Around November 2016, Sudan, one of Africa’s and the Arab world’s most strategic countries, witnessed the first of its many protests. Mostly centred on the International Monetary Fund-prompted price hikes for basic foodstuffs like bread, the government of Omar Al Bashir was able to disperse the protesters and arrest some members of the opposition. Two-and-a-half years later, following weeks of unrest and sit-ins by thousands of Sudanese, President Omar Al Bashir stepped down after being in power for nearly 30 years. For the first time in almost three decades, the country of 40 million people saw a change of guard. A transitional period followed by elections was announced. And the man who would oversee this transition is Lieutenant General Abdul Fattah Al Burhan.
Before he took over as head of the military council, Al Burhan was the third-most senior general in the Sudanese military. As one of the most affable officers in the establishment, he had a reputation. Al Burhan is widely considered politically neutral: he has no inclination towards any specific grouping of his country’s anfractuous politics. In his long military career, Al Burhan cut a flexible and accommodative figure as someone who kept both political and religious organisations at arm’s length. It is his ability to communicate with the common man and willingness to bring various political factions together that catapulted Al Burhan to the leadership role.
A witness to Sudan’s darkest period after it gained its independence from Egypt, and the ensuing civil war, right up to the Darfur rebellion, Al Burhan took on a number of jobs both in the executive and military. During the war in southern Sudan and the Darfur region, he served on important positions, largely due to his civic manners and professional demeanour. Previously he had served as head of intelligence (and later commander) of border guards in central Darfur. After the outbreak of armed conflict in 1998, Al Burhan was appointed the president’s representative in the Darfur region. Those who worked with him during that time recall his time as a flexible, conciliatory and tolerant officer — a trait that was to come in handy.
Born in the village of Kundato in the north of the country, Al Burhan, 60, is a graduate of the prestigious Sudanese military academy. He is married and has three children. Hailing from a political and military family, he completed his higher studies in Egypt and Jordan. After serving as the Sudanese military attaché to China, he became his country’s chief of staff and then inspector general of the army. Before that he worked as a trainer at the military college in eastern Sudan. As head of Sudan’s ground forces, he oversaw the Sudanese troops’ role within the Arab Coalition that is supporting the legitimate government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi against the pro-Iranian Al Houthi militias in Yemen.
In Sudanese military circles, however, Al Burhan is largely regarded as an officer who puts the country and the armed forces first. When Al Bashir was facing protests in recent months, he appointed Al Burhan a general in the Land Forces Command and later as inspector general. However most of the Sudanese military’s top brass including Al Burhan and the mid- and lower-ranking officers were more connected to the civil society. With a bulk of the military’s higher echelons either backing or sympathising with the protesters, Al Bashir’s exit was a foregone conclusion.
The challenge ahead
In his first televised address to the nation after taking over as the head of the military council, Al Burhan announced the lifting of curbs across the country. He promptly ordered all political detainees released. The interim leader also announced that a civilian government would soon be established, while vowing to “uproot” the former regime. “I announce the restructuring of state institutions according to the law,” he told his countrymen. Since it was people’s power that brought about the dramatic change in the Sudanese political firmament, Al Burhan has clearly signalled that those involved in the killing of protesters in the run-up to Al Bashir’s ouster would face justice. “The council is committed to giving power to (the) people,” he reiterated as recently as last week. But with power comes responsibility.
Al Burhan is sending a high-powered delegation to Washington DC to seek Sudan’s removal from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. With growing inflation, poverty and joblessness staring him in the face, he has to shore up an economy weakened by the loss of oil revenues. As the de facto head of his country, Al Burhan, the veteran patriot, knows that the path ahead may be fragile, but he has to walk the talk.