Professor Justin Willis, from our Department of History, looks back on Sudan's history in light of the recent military coup against Sudanese civilian political leaders.
Omar al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan was toppled in 2019, a demise hailed with cries of “just fall!” from protesters massing in the streets of the capital Khartoum. But the transition rested on a power-sharing deal between the protesters and Sudan’s powerful military, whose leaders had withdrawn their support for Bashir at a crucial moment.
Twice before in Sudan – in 1964 and 1985 – soldiers have thrown their weight behind popular protest and toppled regimes that had initially been created through coups. Both times, the soldiers had come back into power within a few years. The question was whether this would happen again.
It seems that it has. On October 25, Sudan’s civilian prime minister, Abdallah Hamdok, was placed under house arrest. Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the head of the armed forces, has dissolved the traditional government and assumed complete power. Why does this pattern keep repeating?
Colonialism helps explain the military’s appetite for political power. Sudan was created through conquest by Egypt’s rulers in the early 19th century. It was conquered again at the end of the 19th century to become a “condominium”, jointly ruled by Britain and Egypt (though with the British very much in control). Power came through the gun. Generations of soldiers have been shaped by the idea that they are the ultimate guardians of the Sudanese state.
Colonial rule had other consequences. It produced a centralised state, with power and wealth focused around Khartoum. Since the end of colonial rule in 1956, Sudan’s political elite have been inclined to see control of the state as a route to wealth. In brief periods of parliamentary rule, civilian leaders mobilised regional or sectarian sentiment in their contest for power.
This volatile mix of localised patronage politics and national competition meant that elected governments were ill-suited to face other problems bequeathed by colonialism – an extreme dependence on cotton exports and a huge gap in wealth between the centre of Sudan and its peripheries in south, west and east.
The failures of civilian politics gave the soldiers a ready excuse for repeated interventions. The military proved no more successful than civilians, but it grew ever larger and ever more focused on control of the state.
Misgoverned and impoverished, some Sudanese turned to Islam as a possible route to a better government – but religion was coopted. When Bashir seized power in 1989 he claimed to be the agent of a Salvation Revolution that would restore morality and justice through Islam. The reflex authoritarianism of the state found expression through the violent enforcement of a particular vision of Islamic law.
The ballot box has also been coopted: in the 1970s, and again under Bashir after 1989, military regimes have sought legitimacy through carefully controlled elections. Those polls encouraged the idea that the task of politicians was to seek rewards for their constituents. With genuine political change impossible, local leaders focused on doing deals that ensured their status as gatekeepers.
Under Bashir’s rule the regime benefited from a brief bonanza of oil revenues from the late 1990s that funded a rapidly expanding patronage economy carefully targeted to reward loyalty to the regime. The army benefited most of all, acquiring its own industries and investments, in a shadow economy beyond any scrutiny.
But by this time, the authoritarian habits of government had pushed the south into a long revolt that ended with the secession of what is now South Sudan in 2011. In the west and east of the country similar discontents led to armed conflict, most dramatically in Darfur. The regime fought a savage counterinsurgency campaign, partly by arming militias on ethnic lines and partly by buying off opponents.
After the secession of South Sudan, oil revenues fell, affecting the state’s ability to dispense patronage. Bashir’s fall came in the wake of months of protest over corruption, the absence of political and religious freedom, persistent violence and the mounting cost of fuel and bread.
After bloody repression failed to quell those protests, the soldiers turned against Bashir – not because they wanted change, but because they feared it. So too did the main militia that had grown out of the Darfur war, the “Rapid Support Forces”, which exists in an uneasy alliance with the army.
The civilians who had emerged as leaders for the protests made a deal: they would share power with the soldiers in a transitional government in the run-up to elections. They and the soldiers agreed that Hamdok – an economist with years of experience in international organisations – would be prime minister. The civilian saw the transition deal as a revolution, but they underestimated the tenacity of the men with guns and the reach of their networks.
The economic transformation that many had hoped for was delayed, as international creditors insisted on following a complex debt relief programme for loans that everyone knew would never be repaid. The timetable for transition was further complicated when rebel groups from the west and east were brought into the deal and demanded government positions for themselves and rewards for their followers.
Meanwhile, the soldiers had no intention of handing back the parts of the economy they had commandeered and Hamdok’s weak and impoverished civilian government was unable to impose its will. With popular support diminished by the slow pace of change and the economic hardship of recent months –– exacerbated by the pandemic – they had no defence against the soldiers.
Is Sudan locked in this cycle forever? Not necessarily. The coup has been – mostly – condemned internationally, but the real test will be in Sudan itself. If the coup leaders face sustained and widespread protest, the soldiers may yet have to relax their grip. But that grip is a tight one at the moment.