Darfur: The International Community's Failure to Protect
Darfur: The International Community's Failure to Protect
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

Darfur: The International Community's Failure to Protect

Our Common Interest, the March 2005 report of the Commission for Africa, squarely acknowledged that much more must be done to prevent conflict in Africa if development in the continent is to accelerate. In passing, the report called for practical means to implement ‘agreed criteria for humanitarian intervention and the use of force, drawing on the principles of the “Responsibility to Protect” human life.’[fn]The Commission for Africa, Our Common Interest: Report of the Commission for Africa (The Commission for Africa, London and Addis Ababa, March 2005), p. 172, (accessed at http://www.commissionforafrica.org/english/report/thereport/english/11-03-05_cr_report.pdf on 17 July 2006).Hide Footnote

Six months later, Responsibility to Protect (or R2P in shorthand) became the centerpiece of efforts to reform the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit, and is now widely accepted as providing the criteria for international responses to conflict and large scale atrocities.

Such broad acceptance of the doctrine of R2P is a real advance, but implementing it is proving to be a much tougher test of international political will. The most obvious case for the first application of the new doctrine is Darfur, but the international community has conspicuously failed to take the steps necessary to protect the people of Darfur. Instead, while the world has been looking on, the regime in Khartoum and its proxy Janjaweed militias have conducted a systematic campaign of atrocities in Darfur since early 2003, a campaign which continues today.

Responsibility to Protect: a Background

The 2005 World Summit was the largest ever gathering of world leaders. Its avowed purpose was to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations by taking bold decisions on development, security and human rights, and the reform of the UN itself.  Unfortunately the outcomes failed to meet expectations, and the opportunity to make the reforms necessary for the myriad of challenges confronting the world in the 21st century was largely squandered.

However, the recognition by world leaders, convening as the General Assembly, of an international collective responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity was one of the significant achievements of the World Summit.[fn]The other achievements of the World Summit included agreement to establish a Human Rights Council, a Peacebuilding Commission to help countries transition to peace, and a commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. See the 2005 World Summit Outcomes adopted by the General Assembly, General Assembly Resolution 60/1, 24 October 2005.
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 This doctrine  was subsequently endorsed by the Security Council,[fn]See the United Nations Security Council Resolution on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, SC Res. 1674, 28 April 2006.Hide Footnote marking its emergence as a nascent international norm.

The road to this recognition was a long one. When countries came together to create the United Nations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, they endorsed the sanctity of state sovereignty, in an understandable reaction to its trampling during the war.  Reflecting this, the UN Charter included a clear statement of non-interference: ‘Nothing…shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State’.[fn]Charter of the United Nations 26 June 1945, Article 2 (7).Hide Footnote And, despite early recognition in the 1948 Convention on Genocide that sovereignty was not a defence against gross human rights violations,[fn]Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by Resolution 260(III)A of the United Nations General Assembly, 9 December 1948.Hide Footnote  the Cold War and the emergence of newly decolonised states ensured the primacy of non- intervention until the 1990s.

Support for international intervention to address gross human rights abuses emerged with the reinvigoration of multilateralism following the end of the Cold War.  Hence, the UN and U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1992 was driven by humanitarian concerns, but the subsequent humiliation and unseemly withdrawal of those forces in early 1994 quickly undercut what international enthusiasm there was for intervention on humanitarian grounds. The pusillanimous international responses to genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans, most notably in Srebrenica, were the consequence. When such intervention did occur, in Kosovo, the international legal basis for it was unclear.

The lack of an accepted framework for intervention in the face of egregious abuses led  Kofi Annan to issue a challenge to the General Assembly in 2000:

If humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violations of human rights?[fn]Millennium Report of United Nations Secretary-General 2000: We the Peoples: the Role of the UN in the 21st Century (United Nations, New York, 2000), Chapter 3, paragraph 217.Hide Footnote

To meet this challenge the Canadian government set up the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) chaired by the President of the International Crisis Group Gareth Evans and Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun. The Commission handed down its report, Responsibility to Protect, in December 2001.[fn]International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect, (International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2001).  See also International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, Background, (International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, 2001).   Hide Footnote

The report reframed the debate, away from one setting human rights against sovereignty, to one in which the responsibility of a sovereign nation to protect its citizens was paramount. Sovereignty so approached is not a legal question of control over a jurisdiction but instead places responsibilities on the sovereign government.[fn]Ibid. See also Francis M. Deng et al., Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa (The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., 1996).
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 Each state has the obligation to protect its population from serious harm resulting from internal war, insurgency, repression or state failure.  The corollary of this was an obligation on the international community to intervene when a state has failed, through lack of willingness or capacity, to protect its own people.[fn]Ibid. See also Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect” Foreign Affairs, 81, 6, (2002), pp. 99-110.Hide Footnote  Significantly it is a responsibility on the international community not just to react to situations of compelling human need, but also to prevent serious harm and to rebuild to address the causes of the harm.

