On Tuesday, the Sudanese transitional government announced that a coup attempt had been thwarted. While initial details remain difficult to parse from rumor, government officials were quick to claim that individuals connected to the previous regime were responsible — but that the situation was brought under control. News of the coup attempt complicates the already-tenuous state of Sudan’s military-civilian power-sharing agreement, which was established to guide the country toward civilian-led democratic governance after longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted in 2019. USIP’s Joseph Tucker examines who may have been behind the plot, their possible motives, how the failed coup affects the national conversation over the role of the military in Sudan and what can be done to shore-up the country’s democratic transition.

Protesters cheer as a bus carrying solders is driven over a bridge near the site of a sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan. Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Protesters cheer as a bus carrying solders is driven over a bridge near the site of a sit-in outside military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan. Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

The Sudanese government has arrested several dozen military individuals in connection with the attempted coup. Who was behind the plot, and what were their driving motivations?

The government announced that the coup attempt was undertaken by civilian and military officials linked to the former government of President Omar al-Bashir, who was deposed in April 2019 after months of civilian protests and intervention by Sudan’s military. As with these types of events, it is often hard to determine the immediate truth amid rumors.

However, the Bashir regime installed and nurtured officials across all levels of government and security organs, including at state and local levels. These elements of the previous regime were sidelined and seemingly removed from power by the revolution — but some of these cadres likely remain, despite more senior officials being imprisoned and awaiting trial.

It is possible that coup plotters that were part of, or sympathetic to, the previous regime want to show continued relevance in the country’s political and military circles. They may also want to engineer a pathway to renewed power. Such sentiments have likely increased due to the historic power shifts ushered in by the transition, and the government will continue to grapple with such dynamics for the rest of the transition and possibly beyond.

The uncertainty of yesterday’s events is further complicated by suggestions that the attempt may have been promoted by the military to gauge public — and international — reaction to see if there is possible room for future military intervention. Comments have also suggested tensions and conflict in other parts of Sudan, especially the eastern states, have been stoked to imply that civilians are incapable of stabilizing the country and the military needs to be further empowered. This could seriously imperil the transition if true, and Sudanese and the international community should not rush to judgement.

Regardless of who engineered the coup attempt, it reveals Sudan’s competing, disjointed centers of political and security authority and the contested nature of the transition. Sudan’s leaders, both civilian and military, face the unenviable task of trying to reconcile, outmaneuver and/or override these centers while not upending the transition. The coming days and weeks may reveal more about who was behind the attempt and why it happened, but it highlights the undeniable fact that Sudan’s transition toward peace, inclusivity and accountable governance is far from complete and will need support from all Sudanese to succeed.

In announcing the thwarted coup, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok also noted that there had been similar attempts to foment insecurity. How much support does the civilian government have in Sudan, and what risk does this organized effort pose to Sudan’s democratic transition?

The 2019 Constitutional Declaration — the Sudan transition’s foundational political document — outlines the pathways towards a civilian-led government and the critical role of civilians in each phase of the process. From what we hear, there is recognition that the civilians in Sudan’s transitional government face enormous economic, social and security challenges after decades of conflict and authoritarian rule. Gains have been made to forge peace with some armed groups in war-affected areas, usher in economic reforms and bring Sudan back into international financial folds. Sudanese citizens and international observers acknowledge consistently that the unique civilian-military arrangement resulting from the revolution was perhaps the only solution to preserve citizens’ hard-won gains and provide space for progress.

Despite this, we hear that Sudanese are frustrated that civilians in government have not achieved speedier reforms, held former regime members to account (particularly for the crack-down by security forces during the revolution) or turned the economy around. Some express anger that the government has not engaged much with the very people — namely youth, women and marginalized communities — that overturned the Bashir regime. Civilian leaders are also accused of getting bogged down in personal and political battles that are unlikely to improve basic conditions. Recent comments by military leaders that lack of action by civilians to improve the country’s situation may have created space for the coup unfortunately adds to this dynamic.

All that said, I’m most struck by Sudanese that reject the notion of having to choose between freedom and stability, especially those impacted by the misdeeds of the previous regime. From all that we hear, people would support a civilian government over a return to sole military rule.

