Ethiopia‘s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was in Sudan’s capital to spearhead mediation efforts between military and opposition leaders, days after the killing of dozens of unarmed protesters by a notorious paramilitary force.
Soon after arriving in Khartoum on Friday, Abiy met members of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) – which has ruled Sudan since long-time leader Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a coup in April – and was expected to hold talks with the opposition Freedom and Change alliance later in the day.
TMC spokesman Lieutenant-General Shams al-Din Kabashi received the Ethiopian prime minister at Khartoum International Airport for the one-day visit, before he met military leader Lieutenant-General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, together with his delegation, arrived in Khartoum, Sudan this morning for talks with the Chief of the Sudanese Transitional Military Council, Lt. Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.#PMOEthiopia pic.twitter.com/HaUPXMGv67
— Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia (@PMEthiopia) June 7, 2019
Abiy, 42, who took office in Ethiopia last year and introduced political and economic reforms, has won wide praise for his diplomacy skills, including brokering peace with his country’s neighbour and long-time foe Eritrea.
His trip comes after the African Union (AU) suspended Sudan’s membership on Thursday and at least 108 people were killed and more than 500 wounded since Monday’s attack, according to the opposition-linked Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors.
A health ministry official, however, was quoted on Thursday as saying the death toll stood at 61.
Al Jazeera is unable to independently confirm the differing figures after its journalists were ordered not to report from the country.
‘State of terror’
Since the deadly assault, fearful Khartoum residents have remained largely indoors, leaving the streets virtually deserted at a time when Muslims are normally out celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday.
Soldiers from the feared Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – who have their origins in the notorious Janjaweed militia unleashed in the conflict in the western region of Darfur in 2003 and 2004 – have remained stationed in a number of the capital’s main squares.
Others have been seen out on patrol in their trademark pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns or rocket launchers.
“We’re living in a state of terror because of sporadic gunfire,” one unidentified resident of south Khartoum told AFP.
The UN secretary-general’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq called on Sudan’s military to ensure the safety of civilians.
“We have urged restraint from the security forces and we’ve urged that the government respect all of the basic human rights of the people – including freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” Haq said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Awol Allo – a lecturer specialising in East African politics at Keele University – said Ethiopia stands the best chance as a third party in mediating an agreement to halt the violence.
“If there are any external parties in the region who can bring the two sides together it would be Ethiopian prime minister and government,” Allo told Al Jazeera.
“That is partly because of Ethiopia’s own political weight in the AU … [and] also because Ethiopia has largely remained neutral and impartial so far in the confrontation between the military council and the forces for freedom and change.”
While Allo said there are limitations on Abiy’s mediation efforts, Ethiopia may be positioned to help the military reach an agreement that addresses the opposition’s demands.
“Ultimately … the best outline that is consistent with the demands of the revolution and international community is setting up a transitional government that gives the majority of the authority – the supreme authority – to a civilian body, not to the military,” said Allo.
AU membership suspension
The AU’s Peace and Security Department said Sudan’s participation in all AU activities would be suspended with immediate effect “until the effective establishment of a civilian-led transitional authority”, which it described as the only way to “exit from the current crisis”.
Sudan’s pro-democracy leaders have vowed to continue their campaign of civil disobedience until the TMC is removed and killers of protesters are brought to justice. However, the streets were quiet on Friday.
Monday’s bloodshed marked a pivotal moment in the weeks-long struggle between the TMC and the opposition groups over who should lead Sudan’s transition to democracy.
Al-Burhan has said the TMC was ready to resume negotiations with the opposition coalition. But the opposition rejected the offer, saying the military could not be trusted.