In a remarkably short period of time, the doctrine of responsibility to protect was embraced by key quarters of the international community, notably the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan,[fn]Secretary-General Kofi Annan, In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All (United Nations, New York, 2005).Hide Footnote the European Union, the African Union, and the UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.[fn]Report of the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, A More Secure World: Our shared responsibility (United Nations, New York, 2004).Hide Footnote This culminated with R2P’s endorsement by the General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit in the following form:

Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.  This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes, including their incitement, through appropriate and necessary means.

The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. [fn]2005 World Summit Outcomes adopted by the General Assembly Resolution 60/1 24 October 2005, articles 138 and 139.Hide Footnote

This formulation was subsequently approved by the UN Security Council in its resolution on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in April 2006.[fn]SC Res 1674. The R2P reference in resolution 1674 was also acknowledged in Security Council resolution 1706 on Darfur.
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International principle gathers momentum through widespread state recognition and practice to become international law.  With formal recognition by the General Assembly and the Security Council the doctrine has developed into a nascent international norm. But the key test of any new international norm or law is recognition by states themselves that they are bound to act in accordance with the obligations.

And it is in Darfur where the gap between formal recognition and implementation is at its greatest.

Darfur: the background

Since early 2003 the government of Sudan has responded to an insurgency by rebel groups in Darfur by unleashing its proxy Janjaweed militias on the rebels’ tribal groups. The government supported the resulting ethnic cleansing campaign with well-coordinated air strikes and joint ground operations. The two main rebel groups, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), are recruited mainly from the largely agrarian Fur and Massalit and the mostly nomadic Zaghawa, the three largest Darfurian groups of African descent.[fn]For an excellent account of race and identity in Darfur see Alex de Waal, “Who are the Darfurians? Arab and African Identities, violence and external engagement” African Affairs, 104, 415 (2005), pp181-205.
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 The strategy of the government has been to ‘drain the swamp’ by driving civilians from their villages, thereby denying the rebels sanctuary in much of Darfur. This campaign has left more than 200,000 dead, most from conflict-related disease and malnutrition.  More than 2 million have been forced from their homes.[fn]The International Crisis Group has published considerable reporting and analysis on the Darfur conflict – most recently, Crisis Group Africa Briefing No39, ‘Darfur’s Fragile Peace Agreement’, 20 June 2006; Crisis Group Africa Report No105, ‘To Save Darfur’, 17 March 2006; and Crisis Group Africa Briefing No28, ‘The AU’s Mission in Darfur: Bridging the Gaps’, 6 July 2005.Hide Footnote

And the devastation extends beyond Sudan’s own borders. Some 200,000 Darfurians are refugees in neighbouring Chad. Chad’s government was itself nearly overthrown in April 2006 by rebels backed by the government of Sudan. The rebels advanced to outskirts of the capital N’Djamena, and were only just turned back. They are now regrouping for further attacks.

Sudan’s Responsibility to Protect

Khartoum has the primary responsibility to protect its own citizens against atrocities.  But it has wilfully and flagrantly flouted this responsibility.  It has been the prime mover behind the campaign of ethnic cleansing, and has unleashed the Janjaweed militias on the people of Darfur. Despite undertaking on six occasions to disarm the Janjaweed – most recently in the Darfur Peace Agreement of 5 May 2006[fn]The N’Djamena ceasefire agreement of 8 April 2004; the N’Djamena agreement of 25 April 2004; the 3 July 2004 communiqué signed with the UN; the 5 August 2004 Plan of Action signed with the UN; and the 9 November 2004 Protocol on Security Arrangements signed at the AU-led Abuja talks.  The government has also agreed to identify those militias under its control or influence in the 5 August Plan of Action and the 9 November Protocol.  It reiterated its promise to disarm the militias in the 19 December 2004 ceasefire signed with the National Movement for Reform and Development (NMRD).Hide Footnote  – and having been repeatedly directed to do so by the Security Council,[fn]United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1556 (30 July 2004), 1564 (18 September 2004), 1574 (19 November 2004), 1591 (29 March 2005).Hide Footnote the Sudanese government has yet to make even token efforts to meet its commitments.  Even now Khartoum continues to recruit and arm militias and support their continuing attacks. And all the while it has skillfully played the various rebel groups and tribes in Darfur and eastern Chad against each other, allowing it to claim vindication for its disingenuous and self-fulfilling assertions that Darfur is all about tribal rivalries and longstanding ethnic hatreds.