It is possible that perceived weakness of the government, real or imagined, could chip away at popular support for a civilian-led government. Those who either participated in or welcomed the coup attempt probably hoped to further signal the inability of civilians to control the security sector. The attempt was serious and could lead to more tensions between civilians and security elements, as well as another, perhaps successful, plot. However, there’s hope that this coup attempt and any organized effort that spawned it will inspire increased unity and positive actions by civilians inside and outside of government.

Weakening a new civilian political dispensation could have been another motive for the plotters, but if the government’s efforts to bolster civilian political unity and better prioritize the needs of Sudanese citizens proceed, it can show the transformational power of a civilian government as envisioned by the revolution. Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok deserves credit for publicly admitting earlier this year that there are divisions within the civilian coalition, within the military, and between the military and civilians that threaten the transition. The political initiative announced during that speech resulted in new political alliances and what appears to be increased cohesion and collaboration among civilian political groups.

With some key transition benchmarks unmet and elections still several years away (scheduled for 2024), what can be done in the meantime to further secure Sudan’s democratic transition?

During his remarks after the coup attempt, Prime Minister Hamdok went beyond condemnation to highlight the absence of key transitional institutions, including the long-delayed legislative council, the constitutional court and judicial organs. These bodies will be critical to institutionalizing governance reforms already begun and giving the country a real chance at providing justice to citizens subjected to decades of war and misrule. In the case of the legislative council, its creation is needed to give popular legitimacy and political direction to the transitional government’s decisions and provide space for other political and civic stakeholders to participate. Simply put, the transition will not be complete without these institutions and their absence leaves it vulnerable to events like the attempted coup.

As in any political transition in a deeply divided state, there is a role for the military. In the case of Sudan’s transition this includes substantial, negotiated political and governance responsibilities for the military. However, as the coup attempt has shown, there are unresolved questions over the military’s true role and how this should evolve during the transition and beyond. The central plank of Hamdok’s new political initiative is that reform of Sudan’s security sector and introduction of civilian oversight is key to the transition’s political success. This is a recognition of the military’s outsized role in Sudanese politics, conflicts and economics since independence. Such reform, including consensus around a policy that shifts the military’s role from one of regime protection to citizen protection, is the best guarantee that Sudan’s citizen-led revolution will have succeeded in fundamentally changing the nature of the Sudanese state.

Even before the coup attempt, the transition was seemingly at an inflection point; the chairmanship of the Sovereign Council, the country’s highest civil-military ruling body, is supposed to soon transfer from military to civilian control. While the exact timeline is unclear, this could happen by the end of 2021 and would ostensibly bolster civilian control of the government. If this transfer is mismanaged, it could increase the zero-sum nature of the transition and widen the gulf between groups in government. It is here where international stakeholders, especially the United States, can possibly play a role in shoring up the civilian government by vocally warning against actions that undermine the transition, considering more active roles to support the re-imagining of a national vision and civilian-led security sector oversight and reform, and closely monitoring the security situation and peace agreement implementation in the peripheries. Congress’ bipartisan 2020 Sudan Democratic Transition, Accountability, and Fiscal Transparency Act encompasses many of these possibilities and can serve as a blueprint for invigorated American, and international, support to the transition in close partnership with Sudan’s diverse set of decision-makers.

What has been the reaction of Sudanese citizens to news of the attempted coup?

Immediately following the events of September 21, rallies took place in Khartoum and other areas to reject the coup. Citizens protested that a return to a military government would be an unacceptable setback and would risk unleashing broader conflict and violence by militias and armed movements. Women commentators spoke about their fears of a military-only government and concern for their safety and freedom. Speculation about who and what was behind the coup swirled on social media. And calls were made to expedite meaningful security sector reform.

The coming days and weeks will reveal how citizens, political groups and armed movements in Sudan’s peripheries view yesterday’s events, especially in Darfur, Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and the east. These areas have arguably suffered the most from the military’s past aggressions, and there is still limited trust from them regarding the military’s ability to change. For those movements in Darfur and Southern Kordofan that are engaged in peace talks, and those in the east expressing concern about the 2020 Juba Peace Agreement’s ability to bring change, the attempt could test their faith in the overall transition. Perhaps the civilians in government will pick up the mantle of negotiations and peace agreement implementation and help the military balance its interests and communicate these to Sudan’s citizens.

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