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A nation must think before it acts.
In October 2021, Sudan’s civilian government was overthrown in a military coup. The coup marked the conclusion of the two-year experiment in democracy for the country, which was ignited by a 2018 protest movement that ended the notorious rule of President Omar al-Bashir. The event is a setback for Sudan and its supporters in Washington who had invested significant diplomatic capital in the country’s democratic transition.
Sudan’s military coup begs the question: Could anything have been done to stop Sudan’s backsliding before it began?
In short, the international community failed to adequately support Sudan’s civilian government during the key window of opportunity it had to gain the legitimacy of the Sudanese people. Despite mounting financial woes from COVID-19 and climate change, the United States continued to designate Sudan as a state sponsor of terror for a year into the transition, preventing necessary international budgetary support. When Washington did begin to disburse funding to promote Sudan’s democratic transition, it ultimately undermined the civilian leadership it intended to support by not directly funding the civilian government, failing to work alongside local democracy movements, and investing sparingly in necessary institutional reform to move the country past Bashir-era corruption and abuse.
A Failed Governance Framework
From the beginning of its transition in July 2019, Sudan’s internationally constructed framework to transition from military rule to democracy was significantly flawed. It enabled the military to hold onto most of the actual power for eighteen months while trusting that they would later relinquish that power into civilian hands. All the while, civilians clamored for the military to be held accountable for corruption, put to justice over human rights abuses, and ousted from its dominant role in the Sudanese economy. In short, the military was being trusted to hand over power to the masses clamoring to rid the country of their systems of privilege. The result was predictable.
The military was ultimately emboldened to act, and felt like it could get away with its brazen October 2021 coup, because of the failures of the transitional civilian leadership led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. His government was hampered by both the military—which resisted any attempts to cede power, give up stolen assets, and be held accountable for past abuses—and by divisions within the splintering civilian coalition. This civilian coalition included both political parties under the banner of the Forces of Freedom and Change and rebel groups from the periphery which were newly incorporated into power-sharing following the 2019 Juba Peace Agreement.
This hodgepodge of civilian leadership proved hard to unite. As Kholood Khair, managing partner of a Khartoum-based think tank, described, “Historically in Sudan, every transition has faulted on the level to which the civilians have been able to cohesively build a political vision after coming together to unseat a dictator.” The rebel groups were used to fighting and not governing, while the civilian parties found themselves lacking both strong local support and a clear political vision for the country. Both the rebel and civilian groups were divided between those who were and were not willing to collaborate with the military to achieve their aims. The military worked to manipulate these differences and play civilian factions against one another. Unable to come together and constrained by a constitution deferential to the military, Hamdok missed the crucial window of opportunity to reform the country before a counterrevolution struck.
Rising Financial Problems
From the start of its transition, Sudan’s economy was treading water, hampered by debt accrued under Bashir, and unable to attract international investment as a US-designated state sponsor of terrorism. Dealing with these financial problems was critical as the civilian government needed to be able to show that it could improve the livelihoods of the Sudanese people in order to gain the legitimacy that would allow its rule to last.
Sudan’s economic challenges were exacerbated by COVID-19 and the rising effects of climate change, which further limited the space for the civilian government to succeed. Because of the effects of COVID, Sudanese commodity prices rose 81 percent in 2020. The country went into lockdown from March to July 2020, inhibiting local businesses and increasing unemployment without providing a robust social safety net to counteract the damage.
Meanwhile, the country’s macroeconomic picture turned bleaker as oil prices declined during the beginning of the pandemic, hurting the net-oil-exporting country. In 2020, Sudan’s economy suffered an 80 percent decline in oil revenue while travel restrictions also affected significant exports like livestock. Overall, the country experienced a 17.5 percent decline ($700 million) in export earnings in 2020 and a 3.6 percent decline in gross domestic product.
These pandemic-induced losses constrained Sudan’s civilian government through lower tax revenues and contributed to growing discontent about Hamdok’s handling of the economy. According to Afrobarometer survey data gathered from February to April 2021, two-thirds of Sudanese people described the government as doing “fairly badly” or “very badly” in its pandemic response. As Dr. Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker, a professor at the University of Khartoum, warned in an article published in the Journal of African Law just three days before the coup, “The rising levels of poverty and vulnerability resulting from [COVID-19] have led to protests and may, if left unaddressed, compromise Sudan’s democratic transition.”
