On October 25th, 2021, the sixth successful military coup in Sudanese history occurred. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan ordered the house arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and more than 100 government officials who supported a democratic transition after the 2019 revolt that toppled long-standing dictator Omar al-Bashir.
For the past months, the Sudanese people have taken the streets to protest against the military coup. The military faction of the transitional government that was instated after Bashir’s dismissal suddenly detained multiple civilians and activist leaders and took full control of the country. A week after the coup, at least 170 people were wounded by armed forces. Mass arrests, internet and telephone cuts, and disappearances of opposition political leaders are some of the many instances of the abuse of power. Most recently, authorities used tear gas and intimidation to discourage peaceful protests. Al-Burhan and his supporters have stated that the response comes in a dire need to stabilize the situation and avoid another civil war. Nevertheless, al-Burhan and his backers are responsible for instigating grave offenses against human rights.
October 25th: The fateful day that (re)started a conflict
The events of October 25th make Sudan the country with the highest number of coup attempts in contemporary history – 35 coups have been carried out since the nation’s independence. Many failed, a few succeeded.
Colonized by the British in the 1890s, the territory of Sudan was administered by the British and Egyptian governments for decades. Although Sudan gained independence in 1956, the southern part of the country hosted rebel opposition groups and witnessed several conflicts over natural resource management. The North-South conflict peaked in 2003 with the Darfur war, during which at least 300 000 people were killed and 2.5 million displaced. In 2011, Sudan was officially divided into Sudan and South Sudan.
Political instability over the last number of decades has drained the Sudanese people, who long for a stable democracy that genuinely represents their interests. Since its independence, Sudan has been led by different dictators and military factions. The executive government changed five times through successful coups, yet the country always remained under the military’s management.
Two years ago, the Sudanese people took to the streets to protest against the then-dictator Omar-al Bashir who had been in power since 1989. Bashir was discharged in 2019 as a result of a military coup. Bashir was imprisoned and eventually handed over to the International Criminal Court, which had already issued a warrant for his arrest back in 2009 for massive violation of human rights. Bashir is one of the few African leaders accused of crimes against humanity who were handed over for trial to the ICC.
Since the revolt of 2019, the country has been led by two cooperating factions: the Forces of Freedom and Change, an alliance of civilian opposition groups led by Prime Minister Hamdok, and the Military Transitional Council, led by al-Burhan. Their supposed common goal was to transform Sudan into a democracy, their deadline being 2023. Yet the coalition was already fragile. The political interests of the two factions were often opposed, but different individual interests were also present within the factions, causing internal division.
The Sudanese people were—and still are—deeply affected by the coup and the setbacks that came with it. In an interview with Vox, Sarah O. Nugdallah shared her experience: “My friend told me women in the streets were holding each other and crying just in disbelief that they were back in the same place, again, fighting for their democracy again, something that they had just done.”
Why is this coup more significant than all the others?
The most recent coup is extremely concerning because it is a huge setback from the significant victories and improvements since 2019. In fact, 2019 was the first time where citizens had an active role in deciding their country’s future since independence. The transition towards democracy has been well underway, the short-term goal being to hold free elections and ratify the national constitution by 2023.
October 25th shows us that despite the arrest of their former leader, military factions did not say their last word. Many military leaders stole billions from the country and are not ready to face the consequences of their crimes. They feel threatened by the reforms happening in Sudan. As they are still in positions of power and influence, they halted or slowed down many transitional processes. For example, after the October 25th coup, the Dismantling Committee, which was in charge of investigating corruption and assets stolen during the old regime, was immediately closed. Powerful self-interests still govern Sudan and its institutions.
This coup has led to a regional and international outcry; sanctions soon followed. Most notably, the US government interrupted international assistance of $700 million, and the African Union suspended Sudan’s membership. Not only did the coup shock the international community, but the events also unsettled neighboring countries in the region.
Sudan’s neighbors, Chad, South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, are ruled by dictators. And Sudan’s movement towards democracy was an inspiring success story for the region and the African continent. Yet it is now immersed in protests, conflict, and human rights violations. It risks destabilizing the region even more, already in a difficult spot because of the ongoing Ethiopian civil war. Furthermore, the coup is allegedly supported by a few countries with a definite political interest in impeding the Sudanese transition towards democracy, namely Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Sudan has become an ideological battleground for these countries and others like the United States, who encouraged the military to reinstate Prime Minister Hamdok.
The future of Sudanese democracy
A month after the coup, on November 21st, Prime Minister Hamdok was reinstated and signed a power-sharing deal with the military faction. The military was taken aback by the civilian population’s commitment to resistance and eventually agreed to negotiate with members of the international community and American diplomats to secure Hadok’s release and return to office.
Displeased by the turn of events, Sudanese people continued to protest despite the military’s show of force. People in the streets felt betrayed by the deal and called Hamdok a traitor for accepting a deal they deemed unacceptable. They feared that the military was using Hamdok’s return as a smokescreen and that they will never actually hand over power to civilian factions. In fact, the Sudanese Professionals Association, a civil society organization and leader of protests, deplores that the deal is nothing but “ink on paper” and is “far from the aspirations of our people.” Despite growing distrust, Hamdok demoted most military leaders within the governing body and effectively replaced them.
Then, on January 2nd, Hamdok announced his resignation, explaining that he could not reach agreements with different factions of the transitional government. He faced real opposition from civil society actors and the population. Members of the Umma party and the Forces of Freedom and Change, both important civilian-led political organizations, rejected the deal and did not reach a consensus through negotiations. “Despite my efforts to achieve the desired and a necessary consensus to give citizens security, peace, justice and to stop bloodshed, that did not happen,” declares Hamdok to the New York Times.
The military has retaken control since Hamdok’s resignation. There is a concerning lack of leadership in the civilian opposition factions. The environment of distrust of the elite can hamper the success of future power-sharing institutions.
Yet, Sudanese civil society is strong and well organized, partly because of decades of opposing governmental policies. Civil society groups continue to call for protests until they get the outcome they are looking for. Elkhalifa, a member of the civilian transitional faction, shares with the BBC that “…people are more determined now. And more politically aware. After 30 years of military dictatorship, we will not submit. The youth represent more than 50% of this country, and it’s clear we don’t want this government. They cannot kill us all. They cannot kill this dream.”