Sudan’s Problems Run Deeper Than Democracy
On the same day a U.S. envoy left Sudan, the Sudanese military executed what seems to be a successful coup against the civilian leaders of the country long embroiled in civil conflict.
Sudan’s top general, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, reportedly spearheaded the coup effort just over a month after the Sudanese government apparently staved off another coup attempt. The 61-year-old general, once the inspector general of the Sudanese armed forces, became the head of the Sovereign Council when Omar al-Bashir was removed from power in 2019. As chairman of the Sovereign Council, Burhan essentially served as the head of state. However, Burhan’s rule was scheduled to soon come to an end as the Sudanese government was set to transition to further civilian control.
Over the weekend, United States Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman met with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Burhan, and other Sudanese leaders in Khartoum in an attempt to avoid further crisis and keep Sudan on the march towards liberal democracy. During the high-stakes meeting, Burhan and other military leaders reportedly told Feltman that they wanted Hamdok to disband the transitional government’s cabinet and appoint new ministers.
In response, “I said that our assistance and the normalization of our relationship [shorthand for things like sanctions lifting] derived from forward momentum on the transition. If the transition is interrupted or the constitutional documents violated, that would call into serious question our commitments,” Feltman told Foreign Policy. “That’s diplo-speak but surely even the generals understand it.”
Burhan and the generals may have understood it, but they certainly didn’t follow it. Mere hours after Feltman’s plane left the tarmac Monday, the military coup was well underway.
The coup dismantled the Sovereign Council and transitional government, established after the ousting of Bashir in 2019 in which the military and civilian leaders shared power “to build a modern, democratic nation-state” under the August 2019 Draft Constitutional Declaration. Military forces detained Hamdok and his wife, along with other government ministers Monday for resisting the coup attempt. Defending Hamdok’s detention, Burhan said “no one arrested him [Hamdok], no one assaulted him” when taking the prime minister into custody. During his detention, Hamdok and his wife were put up in Burhan’s house, where the general said the pair met, and that Hamdok was free to leave when “the situation stabilizes” and “he feels safe.” Hamdok and his wife returned home Tuesday.
Before Bashir was removed from power in a 2019 coup, his three decades of rule were defined by civil war, economic turmoil, corruption, and charges of genocide and war crimes brought by the International Criminal Court, which would still like to try him on these matters. Bashir’s ousting was welcomed by the United States. It spent decades attempting to cast Bashir’s Sudan as an international pariah like that of the Kims of North Korea, labeling the state a sponsor of terrorism and enacting crippling sanctions against the country. At one point, U.S. officials, including diplomat Princeton Lyman, even tried to meet with members of a plot to depose Bashir, which included Salah Gosh, Sudan’s former director of national security with a previous relationship with the CIA, at a hotel in Cairo in 2012. Gosh and his co-conspirators never showed.
However, in the two years Bashir has been out of power, the country as a whole doesn’t seem much better off. Sudan’s Sovereign Council brought with it the promises of liberal democracy—expanded participation of women, anti-discrimination and anti-corruption practices, and human rights protections. The fulfillment of some of these promises would likely be beneficial to Sudan’s stability in the long run, and there has been some movement in that direction since Bashir’s ousting, which partly explains why relations with Sudan were improving during the Trump administration. However, Sudan’s problems are much more fundamental, and beyond something a change in governmental structure can fix. In fact, the very pressures that led to Bashir’s removal and calls for large-scale reform—namely, unrest due to poverty, unemployment, inflation, and corruption—have persisted to this day.
In April of last year, inflation soared to upwards of 99%, and could be much higher, given the little information that comes out of Sudan’s economy. The price of food and other essential goods skyrocketed, in part thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. In July, Sudan was forced to devalue its currency and attempted to rein in black market transactions as it faced an economic crisis.
In response to the coup, the Biden administration froze $700 million in assistance meant for Sudan’s transitional government to incentivize Sudan’s military leaders to restore it. State Department Spokesman Ned Price told journalists from the podium Monday that the Biden administration will hold “those who may be responsible for derailing Sudan’s path to democracy” accountable for their actions. “Potentially, of course, our entire relationship with this entity in Sudan will be evaluated in light of what has transpired unless Sudan is returned to the transitional path,” Price added, and did not rule out the possibility of reimposing sanctions.
For longtime readers of TAC, it shouldn’t come as a shock that a country marred by civil wars and ethnic and religious conflicts under the dominion of a revolving door of Islamist strongmen isn’t the ideal cradle for democracy. Since 1958, there have been 35 plotted or attempted coups in Sudan. Only five have been successful in their attempts to replace the government—not including the current one, given its success is yet to be fully determined. Nevertheless, the foreign policy establishment continues to have fever dreams of a MENA region that resembles that of western Europe. Now that this project has failed in Sudan, much less South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and a host of other countries, maybe our foreign policy elite will wake up. Odds are, they won’t.