Sudan’s Coup Leaders Continue to Hold the Country Hostage
from Africa in Transition, Africa Program, and Preparing for Leadership Transitions in Africa

Sudan’s Coup Leaders Continue to Hold the Country Hostage

Sudan's military leaders are prioritizing their own interests over that of their country. International actors should pressure the regime by raising the cost of doing so.
Protesters carry a banner and national flags as they march against the Sudanese military's recent seizure of power and ousting of the civilian government, in the streets of the capital Khartoum, Sudan on October 30, 2021.
Protesters carry a banner and national flags as they march against the Sudanese military's recent seizure of power and ousting of the civilian government, in the streets of the capital Khartoum, Sudan on October 30, 2021. Mohamed Nureldin/Reuters

Sudan’s military leaders have met widespread popular resistance and significant international pressure since setting in motion a military coup on October 25 that dissolved the transitional government and involved the arrest of many of the transitional government’s civilian officials. But hopes of quickly “reversing” the coup have yet to bear fruit, leaving the country in an uneasy stalemate with an uncertain future. External actors with influence in Sudan should remain engaged without unwittingly muddying the waters, and leaders across Sudanese society will have to reckon with difficult truths to find a path that moves the country forward rather than returning it to oppression, isolation, and precipitous economic decline.

Despite communications blackouts and violent intimidation, civilians continue to demonstrate their disapproval of the coup at significant risk of arrest, assault, or even death—and there is no reason to believe that popular sentiment regarding military leadership will soften anytime soon. Indeed, a return to pre-coup conditions in which military and civilian leaders share power, which appears to be at the heart of many mediation efforts, would be unacceptable to many grassroots resistance leaders. This divergence between the agenda of the street and the substance of internationally backed negotiations needs to be addressed with meaningful guarantees that link specific compliance benchmarks to economic support and by maximizing the space to enhance civilian power through the standing-up of long-delayed transitional institutions. Getting this wrong would lead to a further fracturing of Sudan’s broad pro-democracy coalition and strengthen the hand of the security elites, who for months have sought political advantage by highlighting infighting and gridlock among civilian leaders.

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Sudan

Future of Democracy

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Demonstrations and Protests

A flurry of mediation efforts involving the African Union, the United Nations, and the Arab League have not led to concrete results, but they have made the military’s bad faith evident. When leaders from the Forces for Freedom and Change—the main opposition coalition—were arrested shortly after meeting with UN officials, it reinforced the same message sent by General Burhan’s decision to put the coup in motion just hours after meeting with the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa to discuss constitutional pathways forward: international actors interested in Sudan’s peaceful transition do not have a credible negotiating partner in General Burhan or his military allies.

Some of Sudan’s realities are as undesirable as they are inescapable. Those with a monopoly on the use of force in Sudan will not simply abandon all of their priorities—particularly their interests in impunity or exclusive, lucrative economic opportunities. They are essentially holding the Sudanese people hostage in order to protect those interests, and dislodging them will require changing their calculations and comfort level. The international pressure applied thus far, including suspension of assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors and the setting aside of debt relief agreements, makes it plain that Sudan as a whole will not sustainably emerge from the economic decline that sparked the revolution if the military has its way. But many odious regimes have found ways to enrich the powerful few while the overall country’s condition deteriorates. Supporters of a democratic Sudan should be ready to deploy more targeted and specific pressures to the individuals most responsible for derailing the transition. Right now, those in power expect their needs and desires to be accommodated in any resolution to the current stalemate. It is past time for a direct expression of the downside risks of their actions.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

More on:

Sudan

Future of Democracy

Authoritarianism

Political Transitions

Demonstrations and Protests