The Coup in Sudan: can democratisation still be achieved?

The Coup in Sudan: can democratisation still be achieved?

Following last month’s coup, which dissolved the power-sharing agreement established between the military and civilian forces, protestors took to the streets of the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, demanding the reestablishment of the civilian government. After years of division in leadership, economic hardship and isolation from the international community, this comes as another stumbling block on Sudan’s road to democracy. Nevertheless, military General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, now the head of government, maintains that the military aims to oversee Sudan’s democratic transition by June 2023. Whether this will be possible remains to be seen. 

Protests in Khartoum

Weeks of protests bellowing through the streets of Khartoum after last month’s military coup are set to derail Sudan’s democratic transition. On the one hand, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan argues that the coup was necessary to prevent infighting, ambition, and the incitement of violence from within the council which would have jeopardized the nation’s safety and the goals of the 2019 revolution which overthrew the former President Omar al-Bashir. On the other hand, the former Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, backed by the international community, is calling for  the reinstatement of a civilian-led government. Despite military pressure, Hamdok has refused to release a statement in support of the coup, instead urging the Sudanese people to continue with peaceful protests to “defend the revolution”.

Sudan’s democratic transition was set to take place following the removal of the incumbent President al-Bashir in 2019. It was formed of a power-sharing arrangement between the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) and the military whereby both parties ruled for a year to ensure a peaceful and stable transition to civilian rule. Regardless, the military maintains that democratic elections will still be possible by June 2023. Yet, the military overthrow of the Sovereign Council presents a number of challenges for Sudan as well as the international community as a whole. 

Violence rises in Sudan as the economy plummets

Despite pro-military demonstrations on the 16th of October that demanded the end of the civilian administration, an overwhelming number have surged through the streets in recent weeks defending the Sovereign Council and a civilian-led transition to democracy. On the 30th, a week after the coup,  hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Sudan declaring their support for Prime Minister Hamdok. The demonstrations were nicknamed the ‘March of Millions’ due to their sheer size. Currently in Khartoum protests are still continuing, with organised civil disobedience and strikes taking place at the beginning of this week.

Although protests have been relatively peaceful, there are signs that they could very easily descend into violence. Already, rallies on the Monday of the coup saw 3 people killed by soldiers and 80 injured, according to the Sudan Central Doctor’s Committee. Another 3 were killed during the March of Millions protests. Recently, security forces have taken to tear-gassing demonstrators, an AFP news agency source detailed.  Willow Berridge, from the University of Newcastle, argues that as demonstrations continue to grow the military will find it harder and harder to control protestors through peaceful means. She points particularly to an increasing number of resistance committees organising and strengthening protests. With the advent of these, the military is very likely to turn to violence to quell the population. In the event of this, Adam Elhiraika, a senior official from Hamdok’s office admits to the BBC that the risk of civil war is “extremely high”.

In addition to this, protests have collateral damage on the Sudanese economy, which has already suffered greatly from international exclusion and the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases of vandalism and property damage have become commonplace. Recent protests have seen fires spreading across Khartoum from burning tyres. With no end to the protests in sight, it is likely that the government will be forced to pay significantly more to repair key infrastructure in the city. 

To make matters worse, doctors belonging to the United Doctors Office, central bank employees, oil company workers and pilots from Sudan Airways have all announced strike action to protest military rule

Continued disruption has also reduced supply lines. The closure of Khartoum’s airports and the banning of international flights, coupled with large protests in Port Sudan have aggravated existing shortages of crucial commodities, such as life-saving medicine, IV fluid, wheat and fuel. As a result, not only will the new government have fewer funds to rebuild the economy, but also less expertise, fewer supplies and less manpower.

The international community in dismay

Port blockades have not only caused damage in Sudan.  In neighbouring land-locked South Sudan, port blockades have produced turmoil over the country’s crucial exportation of oil, which its economy almost entirely relies upon. In September, the South Sudanese information Minister, Michael Makuei Lueth declared that “production will have to stop” if access to Port Sudan remained blocked. Although the country has since managed to negotiate an agreement with protestors to resume oil exports, with the intensification of protest and greater violence, it is probable that South Sudan will suffer greater uncertainty over its oil exports. 

Further afield,  London, Washington and Brussels have all strongly condemned the coup, labelling it a “betrayal of the Sudanese people” and “threatening serious consequences”. The US feels particularly betrayed, having obtained guarantees from Al-Burhan only the day before the coup took place that he had no plans to seize power.

Over the past year, Sudan has been slowly improving relations with the US. Under Hamdok the country had managed to remove itself from the US’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list and had qualified for a $50 billion debt relief package to help its transition to democracy. However, with a sour aftertaste in its mouth, the Biden administration has suspended a $700 million emergency assistance fund, seen as critical to Sudan’s economic revival. The World Bank followed suit, halting all disbursements for operations to the country last Wednesday.

The US is trying to rectify the situation by sending its regional envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, back to Khartoum to discuss the reinstatement of the transitional power-sharing agreement. Without this, it is very likely that al-Burhan’s history of human rights abuses in both Yemen and Darfur will discourage the US’s continued aid contributions to Sudan, thus leaving it’s economic recovery seriously impaired.

Following on from this, it is unlikely that Sudan will be able to handle further knocks to its stability. As the state becomes less and less able to provide key services, it is possible that marginalised communities may look to other groups to ensure their needs. Having once been the hideout for Ossama Bin-Laden in the 90s, it is reasonable to think that terrorist factions could again use the Sudanese government’s failings to curry favour with marginalized populations and thus develop a serious presence in the country. 

The end of 2021 will, therefore, present a substantive challenge for Sudan. The ability to come out of this successfully will rely heavily on the reestablishment of the Sovereign Council to both renew ties with the international community and appease protestors. At the time of writing, it seems the protestors show no sign of relenting, it may only be a matter of time before the government backs down. If this were to happen it is only then that Sudan will be able to concentrate on forming a stable economy and government. 

Categories: Africa, Politics

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