After months of mounting tension, the most feared scenario for Sudan is playing out – a rejection by the military of democratic civilian rule. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, army chief and leader of the Sovereign Council, had assured Sudanese that he would protect the people's revolution. This week he broke that promise when he overthrew the government.
On 25 October, the army arrested Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and several civilian leaders. Al-Burhan announced a state of emergency and dissolved the two transitional government bodies – the Sovereign Council and the cabinet – citing in-fighting. He said his decision would prevent a civil war and committed to appointing a technocratic government to run the country until elections in 2023. The coup ends Sudan's two-year transition process, shatters progress towards a civilian-led democratic government and jeopardises the 2023 polls.
Thousands of Sudanese have protested in response to calls by the civilian leadership, the Forces for Freedom and Change and Sudanese Professionals Association to defend the revolution. In the coming days, the streets of Khartoum, Omdurman and other cities will likely swell with protesters, heightening tensions between the army and pro-democracy campaigners who want the constitutional charter restored.
The more ungovernable the situation becomes, the greater the likelihood that Sudan will enter a political and economic tailspin, which could splinter the army and lead to a counter-coup. In the first 24 hours of the ouster, eight people were killed and more than 100 injured. If the military and civilians adopt entrenched positions, human rights abuses will probably escalate.
Collapse of Sudan's transition
The signs that a coup was imminent were there for months. After an attempted take-over in late September, divisions between the civilian and military leadership intensified, revealing the extent of political contestations over Sudan’s future.
The military blamed the conflict on the country’s economic hardships. But pronouncements after the foiled September coup point to several other fault lines. First, the committee's work to retrieve public funds from al-Bashir loyalists and recent moves to send al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court are seen as a witch-hunt and the targeting of pro-Bashir army stalwarts for prosecution.
Second, there is no indication that the army ever planned to hand over power to civilian leaders. This is evident from how the military negotiated itself into the transition process at the outset, rising tensions as the deadline for the military to hand control of the Sovereign Council to civilians approached, and the recent coup.
The civilian leadership is not however without blame. Due to deep-seated systemic problems and the slow onset of adequate international support, it has been slow to improve the economic situation. Several leaders have been sucked into self-defeating power struggles characteristic of the high-stakes nature of politics in Sudan.
The army’s wrong move
None of these challenges are new and there are few choices left for either side beyond the existing framework of negotiations. The military’s decision to overthrow the constitutional charter could sink Sudan into further trouble. The army has gravely misread the political and security atmosphere in the country and the international community. Despite some pro-army protests and splits in the Forces for Freedom and Change, most Sudanese are opposed to any military involvement in their politics.
Sudan is also vulnerable economically and politically. The economy cannot survive without the technical expertise and support of development partners. This is a situation the army will struggle to change unless it can build the necessary external relationships. Sudan's partners, notably the United States and European Union, have already hinted at withholding economic support. Given the current hardships facing the country, this would worsen the economic outlook with possible security consequences.
Options for the international community
Before this week’s events, Sudan's international partners made several attempts to mend relations after the failed September coup. Al-Burhan's move shows that those attempts failed. International actors must push for restoring the constitutional charter and transitional institutions, and the transition process timelines. The constitutional charter must be maintained as the central framework to avoid going back to the negotiation table.
If the army rejects these calls, Sudan’s development partners will need to widen their interventions to withhold financial support and issue targeted sanctions against individuals and entities in the military whose actions are worsening the situation.
Given the inability of Sudan’s leaders to agree before the 25 October coup, all sides in a revived transitional arrangement would need to commit to a robust reconciliation process. This will help avoid internal fighting, which could lead to more military interference.
The occurrence of yet another coup in Africa shows that the AU’s efforts to prevent overthrows aren’t working. The continental body was praised for overseeing a steep reduction in coups over the last decade, but the rising trend in 2021 puts that into question.
Sudan's coup is another opportunity for the AU to redeem itself and revisit leaders’ growing tendency to use unconstitutional changes of government as a means to secure power. The AU Peace and Security Council should immediately revise practices and policies on the issue, including the use of sanctions.
The AU’s 27 October decision to suspend Sudan from AU activities and the body’s insistence that the transition and timelines be restored are a good call. It needs to promote dialogue among Sudan’s political stakeholders and lead efforts to uphold human rights.
The AU must, however, brace itself to resist pressure from pro-army member states. Most important, it needs to back the will of the Sudanese people rather than the country’s leaders, as required by the declaration marking the 50th anniversary of the Organisation of African Unity/AU.