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Country Report: Sudan, A Nation in Turmoil

Written By Pradanya Nagru


Background:


Brief History of Sudan

The Kingdom of Nubia (Kush), which would eventually become modern-day Sudan, was one of the earliest civilizations to emerge in Africa. It had a heavy Egyptian influence very early on in its history, something that would continue on to the present. Christianity and Islam both took hold in Sudan, causing tensions between its inhabitants. After going through its fair share of leadership changes, the Ottoman Empire conquered Sudan in 1821. It started to see increasing European influence until it was finally taken over jointly by the British and Egypt in the late 1800s. Over time, a resistance movement grew and Sudan gained independence in 1956. The move to democracy was short-lived, however, and the country reverted back to authoritarian control. Over the next few decades, the country would swing back and forth between democracy and authoritarianism due to constant coups.


Bashir, Darfur, and South Sudan

The most significant of these coups was when Omar-al-Bashir toppled a democratically elected government in 1989. Bashir’s regime, however, was marked by corruption, violence, economic downturn, and a crackdown on opposition.


One of the most prominent and horrific of these crackdowns was in Darfur, a predominantly Muslim region in the western part of the country. Both Arabs and non-Arabs had been living in Darfur, and tensions over land and resources were always a source of conflict. The conflict came to head in 2003, however, when some rebels from Darfur attacked the Sudan government’s military posts, claiming agitation against the government’s policy of discrimination, marginalization, and violence against the non-Arab Africans of Darfur. Under Bashir's orders, the Sudanese government responded with brutal violence and systematic destruction of lives and livelihoods, perpetuating a genocide. Bashir was subsequently charged by the International Criminal Court with committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and later with genocide. The Court issued an arrest warrant for Bashir, but it was never complied with.


Furthermore, he faced another insurgency, this time from the south, in what would eventually become South Sudan. Tensions between the southern and the central governments had existed since independence, with the southern part of Sudan being predominantly Christain and the northern majority being predominantly Muslim. There were also disputes over land, oil, and resources. The south claimed constant mistreatment and lack of equal rights by the north, and the south erupted into rebellion various times in the past, including a civil war from 1983 to 2005, always to be met with brutal violence from the government in response. After a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed between the two sides in 2005, and a referendum was held in early 2011, the south broke free and became the independent nation of South Sudan in July of 2011.


Ousting of Bashir and Transition to Democracy

The secession of the south posed challenges for Sudan, however, the most impactful being the loss of oil revenue, as most of Sudan’s oil reserves used to be in the southern part of the country. This loss of revenue, plus US sanctions on Sudan because of its designation as a “state sponsor of terror” contributed to a series of economic shocks, and even after the US lifted some of the sanctions in 2017, the economy was still in shambles. As inflation soared and oil prices rose, protests erupted over the years but were put down. Eventually, Bashir tried to prevent economic collapse by putting in place austerity measures and devaluing the currency which led to a sharp rise in prices and a cut in subsidies for daily commodities, especially food. This inflation caused mass protests in 2018, and a crackdown by the government.


As the protests went on, however, people’s anger turned from a rise in prices to dissatisfaction with the authoritarian government. In the middle of this chaos, the Sudanese military and Bashir’s close officials launched a coup in 2019 and ousted Bashir, using public dissatisfaction with the regime as the perfect opportunity to strike. Soon after the coup, a transitional government was established with a power-sharing agreement between the civilian and military leaders. General Abdel-Fattah Burhan became the military leader and Abdalla Hamdock the civilian Prime Minister. The transition period was supposed to last 2 years, after which the military would hand over power to the fully civilian government.


Recent Developments


The new government, however, was not able to significantly improve the economic situation. With inflation still rising, many people felt they were not being treated fairly. Most people also did not support the power-sharing agreement because they saw the elites still in power and wanted the system to change. In a recent turn of events, some of Bashir's loyalists tried to stage a coup in September 2021, but they were unsuccessful. The military blamed the failed coup attempt on “politicians” by saying that civilian leaders were “neglecting the average citizen,” ignoring the problems they faced, and instead focusing on their own personal interests and staying in power. A senior military official also said the military is not respected and appreciated enough under the transition government, so “how can there not be coups.” The civilian leaders responded by calling for a reform of the military, and for the military to be placed under civilian control so the country could move towards achieving full democracy. Tensions between the politicians and the military rose as both blamed each other as the cause for the failed coup attempt. Protests erupted on both sides, with most protesters demanding more democracy and full civilian control, while a minority of protesters took to the streets because they wanted the military to take over. They felt disillusioned by the efforts of the transitional government to improve their lives, as they still faced fuel subsidy cuts and rising prices.


The military staged another coup in October 2021, when Burham and his forces deposed Hamdock and took control of the government. They abolished the civilian government, declared a state of emergency, and promised to hold elections in 2023. Burham claims that his goal is to still push the country towards democracy and that the coup was necessary for the stability of the country because the civilian government wasn’t doing its job, but these claims have no credibility. His coup can be seen as a “counter-revolution” against democracy. It should be noted that this coup came about a month before the military was supposed to hand over power to the civilian cabinet under the original agreement reached in 2019.


