Home / Africa / Another coup d’etat in Sudan: Consequences for democracy and transitional justice

Another coup d’etat in Sudan: Consequences for democracy and transitional justice

26 November, 2021

By Mette Kaalby Vestergaard – Research Assistant

Sudan – a war plagued country

Sudan, Africa’s third largest country by area, became independent in 1956 following a joint British-Egyptian rule that lasted 56 years. It hosts a population of almost 45 million people. Being placed in North East Africa, it shares borders with several currently conflict plagued countries, such as Central Africa Republic (CAR), Ethiopia, Libya and South Sudan. Sudan itself also has a history of two long civil wars, both of approximately 20 years – the latest ending in 2005. Despite this, violent conflict is still going on since 2003 in the Darfur region. There, non-Arab militias fight against the government and are subsequently targeted – allegedly in ways that have amounted to ethnic cleansing and possible genocide.

For many years the country has been governed by Sharia Islamic Law and it is still prominent in their legal and social constructions today. For more than 20 years there was fighting between the Arab North (today Sudan) and the more Christian and animist South (today South Sudan), which resulted in independence for South Sudan in 2011 following a peace agreement from 2005 between the two.

The country might be mostly known for its former President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in a coup back in 1989 until civil protests led to the end of his power in 2019, when the army finally removed him. Through his 30 years of rule he led several wars against his own population. Due to support to terrorist groups, crimes committed in conflicts and the war against South Sudan the country ended up quite isolated from the rest of the international community.

More than 500 different ethnic groups and a failure both by former rulers and governments after independence to implement a more inclusive political system, has as such led to endless ethnic conflict in the country ever since independence. Since oil-discovery in the late 1970s, this has also remained a source of conflict.

The 2021 coup d’etat

Looking over both video reports and news articles one can easily get a déjà vu feeling, considering the coup back in 2019 just two years ago. Several deaths and hundreds more seriously wounded have been reported following shooting and usage of tear gas by the military forces. The exact numbers cannot be confirmed, due to a shut down of medias and the chaos in Khartoum.

The background for the military coup this year on October 25th dates back to 2019 and the fall of President al-Bashir. After the political changes in 2019, the government of the country was constituted by the Transitional Military Council (TMC). As such, it did not immediately lead to a democratic transition. Resultantly civil protests continued, which led to what is referred to as the “Khartoum massacre”, due to the crackdown from the military.

In the end, the military was still affected and agreed to share power with the FFC (Forces of Freedom and Change) who represented the protesters. This new power-sharing agreement should have lasted for 39 months and after this period a democratic election in 2023 should have followed. The leader of this so-called Sovereign Council was General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led the coup on 25th October this year, which leads us to the current instability. The civilian cabinet in the Sovereign Council led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok did not support the military coup and was allegedly put into house arrest following the coup. This happened just 4 weeks before General al-Burhan was supposed to hand-over the chairman position of the Sovereign Council, and is moreover a result of a military who were never really satisfied with sharing power with the civilian government.

The role of transitional justice

Some of the goals that the civilian government has are amongst other things handing over former President Omar al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, where he is charged for both war crimes, crimes against humanity and – most recently added – genocide against his own population in the Darfur province. It can be feared that the military government does not have the same interest.

There was already a failed coup attempt in September this year and the plotters were allegedly allies of former President al-Bashir. The Darfur conflict is one that the military personnel who have power today were also involved in, and therefore potentially and very likely were responsible also for some of the crimes committed there. Amongst these is also General al-Burhan, who has been referred to as one of the most central figures in the planning and carrying out of the genocide in Darfur in 2003.

Looking towards the Sudanese population the above-described is very problematic in terms of transitional justice processes following the many years of war. It is so, as the civil population will not support a government that committed crimes against them. As such, it is very likely that civil unrest and resultantly repression, human rights abuses and a lack of democracy will continue in such cases.

A step back

Along with the events in Sudan these days being central for the Sudanese identity, in terms of becoming either a military regime or a democratic state, it also highly affects their relations and support on the international stage. Over the past two years it has been clear that Sudan wanted to express and show progress towards a more democratic system.

Furthermore, the country has a history of prominent political figures supporting al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups, which are considered terrorist groups by Western nations and organizations. Since the good will after 2019 that the country has shown, it has been taken off The American State Sponsor of Terrorism list. This should amongst other things be seen as a result of their step towards democracy and collaboration with Western nations. For Sudan, staying on this side is more enabling for their relations with other nations and one can only hope that this does not change due to the shift in leadership.

Sudan was additionally supposed to get a $50 billion debt relief, but this promise was made because of their progress and transition towards a democratic state. It is therefore very likely that this support will now be withdrawn. Moreover, the United States (US) has suspended a planned $700 million aid to the Sudanese government after being promised that a coup would not happen from within. The coup has also been condemned by the European Union (EU), but more dramatic actions are needed for it to matter, inclusive of what is set out in the following.

In general high ranking military personal can finance their activities through holding companies involved in unregulated mining and oil activities in the country. Moreover, there have also been charges against them concerning arms dealing. This tradition of illegal economic activity make them very hard to defeat due to a great relative power in relation to the civil government. As a consequence of this, international support and sanctions are needed for a civil government to succeed.

Regional dynamics and looking forward

Regionally, there might also be consequences for stability in general around the Horn of Africa, due to their neighbors in conflict and especially the more recent war in Northern Ethiopia. As a result, resources and capacity in terms of assisting refugees and aid across boarders may be less available due to other urgent conflicts.

Another problem is that Sudan’s powerful neighbor Egypt is suspected of an interest in keeping a military regime in Sudan. This makes the actions of the international community even more urgent, so that an enabling of the military’s power doesn’t start to escalate.

The most likely and effective solution to the situation in Sudan and for the security of the civil population is pressure from the international community. This can happen through sanctions, though these should be carefully targeted, so they spare the civil population as far as possible.

Image: A civil demonstration against the October 2021 coup in Sudan (Source: Osama Eid via CC BY-SA 3.0)


About Mette Kaalby Vestergaard

Mette Kaalby Vestergaard holds a MSc. in International Security and Law from University of Southern Denmark and an undergraduate degree in Market and Management Anthropology. She has basic military training, acquaintance with teaching and experience from a peace building NGO in Ghana, where she worked with early warning systems in West Africa. Her research focus is on Sub-Saharan Africa and cross-border conflict dynamics and subsequent risk analysis. Additionally she provides research on topics such as genocide prevention, peace building, R2P, cultural conflicts, civil-military collaboration and military operations.