NAIROBI, Kenya — Military forces detained Sudan’s prime minister early on Monday in an apparent coup that endangered the northeast African nation’s fragile transition to democracy from authoritarian rule.
The Sudanese Ministry of Culture and Information said in a Facebook post that the joint military forces had placed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest and pressured him to release a “pro-coup statement.” After refusing to “endorse the coup,” the ministry said, Mr. Hamdok was then moved to “an unknown location.”
The military also detained several top cabinet members and civilian members of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, the ministry said.
As news of the arrests spread, protesters filled the streets of the capital, Khartoum, early Monday. Television stations showed people burning tires in Khartoum, with plumes of smoke filling the skies. The information ministry also said that internet connections had been cut and that the military had closed bridges.
The possibility of a coup has haunted the country’s transitional government since 2019, when Mr. al-Bashir was overthrown, and Sudan has been rocked by protests from two factions. One side had helped topple Mr. al-Bashir after widespread mass protests, and the other backs a military government.
On Monday, pro-democracy demonstrators chanted: “The people are stronger. Retreat is impossible.” Some clapped, and the procession of demonstrators grew larger.
Relations between the leaders of the transitional government, which is made up of civilian and military officials, have been strained. In recent days, pro-military protesters have demanded the dissolution of the transitional cabinet, a step many pro-democracy groups have denounced as setting the stage for a coup.
The Sudanese Professionals Association, the main pro-democratic political group, had warned on social media that the military was preparing to seize power. The association urged residents on Monday to take to the streets to resist what they called a “military coup.”
“The revolution is a revolution of the people,” the group, which is made up of doctors, engineers and lawyers organizations, said in a Facebook post. “Power and wealth belongs to the people. No to a military coup.”
As the protests intensified on Monday, NetBlocks, an internet monitoring organization, said there had been a “significant disruption” to internet services affecting cellphone and some fixed lines in the country. That disruption, it said, “is likely to limit the free flow of information online and news coverage of incidents on the ground.”
For months, the country has been wracked by political uncertainty and the challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic, and Sudan’s economy is in a precarious state, with growing unemployment and rising food and commodity prices nationwide.
The army chief of staff had been expected to hand over leadership of the transitional cabinet to Mr. Hamdok in November, which would have given him a largely ceremonial post, but one that would have signified full civilian control of Sudan for the first time in decades.
On Saturday local time, Jeffrey Feltman, the United States special envoy for the Horn of Africa, met with the Sudanese prime minister and reiterated the Biden administration’s support for a civilian democratic transition.
On Monday, Mr. Feltman said the United States was “deeply alarmed at reports of a military takeover of the transitional government.”
“This would contravene the Constitutional Declaration and the democratic aspirations of the Sudanese people and is utterly unacceptable,” Mr. Feltman said in a statement. “As we have said repeatedly, any changes to the transitional government by force puts at risk U.S. assistance.”
After the detentions on Monday, state television played national patriotic songs, and local news reports said that Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the sovereignty council, was expected to make a statement about the unfolding events.
After President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years, was ousted in a coup in 2019, the country began taking tenuous steps toward democracy, but has been plagued with unrest and an attempted military takeover.
His government was replaced by an 11-member sovereign council consisting of six civilians and five military leaders, who were given the task of preparing the country for elections after a three-year transition period.
The council appointed Abdalla Hamdok, an economist who has held several United Nations positions, as prime minister, and his government immediately embarked on an ambitious program designed to placate pro-democracy demonstrators and rejoin the international community.
Mr. Hamdok’s government eased decades of strict Islamist policies, scrapping an apostasy law and abolishing the use of public flogging. It also undertook a political and economic overhaul. It revived talks with rebel groups, and began investigations into the bloody suppression of the Darfur region under Mr. al-Bashir, promising to prosecute and possibly hand over to the International Criminal Court those wanted for war crimes there.
But stubborn obstacles to progress remained, including the coronavirus pandemic, stagnant economic growth and continued violence in Darfur. Mr. Hamdok survived an assassination attempt, and concerns of a coup swirled when the country entered lockdown last year to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Last month Sudanese authorities said they had thwarted an attempted coup by loyalists of Mr. al-Bashir. Soldiers had tried to seize control of a state media building in the city of Omdurman, across the Nile from the capital, Khartoum, but they were stopped and arrested.
