How Sudan's Democratic Dreams Were Dashed : Consider This from NPR Just a few years before the violence and chaos currently engulfing Sudan, it seemed to be on a tenuous path toward democracy.

NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu explains how two rival generals who had promised to transition the country to civilian rule are instead tearing it apart in a bloody power struggle.

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How Sudan's Democratic Dreams Were Dashed

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For Muhjah Khateeb, the first sign that things were about to get very bad came on Saturday morning. She woke up at 10 a.m. to a bunch of missed calls.

MUHJAH KHATEEB: One of my friends - he's an army officer. He called me eight times. And I said, what's wrong with him? And when I call him back, he told me, like, where are you? Don't leave your house because the war is started.

SUMMERS: Khateeb lives in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Not long after that call, the city convulsed in violence and chaos. She started to hear explosions. Then the power went out. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu is covering the conflict from his post in Lagos, Nigeria, and he's been reaching out via WhatsApp to people in Khartoum, including Muhjah Khateeb.

KHATEEB: Yeah. I can hear you very well, but I have a severe headache because of the stress.

SUMMERS: She says she hasn't been able to buy food, so she's rationing what she has.

KHATEEB: I don't have enough water, and since yesterday, I didn't eat more than one bread. I was just taking small piece of cheese, and I'm just, like, drinking coffee. How can I buy food, or how can I - I don't know. No one was ready for this, you know?

SUMMERS: Khateeb is one of 6 million people in Khartoum, and more in other parts of the country, trapped in their homes. They are caught in the crossfire of a struggle for power between two rival factions within the military regime that rules the country. Ahmad Hikmat owns a radio station in Sudan. He worries that it will soon get even worse.

AHMAD HIKMAT: You know, because you're talking about militia now, roaming freely in the capital city. These guys is going to start now, you know, getting into people's houses by force. Then the rape will start. The thefts will start.

SUMMERS: Soon, he says, the outside world may have no idea what is going on.

HIKMAT: Now we have internet. I can speak to you over WhatsApp. Tomorrow, the day after, we will not be able to have this conversation. We need to be ready. The way it's going right now, it doesn't look like it's going to stop soon.

SUMMERS: CONSIDER THIS - just a few years ago, Sudan was on a tenuous path toward democracy, but a struggle between two generals, who won't loosen their grip on power, has put the country's future and millions of lives in jeopardy.

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SUMMERS: From NPR, I'm Juana Summers. It's Tuesday, April 18.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Just a few years before the chaos that's now unfolding in Khartoum, there was determination and hope. Back in December 2018, a very different kind of unrest took over the streets of the Sudanese capital.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

SUMMERS: What started as a protest about the price of bread became something much more fundamental. Here's how one of the protesters, named Wael, put it to NPR.

WAEL: It's not about economics. It's about - they are not going to improve the country. It's - I am 25 years old. I cannot see my future here inside this country.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

SUMMERS: Their chant translated to roughly - the people demand the fall of the regime. President Omar al-Bashir had ruled the country for nearly 30 years after overthrowing Sudan's democratically elected government. The protesters wanted him gone. A few months later, in April 2019, he was. The man who took power in one coup, lost it in another. But the protests didn't stop. The demonstrators wanted more, and they staged around-the-clock sit-in at Sudan's military headquarters. NPR's Eyder Peralta was there to see it.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: What you're hearing in the background is a celebration of new freedoms. But there is still a huge question hanging in the air, and that's that the same military that was responsible for ruthless repression is still in power.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And what are the people that you're meeting out there - what are they telling you?

PERALTA: One protester told me that it feels like they can finally breathe, so this change is not insignificant. But everyone I spoke to says they will not leave the streets until this military hands over power to civilian hands.

SUMMERS: There were negotiations between the military junta that had taken over and the civilian opposition. They were mostly deadlocked. Then, in June 2019...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What are you learning this morning?

PERALTA: So, you know, this is still developing, but what is clear is that Sudanese security forces have unleashed an incredible amount of violence on protesters.

SUMMERS: A crackdown.

PERALTA: One of the protesters sent this video, and I want you to listen to it to give you an idea of the overwhelming force - the gunfire - that the militia used.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNS FIRING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

PERALTA: So what you're hearing - that's automatic gunfire. Videos that are being shared by protesters and activists - they show security forces beating protesters and civilians with sticks and whips, just moving through streets indiscriminately, and they're beating anyone who gets in front of them.

