In the last ten years or so, Africa has witnessed the fall of many long-term regimes. The governments of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Angola, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and, most recently, Sudan have all been overthrown within the last decade.
There are a number of scenarios that play out when long-term regimes come crashing down. For instance, when reformers have the upper hand, quick and relatively irreversible change can occur. When there is a balance of power between reformers and the establishment, the equilibrium can result in protracted transitions that involve lengthy deal-making processes.
But when the establishment retains some leverage over reformers change can be slow, superficial, and short-lived. Sudan appears to be a textbook case of this final scenario.
Since the “palace coup” of April 2019, the transition has been a power play between the old guard and the reformers. The impasse between the protesters and the military establishment has been underscored by very fundamental disagreements. This has culminated in the suspension of all previous agreements reached since Omar al-Bashir was removed from power.
The military commandeered the transition time table and has been guiding proceedings unilaterally from then on. Its most surprising move of all was its decision to call for elections in nine months instead of the three years it had earlier agreed with the protesters.
What has gone wrong?
After initially encouraging progress and talks between the generals and the civilian Alliance for Freedom and Change, things have taken a turn for the worse. The military has now begun purging the protest movement. Recent developments have been characterised by civilian massacres and wide scale brutality. Deaths and the forceful clearance of protest sites have been reported at the military compound where the protests began.
For now the African Union (AU) has suspended Sudan with immediate effect. It is calling for a speedy return to the agreed transition calendar, restraint on the part of the military, and respect for the civil and political rights of Sudan’s people. The international community has endorsed the AU’s condemnation and called for restraint and a return to the negotiating table.
What could explain this total breakdown in proceedings?
I would argue that the military sanctioned al-Bashir’s ouster to preserve itself and its own interests. This was the case in Algeria, Zimbabwe, and Egypt where the generals stepped in to protect the status quo, rather than to support a democratic transition. Eventually, these countries remained in the grip of an autocratic old guard.
In Sudan, the ultimate sticking point was the leadership of the transitional council. Both the military and the civilian protest movement wanted to claim this for themselves. The impasse came after broad agreements on the make up of Parliament, the duration of the transition, and the key stakeholders.
The generals, who are deeply embedded in the establishment, showed a deep distrust for civilian leaders whom they viewed as unknown power brokers with little knowledge of the status quo. In addition, military men have historically held the opinion that military prerogatives are too sensitive to be subject to civilian oversight.
Why the military is intransigent
The Sudanese military was a key beneficiary of al-Bashir’s regime and Sudan’s patronage system. And because of its size it has always put a significant strain on Sudan’s struggling economy. The increasing prioritisation of specialist units like the National Intelligence and Security service continues to haemorrhage the economy.
The end of Sudan’s civil war, which ran from 1983 to 2005, and the scaling down of the Darfur conflict could signal a potential need to restructure the bloated military. This must sit very uneasily with the military hierarchy.
Finally, Sudan is an indispensable contributor of troops to the Saudi led “Operation Decisive Storm” in Yemen. Because of their military coalition, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and their allies would naturally encourage the Sudanese generals not to cede ground to the civilian protest movement. Sudan’s continued role in the Yemeni conflict is critical to a successful campaign – one which can’t, the military and its allies would argue, be jeopardised by civilian leadership.
Lessons in hubris
While the agreement on the pragmatic transitional timetable was encouraging, the change of tune was precipitated by the stubborn protest movement which remains reluctant to return to ‘normalcy’.
Perhaps this was due to the lack of trust between the parties, popular pressure to press for maximum concessions, and the ultimate deal breaker: leadership of the transitional council.
While the generals felt that they had made a substantial compromise, it might appear that the protest leaders overplayed their hand or had a false sense of their own leverage.
A way out of this impasse?
There is no guarantee that transitions to democracy will be unidirectional. This is especially true when some actors in the transitional game have leverage and others don’t. Ultimately the direction that change takes is dictated by the interplay between strategic choices, the games the actors are willing to play, and the things they are willing to trade off.
Realistically in Sudan’s case, it is not a game of civilian numbers, nor of military might. Instead, it’s down to the willingness of both sides to moderate their demands and to maximise future benefits even if immediate returns might appear insufficient.
Pressure from the international community could help encourage a civilian-military rapprochement. But it’s anyone’s guess how long a truce would last.
Domestically, agreements must be reached on how best to serve military interests. Regionally, the geo-political role of Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be crucial in the end game to this transition saga.