The International Response

Khartoum’s calculated actions are perhaps understandable for a brutal regime narrowly focused on its own survival – though no less deserving of condemnation because of it.

But the international community has no such excuse for its own failings. What makes these failings all the more tragic is that policy-makers and leaders around the world know exactly what is taking place in the region. They cannot plead ignorance. There has been no lack of warning about this campaign of ethnic cleansing as it has unfolded.

Thanks to the work of the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and others such as Nick Kristof of The New York Times and Juan Mendez, the UN Secretary General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, these atrocities are all too well documented and publicised.  Yet despite all the evidence, the international community has conspicuously failed in its responsibility to protect the people of Darfur.

The lead international actor on Darfur has been the African Union. Darfur has been a test case for the fledgling organisation.  It has done as much as could be expected with its limited resources and mandate – but its limitations are now being cruelly exposed.

When the scale of the devastation become too overwhelming to ignore, in mid-2004, the African Union established a small monitoring mission in Darfur, consisting of some 60 monitors, and 300 troops to protect them. Over the next couple of years the mission has gradually expanded to some 7,000 troops. However we have seen a big gap between intentions and capabilities.

A critical limitation of the AU mission is its mandate.  It is largely an observer mission. It does not have a mandate to go out and proactively protect civilians. In fact, it can only protect civilians when they are being attacked in its presence, and only then if it feels it has enough troops to intervene – and too often it doesn’t.

And an already fraught situation is rapidly deteriorating for the AU, and those it is supposed to help protect. The Government of Sudan launched a new military campaign in late August to try and wipe out the remaining rebel groups in Darfur. Funding and support for the AU mission is drying up. Many of its soldiers have been unpaid in recent months, and a force already grossly overstretched is being told, under the Darfur Peace Agreement, to do more with less.[fn]At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the AU mission will remain in Darfur much beyond 30 September 2006, the end of its current mandate. Khartoum has demanded that the AU mission leave then, unless it agrees not to hand over to the proposed UN mission at the end of the year. AU leaders have yet to respond to Khartoum’s demand.Hide Footnote

While the AU may have been in the lead on the ground, it is only the UN that can ensure a coordinated, properly resourced and legitimate international response to a conflict of this magnitude. But the UN, a creature of its member states, has been found wanting in Darfur.  It has been appallingly slow to put any real pressure on the Sudanese government.  It was only in March 2005, some two years after the conflict started, and in the face of repeated provocations from the Sudanese government – including its utter failure to disarm the Janjaweed – that the Security Council belatedly moved to impose sanctions against those impeding the peace process and committing human rights violations. And it took another year, and yet more egregious provocations, before any individuals were specifically targeted, and then only four of them – a low level air force commander, a janjaweed commander and two rebels.[fn]United Nations Security Council Resolution 1672, 25 April 2006.Hide Footnote In August 2006 the Security Council finally passed a resolution providing for the deployment of UN peacekeepers to Darfur by the end of 2006, but effectively conditioned deployment on the consent of Khartoum – ensuring that the deployment will not take place anytime soon, and almost certainly not by the end of 2006.[fn]United Nations Security Council Resolution 1706, 31 August 2006.Hide Footnote

The Security Council has taken more robust action on the legal front. First it established an International Commission of Inquiry.[xxi] After an investigation, the Commission concluded ‘the international offences such as the crimes against humanity and war crimes that have been committed in Darfur may be no less serious and heinous than genocide’.  Specifically the Commission found that ‘government forces and militias conducted indiscriminate attacks, including killing of civilians, torture, enforced disappearances, destruction of villages, rape and other forms of sexual violence, pillaging and forced displacement, throughout Darfur.’[fn]Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General, Geneva, 25 January 2005, p. 3.Hide Footnote

Confronted with these findings, the Security Council then referred the situation in Darfur to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for investigation.[fn]United Nations Security Council Resolution 1593, 31 March 2005.Hide Footnote The ICC started its investigation into Darfur three months later, and is now actively investigating atrocity crimes committed there – despite much obstruction from the Sudanese government.  In his report to the Security Council in June 2006, the ICC Prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, dispassionately recounted to the Security Council that his team had collected evidence of large-scale massacres, thousands of ‘slow deaths’ from forced displacement and destruction of food-stocks, and hundreds of rapes, with many, many more going unreported. The challenge now for the Prosecutor is to overcome Khartoum’s obstruction, and bring to justice those most responsible for these atrocities.

