On April 11, the military removed President Omar Hassan al-Bashir of Sudan from power. The news was delivered to the nation by his replacement, the defense minister and former head of the Sudan Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Awad Ibn Auf.
While Bashir had been president for about three decades, Ibn Auf was head of the country for roughly a day, between when he was sworn in as the junta’s head and when he resigned. Less than 24 hours after Ibn Auf’s departure, the next-most-powerful member of the junta — the head of Sudan’s intelligence apparatus, Salah Gosh — resigned as well.
In other words, the junta is unstable, roiled by tensions among the different military forces that joined to overturn Bashir. At this moment, the head of the junta, known as the “transitional military council,” is Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, although nobody knows for how long. Nor is it clear whether he is a figurehead with more powerful actors pulling the strings behind the scenes.
What explains Sudan’s continuing instability?
The junta is being pressured by the people in the street. After the government imposed austerity measures in December, mass demonstrations began in eastern Sudan — and quickly grew across the country. Protesters are demanding “freedom, peace, justice and the downfall of the regime.”
The government has been unable to stop these demonstrations, even after imposing a harsh state of emergency in February. Protesters have persisted, even though the military and police have tried to disperse them with tear gas and live ammunition, killing roughly 50 people and wounding hundreds.
Nor did these protests stop after the junta removed Bashir. Large numbers of demonstrators remain in the streets, insisting on a speedy transition to civilian rule, justice for the protesters who were killed and deep reform in the state structure, including abolishing the intelligence services.
Divisions within the junta also cause instability
Popular pressure is just one factor, though. If the military were unified, it could withstand the pressure and manage the protesters. But the junta has serious divisions, both between the security forces that compose the governing council and within the Sudanese armed forces. For example, within the army, there’s a serious split between more senior officers who support the government, and rank-and-file soldiers (and probably some junior officers) who support the protesters.
Some soldiers have been willing to disobey orders and actively support protesters. That clearly worries senior officers, and Ibn Auf and Gosh may have been pushed out in part to appease those soldiers.
Second, within the junta, there’s a divide between different security organizations. Those include the Sudanese armed forces, the National Intelligence and Security Services’ (NISS) military forces, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — paramilitaries that evolved from the Janjaweed, notorious for human rights abuses in Darfur.
None of these groups gets along well with the others. That’s by design. Bashir built a number of security organizations, part of a strategy to reduce the risk of a military coup — reasoning that each armed group would fear that the others might become too powerful, leaving his government safe from overthrow.
But two weeks ago, NISS troops and party militias opened fire on protesters — and army units intervened to protect them. This incident most likely pushed the armed forces, NISS and RSF into joining to overthrow Bashir, contain the party militias — the one security force excluded from the junta — and avoid a bloody civil war.
That alliance is believed to be uneasy, given the different forces’ long-standing rivalries and differing interests. The rifts are deep enough that they probably would have precipitated more upheaval after Bashir’s removal as the rival security services competed for dominance, even had the protesters gone home.
Instability may create openings for democracy
This instability is dangerous — and offers opportunities for democratization. The various security elites have been fighting over who should be in charge. That’s why there was a gap of many hours between the announcement that Bashir would be leaving and the announcement of who would be taking over. If the armed stakeholders cannot agree on who should lead, they may return to the barracks and dump the whole mess in the lap of civilians.
The junta originally said it would remain in control for two years. But by Friday, one of the generals suggested it might be willing to hand over power to civilians as soon as a month from now, to a government chosen by the opposition. That suggests that the generals disagree on major issues — and that the international community can influence what happens next.
Further, Sudan is in dire need of aid and investment, which means potential donors can influence the new government. The inflation rate in Sudan is more than 70 percent. In addition, Sudan’s designation by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993 has stymied Western investment and prevented Sudan from receiving debt relief.
That has left Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and China as the countries with the most engagement with Sudan. None of those has much reason to push Sudan to create a more democratic future. For instance, Sudan is one of the biggest recipients of Chinese aid in Africa. But the Chinese government has stated that no matter what happens with the government, China will continue to deliver aid, because “China always adheres to the principle of noninterference.”
This crisis gives the U.S. government a chance to promote democracy in Sudan. At the moment, the Trump administration appears to be doing little, which is unsurprising given its antipathy to promoting democracy and its close ties to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It could make clear that talks on ending Sudan’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism will resume only once a civilian government is in place. It could also emphasize its support for the democracy movement by going after stolen wealth hidden overseas by Bashir and his allies and imposing Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against government officials responsible for human rights abuses.
The U.S. government claims to be interested in regional stability and in competing with China. Helping Sudan shift to civilian rule could accomplish both of these goals.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and author of “Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). The opinions expressed are his own and not those of his employer.