When the tear gas has cleared, and the internet switched back on, the most likely scenario for Sudan is for it to continue the cycle it has known for too long: military coup, followed by steps towards a nascent democracy, then back to military coup. That may be a bleak view, but Sudan has few concrete blocks available with which to cement together a cohesive society or a democratic nation state.
In early November, protesters were on the streets demanding that the military return to the route mapped out for a transition to democracy, drawn up after the toppling of the dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. It’s not happening. The Sovereign Council, a power sharing mechanism between army and civilian leaders was dissolved last month after General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan moved to ‘correct the course of the people’s revolution’ and preserve the stability of the country. The general was due to step down as head of the Sovereign Council next month, which would have increased civilian power. Coincidence?
Here’s another one. The civilian prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, had recently been criticising military owned companies and their alleged corruption. And a third: al-Bashir will go on trial for war crimes at some point and is likely to name General al-Burhan and others over the atrocities committed in Darfur. Then there’s the investigation into the massacre of civilians in Khartoum in 2019 to think about.
Far from taking steps toward democracy, the military put Hamdok under temporary house arrest – democracy did not pass go. Burhan says he’ll hold elections in 2023, hardly a speedy timeline. He’s announced he won’t stand for office which is as reliable a promise as that made in July by Tunisian president Kais Said when he announced a one month suspension of parliament. It’s still suspended.
A 2023 election is possible. It gives Burhan plenty of time to ensure an outcome favourable for the army. These days, dictators like to give the impression they are democrats; voting slips act as good fig leaves with which to cover their inequities. Sudan has dozens of political parties and many of them are based on ethnic, religious, or tribal lines. The same is true for what passes for civil society which is poorly organised. It’s a lot easier to have a deep state if you have shallow civil society.
This recent coup threatens the relative stability Sudan has achieved since 2019. Two major rebel forces which had backed Prime Minister Hamdok and were engaged in peace talks are now considering their options, meaning the conflicts in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains may be revived. It also endangers the debt-relief package Hamdok had recently negotiated and complicates various foreign financial aid packages. Saudi Arabia and the UAE will probably put in enough money to prevent a financial collapse, but despite eventually joining most other countries in urging a return to civilian rule, their criticism of the coup has been muted. In return for massive aid donations Sudan sent thousands of troops to fight in Yemen at the behest of the two countries and both see Burhan as a bulwark against an Islamist takeover of Sudan.
We are seeing a spread of instability across the Horn of Africa as whole. The war in neighbouring Ethiopia between the government and Tigrayan forces could engulf the rest of the country. Eritrea has already involved itself, the Afar region of Djibouti is not immune from the fall out, and if the Ethiopian civil war spreads to its Somali region it could reignite violence along the border with Somalia. The Kenyan border is tense due to the number of Ethiopian refugees who have crossed into Kenya, while refugees from conflicts in South Sudan have been sheltering in Ethiopia.
If Sudan looks to its neighbours for a model of good governance it sees Libya, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, and Chad. Help establishing a democracy will not come from there. Building it from within is complicated by the tribal make-up of the country. The two main political entities, the National Ummah Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, both promote Arabic culture despite Sudan’s rich mosaic of very different peoples. One of the reasons South Sudan fought to become independent was because Khartoum refused basic rights to Christian and animist tribes.
In a country with 57 ethnic groups, and over a hundred languages, forming stable political coalitions, whose aim is to better the lives of everyone, is not always the primary goal of those in charge. Now there’s a two-year hiatus before they can even give it a try.