is little room for optimism. Set up to fail in the aftermath of British colonialism, Sudan has yet to have a government that treats all Sudanese as equal citizens. But then, until today, many believed that Bashir was invincible. With the persistent and courageous efforts of the protesters, hope remains. It is needed, because Sudan’s governance problems did not begin with Bashir’s rule, and nor will they end with his ouster.
Rebecca Hamilton is an assistant professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law. She is the author of “Fighting for Darfur,” and was a special correspondent covering Sudan for The Washington Post.