Mr. Hamdok blamed the failed coup on Bashir loyalists, both military and civilian, and described it as a near miss for the country’s fragile democratic transition.
The army chief of staff had been expected to hand over leadership of the sovereign council next month to Mr. Hamdok — a largely ceremonial post, but also one that signifies full civilian control of Sudan for the first time in decades.
Three years ago Sudanese protesters protested against the government of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who had ruled the country for three decades since a 1989 coup.
Mr. al-Bashir had led his country through disastrous wars and famine, but it was anger over the rising price of bread that incited the first protests in December of 2018. After nearly four months of demonstrations and dozens of deaths at the hands of security forces, Mr. al-Bashir was forced from power in April 2019.
He had ruled Sudan longer than any other leader since the country gained independence in 1956, and was seen as a pariah in much of the world. He hosted Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, leading to American sanctions, and in 1998 an American cruise missile struck a factory in Khartoum for its alleged links to Al Qaeda.
Mr. al-Bashir presided over a ruinous 21-year war in southern Sudan, where his forces pushed barrel bombs from planes onto remote villages. The country ultimately divided into two parts in 2011, when South Sudan gained independence. But Mr. al-Bashir kept fighting brutal conflicts with rebels in other parts of Sudan.
In addition, he sent thousands of Sudanese soldiers to fight outside the country, including in the civil war in Yemen.
Mr. al-Bashir, 77, has been imprisoned since his ouster. He has been wanted by the international court in The Hague since 2009 over atrocities committed by his government in Darfur, where at least 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million displaced in a war from 2003 to 2008, the United Nations estimates.
The international court has been pressing Sudan’s transitional government, which took over after Mr. al-Bashir was deposed, to hand him over along with other leaders accused of crimes in Darfur.
Sudanese courts convicted Mr. al-Bashir of money laundering and corruption charges in late 2019 and sentenced him to two years in detention. He still faces charges related to the 1989 coup, and could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment if he is convicted.
The U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa was in Sudan as recently as Saturday, urging the military and the civilian leadership to continue the country’s planned transition to democracy as protests broke out.
Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, met in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on Saturday. They were joined by other leaders, including Lt.-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the military and the sovereignty council, and Gen. Mohammed Hamadan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, another senior military member of the council.
Mr. Feltman “emphasized U.S. support for a civilian democratic transition in accordance with the expressed wishes of Sudan’s people,” the American Embassy in Khartoum said on Twitter. He called on all parties to stick by the constitutional declaration that the military and opposition signed after Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster and a peace agreement reached last year by the government and rebel groups.
Sudan spent the better part of three decades isolated from the world, as its former leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir housed terrorists, including Osama bin Laden, engaged in bloody wars with his own people and squandered revenue from oil production.
Since Mr. al-Bashir was ousted in 2019, the leadership of the nation, part civilian and part military, has made overtures to Israel, the United States and the international criminal court in The Hague, where its former leader is wanted. The country’s hope was that by normalizing relations with former antagonists it could lure badly needed investment.
In 2011, South Sudan split from Sudan and formed it own nation, taking with it claims to more than 90 percent of the region’s oil reserves. That was a blow to Sudan’s economy, already beleaguered by sanctions.
After the new government formed in 2019, it began taking steps to improve foreign ties.
The United States, which lifted many sanctions on Sudan in 2017, took the country off the list of nations that support terrorism last year. President Trump had announced the decision, saying the removal was made in exchange for a $335 million compensation payment to the victims of the 1998 Qaeda attacks on American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
That deal was made possible after Sudan agreed to recognize Israel, part of a Trump administration effort to pressure Arab nations to normalize relations with the country. Sudan’s move, however, appeared short of actually establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Sudan’s cabinet also voted in August to ratify the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the criminal court, and said it had agreed to extradite Mr. al-Bashir.
But his extradition remains a contentious issue in Sudan, and could now be in serious doubt. Some of the country’s military leaders were implicated along with Mr. al-Bashir in the atrocities in Darfur, a western region. If he were to be extradited, he might give evidence that could expose Sudan’s military leaders to prosecution.