Upending the civilian-led government
Following a rather classic military putsch pattern, the Sudanese armed forces deposed the civilian-led government of Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok on 25 October 2021 under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. At that time, Sudan was still in a state of political transition, as a previous military putsch in 2019 had led to a government change and had deposed the long-standing dictator Omar al-Bashir. The sensitive transition period has made it easy for a military putsch, although the population of Sudan has made its discontent clear very quickly.
Protests in the capital Khartum attracted thousands in a bid for democracy; simultaneously, the government deployed violent methods against them. On 30 December, at least four protesters were shot by police, and dozens more injured. The chaos on the streets and in the whole country amplified with internet blackouts, repressions against journalists and little information from government sources being made public.
A classic military putsch?
Unexpectedly, the deposed Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok returned to his position after a few days “under surveillance” by the military. On 4 December, the Sudanese military announced it would withdraw from politics after elections in 2023. However, in practice both Abdallah Hamdok and especially the coup leader General al-Burhan are set to remain in power for at least two more years. This situation echoes very strongly events in Mali just a few months prior; after a military coup d’état in May 2021, the second one in the space of a year, the Malian Colonel Assimi Goita announced elections for early 2022, and promised a military exit from politics by then.
The upheaval continues, although it remains difficult to ascertain how much longer the protests can and will continue due to the lack of reliable information from the country. To contextualise the current situation, it is worth looking back at the past.
An excursion into history
Sudan’s history is troubled. Like most neighbouring states, Sudan was a British colony for the first half of the twentieth century. Despite independence in 1956, the country’s political leadership remained unstable. Next to a civil war, presidents changed almost yearly. A military coup in 1969 led to a first military dictatorship. A brief interlude in the 1980s was suceeded by a second dictatorship under Colonel Omar al-Bashir from 1989 onwards. As he monopolised all political power, his reign only ended in 2019, when Sudan erupted in mass civil protest and finally a revolution.
During the al-Bashir presidency, Sudan also witnessed the bloody Darfur conflict. Sometimes now termed a genocide, this war saw the government oppose the Sudanese Liberation Movement (SLM) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), which both accused the Sudanese government of favouring the Sudanese Arab population over non-Arabs. The brutal government response has led to al-Bashir being accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The peace agreement between the various factions was only signed in 2020. Furthermore, the country lived through a geographic and political redrawing of its borders. In 2011, South Sudan gained full independence from Sudan after a long campaign for autonomy.
This continued instability persists into the very present, exemplified by the latest coup. Overall, Sudan has seen six successful military coups since independence in 1956. There has been a total of 16 attempts at bringing about a regime change forcefully; as of now, Sudan has experienced more coups than any other country on the African continent.
Democracy or autocracy?
As the year 2021 has seen four different military coups in the Sahel zone, experts remain divided on the issue of such military takeovers. Although the number of coups on the African continent has been declining since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the events of 2021 and the persistant risk of coups in other countries on the continent make a further trend possible. It should be noted that a military coup per se does not mean a threat to democracy; a coup is often an attempt to remove corrupt civilian leaders from power or restore peace and stability to a country. However, in practice military leaders have often chosen to remain in power beyond the agreed transition period.
Precisely such scenarios have taken place since the most recent coups in Sudan and in Mali. In Chad, the late president’s son has taken over power, bypassing any electoral process, although he said that elections would take place 18 months after his coming to power.
The military putsch in Sudan therefore does not seem to represent an anomaly, neither with regard to its own history nor to the rest of the region. Interferences and influence from global powers such as during the time of the Cold War, when military coups and dictatorships thrived, have somewhat lost their importance. In what direction the situation will continue, autocracy or democracy, is now essentially a question for the Sudanese people and their government. The violent repression during the protests hints at al-Burhan’s and Hamdok’s unwillingness to move towards democracy. Whether elections will therefore truly take place in 2023, remains to be seen.