Editor’s Note: As the Biden administration convenes its Summit for Democracy, the U.S. Institute of Peace is convening a multi-part conversation about the shocking rise in military takeovers in 2021, featuring expert analysis on the dynamics driving coups in Sudan, Mali, Guinea and Myanmar and how regional institutions and global actors can help these countries get back on a democratic track.

Sudan has been ruled by the military for 53 of the 66 years since it gained independence in 1955. On October 25, the military, in a familiar move, seized power throwing into question the political transition that would result in civilian rule. The civilian cabinet was dissolved, its leaders arrested and a state of emergency declared. Coup leader Gen. Abdel Fattah Burhan cited well-worn excuses to justify his actions. Ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was later reinstated to lead a technocratic cabinet until elections scheduled for July 2023.

Protesters in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 19, 2019. After the excitement engendered by the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s transition has faltered amid civilian-military tensions. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Protesters in Khartoum, Sudan, on April 19, 2019. After the excitement engendered by the overthrow of longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s transition has faltered amid civilian-military tensions. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

In this past year alone, Africa has seen coups in two other countries (two in Mali and one in Guinea), an unsuccessful coup attempt in Niger and the arbitrary military transfer of power in Chad after that country’s president died on the battlefront. These power grabs have set into motion worrying backsliding in political transitions as well as put a question mark over the trajectory of democratization in Africa.

While the headlines about coups often point to a “backsliding” of democracy or a political transition gone wrong, this obscures the equally powerful narrative about the forces responding to coups. Missing from the headlines are the stories of the courageous leadership of Sudanese youth, women and civic and political groups that are organizing, protesting and protecting their communities from violence. These often-untold stories include the intense negotiations among experts, diplomats and heads of state to uphold the African Union’s (AU’s) norms against military coups and unconstitutional changes of government. And rarely do the Sudanese mediators seeking to hold open the space for a new political agreement that will allow the country to move forward and redefine “security” as something that is centered on citizens, not a regime, make the news. In short, we often overlook the narratives of the hard work of peace and democracy.

A Surprise Coup?

In many ways, the military coup on October 25, 2021, was expected. In fact, civilian elements within the government had warned international partners about the risk of a coup in mid-September, and an attempted coup took place on September 21. In the days leading up to October 25, military leaders within the government had raised concerns about the security and stability of the country and there was mounting criticism of the civilian leadership. While criticisms of weak governance and leadership have some basis, they are not a justification for a military takeover.

Critical benchmarks, which touched on the core interests, priorities and fears of the security partners in the transition, also increased the risk of an unconstitutional move by the military. This included discussions about security sector reform and the role of security elements in the economy. It also included the “passing of the baton” of the chair of the Sovereignty Council, the collective chief executive body, from Burhan to a civilian leader, and a stalled process of accountability for lives taken and those harmed during the 2019 revolution and in the decades prior.

In other ways, the coup has been surprising. Sudanese talk about their surprise that partners like the United States were not more proactive in forging — even insisting upon — a new political settlement between the military and civilian components. Sudanese also talk about their surprise that the United States has not been effectively influencing its allies in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Israel. All of these countries have interests in the stability of Sudan, and in the 2019 negotiations, the United States and its partners managed to forge a consensus that a civilian-led government — or at least a credible, committed plan toward it — was the best way to guarantee such stability for Sudan and the region.

Was a Window Missed?

If it was possible to identify the risk of a coup in Sudan, was it possible to prevent it? Or, more modestly, were opportunities missed to increase the likelihood that the political transition could course-correct and stay on track?

First, sober, grounded and politically responsive analysis needs to be put into the hands of and acted upon by those who are driving policy. The fact is that people — Sudanese and international — saw the risks but were unable to animate a timely, robust response to prevent the coup.

Second, a rapid, decisive injection of capital was needed to help the civilian cabinet meet payroll needs and stabilize the economy. For Sudan, there were complex issues for the United States related to the State Sponsor of Terrorism designation and other sanctions to navigate. That said, new approaches are needed to allow international partners, including the United States and its role in the International Financial Institutions, to move more swiftly to allow civilian governments to deliver. This does not mean compromising on accountable, transparent governance or priorities of anti-corruption. But none of these issues can be addressed if the country falls into another coup.