SUMMERS: More than 100 people were killed. Activists said women were raped. Bodies were thrown into the Nile River. But the protesters didn't give up. After the sit-in was broken up, they turned to civil disobedience - a general strike, barricades in the streets. Eyder talked with Mohammed Naji Al-Asam, in those days a doctor who was a leader in the opposition movement.

MOHAMMED NAJI ALASAM: Sudanese people have faced death. And we believe that every Sudanese citizen who has died through the 30 years of al-Bashir regime has participated somehow in this revolution, and the numbers are huge. We are talking about millions. And this is our moment right now, and we cannot stop or retreat. We should continue going forward until we reach our goals.

SUMMERS: And then what had seemed almost impossible happened. The military junta and the opposition struck an agreement to share power and transition toward a civilian administration within a couple of years. It was short of the radical change some protesters wanted, but it was a change. The country's new prime minister, the economist Abdalla Hamdok, told NPR he couldn't have believed it himself.

PRIME MINISTER ABDALLA HAMDOK: Well, not at all. I think, you know, the change that happened in Sudan surprised everybody, including political activists and all that. It was primarily led by young people, women, creating this momentous change. Puzzling - it's just exciting.

SUMMERS: And change did come. Sudan reformed strict Islamist laws. One had required women to get a permit from a male family member to travel with their children. Another had allowed public floggings. The U.S. removed Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan even had its first-ever entry in the Academy Awards foreign film category. Then, in October 2021, things fell apart again.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Eyder, what are you hearing from Sudan in this moment?

PERALTA: So look. This is officially a military coup. The military leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, came on state TV and said that he was dissolving the transitional government and he was declaring a national state of emergency. The office of the civilian leader, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, released a statement saying that he was, quote, "kidnapped."

SUMMERS: One of the pro-democracy activists, Asma (ph), told Eyder it felt like a defining moment in history.

ASMA: There is a sense of fear, but I think the biggest fear is that all what we have done and all the fight that we have been fighting all our lives is just going to go to waste.

SUMMERS: Again, there were widespread protests. The prime minister was reinstated, then resigned - more protests, a crackdown on activists. Finally, late last year, the military and some of the pro-democracy leaders agreed on the outlines of a new agreement. This one would again transfer power to civilians and put the country on a two-year path toward elections. A finalized deal was supposed to be signed on April 1. That never happened. The agreement was apparently derailed by conflict between two leaders of different factions of the country's security forces. And it's that conflict that led to this explosion of violence over the weekend. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu spoke with my colleague Scott Detrow about the two men tearing their country apart.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Tell us more about these two generals. Who are they, and what are their endgames here?

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Well, first, there's General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. He leads the Army and is essentially the de facto leader of Sudan. This is him speaking in 2021, promising he'd deliver Sudan's first free elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ABDEL FATTAH AL-BURHAN: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: And this is Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemetti. He's effectively been Burhan's deputy up until now. And here he is speaking to Al Jazeera this weekend after the fighting began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MOHAMED HAMDAN DAGALO: (Speaking Arabic).

AKINWOTU: He leads the notorious and powerful militia group called the Rapid Support Forces. It largely evolved from the Janjaweed militia that was responsible for atrocities in Darfur. You know, decades of warfare that he led on behalf of the Sudanese government made him extremely wealthy and powerful. Both of these men, these generals - they thrived under the old regime, under Omar al-Bashir, and then they helped depose him after the revolution in 2019.

That revolution, you know, inspired millions of people in Sudan and the wider world and brought this promise of, like, a new, democratic Sudan. But that promise under these men has been squandered. And, you know, after Bashir, there was briefly a civilian-led government, but both these generals actually launched a coup against that government two years ago in 2021. Then they insisted to the Sudanese people and convinced the international community that they could lead the country back to civilian rule. But now we're locked in a war for power and supremacy between them.

SUMMERS: Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos, speaking with my colleague Scott Detrow. And one last update from Khartoum - Tuesday was supposed to be the start of a 24-hour cease-fire, a chance to get humanitarian aid to millions of people in need. Emanuel checked in with Muhjah Khateeb, the woman we heard at the top of the episode, to get a view from inside Sudan.

KHATEEB: They said there is a truce now, but there is no truce. I can hear the gunshot, and I hear an airplane. Yeah, it's very close. I'm not sure if you can hear the sound of the bombing. I'm in my balcony now.

SUMMERS: Khateeb said she was tired and incredibly angry that this was being inflicted on people by two generals who seem bent on serving their own interests rather than the country's.

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SUMMERS: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Juana Summers.

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