Interview Omer Ismail Sudanese Former Minister
The battle is still raging in his country, but ultimately “a civilian government must be established in Sudan,” says Omer Ismail, former foreign minister.
Abdel Fattah al-Burhan barely gets out of his bunker anymore. Sudan Sovereignty Council president is losing in the war against paramilitary general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. Most of the capital Khartoum is already in the hands of his Rapid Support Forces (RSF). “But even if the RSF fighters win, they will not rule,” says former foreign minister Omer Ismail. “They have lost all their legitimacy and completely alienated the citizens from them through all their looting, murder and rape,” says Ismail, visiting the only independent Sudanese radio station, Dabanga, which broadcasts from Amsterdam.
In the war of destruction between the generals, the civilians are sidelined. Still, the Sudanese will see opportunities to come up with an alternative government, as neither side seems to be able to control the country, believes Ismail, who was a minister under Prime Minister Addalla Hamdok from 2020 to 2021. “Eventually there will be a ceasefire that will last. And then there must be an alternative to military mismanagement. One of the most important points: an entirely new army.”
“The people must step forward and say, ‘This is our country,'” he continues. Ismail wants to go back to old agreements with the army that the citizens get all executive power during a transitional regime.
The next step must come from the people and not the army, he says. But who represents those citizens in polarized Sudan is the question. According to the former minister, civilian groups such as Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), which negotiated with the army about a transfer of power to a civilian regime until the conflict broke out, have the best chance.
“Burhan is not a strategic thinking leader,” says Ismail. The president is confined to the defense headquarters, which is partly occupied by the RSF. He also lost control of part of the grounds on which the presidential palace is located. Although the government army has more men and heavy equipment and an air force, many attacks by its forces have failed. Attacks by RSF on al-Yarmouk, a large arms and ammunition depot, and the police headquarters, were successful.
Ismail calls Al-Burhan street smart, but he says he lacks the vision, strategy or diplomatic agility needed to form alliances to win the battle. “That’s not entirely his fault: he inherited a dislocated army from the fundamentalist Muslims who had been in power for 30 years.”
They transformed the national armed forces into an ideological army, intended to spread and strengthen fundamentalist ideas. The morale of the corruption-riddled government army is also low; for many years a position in the army meant a way to participate in a commercial network that controlled more than eighty percent of the national economy. The army was a place to make money, not a place for professional soldiers. As a result, it seems, it has hardly any fighting power anymore. “It’s just a military facade,” Ismail says.
How different is that for the paramilitary RSF fighters, when they were not yet included in the army until 2014, but did cooperate with it, they were deployed as infantry. With that experience and their fighting spirit, they now dominate the streets of Khartoum.
The RSF fighters also have the upper hand elsewhere in Sudan. They attacked the strategic city of El Obeid in the south, where there is an oil refinery and a pipeline with oil from South Sudan. In the western region of Darfur, government soldiers are on the defensive: El Geneina is in the hands of the RSF, the regional capitals of Nyala and El Fashar are still being fought over.
The battlefield has become even more complex because two rebel groups have also joined the fray: in El Fashar, the fighters of Minni Minawi are taking on the RSF, in the Nuba mountains, the insurgent group of Abdulaziz al-Hilu has taken over government army barracks.
The civilians are victims of crimes, especially by the RSF. Three million Sudanese have been displaced since the war between the two generals began. Help barely reaches them. The only structures that function are those of civilian resistance committees: they still manage to distribute aid.
“We have to go back to basics, with a citizen representation,” says Ismail. “We have the power of the people: you cannot kill all 45 million Sudanese.”
This interview, done with colleague Jamila Meischke, took place in Amsterdam.
The article was fisrt published in NRC on 5-7-2023