Third, sustained efforts to help the political forces of the country consolidate their relationships and leadership — among different civilian elements, with security and military and, most importantly, with their citizens, communities and constituencies — need to be mobilized. This is more than just forging political alliances or political parties. It is about forging trust and then leveraging political capital at the right moments to advance the most difficult reforms, like transformation of the security sector or stabilization of the economy.

This is difficult work, but the AU is positioned to support political transitions and has built an entire architecture of mediators, youth networks and formal and informal mentors over the past two decades that could be activated. The United States has a particular role, in partnership with the AU and Sudanese civilian leaders, to foster and sustain agreement with regional and global powers about the best path toward a stable Sudan — and to consistently monitor, encourage, check and activate ways to ensure that financial, diplomatic and other efforts are pushing in the same direction.

Redefining a Response

With the experience of the past year and Sudan’s own history, it is also possible to draw lessons about what needs to be done to respond decisively and effectively once a coup has taken place.

First, the United States can partner with neighboring countries and multilateral organizations to negotiate a way out of the coup and forge agreement on an appropriate role for the military. In the case of Sudan, the AU is leading and standing firm in application of its norms against unconstitutional changes of government. Sudan remains suspended from the continental body pending an assessment anticipated in January. The United States — both the administration and Congress — should reach out to members of the AU’s Peace and Security Council, the AU Commission and AU chair to offer partnership and find ways to join forces, offer resources and exert influence similar to what happened following the 2019 coup. The United States can also offer financial support to activate other AU mechanisms — like the AU Youth for Peace Program, the Panel of the Wise and network of female mediators — in support of a return to civilian rule.

The United States can further leverage this partnership with neighboring countries and regional institutions to address the influence of those working against civilian leadership, accountable governance, human rights and political freedoms. In the cases of U.S. allies in the Gulf and North Africa, this means fostering a shared understanding of interests and objectives, and making the case, not just rhetorically, that a civilian-led government is the best way to achieve those shared interests. In the case of those considered adversaries, this means drawing clear lines to disrupt malign influence that will tilt power away from a genuine political transition. And it means boldly finding areas of cooperation where they do exist.

Second, the United States needs to mobilize sustained economic resources and political partnership to see civilian leaders — and military leaders in their agreed role — through a transition. This requires clarity of objectives, genuine partnership with civilian leaders and a coalition of core partners — government, multilateral institutions, development banks and financial institutions — to deliver funds to give civilians a chance to succeed. If, and when, an opening develops in Sudan, international partners must be ready to act quickly and decisively.

Financing must be accompanied by a political process that forges and maintains agreement about the pathway and progress toward the political transition. Today, Sudanese continue to take to the streets to demand the changes promised during the revolution. There needs to be a space where those citizens — young and old, men and women, across the vast geography of Sudan — are listened to and engaged.

Finally, words matter. We tend to talk about things in terms of what we hope that they will become. From 2019, the United States referred to the “civilian-led transitional government.” This was the aspiration and the commitment — but it was not yet the reality. In the same way, the agreement between Burhan and Hamdok may be the best deal that could be reached at that moment. But it does not help the case of political transition to declare the coup “over” or declare that the transition is “back on track” until something is qualitatively different. Restarting the political transition will require words on paper; more importantly, it will require demonstrated action and shifting power. It requires a frank conversation about what was working and not working before October 25 and what will be needed to move forward.

As the United States holds its Summit for Democracy, U.S. actions in Sudan need to be aligned with the ideas of democratic renewal. Fundamentally, this means listening to, taking seriously and supporting citizens, organizations, unions, political parties and even military leaders who are acting peacefully and in line with U.S. values and principles. This does not mean ignoring the role of the military and security actors. To the contrary, the diplomatic and financial weight of the United States is needed to coalesce its African and transatlantic partners to give space to those who are working most courageously to determine an appropriate role and path for the military in the future while meeting the aspirations and commitment of those Sudanese who are convinced that a genuine political transition is possible.

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