That leaves the European Union (EU), NATO and the U.S. as the remaining key international players.  The EU approach has been largely to stand behind the African Union. The EU has made it clear that it sees the AU as the lead international player in Darfur, and that the EU’s role is primarily to support an African solution to an African problem, by funding the AU mission – though that funding support is dwindling as the EU pushes for a UN rehatting of the AU mission. And NATO was initially a strategic competitor of the EU in Darfur.  More recently it has been providing expertise and logistical support to the AU mission. But NATO has no intention of going beyond its limited support and logistical role and actually putting troops on the ground in any significant numbers.

Then there is the United States, which has a mixed record on Darfur.  In its rhetoric the U.S. has been at the forefront of international action.  Colin Powell and George Bush have both called Darfur a genocide. Powell and Condoleezza Rice have been to Darfur.  The U.S. has been generous in its aid contributions, supplying much of the food supplies to the displaced Darfurians.  And in perhaps its most significant move to date, the U.S. abstained from the Security Council vote on the ICC referral, allowing the referral to go through – a very big step for an Administration that had made opposition to the ICC an article of faith until then.

But while the U.S. has called Darfur a genocide, it has yet to put real pressure on the Sudanese regime. There is a tragic irony about the U.S. response to Darfur when compared to its response to Rwanda some 12 years earlier. Then, the Administration did everything it could to avoid calling Rwanda a genocide – engaging in all sorts of semantics to avoid making that judgment, fearing that if it did it would have to take far stronger action than it was prepared to. This time round there has been little hesitation in labelling Darfur a genocide, in the light of far more ambiguous evidence – apparently on the cynical grounds that doing so did not impose any commensurate obligation to intervene.

Why hasn’t the world acted?

The sad reality is that Darfur simply does not matter enough, and Sudan matters too much, for the international community to do more to stop the atrocities.

Much as governments in Europe and the U.S. are disturbed by what is happening in Darfur – and they genuinely are – almost without exception they are not prepared to commit their troops on the ground in Sudan. Hence their enthusiastic support for African solutions.

The issue is problematic for the U.S. because it has a close intelligence relationship with the Sudanese government in its war on terror. In 2005 it flew Salah Gosh, the Sudanese chief of intelligence and one of the architects of the Darfur atrocities, out to Virginia on a private plane for meetings with the CIA.

As for the UN, it is a creature of its members. So on the Security Council you have China, the largest importer of oil from Sudan, ready to block any overly intrusive UN measures. And both Russia and China are leery of UN intervention in civil conflicts, fearing it may lead one day to intervention in Chechnya or Tibet or Xinjiang.

The Arab League, and most of its member states, are xenophobically opposed to a Western-led intervention in North Africa, and strongly protective of one of their own. And the AU is operating in Darfur with the consent of the government of Sudan, and is reluctant to push too hard for fear of being further marginalised. It has also been desperately trying to prove that it can resolve one of Africa’s most destructive conflicts, even when all the evidence demonstrates that it can’t.

These motivations all combine to ensure that the international community shies away from effective intervention. Instead it focuses its efforts on providing humanitarian assistance – thereby addressing the consequences, but not the causes.

As a senior UN official has bitterly noted - the international community is 'keeping people alive with our humanitarian assistance until they are massacred.’[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior UN official, New York, March 2006.Hide Footnote

The way forward

The AU mission has failed to stop the killings; NATO and the EU have made it clear they will not commit their own forces to Darfur; so the only option now is for the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force with a robust mandate requiring it to protect civilians and create an environment conducive to their return. Such a mission would enjoy the financial and military resources of the UN and member states, thus avoiding the hand to mouth existence of the AU mission. In its August 2006 resolution the Security Council laid the groundwork for a UN force to be deployed to Darfur – and invited Khartoum’s consent to the deployment. But senior figures in the Sudanese government have made it clear that such consent won’t be forthcoming anytime soon, declaring that the resolution amounted to “unjustifiable hostility against Sudan."[fn]‘Countdown to Sudan Carnage’, Scotland on Sunday, 3 September 2006.Hide Footnote