The country was again rocked by massive protests, with people demanding the military restore the civilian government and hand overpower. After a month of protests, Prime Minister Hamdock was restored to power in a transitional civilian cabinet under military control. Hamdock said he accepted this deal to “avoid further bloodshed” and he intends to bring the country back on track to democracy through a “technocratic government.” But the people were not happy. They saw Hamdock returning to power in this system as a betrayal and as legitimizing the military takeover. Hamdock resigned from his position soon after, and the anti-military protests continued.


The protests have been met with the use of force. Dozens of people have been killed, injured, or detained. Health facilities and medical workers are under attack by government forces, a clear violation of international law. There are also various reports of sexual violence and harassment by security forces. Media and internet access has been severely restricted.


International Response


The response from the West has been an overwhelming condemnation of the coup, while that from regional powers has been mixed. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank cut spending to Sudan. The funding was temporarily restored when Hamdock was reinstated. The US also suspended aid, and the US and the EU condemned the coup, calling for the restoration of a civilian government. The African Union has suspended Sudan from the organization “until effective restoration of civilian-led transnational authority.” Meanwhile, Russia seems to support the military because them being in power guarantees it access to Port Sudan in the Red Sea. The Sudanese military, however, has warned the west that it should support the military in order to avoid an influx of refugees into neighboring countries and Europe.


Sudan is surrounded by authoritarian neighbors, many of whose current leaders came to power by coups, so there has not been much condemnation from that front. As for Arab countries, UAE and Saudi Arabia have been on the fence. They have strong ties with the country and have provided support to the Sudanese military before and after Bashir’s regime, primarily because they themselves are authoritarian countries and would like to preserve their influence in the region. Initially, they did not make a statement and merely called for “restraint” and “de-escalation,” but later they publicly condemned the military and called for a transfer of power to civilian leadership. Egypt’s interests line up with supporting the coup. Like Saudi Arabia and UAE, Egypt would prefer Sudan to be reflective of its own authoritarian model and wants to safeguard its interests in the region, which it needs Sudan for. It also wants to maintain its influence over Sudan, which would be much easier if an autocratic government was in power.


In addition, Egypt wants Sudan as an ally because of its opposition to the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have been disputing control of the Nile River for decades and while Ethiopia wants to build the dam, Egypt and Sudan do not want that to happen. Sudan's former prime minister Hamdock was friendly with Ethiopia and open to talks on the issue but the current military government opposes the idea. Although Egypt clearly has an interest in supporting the military regime, it has publicly denied any claims of partiality or of taking sides. Israel has also not condemned the military, and has normalized relations with Sudan, as it wants to do with other Arab countries across the region.


The United Nations is pushing forward with an effort to try and mediate the conflict. Some protesters on the pro-democracy front are open to UN intervention and a compromise with the military, while others are not. It remains to be seen if this effort will yield any fruitful results. The African Union and countries such as Egypt and South Sudan could help put pressure on the military to resolve the crisis.


Other Developments and Future Concerns


The situation in Sudan is still dire as protests continue and so does the crackdown by the government. Lack of international aid funding could trigger an economic collapse, but providing that funding will help the military gain legitimacy. If things get worse Sudan could be a source of refugees flowing into its neighbors with already fragile governments. As most neighboring countries are also facing conflict or coups, there is a possibility of a refugee influx into Sudan, which could potentially worsen the situation given Sudan's dire economic condition.


Furthermore, violence is rising up again in Darfur and other regions after the departure of the UNAMID mission, and a failure by the government to properly implement the Juba Peace Agreement signed in 2020. The agreement brought together the transitional government and various rebel groups across the country (including Darfur) to try and address historical imbalances of power by integrating rebels into society and government, and by providing funds to those areas. However, many of the rebels are skeptical of the civilian government’s ability to form a more inclusive Sudan, and because of a distrust of many civilian elites, the rebels formed alliances with the military. This alliance strengthened the latter’s power while weakening the civilian government, making a coup attempt much easier. The agreement also left out some rebel groups, which is a problem because they can be a source of further chaos and instability.


The country is also facing droughts, food insecurity, and the effects of climate change and Covid-19 in addition to rising inflation and the effects of violence and political upheaval. Sudan’s neighbors Chad, South Sudan, and Ethiopia are involved in conflicts of their own, ranging from coups to civil wars. Ethiopia’s conflict with the Tigrayan rebels has already sent waves of refugees into Sudan, worsening already tense relations between the two countries. Meanwhile, Egypt remains under tight authoritarian control and was the victim of a coup by its current leader. Libya, one of Sudan’s other neighbors, is also facing instability, infighting, and a crisis of its own, as is the Central African Republic. Given this reality, if the conflict in Sudan spreads to the already fragile wider region, it could destabilize the Horn of Africa.

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