The effects of climate change also undermined Hamdok’s government. Mean annual temperatures in Sudan have increased by around 0.4°C every decade for the last three decades. These higher temperatures have exacerbated flooding in the region as they result in more evaporation and altered monsoon patterns that trigger more heavy rainfall, making flooding events more frequent. For example, the evaporation that occurred in the Horn of Africa in 2016 and 2017 corresponded to a 1-in-131 years event.
In 2020, Sudan experienced its worst floods in over a century as torrential rain caused the White and Blue Nile’s water to reach historic levels. These floods affected more than three million people, damaged one-third of all agricultural land, and destroyed over 100,000 homes.
These flooding events imperiled Sudan’s broader economy. Roughly a third of Sudan’s economic output is based on agriculture and the floods caused many farmers to miss an entire planting season. Meanwhile, the flooding caused investors to lose faith in Sudan’s currency, worsening the inflation problems that Hamdok was already struggling to deal with. Sudan experienced a 359 percent inflation rate by 2021, more than triple the start of 2020. The long-term economic loss from Sudan’s 2020 floods was estimated by the Sudanese government to be $4.4 billion, more than 15 percent of Sudan’s annual gross domestic product.
The time and capital that these challenges sucked away from the civilian government significantly derailed Hamdok’s plans, making him unable to focus on reform efforts.
Too Little, Too Late
The international community responded to Sudan’s financial woes both too late and in the wrong form. The United States, in particular, was hesitant to invest in Sudan’s transitional government. As Justin Lynch of Foreign Policy notes, “Some U.S. officials explained to me that they were not sure if Sudan’s transition was real, and they did not want to provide the support that ended up in the military’s hands if it took over the country.” As a result, the United States did not take off Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terror and started providing aid funding until more than a year into the transition and nine months into the pandemic. Sudan’s designation made it harder for it to attract international investment and paused sorely needed debt rescheduling and budget support from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Once the United States did pledge to aid Sudan’s transition in December 2020, it also failed in its execution. Rather than giving money directly to the struggling civilian government, Washington disbursed aid to Sudan through programs carried out by the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and other contractors to attempt to avoid funds being stolen or diverted. As this financial assistance was being given to smaller organizations instead of the civilian government, many organizations entrusted with funds were unable to spend what they were allotted. In the end, much of the $700 million the United States pledged went unspent, even as Hamdok desperately needed funding to reduce the cost of basic services like bread and electricity.
These failures follow a pattern of US engagement in foreign countries where hesitancy to fully support the local government leads to building an inefficient shadow state of non-governmental organizations to provide services, only further de-legitimizing that local government and putting it at risk of capture.
An American “Failure of Imagination”
While the United States did provide some financial assistance to Sudan, it did little to pressure for the fundamental reforms of the political system that many Sudanese demanded. For Washington, the overthrow of Bashir was itself the goal—it removed an enemy that had been a thorn in America’s side for decades. For the people of Sudan, however, the overthrow of Bashir was the means to an end—namely, a democratic society. Washington, however, did little to aid in the reconstruction of a Sudanese state to rid it of the markers of corruption and authoritarianism that had become ingrained during Bashir’s rule.
The United States supported Sudan’s prime minister, but not the broader coalition of pro-democracy groups in Sudan, including the resistance councils, that had stronger local legitimacy and demanded more fundamental reform of the country’s political system. This strategy was bound to fail. As Michelle Gavin, a senior Africa director at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, explained, “No virtuous individual or combination of individuals involved in such a charade can restore the trust of Sudanese people or compel the military to suddenly embrace reform.”
As a result, the military patronage systems established under Bashir’s rule continued into the transition, to the ire of democratic activists but met with little reaction from the United States. Indeed, Washington did not even appoint an ambassador to Sudan until 2022, after the military coup. It is this very posture that both prevented reforms that could have empowered a more legitimate and democratic civilian government while allowing military leaders to believe they could get away with a coup.
