Longtime Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted last Thursday, 30 years after he took power in the same fashion he was overthrown: by a military coup. The military takeover was spurred by months of popular protests over rising food prices, economic mismanagement and demands for a democratic transition. But, protesters have continued to push for change with the military still in power. What’s going on in Sudan? How can the country get on the right track? And what can the international community do to help? USIP’s Susan Stigant and Elizabeth Murray discuss the turmoil and hope in Sudan.
Editor’s note: In Part 2 of this Q&A, USIP’s Maria Stephan, Nicholas Zaremba and Elizabeth Murray discuss why this protest movement is different from previous rounds of protests in Sudan and what factors contributed to the movement’s successes so far.
What is happening in Sudan?
The past week and a half has seen what is thought to be the largest, nonviolent mobilization in Sudan’s history. After a mass sit-in at the Armed Forces headquarters began on April 6, senior military leaders announced in the early hours of April 11 that Bashir had been removed from power and replaced by a military council, headed by Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Mohammed Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf. Approximately 36 hours later, as protests continued in front of the Armed Forces headquarters, Awad Ibn Auf announced that he was resigning and would be replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
On April 12, the military council promised that the formation of a civilian government would be forthcoming, but protesters remain wary of the military’s intentions. The council also announced that Bashir would not be extradited to face charges at the International Criminal Court for genocide and war crimes. On April 13, representatives of the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change met with members of the Transitional Military Council to present a list of 10 demands, including the immediate handover of power to a civilian transitional government that would rule for a period of four years.
The people of Sudan (at least those participating in the mass demonstrations in Khartoum and other cities) have spoken clearly about the change that they wish to see. A military regime does not meet those aspirations. The Sudanese Professionals Association, which has played a central role in coordinating the peaceful action, immediately released a joint statement with the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change that categorically rejects what they characterize as an “internal, military coup d’etat.” The people have pledged that they will continue the sit-in at the Army Forces headquarters and protests around the country until a civilian transitional government is instated.
Reports indicate that military and police defections are happening, particularly from the lower ranks of the military. The risks for citizen security are significant as there have been skirmishes within and between branches of the security sector. Another significant risk is that a faction within the Transitional Military Council will order direct attacks on the protesters.
The regime has a long history of brutal repression of protests, and the situation is made even more volatile by the fact that there have been standoffs between some factions of the military and other branches of the security sector, particularly the intelligence services and militias aligned to former members of Bashir’s regime. The situation is evolving quickly. The coming weeks will be critical in shaping the direction of the country.
What will future leadership need to do in Sudan to get the country on the right track?
Any future leader—individual or council—of Sudan will have to first manage the different security factions to ensure that they immediately cease their well-documented abuses of civilians. This also requires finding a way in the immediate term to accommodate various competing factions, while planning for the medium-term need to transform the security sector.
Sudan’s future leaders will also need to address the deep economic crisis that sparked the demonstrations. A military regime will be no better positioned than the Bashir-led government to access debt relief or removal from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The economic crisis can only be addressed through a concerted effort to root out corruption that is institutionalized at all levels of the public and private sector.
Any future leaders will have to address the deep crisis of legitimacy that the regime has faced and address the long-standing grievances that have led to these protests and the unresolved conflicts in Darfur, Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Other pressing issues include the need to reform the security sector so that it ceases its well-documented abuses of Sudanese citizens.
What should the international community do?
The United States and its partners—France, the UK, and the EU—need to move quickly to set out specific parameters for a negotiated, civilian-led transition that they can support. This requires continued senior-level, diplomatic engagement from the U.S. Department of State, which issued an important statement on April 11 stating that the normalization talks between the U.S. and Sudan had been suspended. It will also require continued engagement by the U.S. Congress, where several members issued important statements on April 12.
Leadership from the African Union is needed to ensure a return to civilian governance. The chairperson of the African Union highlighted in a statement on April 12 that the continental body condemns unconstitutional changes of government (in the Lome Declaration from 2000, and in the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance).
On April 15, the African Union Peace and Security Council issued a communiqué rejecting the military’s takeover and its plan to lead a transition. The statement called for a handover of power to a civilian-led transitional authority and indicated that if these conditions are not met, Sudan will face suspension from the African Union.
A civilian transition will also require coordination and diplomatic engagement with countries in the Gulf, who have deep ties with the political elite in Sudan and strong interests in the future of the country. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have already expressed their willingness to work with the military council and provide funds. This position, particularly if taken up by other allies in the region, could enable the military to hold power longer than it might have otherwise.
Sudan is the bridge between the Horn and North Africa. It shares a long border with Libya. Movement of armed groups and trafficking—in goods and people—have characterized the porous border. This in part drove the EU’s engagement in recent years with the Government of Sudan to assist in curbing illegal migration across the Mediterranean. Sudan also has a long, complex history with Egypt from the period of Anglo-Egyptian governance in the country to the more recent issues related to the Nile River waters. More recently, Bashir and his inner circle have sought to position him as the guarantor of peace agreements in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Amid the tectonic shifts in the Horn of Africa, the changed regime in Sudan further complicates a very fragile neighborhood.
The international community should continue to support Sudanese activists and other civic leaders, including by providing convening spaces for them to plan next steps. It should help them reflect on the lessons of other democratic transitions and the critical roles played by civil society in ensuring a democratic Sudan that is inclusive, participatory, and respects the rights of all its citizens.