The resignation of (now former) Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok earlier this month shatters any pretense at legitimacy by Sudan’s ruling military junta. The Sudanese people were never fooled. Their protests, ignited by the Oct. 25 military coup and Hamdok’s initial arrest that hijacked Sudan’s 2 ½-year-old democratic transition, had continued after he was disingenuously reinstated on Nov. 21. And the demonstrations persist, with thousands marching week after week in streets across the country, as the public demands the junta’s departure and a return to genuine civilian rule. At least 70 protesters have now been killed, and just yesterday, seven more died, according to medics, as the security forces fired live ammunition and tear gas against demonstrators in the capital Khartoum.
Now that the fig leaf of a civilian prime minister has fallen, the international community must get serious, impose punitive sanctions on the coup leaders, and decisively support the Sudanese people’s struggle for freedom.
Sanctions on the Junta
Led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” the junta had reason to fear a handover to civilian rule as agreed to in the 2019 Constitutional Charter. The impunity they had been enjoying for crimes against humanity in Darfur was in jeopardy, and the flow of wealth they have long spirited out of the country was in danger of ending. They were given a chance to exit gracefully but betrayed it.
Now the international community must make clear to them that they will join the former dictator, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to face charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the atrocities they had helped him commit in Darfur. They also must be held accountable for the murders of innocent civilians since al-Bashir’s fall. Likewise, their assets stashed abroad must be frozen, and the gold they would ship to Dubai, as well as the assistance they might expect from their military friends in Egypt and Russia, must be blocked. They must be diplomatically isolated, and their enablers pursued and punished. Should they escape Sudan, they must know they will be arrested. They cannot expect to be as lucky as al-Bashir, who sometimes narrowly escaped arrest on the few occasions he ventured out of Sudan while under ICC indictment.
As the protesters have insisted, there can be no compromise. This is not a contest between two political factions or among ethnic groups or special interests; it is between a corrupt cabal with all the guns and a lot of money, and millions of Sudanese who are fed up with the repression and corruption they have endured for more than three decades.
The pleading for two sides to overcome differences and somehow return to a democratic process is wishful thinking. What happened on Oct. 25 must be called what it was, a military coup, and the international community must clearly pick a side. The junta’s intransigence, the proximate cause of Hamdok’s resignation, belies any hope that they would ever concede anything. They must simply be forced out, and the sooner the better. The longer they hold on, the more damage they will cause. The message from the international community should be the same as that of the protesters and must be conveyed consistently and relentlessly: The junta must leave now and face the judgment of the Sudanese people. Just as al-Bashir ultimately conceded under pressure to the independence of South Sudan, so will the junta prove incapable of withstanding concerted opposition, as it has far less of a constituency than he did. They can no longer be allowed to hold an entire nation hostage.
Exit of the junta would not only get Sudan’s democratic transition back on track, it also would advance regional and international interests. The African Union and the United Nations have suspended Sudan’s membership. The junta has further destabilized an already volatile Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia and Somalia have fractured to the east, South Sudan remains devastated by conflict to the south, while Chad is embarking on its own tentative democratic transition to the west. Unlike the experience of Syria, Sudan’s protesters have thus far remained largely peaceful, which is essential for a successful transition. Before it is too late, both civilians and the military must realize this presents a window of opportunity.
The junta has accused the civilians of being too divided, unable to govern. Yet it is this very pluralism, this fractiousness, that is at the heart of Sudan’s democratic imperative, and the potential basis for its resolution of the crisis. Before the coup, contrary to the junta’s narrative and led by the civilians in the government, Sudan had been gradually recovering economically, peace was returning, and freedom was flourishing. Progress was slow but real.
The junta has wiped out all those hard-won gains. Now, inflation, unemployment, and economic hardship are skyrocketing. The junta is fueling conflict, and arresting, torturing, and killing peaceful protesters. It is re-imposing all the repressive measures for which the previous dictatorship was notorious, including reviving the former security police (the National Intelligence and Security Service, NISS) and reinstating other loyalists of the previous regime. Continued rule by the junta will mean more refugees, chaos, and violence.
China and the United States have modest geopolitical interests in Sudan but might find grounds for cooperation in restoring stability there. The United States has been trying to make the case to Persian Gulf states that they will be better off with a reliable partner, albeit democratic, than the untrustworthy pariah the junta represents, with the same message being conveyed to the Egyptians. Diplomatic pressure on these regional stakeholders has kept them in line, but it must be sustained, if not intensified.
Supporting the Democratic Movement
Sudan’s future will be led and determined by the Sudanese themselves. However, international solidarity, both material and moral, is welcome. The latest initiative by UNITAMS (the U.N. Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan) to broker negotiations is perilous, but one of many tracks that can be pursued simultaneously. Because the prospects for a democratic outcome from the current stalemate will depend on how the forces and interests of the Sudanese people align, tangible assistance to the democratic movement is critical. Support for their communications capacity to overcome the junta’s efforts to shut down the internet will help. Provision of medical assistance for wounded protesters, legal aid for those arrested, and organizational tools such as training programs, strategic dialogues, fundraising, and research and policy development are needed.
There are no easy answers, there is no single charismatic leader, and this struggle will take some time, as democratic transitions usually do. The democratic forces need to present a coherent agenda. Thus, opportunities for the disparate democratic groups to convene should be provided, including for political parties, civil society, religious and traditional leaders, civil servants, and even military representatives who are prepared to recognize civilian leadership. The more unity the democrats can muster, the stronger they will be. The junta understands this and is aggressively trying to rebuild the patronage networks that had dissolved with al-Bashir’s fall.
As powerful as the protests have been, other means can be found to weaken the junta and strengthen popular support for democracy, such as boycotts of military businesses; concerts and cultural festivals championing democracy to build morale, messaging, and momentum; and amplification of the protesters’ voices through all forms of media. Engaging traditional and religious groups throughout the country is vital. Such campaigns can all be supported internationally with parallel events. International media can focus more attention on Sudan’s dramatic struggle for democracy. International nongovernmental actions, much like the Save Darfur campaign of two decades ago, can be effective in keeping Sudan high up on a crowded foreign policy agenda and would help assure the democratic movement that it has not been forgotten.
It’s time for the United States and others in the international community to stop pulling punches. Statements are not enough. Targeted sanctions, seizure of assets, prosecution by the ICC, and material support for Sudan’s democratic movement are imperative. The future of democracy as a political system – a priority that the Biden administration has touted, most recently in President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy — is at stake. To other coup plotters in Mali, Guinea, Tunisia, Burma, and elsewhere, the message must be unequivocal: The international community can no longer recognize or tolerate those who would take power by military force. They will be shunned and blocked. The Sudanese resistance committees, women, youth, journalists, professional associations, courageous citizens by the thousands who have demonstrated such nonviolent dedication to freedom and democracy are appealing for our support. We cannot let them down.