After the coup, America’s failure of imagination has continued. It first even refused to use the term “coup” to describe the October 2021 developments, eager to hold onto the notion that Sudan’s transition framework could be saved, even as it had clearly disintegrated. The United States urged for Hamdok to be reinstated, even as such a move could not alter the fundamental structure of power that made him simply a figurehead for a government firmly in control of military leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. It is no surprise that, when Hamdok was reinstated in November after US pressure, he resigned just a couple of months later.
The military leadership is under significant pressure as a fresh wave of protests have ignited, internal divides persist among the military, and sanctions continue to put the economy in freefall. Several efforts at mediation between the military and civilian groups have been attempted by the United Nations, African Union, and Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, along with back-channeling by the United States and Saudi Arabia. On July 4, Burhan withdrew from these negotiations and claimed he would let a civilian coalition form on its own, at which point he would dissolve the military council and negotiate its role in the future government. Civilian forces remain skeptical that Burhan would follow through with this promise, as many see it as a way to deflect from the current unrest.
So, after years of failed leadership in Sudan, what can the international community do differently this time to support Sudanese democracy?
It must have the courage to actively support the will of the Sudanese people and its grassroots democratic movements to reform the country, while making sure its allies do the same.
Imagine Something Different, Not the Same
First and foremost, the international community should ditch the idea of returning to the transitional framework. The framework is opposed by the Sudanese masses as it gives the military near total power, which it will always use to imperil accountability and the transition to democracy. Just as the United States believed that Bashir could never be overthrown, they now believe it is impossible to oust the military’s role in the country’s governance. This position will always isolate the Sudanese public, who have made clear in protests and polling that they oppose military rule in all forms and yearn for true democratic governance. The United States should use its funding and diplomatic capital to insist on a transition that not only rids the country of Bashir, but also empowers civilians to remove the systems of military coercion and corruption that defined Bashir’s rule. America must break its failure of imagination in Sudan and demand something different.
Work with the Street, Not the Figurehead
International support for individual leaders like Hamdok, even when they lacked strong local legitimacy, was misplaced. As Gavin argued, “Thrusting people of integrity into a discredited framework only diminishes them, leaving the old system unchanged and sowing cynicism among supporters of democracy.” Instead, the international community needs to work with the true vehicle of Sudanese democracy—its people. Sudan’s resistance committees, for example, have been organizing protests and laying out a political roadmap for the future that has strong support on the ground. The United States has continued to make the same mistakes in its back-channeling as it only included the main Forces of Freedom and Change bloc in negotiations with the Sudanese military. It is the resistance committees that the international community should look to as the future of Sudan’s politics, empowering local movements for change and going along with the sentiments of the Sudanese people rather than single political parties or leaders.
Fund the Movement, Not the International Organizations
When America and the rest of the international community uses its financial resources to support Sudan, it should support the country’s political movements directly. America’s previous posture of funding a shadow state of international non-governmental organizations only de-legitimized the local actors that were trying to better their communities, but lacked the funds to do so. The United Nations can’t govern Sudan, only the Sudanese people can.
Pressure Allies to Help, Not Hinder
While the United States made efforts to oppose military rule in Sudan, and the African Union followed suit, many countries did not. This regional deference to the Sudanese military, mainly from the Arab world, is what made the military believe their efforts could succeed and legitimize their illegal attempt to seize power. Many Islamist regimes have offered their support to General Burhan, believing that civilian rule threatens Islamist actors in Sudan. General Burhan has received approval by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is an old friend of Burhan. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also supported the military government, believing it to be preferable to the anti-Islamist democratic groups. Even Israel has worked with Burhan to establish diplomatic relations, legitimizing him in the process. To truly take a stand against Sudan’s undemocratic and illegitimate military regime, the U.S. must pressure its allies to stand with them and isolate it.
America and the rest of the international community are not the ones responsible for the coup in Sudan, nor can they restore democratic leadership on their own. Only the Sudanese people can do so. However, in supporting these local movements for democracy, the international community can show that they are supporters of democracy as a principle, not just their narrow economic and geostrategic interests. Among the Biden Administration’s democracy-oriented priorities in its new Africa strategy launched this August is “backing civil society, including activists, workers, and reform-minded leaders.” The Sudanese people have been risking their lives in protest for these democratic values. It’s time the international community takes some risks to support their movement too.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.