One year ago, on October 25, 2021, the military element of the civilian-military coalition charged with transitioning Sudan from its autocratic past to a more democratic future, seized full control of the country. The perpetrators of the coup justified their actions with claims that infighting among civilian elements of the transition imperiled the stability of the country. But twelve months on, it is more apparent than ever that Sudan’s military leaders have failed the population. Their efforts to protect themselves, to avoid accountability for their crimes, and to enrich their own narrow clique, have come at the expense of the Sudanese people.
Economically, Sudan is reeling. The coup, and resulting consolidation of power in the hands of security forces, succeeded in disrupting international assistance for Sudan’s economic recovery and freezing efforts to unwind illicit financial deals that starve the national treasury. The result, coinciding with global economic dislocations associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has been more economic hardship and distortion, the very sparks that ignited the uprising against former dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2018.
Within the security realm, rather than establishing order, the securocrats have fueled multiple conflicts with their own infighting and jockeying for position. Tensions between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) have proved a recipe for instability, and 2022 has seen violence spiking in the Darfur, Abyei, and Blue Nile regions. As self-proclaimed “guardians” of the state, these forces are abject failures, a conclusion that undermines any argument that the alarming instability in the region–from conflicts raging in Ethiopia to contestation over unlawfully seized political power in Chad–necessitates continued military dominance.
Sudan’s crisis is complicated, but it is not hopeless. The tenacity and courage of the Sudanese people, who continue to demonstrate against military rule and to resist restrictions on their civil and political rights, is compelling evidence that an alternate trajectory for the country is possible. Sudanese citizens, including resistance committees and the Sudanese Bar Association, have also been working hard to articulate an inclusive, viable blueprint for a civilian-led way forward. The process has been contentious, but it has made real progress. Even those who perpetrated last year’s coup are looking for some off-ramp from the status quo–although they clearly seek one that protects their assets, access, and privileged status.
For the United States, which has faced criticism at home and abroad for timidity in responding to the military’s power-grab in Sudan, the past year has clarified important lessons. It’s clear that supporting democratic forces fighting authoritarianism requires intensive and careful consultation–and that entails a sustained and engaged diplomatic presence. Having an energized U.S. ambassador on the ground has clearly been tremendously helpful. It’s also evident that short-term deals that temporarily defang spoilers by granting them access to power can be terribly costly over time, especially if structural problems in governance go unaddressed, creating repeated opportunities for spoilers to engage in extortion. Above all, it is painfully obvious that in Sudan there is no path to stability that doesn’t confront a fundamental governance model that serves only a privileged and violent few. There is no papering over the chasm between civilians’ vision of the Sudanese state and the model preferred by those currently controlling it. Rightsizing the role of the military, and reforming the fragmented and unaccountable security sector, are no easy tasks. But Sudan will not emerge from this crisis without international fortitude to address those tasks that matches the resolve of the Sudanese in the street.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.