The challenge now is to overcome Khartoum’s opposition. Despite the ongoing atrocities perhaps warranting it, armed intervention by a UN peacekeeping force against the express wishes of the Sudanese government is not going to happen. Kofi Annan made this clear when he said "The fact is, without the consent of the Sudanese Government, we are not going to be able to put in the troops. So what we need is to convince the Sudanese Government to bend and change its attitude and allow us to go in."[fn]Secretary-General’s Press Conference, New York, 13 September 2006.Hide Footnote And such an intervention would not get past the veto of China and perhaps Russia on the Security Council. In any event, an opposed intervention force would require tens of thousands of hardened troops, and probably far more, to fight its way into Sudan and protect itself against opposing Sudanese forces.

Sudanese agreement will only be forthcoming if the international community adopts a unified front and ratchets up, and maintains, the pressure on Khartoum. One precedent is Indonesia’s acceptance, through gritted teeth, of international intervention in East Timor in 1999.

Earlier in 2006 such pressure appeared to be bearing fruit, with Khartoum grudgingly agreeing to the deployment of some form of UN mission, conditional on a peace agreement being reached with the rebels.[fn]State Department Daily Press Briefing, 16 May 2006.Hide Footnote Intense international pressure then led to the Darfur Peace Agreement, with the Government of Sudan and one faction of the rebel SLA group signing up in May 2006. The other faction of the SLA, and the JEM rebel group, refused to join them.

Of course, as is its habit, Khartoum soon resiled from its earlier agreement to a UN force, with President Bashir announcing ‘there will not be any international military intervention in Darfur as long as I am in power’.[fn]‘Sudan Rejects “Colonial” Troops’, BBC, 20 June 2006.Hide Footnote  He also raised the spectre of an international jihad against any such UN force[fn]‘UN faces threat over Darfur plan’, BBC, 10 June 2006.Hide Footnote – sentiments reiterated by senior government officials following the passage of the August resolution.[fn]‘Sudan VP vows resistance to UN peacekeepers’, AFP, 1 September 2006.Hide Footnote This obduracy conveniently overlooks the fact that there is already an international military intervention in Sudan, in the south, in the form of a UN peacekeeping force to give effect to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended the long running civil war there.

And Khartoum, despite its blustering, has a history of responding to international pressure – but only if it is unified and sustained. Most notably it signed up to the CPA, in part because of demands from the international community, led by the U.S. The regime calibrates its response to international coercion, always trying to do just enough to preempt any real sanctions. It has done so remarkably successfully in the last three years, aided and abetted by the international community’s failure to speak with one voice.


Khartoum’s campaign of atrocities in Darfur, and the failure of the international community’s response, are a stark demonstration of the challenges facing the international community as it moves to operationalise Responsibility to Protect.

The problem is easy enough to state, but far more difficult to resolve. Khartoum, intensely focused on its own self-interest and survival, has brutally implemented a counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur. The international community, with its disparate interests and varying levels of outrage, has expressed shock and horror, and applied some pressure – but lacks the political will to apply enough sustained pressure on the Sudanese regime to change its calculus of self interest.

This failure is deserving of condemnation if for no other reason than it fails to meet the standards that world leaders set themselves when they signed up to the R2P principles. But there is a more fundamental reason to denounce their failure – namely the horrific suffering that has been inflicted on millions of Darfurians while the world stands by.

The danger is that the international community will settle for a low intensity conflict in Sudan, as we have so many other times in Africa, leaving it to humanitarian agencies to keep millions alive in Darfur at a subsistence level. Until this first ethnic cleansing campaign of the 21st century is reversed, R2P will remain aspirational, not operational, and ‘never again’ will be ‘yet again’ once again.

Bibliography of books and articles

  • Deng, Francis M. et al., Sovereignty as Responsibility: Conflict Management in Africa (The Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., 1996).
  • de Waal, Alex, “Who are the Darfurians? Arab and African Identities, violence and external engagement” African Affairs, 104, 415 (2005), pp181-205.
  • Evans, Gareth and Mohamed Sahnoun, “The Responsibility to Protect” Foreign Affairs, 81, 6, (2002), pp. 99-110.

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.


By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

The October 25 Coup and Its Aftermath

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.


The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.

Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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